Pigford: Black Farmers and Obama

There's a little-noticed detail to the ongoing farm bill debate that I thought might be of some interest in the context of the presidential primary process. It has to do with Barack Obama and a uncollected restitution payments owed to many black farmers.

The deal is this. Pigford v. Glickman alleged that black farmers had faced institutional and systematic discrimination at the hands of the USDA for years and years, generation after generation. (Dan Glickman was the USDA Secretary at the time the case was filed.) In case after case, black farmers where denied loans and other lines of credit that their white counterparts were regularly granted. After years of wrangling, Pigford was finally settled in 1999 by consent decree. The USDA agreed to a process by which black farmers could apply for restitution.

All well and good, but those applications were due within six months of the settlement. It's been estimated that as many as 74,000 farmers applied for Pigford payments after the deadline. They were shut out of the settlement for good, it seemed.

And so, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been pushing for Congress to intervene and offer some relief to the farmers who were eligible for Pigford payment but somehow missed the boat. More recently, Barack Obama has gotten in front of the issue. He's co-sponsored legislation championed by the CBC in the House, with the goal of getting in passed as part of the massive Farm Bill. And he's been fairly aggressive against some inappropriate lobbying against the Pigford language by USDA employees. (The USDA is unhappy with the many millions of dollars further restitution might cost.)

In addition to the policy imperative behind Pigford language in the farm bill, it's not bad politics for Obama. Restitution is a very big deal in the rural South -- you know, places like South Carolina, Florida, and the like. It has been for many years, and the flavor of the fight for Pigford compensation is similar to other civil rights fights.

The Senate just finished marking up the farm bill. No word yet on whether Pigford language has survived the sausage making process so far. If it makes it all the way into law, and his campaign sees the political value in it, Pigford may give Obama a healthy boost in some important early states.

Larry Lessig Turns Giant Brain Towards Government Corruption

I humbly suggest that this is a very big deal. For those of us who are interested in "intellectual property," Larry Lessig is something of a guru. What's so attractive about Larry is that get marshals his enormous intellect towards truly understanding the issues at hand -- not just their technical details but their deeper meaning -- and explains that understanding in ways that resonate with the rest of us. He'll dig out an example from the back of his brain and draw connections between past and present that make very difficult topics seem quite clear. He's done that for years and with great persistence on IP, copyright, control of creative content, so on and so forth.

In hindsight, his commitment towards working to free the footage of the presidential debates was a sign that he was expanding beyond intellectual property of late. And he's found over the years that, like I think many of us are finding, even when you're right making public policy progress on the issues you care about is almost impossible in a political environment that not only doesn't play fair, but is so skewed that it makes something of a joke of the idea of participatory, responsive democracy.

And so, for the next ten years at least Larry has committed himself to studying and making contributions to the field of government corruption, broadly written. He tries to explain why on his blog:

In one of the handful of opportunities I had to watch Gore deliver his global warming Keynote, I recognized a link in the problem that he was describing and the work that I have been doing during this past decade. After talking about the basic inability of our political system to reckon the truth about global warming, Gore observed that this was really just part of a much bigger problem. That the real problem here was (what I will call a "corruption" of) the political process. That our government can't understand basic facts when strong interests have an interest in its misunderstanding.

This is a thought I've often had in the debates I've been a part of, especially with respect to IP. Think, for example, about term extension. From a public policy perspective, the question of extending existing copyright terms is, as Milton Friedman put it, a "no brainer." As the Gowers Commission concluded in Britain, a government should never extend an existing copyright term. No public regarding justification could justify the extraordinary deadweight loss that such extensions impose.

Yet governments continue to push ahead with this idiot idea -- both Britain and Japan for example are considering extending existing terms. Why?

The answer is a kind of corruption of the political process. Or better, a "corruption" of the political process. I don't mean corruption in the simple sense of bribery. I mean "corruption" in the sense that the system is so queered by the influence of money that it can't even get an issue as simple and clear as term extension right. Politicians are starved for the resources concentrated interests can provide. In the US, listening to money is the only way to secure reelection. And so an economy of influence bends public policy away from sense, always to dollars.
If you feel that way, that the political process is so broken that fixing it is step one in any improvement we hope to make, then Larry Lessig is a powerful ally. This is going to be fun.

Community Radio Heads Up to the Hill, But Needs a Push

Yeah, I'm a weekend writer but I'm going to use my free pass to post on legislative topics during the week, because this one's important. Today is a huge day for those of us interested in community radio. Back in 2000, Congress passed the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act that put the kibosh on the issuing of new licenses for low-power FM radio stations. LPFM stations are low-watt community-based radio stations that serve local areas by providing targeted information and acting as community hubs. They're a way of injecting a bit of diversity into a local news market and can serve some of the functions that the Internet/blogs do for people that can't afford a computer or Internet access. In fact, having an LPFM station with staff who have access to one computer and high-speed broadband hook-up can greatly open up the information available in local communities that might otherwise be off the news grid.

In January of 2000, the FCC began issuing LPFM licenses for (what I believe was) the first time. The National Association of Broadcasters objected, and in response Congress called for a study that would investigate whether LPFM frequencies interfered with existing radio stations, as NAB was concerned about. The MITRE corporation did that study and found that, technically, LPFM and full-power broadcasting can live together in almost perfect harmony:

Our principal finding is that LPFM stations can safely operate three channels away from existing FPFM stations, provided that relatively modest distance separations are maintained between any LPFM station and receivers tuned to the potentially affected FPFM station. Those required separations are on the order of a few tens of meters in the best case, to slightly more than a kilometer in the worst case. The main exception to this finding involves FM translator receivers, which may require distance separations up to about 3.2 kilometers from 100-watt LPFM transmitters lying squarely in the main beams of the translators' receiving antennas. If these requirements are met, both analog and digital FPFM stations should be able to operate without significant risk of harmful third-adjacent-channel interference from LPFM.

Facts in hand, now the move is to get Congress to authorize to the FCC begin issuing LPFM licenses again. Today Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Lee Terry (R-NE) in the House and Maria Cantwell and John McCain are introducing identical legislation that would tell the FCC to get to it. This is a simple good move that can get done in this congress, and a blessed rare case of a telecom issue that's politically fairly straightforward. No bill numbers yet, but in both House and Senate it'll be called the Local Community Radio Act of 2007. Congresspeoples need to hear from their constituents that community radio is important to them, particularly those sitting on the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Commerce Committees.

Joe Green of Project Agape and Facebook's Causes App

When Facebook opened up its F8 platform last week to developers, I wasn't the only one to get excited about it might be used in political ways. Within hours after Facebook opened, I had already gotten a number of requests to support non-profit groups via a new app called Causes. Seemed to me that Causes would be a good place to start investigating how social networks like Facebook, MySpace, and the like can be used to redistribute power and resources. So this weekend I tracked down Joe Green of Project Agape, the group behind the Causes app. Together with his partner Sean Parker (of Napster and Plaxo), Green has plans to leverage existing offline relationships online, starting by directing funds and volunteers to non-profits. Green is also the founder of the political social-network site essembly.com and the old college roommate of Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook. Green has been a field organizer for years, and has been thinking about how to use social networks in politics since he was a Kerry intern in New Hampshire. (This interview is part of a constantly-evolving IM based interview series called Hearing Progressive Voices.) I think we get some insight from Green on where politics meets social networks now, and where we can go from here. Dig in.

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Here We Come to Save the Spectrum!

Next Wednesday is the final day for 'reply comments'. You can still submit comments here. - Matt

Wednesday was the final day for the public comments to the FCC on what to do with the 700 MHz radio spectrum, that chunk of the public airwaves that will be returned by broadcasters to the federal government once we finally complete the Congress-mandated switchover to digital TV in 2009. (Radio Spectrum 101: Through some combination of fairy dust and good vibrations, everything from television programming to cell phone conversations is constantly traveling through the air all around us. The pathways -- or frequencies -- through which they travel are known collectively as the "radio spectrum." In the U.S., it belongs to the American people and the FCC manages it on our behalf.) People into telecom are salivating over this 700 MHz "beachfront spectrum" because it's pretty sweet -- it has the ability to cut through walls and through mountains. The FCC is in the process of deciding what we should do with this good stuff.

Now, why does this matter? I'd argue two main reasons -- connectivity and innovation. New wireless technologies that run on the 700 MHz band could compete with existing telecom cable providers to bring broadband Internet and reliable cell phone service to every un-served and under-served corner of the country.

Some of the comments the FCC got in this week look like great first steps towards a good use of the airwaves.

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Coding Towards Openness with Facebook's New F8

Facebook announced its new open platform this week, called F8. What company has done is invite third-party developers to create modules that plug right into the Facebook interface. Facebook.com has been a stellar web app for some time, but the new Facebook is less an application than it is a social-networking environment. As of this week, the Facebook API, Facebook query language, and Facebook markup language are all documented online. For political folks, F8's practical uses are pretty exciting. Facebook claims to have 24 million active users, half of whom login to the site every day. So module developers are diving into a giant pool of engaged users who really like to live out part of their lives onlines -- appealing for everyone from fundraisers to field organizers. I've been playing around with the new F8-enabled apps the last couple days. I started by adding Project Agape's"Causes" module and then joined the "Free DC" group that benefits DC Vote. If I had wanted to, I could make a micro-contribution (or macro-contribution, I guess) to the group right through Facebook.

The question of whether Facebook was going to stay a walled-garden has been answered with F8. As a somewhat stodgy Facebook user, I'll admit that I sighed just a bit over that. Early Facebook was somehow reassuring -- you knew exactly how it would behave. It always worked. The design was clean and consistant. F8 may make Facebook a bit of mess for a while. When twice I tried to add "Net Neutrality" through the Cause module yesterday, for example, Facebook just hung on a blank template page. ValleyWag says Facebook.com was completely shut down this morning.

With F8, Mark Zuckerberg et al have ceded complete control over the environment they built. I imagine that there are some folks wondering, why would anyone do that? For one thing, opening up a system can remove constraints that hinder growth. We're seeing something similar happen with Second Life. Linden Lab has made the call to open source the servers that run Second Life, giving up control over what they call "the Grid." Why would a for-profit company do that? For one reason, Linden's success has been hampered by Second Life's enormous technical needs. Each Linden-run server can only host a handful of avatars at a time. With the distributed server load, Second Life has the chance to grow as it should. The Facebook folks, I think, have other motivations. In return for opening the doors to their system, they get the opportunity to really see if their dorm-room creation can improve social and political life. I'm naive enough to believe that these guys want to change the world. We're talking about a 22 year-old CEO who said no to giant piles of cash so that he could see what his company could become.

There are going to be bumps in the road for Facebook, and F8 is a bit of a gamble. But I think what's exciting is this turn away from the assumption that systems work better when closed and controlled. They made a policy choice in favor of participation and then implemented it in their code. Facebook has set themselves as the anti-MySpace. MySpace is a closed system. It's difficult to port content into it or extract information our of it. MySpace's approach is to resist third-party apps, like when they accused PhotoBucket of offering embedable ad-sponsored Spiderman 3 slideshows. That's not overly surprising, considering that their business model has long been based on keeping users in their bounded universe and directing money spent in that universe towards the company itself. (And that was before Rupert Murdoch bought it...)

I'm resisting the urge to spot a trend. But I do think we're beginning to see more openness in everything from license agreements and to programming architectures. Larry Lessig recently spearheaded a campaign to free recordings of presidential debates so that we can remix and reuse that content. So far, FOX has said no but CNN has said yes and Lessig is working with NBC/MSNBC on their terms. And the Open House Project and activist Carl Malamud have worked with C-Span to get them to loosen up their grip on copyright just a bit. We're starting to see some big entities start make the decision that openness is a risk worth taking.

Why Are American Executives Paid So Much?

My old boss Henry Waxman has just launched an intriguing new investigation: why, exactly, are American executives pulling in such stratospheric paychecks? CEOs and CFOs in the U.S. make 400 times what the average worker earns. In 1965, it was more like a factor of 20. One part of the puzzle: "independent" compensation consultants who might not be so independent. The SEC doesn't require companies to report on whether their compensation consultants also provide them with other services, so Waxman is asking six big consulting firms to self-report exactly what work they do for the top 250 Fortune 500 companies.

Why might the independent compensation consultants be not so independent? Well, not only did consultants from Hewitt Associates, for example, reportedly advise the compensation committee from Verizon's board of directors on just how and what to pay CEO Ivan Seidenberg, Verizon is one of Hewitt's biggest clients. In addition to the compensation work, Hewitt runs Verizon's employee benefits plans and advises the company on human resources. The argument goes that Hewitt's business relationship with Verizon is managed by the same executives whose pay it gets to decide on. (In 2005, Seidenberg earned $19.4 million in salary, bonus, stock and other compensation. In that same year, Verizon stock fell more than 25% and some managers' pensions were frozen.)

No doubt that people are starting to get a bit ticked off when executives earn such immense paychecks, especially when a lot of Americans are struggling to make ends meet. This is, I think, an issue with real momentum for Dems in 2008. Clinton and Edwards (in spirit, at least) have gotten behind Obama's bill that would allow the shareholders of public companies to hold a non-binding vote every year on executive pay, the way they do it over in England.

Waxman has asked the consultants to turn over the information to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee by May 29th.

Closing the Gap with CWA on Net Neutrality

There's a tussle going on that Matt has been illuminating involving the Communications Workers of America's stance on net neutrality. The CWA is an AFL-CIO-affiliated union representing more than 700,000 workers, some at AT&T, NBC, the New York Times, and elsewhere. In a few cases now, CWA has objected to net neutrality provisions. What's frustrating is that in so much that involves telecom and media policy, the goal of some seems to be to obfuscate and fuzzy the picture until most normal people throw up their hands and move on to something else. We hear flatly untrue arguments, like the one about how Google doesn't pay for the enormous bandwidth it uses. We hear said that this is Goliath vs. Goliath, a fight between one giant corporation and another: Verizon's multimillionare CEO Ivan Seidenberg vs. Google's very rich executives "with their own agenda." It's almost as if some involved want us to just worry instead about who's going to win American Idol.

That fuzziness and obfuscation is one of the reasons that telecom build-out projects like ConnectKentucky are so exciting. People like maps, and graphic representations can convey an enormous amount information in a palatable way. Maps tell us, hey, this town has no access to the broadband Internet, or this apartment building only can go online through CableCo X.

But back in the non-color-coded world of telecom policy, we have the Communications Workers of America nuanced arguments as to why they don't support neutrality provisions like the one the California Democratic Party recently attempted to adopt. Alas, there's no real way to figure out what's going on without digging into the technical details of neutrality. This stuff is enough to make your head hurt, seriously. Mine is throbbing a bit now. But something's not clear here, and we need to pin it down. Let's see if we can.

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Internet Radio Royalty Hikes Threaten the Music Genome Project

If all goes well, tomorrow Adam Conner will be posting an MP3 audio interview that he put together and I participated in with Tim Westergren, the founder of the Pandora Internet radio service, on the Copyright Royalty Board's recently announced royalty rate hikes. Pandora is, in a word, awesome. And the Music Genome Project, what powers the backend of Pandora, is doubly-awesome.

As powered by the Music Genome Project, Pandora is a freakishly innovative way to (1) connect listeners to new music and (2) promote popular major-label artists in the very same way as artists recording on GarageBand from home. Tim, a musician himself, has been building the Music Genome Project since 2000. The way it works is this. Each song that comes into the project is treated blindly, meaning that it matters little whether the artist is well known or not or what musical genre label with which they're usually tagged. Fifty or so actual humans -- many of them musicians -- sit down in an office in Oakland and evaluate each song, one by one. What they're listening for is any number of some 400 or so musical "genes." Once a song's genes are mapped, it's entered into the Pandora system.

Then a music lover, me for example, hops over to Pandora.com. Say I happen at the moment to be enamored with the Beyonce song "Irreplaceable." (It might be time to admit that while I do love music, I have seriously limited tastes. This is exactly why I need Pandora!) I enter that song in the magic Pandora interface, and the system says, "Irreplaceable," hmm, what we've got here is a track that features distinctive musical genes, including: modern R&B stylings, acoustic sonority, extensive vamping, major key tonality, acoustic rhythm guitars, and vocal harmonies. Already, I'm a more educated music consumer. What's more, Pandora searches through its database, identifies a song with similar genes, and plays it for me. First up is Stacie Orrico's "Beautiful Awakening." Who is Stacie Orrico? I have no idea. And Pandora doesn't care if she's a major label artist or a singer who submitted her own CD to the Music Genome Project. If she's registered with SoundExchange, she's paid royalty fees. And if I like her music enough, with a couple clicks, I can buy it right through iTunes or Amazon.

In the interview, Tim talks about how he's been thrilled so far to pay SoundExchange fair rates for music -- it helps streamline the licensing process for digital broadcasters like Pandora. But the Copyright Royalty Board's recently announced royalty hikes will make it impossible for Pandora to continue operating, which will in turn prevent the public from reaping the benefits of the Music Genome Project. Our copyright regime is intended to encourage innovation. That's not me talking, that's the founding fathers in the United States Constitution: the goal is to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts."

There's legislation in the House, H.R. 2060 -- the Internet Radio Equality Act, introduced by Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Don Manzullo, that would vacate the Copyright Royalty Board's decision and establish more reasonable royalty rates. H.R. 2060 already has 42 co-sponsors but could certainly use a lot more.

Meet Hannah Sassaman, Prometheus Radio Project

Can you believe that we're already at the seventh installment in our MyDD interview series called Hearing Progressive Voices? Why, it seems as if it was just yesterday that I was thinking, hey, interviewing interesting progressives via instant messenger would be fun, educational, and -- because IM produces an instant transcript -- easy. I'm particularly pleased to have had the chance to chat today with Hannah Sassaman. Hannah is the Program Director for the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based group that helps set up community radio stations and fights for a media landscape that is more fair, more balanced, and more open to all.

The particular focus of Prometheus' fight these days is Low Power FM -- small, community-based radio stations that have a broadcast range of only a handful of miles. In a day and age where Clear Channel owns more than a thousand radio stations across the country, community radio is a means by which the people can communicate, organize, and effect change. But the future of LPFM in America is not certain. Legislation passed by Congress has restricted low-power stations to small cities and towns, claiming concerns over interference with full-power stations of the sort owned by Clear Channel and other corporate broadcasters. There's a chance in the 110th Congress to re-open the radio spectrum to local broadcasting, and even the rare opportunity this fall to grab full-power licenses for non-profit broadcasters. In this interview, Hannah and I discussed deejay-public feedback loops, untying the hands of the FCC, and Prometheus' pirate radio roots.

Hannah eloquently explains the importance of both Low Power FM and telecom policy that frees at least some lines of communication from corporate control. But me, I think it's summed up well in the words of that bard of my generation, John Mayer: "when they own the information, oh, they can bend it all they want."

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