Reflections on the May 16th FCC Ruling and Protests

I’ve been following the development of the protests around the recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling on net neutrality fairly closely over the past few weeks as well as the outcome of the ruling. Here are some of my thoughts about the situation:

First and perhaps most importantly, the protests against the implementation of the new net neutrality rules and standards seem to be strongly supported by the general public. I suspect that this has a lot to do with the proposed changes that will be more directly affecting consumers than previous FCC rulings of the past, namely that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be able to collect fees from both customers and companies that provide content over the internet. Unfortunately this means that Netflix, the company that seems to be the primary target of the ruling, as well as other content providers will be forced to pass on ISP costs back onto the consumer, essentially allowing ISPs to double charge. This is understandably unpopular and since services like Netflix have such a wide appeal popular support will be against the recent ruling.

Despite this widespread public support for changes to the ruling as well as physical protests at the FCC building in Washington, run by members of the coalition behind the Stop Watching Us and The Day We Fight Back protests, the FCC seems unwilling to back down from its position. Sadly, for the time being it appears that government officials are more willing to back companies that are incredibly likely to be their future employers than the citizens they are ostensibly currently employed to serve.


An Analysis of the History and Current Ramifications of COINTELPRO

Between 1956 and 1971 the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation undertook a sequence of clandestine and occasionally illegal projects aimed at disrupting and discrediting a variety of political organizations operating legally within the United States. Though the project was discovered in 1971 and quickly mothballed by the director of the FBI in response, it was replaced by a case by case utilization of similar techniques. Though COINTELPRO is no longer extant policy and hasn’t been for over four decades, current police procedure as well as government wiretapping policies have been heavily influenced by the program and may be viewed as loose successors.

Under COINTELPRO operations against a particular group began with surveillance, intended not only to gather information about the targets, but also to intimidate and induce paranoia in movements for social change. Simultaneously, the Bureau would begin disseminating false information with two purposes; ‘gray propaganda’ was intended to discredit the targeted group in the eyes of the public and generate tensions between groups with similar goals while the other ‘black propaganda’ was the fabrication of leaflets and flyers purporting to materials spread by the targeted group. In reality, these publications were doctored by the FBI to severely damage the reputation of the group they claimed to be authored by. Simultaneously the Bureau attempted to foster intra-group conflict, primarily through the use of faked mail between members as well as the spreading rumours and manufactured evidence suggesting that key personnel within movement organizations were actually infiltrators, employed by the FBI. This tactic, dubbed ‘bad-jacketing’ served not only to discredit many activists that the Bureau wanted rid of, but also resulted in the murders of some activists accused of betraying others within the organization.

If that wasn’t enough, COINTELPRO also called for the abuse of criminal justice system in delaying and disrupting legitimate protest actions by monitored organizations. Working with local law enforcement, the FBI repeatedly had activists arrested to harass them, increase paranoia, waste their time in preliminary incarceration, and deplete their resources through the posting of bail bonds and the necessity of having attorneys on retainer. When the vast majority of the Bureau’s surveillance revealed that its targeted groups were engaging only in lawful activities agents provocateur were used to advocate that the groups engage in illegal activities and violence, giving the FBI a convenient excuse to stamp them out.The final and most drastic measure was the government participation in direct assaults and assassinations. Though this area of the policy is the least well documented as the FBI has almost always used surrogates, the Bureau was repeatedly documented as having provided the necessary intelligence, logistics, and other necessary resources for successful operations in this area to external actors. 

Placed into this historical context, actions of police departments in the past few decades make a great amount of sense. When confronted with a large amount of protestors that they don’t want to deal with, officers consistently arrest many of them on charges that are at best dubiously backed up by evidence, and at worst blatantly not prosecutable. They also appear to have adopted the tactic of escalating force dramatically at the first sight of opposition, even if that opposition is very hard to tie back to protestors. This use of agents provocateur has been alleged at at least two national political party conventions. Just as the police have adopted tactics pioneered by COINTELPRO, so too have other sectors of the United States government.

Most obviously, the National Security Agency appears to have wholeheartedly followed in COINTELPRO’s footsteps. Instead of merely surveilling politically important individuals however, the NSA now collects metadata on nearly every U.S. citizen who uses the internet or places phone calls with a cell phone. Their response to the exposure of this information, and other leaks of similar severity have been consistent attempts at the character assassination of the leakers, just like the FBI’s attempts to keep political figures during the 50’s and 60’s from having too much influence.

Noting these similarities allows clear parallels to be drawn between current government activity and the policies laid out by the FBI 40 years ago. COINTELPRO never really vanished, it was merely absorbed into the greater context of government as a whole.


Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky

                  Shirky’s book discusses how social tools support group organization and communication in an entirely new way, one that was previously impossible. He does so by including anecdotes from users of social media sites like WordPress and Blogspot, and how they used these social media tools to achieve a purpose- basically, his book looks to exemplify the tool part of social media tools, even though we as a society seem to take this for granted, now.

