Thursday, October 26, 2017

This is not the people’s FCC

Being an amateur radio operator I pay a little more attention to the goings-on at the Federal Communications Commission than the average person might. So, when President Trump selected Buffalo-born Ajit Pai to chair the FCC back in January, I cringed. The former associate general counsel of Verizon is more aligned with larger broadcasters and communications companies than most of the other commissioners are.   

Ten months into watch, the FCC hasn’t failed to disappoint.

Between deregulation and corporate favoritism, the agency is on the path of allowing greater corporate control of public airwaves and the internet, squashing the ability of the little guys to compete and the average citizen to communicate.  

The latest example was last week’s 3-2 vote by the Commission to eliminate the Home Studio Rule.

Basically, that long-held regulation mandated that broadcasters have a studio in or near the city they are serving. The rule made sense: the FCC grants license to commercial broadcast enterprises with the expectation that the stations serve their home communities (with news, alerts, services, etc.) and act as economic engine (by running local advertisements and employing local workers).

By scratching that requirement, even more power will be given to the giant AM and FM conglomerates that are already dominating the airwaves. They can now fully remotely control and feed programming into transmitters, stifling local content, firing disc jockeys, emptying news rooms, and making all music and news sterile and similar from city to city. That bottom-line benefits gleaned from that will also allow them to further strangle the locally-owned-and-operated stations that actually do their duty to the community and have become an increasingly rare breed (broadcasters such as Lockport’s WLVL, Batavia’s WBTA and Wellsville’s WJQZ).

Even if you are not an avid radio listener (which many younger Americans aren’t, what with availability of digital players, streaming services and more) the FCC will hurt you by stifling the thing you love the most – your internet connection.

In a February installment of this column I wrote about the need to include the upgrade of rural internet access as a component of Trump’s infrastructure plan. As a critical piece of the modern economy, high-speed internet could drive economic development into communities that need a major shot in the arm (Rural America’s poverty rate is 18%). I noted at the time that only 55% of rural residents could achieve a connection of 25 megabits per second, which is the FCC’s current threshold for broadband.   

Well, the FCC recently announced that it plans to redefine what constitutes broadband.

The Commission wants to decrease that download speed to only 10 megabits per second, allowing internet and cellular service providers to seriously scale back the quality of their offerings to places like Upstate New York. Slower speeds would only bring pain and heartache to the farms, start-ups, and mom-and-pop businesses who need high-speed connections to bring their goods to market, attract customers and employ their neighbors.

As if that’s not bad enough, Pai has said on numerous occasions that he is in favor of rolling back net neutrality protections that were recognized by President Obama’s FCC in 2015. Those rules say that internet service providers cannot choose which data is sent more quickly and which sites get blocked or throttled backed based on which content providers pay a premium for.

If the big players had their way, companies like Netflix could pay Verizon a handsome sum to stream their services at a high rate of speed while dramatically slowing down (to make room on the information highway) the ability of other users to say, upload their photos, watch their online college courses, or download work documents. Whoever would pay the most would get the best, taking away the everyone-is-equal system that currently defines data transfer on the internet.

That’s a little unnerving, because the internet is quickly becoming our last means to access diversity of thought thanks to the abandonment of the Home Studio Rule and Pai’s proposal announced at a congressional hearing last week. There he said he’d like to, this November, throwaway media ownership rules launched in 1975 that prevented the same company from owning TV/radio stations and newspapers in a given media market.

If Pai has his way, a few media magnates could control the news you read, the news you hear, the news you watch and ultimately the news you download.     

That’s frightening.

It’s obvious that this is no longer the people’s FCC.

From the 30 October 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Friday, October 20, 2017

A look at November’s ballot items

November’s ballots might be lacking the political drama of last year’s when voters were choosing the President of the United States but that doesn’t mean they are meaningless. Every election matters, especially one such as this in which New Yorkers have the chance to decide on 3 ballot items. As I do in this column whenever proposals come to the fore, I offer a quick review of each.

It’s not often that ballot items in New York receive the attention that a race for an office might, but this year, Proposal 1 has garnered it. Newspaper reports and editorials, radio talk shows, television ad campaigns, and yard signs have been plentiful -- either for or against -- a state constitutional convention.

Every 20 years, the New York State Constitution requires voters to decide whether or not there should be such a convention. During one, elected delegates can propose amendments to or rewrite the entire state (not federal) Constitution. These get-togethers are a rare bird in the Empire State – since our first Constitution was adopted 240 years ago, there have been only 9 conventions, the last one in 1967. If this were to pass, the delegation would bring all their proposals to the voters in November of 2019.

Back in May, Siena College polls indicated that 62 percent of New Yorkers were in favor of a convention. That support has plummeted in recent months, as the September sampling showed that only 44 percent would vote in favor.

That drop-off is a testament to the barrage of advertising, education and outreach undertaken by numerous foes to a convention. Among them are good government groups, public employee unions, environmental organizations, and conservatives -- a mixed bag of interests who tend to rarely agree on causes. Strange bedfellows indeed. At press time, contributions to their anti-convention campaigns have surpassed $1.3 million while organizations in favor of it have netted just over $300,000.

This writer will be voting against a convention. It would be opening Pandora’s Box.

