Wednesday, January 25, 2012

1.26.12 BOOM

This article originally appeared in the 1.26.12 issue of Metroland

It’s incredibly rare these days when something good happens in Washington. Even more rare when it happens unexpectedly, spontaneously, and for the right reasons.

But last Wednesday something really good happened in Washington. The SOPA/PIPA legislation, which would have given courts broad powers to blacklist websites and encouraged “voluntary” snooping on your online activities by internet service companies, was nuked as a result of a furious outpouring of opposition from millions of people.

One of my predictions for this year (see Metroland 12/29/11) was SOPA/PIPA “going down in flames” and becoming a major campaign issue for the 2012 elections. This was one of those “in a perfect world” predictions; frankly, I almost left it off because it seemed too ridiculous. I’ve been writing about these bills for over a year (Metroland December 2010, June, October, November, and December 2011) and I felt like I was yelling at a tornado. I was sure the fix was in.

What happened? Awareness of the proposed laws’ dangers had been growing steadily for a couple of months, and in December opposition was started to gain traction. But just a little. There were still dozens of bill sponsors; Congressional hearings were a farce; there was absolutely no mainstream media reporting on the bills for the simple reason that the Big Media conglomerates who own the news outlets were staunchly in favor of the bill. The bill had remarkably broad bi-partisan support, something that’s unheard of these days, and the White House had been sending signals that it also supported the bills. The little opposition that was popping up was mostly grassroots, with only one visible cheerleader in all of Congress, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. Wyden had placed member’s holds on Senate versions of the bill and issued thoughtful memos about the bill’s dangers, memos that were ignored by his colleagues.

Then two weeks ago, things started turning. A couple of Congressmen, tea party guys, started publically questioning the bill. This gave the grassroots folks (who probably wouldn’t agree with the tea party guys on any other issue) a boost. Chris Hayes, who has a little-watched weekend morning show on MSNBC, came out swinging against the bill. The White House issued an unexpected and unequivocal message that the “blacklist” provisions of the bills were unacceptable. It was reported on a blog that during a pre-show warm up, someone asked John Stewart why he was ignoring SOPA/PIPA, and Stewart said he hadn’t heard anything about it and promised to look into it.

Supporters of the bill, the RIAA, the MPAA, the US Chamber of Commerce, and all of their toadies in Congress, went into overdrive. The lock-step of their public announcements was absolutely Rovian—everybody, industry flaks and lawmakers, stayed “on message”, and everybody was lying. One day it was that online infringement cost the US economy $25 billion each year, a totally made-up and unsupportable number. The next day it was that SOPA/PIPA would create 180,000 new American jobs in its first year, another ludicrous claim. The next day it was that opposition was being orchestrated and financed by Big Tech, specifically Google. This was absurd, as the most vocal opponents were publicly pleading for the mostly-silent Google to take a public stand on the issue; fact is that the Big Media proponents of the bills had spent four times more than the tech sector lobbying Congress on the bills. Finally, the big spin meme was that opponents to SOPA/PIPA were misrepresenting the proposed laws and fear-mongering people into contacting their officials. Positively Orwellian. And fascist.

Last Wednesday was supposed to be some kind of "day of action." Yawn. Tuesday Wikipedia announced it would go dark for the day, which took everyone by surprise. Late Tuesday Google announced it would do "something", too. Rachel Maddow ended her show with a short rant about the dangers of the law. Wednesday morning I saw headlines about Google blacking out its logo and a bunch of sites going dark. I found some code that was supposed to black out my websites, but couldn’t figure out where to stick it. So I just figured ho hum, and started to go about my day. Around 10AM I got a call from WAMC, asking if I could come in at 2 to do a special VoxPop about SOPA/PIPA. I’m like, really? I took a look again at the news and saw that an unprecedented game was on.

By the end of the day, some 13 million people had contacted their representatives. Phone lines were jammed, websites crashed. Sponsors bailed in droves. The next day votes were being canceled and by Friday SOPA/PIPA were dead.

The mainstream media is still reporting that this was a fight between Google and Hollywood. It wasn’t. It was a triumph of democracy. And there will be more. Big Media will continue to attack the internet. This ain’t over.

Paul Rapp is an intellectual property lawyer based in Housatonic MA. He can be reached at

Thursday, January 12, 2012


This article originally appeared on the 1.12.12 issue of Metroland.

The Supreme Court is taking another whack at FCC v. Fox , a case that’s been bungeeing around the courts for years. We’ve talked about the case here at least twice before. This time the big question is teed up—whether FCC restrictions on speech on broadcast television are constitutional. Arguments were held before the Court this week, and the various justices’ comments were pretty interesting.

The case involves FCC penalties that have been levied against networks for a couple of spontaneous, unscripted F-bombs dropped by Nicole Ritchie and Cher during broadcasts of the Billboard Awards in 2002 and 2003 and a woman’s bare butt that flashed on NYPD Blue in 2003. I tried to find out whose bare butt is in issue here and failed. Shading everything is the fact that the challenged regulations apply only to over-the-air broadcast networks, which the FCC has always had jurisdiction over, and not cable or satellite networks, over which the FCC has no jurisdicition.

Predictably, and rather sadly, the “conservative” limited-government justices Roberts and Scalia came out in favor of the government regulations over speech, mainly on grounds of “public decency.” Chief Justice Roberts said all the government wanted was a few channels where one can’t see nudity or swearing. Apparently he doesn’t believe in the wisdom of the markets like his fellow indoctrinated neo-cons, nor has he watched the Nickleodeon or Disney cable networks lately. Constitutional originalist Justice Scalia observed that “[t]he government is entitled to insist upon a certain modicum of decency.” Which means that on one hand, he thinks corporations (which, don’t forget, are people) have the unfettered right to “speak” by giving unlimited, untraceable money to political candidates, that’s just perfectly “decent”; but if someone utters a certain word or shows their butt on a teevee with rabbit ears, well that’s indecent, and the government is “entitled” (entitled!!!) to bring out a big can of government-issued whoop-ass. And that’s in Constitution where? Isn’t that the only place we should be looking for guidance?

Fellow conservative Samuel Alito took the most interesting tack of the group, pointing out that over-the-air broadcast television was rapidly going the way of 8-track tapes and vinyl records, so why do anything? Why does it matter? Ummm...because 95% of us watch these channels on cable or satellite and your censorship affects us, too? Because nobody knows when over the air TV will die, if ever? Because freedoms delayed are freedoms denied? Need more? Holla. I got ‘em.

There is supposed to be a decision issued in June.

Moving on. There was an interesting article in the New York Times recently about how rock music, however defined, was treading water, if not drowning. Well, yeah, this has been happening for a long time, it’s evolutionary, and there’s all kinds of reasons one can point to for why rock appears to be withering on the vine. And I’ll talk about one right here.

It hit me when I read the coverage of Van Halen’s recent triumphant re-introduction set at the tiny Café Wha’ in New York City. David Lee Roth gushed that the band played little venues like this 5 days a week for 4 years until they broke in the late 1970’s. That triggered a memory of Cheap Trick’s Rick Neilson’s, who at a talk last Fall said that Cheap Trick played 4 sets a night 5 nights a week for years before they broke.

And I’m thinking, “who the hell does that anymore?” Pretty much nobody! Most local bands are lucky to get two or three gigs a month, and those are usually for a set or two. And they pay crap. If there is a “tour”, it’s usually something the band saves up for, and winds up a grim, money losing, bad food, sleep-on-the-floor disaster. And everybody is playing in 3 or 4 bands at once just to keep busy and interested.

So musicians don’t get the opportunity to develop the chops, instincts, or stagecraft necessary to become rock stars in any classic sense of the term. Bands don’t get to develop as cohesive machines, they don’t develop a distinctive sound or a strong collective personality.

And I’ve rung this bell before but I’ll ring it again: a major contributing factor to this is the absurdity of having a 21-year-old drinking age. Van Halen and Cheap Trick were able to play 4 sets a night 5 nights a week because every town had a couple roadhouses, or gin joints, or converted warehouses that hired bands every night of the week and drew big crowds, made up mostly of 18-21 year olds looking to get wasted, to hook up, and to rock out. We’ll never see that again.

So. Buh-bye, the rock.