                   Shirky starts by talking about some different concepts, and I’ll touch on a few of them that stood out to me most. First, is post-managerial organization, which states that when any organization takes on a task, the difficulty of getting everyone to coordinate increases with the size of the group. He focuses on managing the hierarchies that arise out of large groups, and sees top-down organization as the way to go for these kinds of organizations. Another concept he talks about is collaborative production, which I understand to be cooperation 2.0, meaning no one person gets to take the credit for the product, and the project requires the participation of many. He uses Flickr as an example of a tool that reduces the amount of cooperation needed, because it pools together photos in one big album- no need to communicate or get together to do so.

                  In his third chapter, Shirkey discusses how everyone is a media outlet, just from their smartphones and laptops. He talks about mass amateurization, and the difference between being a professional at anything, and someone who can sit in his basement and put together a blog- he uses a running example of someone who has her phone stolen, and then puts together a blog to get it back. This blog is replacing the person hitting the streets, posting “lost phone” flyers, and efforts of that kind, and also gives the search a much wider wingspan. That being said, Shirkey notes that the general public is aware that mass amateurization does not equal mass trustworthiness, which is where the distinction between professional responsibility and the ability to tweet from your phone come head to head. A different pro he gives for mass amateurization is that the tools involved are better- we can post to a WordPress from our phone, without a printing press, and if we want to change the interface of our blog, we can just click to do so, not buy a new press, metaphorically. Faster is better, according to Shirky.

                  After applauding how great it is that we can share our breakfast with the click of a button, Shirkey talks about the necessity of social filters. Read example.

                  He differentiates between what’s posted in public, and what’s intended for the public- like the post I read, over time, the internet has grown out of sites like Livejournal and Xanga where people post things for their friends, without concern that there’s a wider audience who has access to all that user content. Amateur work is self-reinforcing, and Shirkey emphasizes that this leads to a massive influx of user content (from every teenage girl that wants to post a selfie, just to gain a few likes and compliments on her new highlights), and it becomes up to us as social media users to filter what matters- to us. If you’re that teenage girl’s boyfriend, then it probably does matter to you how her hair looks, but if you’re a student at miles away at MIT, it probably doesn’t.

                  In the following chapter, Shirky talks about rapid and simple group formation, another interesting contrast. Again, this is to show how social media helps people organize in a way that would otherwise be too big of an undertaking. Interest groups of a few students or people who agree on how an issue should be handled can transfer their efforts to a much wider audience through the use of websites and blogs, and can gain followers on other continents, on different time zones- otherwise, such a unification would be very difficult, almost impossible. Basically, simple group formation is being replaced by rapid group formation, because we have the tools to do it. Again, he emphasizes that we take rapid group formation for granted, because once we’ve gotten used to tools like email and blogs, it’s hard to remember how people came together without them- and also hard to appreciate how much harder it was back then. He concludes with an optimistic note, that the more groups and organizations need to form, the more tools will be created, because innovation is supported by need.

                  Chapter 8 was particularly fascinating to me, because Shirky talks about the power social tools have to serve social dilemmas. He touches on the concept of social capital, which comes up in a lot of political science texts, so I was interested to see how Shirkey would put it in a media context. I’m a big fan of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, and Shirkey discusses one of the points Putnam makes, that social capital is on the decline in the US because it is increasingly difficult to get people together so that they can create it. After all, the concept of the neighborhood block party is just about as outdated as the flip phone, and so it seems only reasonable that social capital should be an outdated idea, too. Scott Heiferman responds to Putnam’s dilemma, by using communication tools as a good substitute for the methods of organization that people seem to no longer have time for- like travel. He discusses concepts like picture messaging (which reminded me of today’s Snapchat), and the perks of being able to update others on your activities with a second’s notice. Heiferman basically takes the decline in social capital as a challenge, and then updates the response by using media as a way to build social capital in a way faster than ever before. While these tools are too new for Shirkey to discuss, today’s Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine are all means to that end, in my view.

                   Yet another interesting point Shirky makes in regards to user-generated content, is that self-filtering is an empowering motion; people decide what is relevant to them, and therefore regulate what content makes it onto their morning breakfast newsfeed scroll, or RSS feeds. Shirky places a lot of weight in deferring to the users’ judgment, because it determines what content fails and what content succeeds; here, this binomial distribution focuses, basically, on page views. He also states that the internet has the capacity to create a global talent view to draw from at any time- do you need to post a video of a singing cat to your friend’s Facebook wall for her birthday? Someone has a YouTube account devoted to this. And so on. The same can be said for things like Apple forums, or Linux support sites- people are willing to share their expertise on support forums on the internet, and this is another form of the global talent pool uniting people for a positive cause.