Sure, there are numerous positively transformative measures that could be proposed and adopted, but years of being subjected to Albany’s ambivalence towards upstaters and the rampant corruption that exists in the legislature and executive branch makes me believe that more harm than good would be initiated.

One of those aforementioned evils will finally be addressed by Proposal 2.

If passed, it would allow judges to reduce or revoke the public pension of a public officer convicted of a felony related to his or her official duties. This has received much attention in recent years as leaders of the Senate and Assembly, their fellow lawmakers and movers-and-shakers near to Governor Cuomo have been charged with breaking the public trust.

In theory it should create a greater disincentive for officials to not break the law (though one would think the specter of prison time is scary enough). Consider the financial plight of someone like former Senate head Dean Skelos (who somehow had his conviction overturned last month due to the narrowing of the definition of corruption). A powerful figure like him brings in just under $96,000 in taxpayer-funded pensions ever year of his retired life. If someone is found guilty of crimes against those same taxpayers, why should he or she be handsomely rewarded by them? 

Your columnist will be voting in favor of this measure. And likely so will most voters: A July Siena College poll showed overwhelming support (75 percent).

Proposal 3 is a pretty tame one as compared to the first two.

As it stands now, municipalities in the Adirondacks are hamstrung when they want to create bike paths, install sewer lines, fix bridges, address dangerous curves or work on utilities in the Park. The Forever Wild aspects of state law prevent them from infringing upon wilderness, even if it is in the smallest amounts. That poses risks to public safety and hinders economic development.

If passed, this proposal would create a 250-acre land bank, which would allow governments in the Blue Line to request state Forest Preserve land for qualifying infrastructure and projects in exchange for the state adding 250 new acres to the preserve. It’s basically a land swap so that affected communities don’t break the law while trying to do their best for residents or tourists like us.

In my travels through the Mountains I’ve seen more than enough places where this power could be utilized in positive ways, so I would encourage my fellow voters to approve this item.

This might be an “off year” for electing people into high-profile offices, but never shirk your ability to vote. There are some local races to tend to and these 3 ballot items represent some significant participative power for New Yorkers. Take advantage of that power….or the powers-that-be will take advantage of you. 

 From the 23 October 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Constitution is more than the 2nd Amendment

It’s a treat when our citizens come out in numbers and with passion in the defense of one of our rights, just as they consistently do with the second amendment. We’ve seen this again in spades following the Las Vegas massacre; gun owners took to social media and the airwaves to decry any attempts to take away all their firearms, whether or not that bogeyman is real.  

Despite all of those efforts and concerns, the activists may not be as sincere as they put on. All of them to a man consistently highlight the importance of the Constitution -- our formative document takes center stage in all debates associated with gun rights. Even those folks with just a passing interest in the Constitution can cite verbatim the entire Second Amendment.

But that is where their constitutionalism seems to begin and end.

If the Constitution is really that important to so many Americans, then where is the uproar when our other rights are infringed?

I’ve hear nary a peep and have not seen one lawn sign or bumper sticker expressing disdain – and there should be lots of it – over the federal government’s elaborate domestic spying programs that we’ve always assumed existed post-9/11 and were finally brought to light by Edward Snowden a few years back.

It sometimes seem that no one cares about high-volume eavesdropping on cell phones, maintenance of phone records, scanning of email messages, and other surveillance endeavors against suspected terrorists and all innocent Americans alike, tactics that are all in defiance of the Fourth Amendment and could be argued are far worse transgressions than anything that the SAFE Act or any other gun regulations have done (and that’s saying a lot).

To see this constitutional selectivity perfectly played out locally and in the form of one high-profile individual just look south across the county border.

Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard gained notoriety and accolades a few years back for his stance against the SAFE Act and its un-constitutionalism. He went so far as to say his officers wouldn’t enforce that law. To this day, if there’s a gun rights rally or proposed pro-gun legislation, he’s front and center.  

Despite his care for the Second Amendment, his obviously doesn’t give a hoot about the Fourth.  For years his department utilized cell phone spying devices known as Stingray and Kingfish until the media and the ACLU caught wind of its illicit use. The equipment indiscriminately intercepts cell phone transmissions and can capture and eavesdrop on conversations and text exchanges. These are activities that need a warrant (which the Sheriff’s Department lacked) and pinpoint accuracy (Howard has admitted to the press that they tune across multiple transmissions to find the one they want). 

Despite this patently obvious abuse of the Fourth Amendment, Howard still remains something of a constitutional folk hero with conservatives.

Taking into consideration what’s happening at the federal and local levels with the Fourth, Americans should be storming the Bastille over such transgressions. But we’re not. We’re not even raising a minor stink. Most of us might not even care.

And that’s what makes America so easily manipulated by the politicians. They know that most folks are single-issue voters and if they can tug at something near and dear to them – such as guns – they can turn that focused passion into a vote.

We shouldn’t be that way. We should be fighting for every part of the Constitution, not just one. No part is more important than another. The entire document carries meaning, weight and importance: The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were devised as a set of laws to recognize and protect some of the most basic of natural rights while creating a framework for just governance.
If we spend too much time and effort focusing on just one part of the Bill of Rights, we could lose our rights to free speech, self defense, privacy, due process of law and self government just by being too selective or self-centered in our needs.

Continue to fight for our rights…but fight for all of them.

From the 16 October 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers