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Peer-To-Peer News - The Week In Review - February 6th, ’21
February 6th, 2021
Cable-Bill Transparency Laws Haven't Killed Sneaky Fees
Cable TV providers are now required to disclose their fees when customers sign up. Clearly the law didn't go far enough.
Back in 2019, a notoriously gridlocked Congress managed to agree on at least one thing: Hidden cable TV fees had gotten out of control.
They passed a law, called the Television Viewer Protection Act, that requires pay TV services to disclose all of their extra fees before you finish signing up. The law also says that customers must be able to cancel service within 24 hours of signup at no charge, and that TV providers must notify customers when their promotional rates expire. It also forbids internet providers from charging a fee for equipment that you’ve purchased for yourself.
The Television Viewer Protection Act finally went into effect last month, so I was curious to see how companies like Comcast and Spectrum are dealing the billing transparency component in particular. None of these companies are known for being up-front about pricing; would the new law change things?
Short answer: Not really. Cable companies still advertise prices far below what you’ll actually pay, and some of them avoid revealing their true prices until the last possible moment. Even if they’re following the letter of the law, they’re not quite capturing the spirit.
The ever-expanding cable bill
To see how cable companies continue to advertise prices far below what they actually charge, let’s take a look at Comcast’s Xfinity TV sign-up flow.
Shop for a bundle of internet and TV, and you’ll get a seemingly attractive offer of $80 per month for 200Mbps internet and more than 130 channels with a two-year agreement. But as we know, that’s not the real price.
Clicking on “Pricing & Other Info” reveals a hidden broadcast TV fee (now a staggering $19.45 per month) and a regional sports fee ($14.45 per month). Those fees alone raise the bundle price to $113.89 per month, and you wouldn’t know it without clicking on the fine print.
Comcast hides nearly $34 per month in fees behind fine print when you choose a plan.
Other fees reveal themselves as you walk through the sign-up process. Even if you plan to use your own streaming device to access Comcast’s cable channels, you still must pay a TV connection fee of $7.50, or $17.50 if you want DVR service. Comcast also charges $50 for installation.
While those DVR and installation fees do appear in the bill summary on Comcast’s sign-up page, the extra $34 per month in broadcast TV and regional sports fees do not. In fact, you can proceed all the way through the credit card entry form and still not get an accurate description of how much Comcast TV service actually costs.
Those $34 in hidden fees remain invisible even as you enter payment info.
Only on the final order review page does Comcast reveal the true monthly price of $129.34 per month, and—quelle surprise—it’s buried halfway down the page in small print. Of course, that’s just a promo rate. After a year, the price rises to $139.34, and it jumps again to $159.34 after two years.
Comcast reveals the real price on the final sign-up page, though it takes some scrolling to see it. (This is a zoomed-out version of the page.)
More sneakiness abounds
Comcast isn’t the only example of cable providers sticking to sneaky fees.
Cox pulls a similar trick during its sign-up process, advertising a price of $110 per month for TV and internet. That doesn’t include a mandatory $10-per-month set-top box fee, a $13.50-per-month broadcast TV fee, and a $10-per-month regional sports fee. Like Comcast, Cox withholds those broadcast and regional fees from its bill summary until the final stage of the checkout process, after you’ve provided a social security number and agreed to a credit check.
Cox requires a credit check and social security number before revealing $23.50 per month in extra fees.
Spectrum is only a bit better in this regard. Its broadcast TV fee becomes apparent right after you select a plan, but it too advertises prices far below the actual cost. Its up-front price of $90 per month for TV and 200Mbps internet doesn’t account for $16.45 in broadcast TV fees or the cost of either a cable box ($8 per month) or an Apple TV ($8 per month over 24 months), one of which must be purchased with service.
Is anyone doing the right thing and including these fees in their prices? In the interest of positive reinforcement, let’s give some kudos to Dish Network, whose advertised two-year commitment price of $65 per month includes both a $12-per-month fee for local channels and a single Hopper Duo DVR. You can even choose not to receive those local channels and knock the price down to $53 per month. This is how it should it work.
And yet, even Dish can’t resist a little extra sneakiness. Investigating the fine print reveals that customers must pay $10 per month for “Dish Protect Silver” customer support after six months unless they proactively cancel that service, and there’s no apparent way to opt out at sign-up.
Dish actually factors local channel fees and DVR into its advertised price, but hides a $10-per-month support fee that applies after six months.
The funny thing is that some of these prices aren’t that bad even after the extra fees. YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV, and FuboTV all now cost $65 per month. AT&T TV now costs $85 per month with regional sports networks. Sling TV just raised the price of its skinny bundle to $35 per month and up. If you can take advantage of new customer promos through cable or satellite TV, going back might make sense (though I still suggest thinking about ditching bloated pay TV bundles entirely).
I’d like to think that cable companies wouldn’t need misleading prices to make that case. Instead, a cable company that wanted to position itself as customer friendly could ditch the surprise fees and embrace transparency. But even with a new law on the books, some sleazy old marketing habits die hard.
Comcast Tells Connecticut, Other States it Will Delay Internet Data Cap, Price Hike
Cable TV and internet provider Comcast seemed headed for a showdown with the attorneys general of Connecticut and Pennsylvania over plans to enforce broadband service data caps and surcharges.
But on Wednesday, the Philadephia-based company bought a little extra time to figure out its next move.
Comcast officials said the company will suspend until July the implementation of its data caps and new fees for heavy users of the company’s high speed internet service in more than a dozen states. Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, the data cap and surcharges were set to begin in March.
The company’s announcement came just hours before Connecticut Attorney General William Tong told reporters at a press conference outside the State Capitol that the data cap and surcharge “is wrong and unconscionable.”
“This is not good for Connecticut or Connecticut families, to ask them to pay more for broadband at a time when they need it most,” Tong said. “It’s not a luxury, it’s an essential public service.”
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro had also raised concerns about Comcast’s actions, according to The Washington Post. The company had previously announced a suspension in Massachusetts after state lawmakers introduced legislation that sought to take aim at the new fees.
Besides Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, Comcast planned to enforce the data cap in Delaware, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Vermont, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
Tong said since Comcast first announced the plan in November 2020, his office has received numerous complaints about how easy it was for households with multiple internet users to surpass the cap and be charged for excess usage.
Residential customers in Connecticut and other states who don’t have an “unlimited” plan will be given up to 1.2 terabytes of data in a billing cycle. Any data usage in excess of that will have a surcharge of $10 for every additional 50 gigabytes used, up to a maximum of $100.
Connecticut consumers who have Comcast as their broadband provider told Hearst Connecticut Media they easily reached the cap in the months since the it was announced.
Sharon Rosenblatt of Ridgefield said the three people surpassed the cap in late January, but was told the company wasn’t imposing the surcharges until May. The company offers notifications to subscribers who are approaching the data cap limit.
Peter Carusone complained via Twitter that “we are at 1.9 terabytes, so that’s an extra $60 a month during a time where the state wants you to stay home.”
Peter Sonski of Haddam knew once Comcast announced the data cap that he was better off paying the $11 a month extra so that he would have unlimited data.
“My consumption level was such that anything less than unlimited was inadequate,” Sonski said.
Jess Denny said via Twitter that her household uses about 1.5 terabytes a month.
“We talked about it, and have decided to cut the cable off, keeping the high speed internet and paying extra for unlimited data,” Denny said. “Unfortunately, Comcast is the only high speed internet option at our home.”
Jason Zandri, a Wallingford Town Councilman and an information technology expert for 24 years, called Tong’s criticism of Comcast “a good start.”
“I don't know what powers the Attorney General or the state has but they should bring all available resources to bear on Comcast to loosen their grip from the throats of their customers,” Zandri said.
Comcast officials had previously said the broadband cap would impact only 5 percent of its customer base. In a statement, the company said the delay in implementing the cap was done in order to provide customers in northeast markets “with additional time to become familiar with the new plan.”
“Customers in these markets now have six months to understand their data usage,” the statement said in part. “The earliest that the very small percentage of customers who exceed 1.2 TB of data could have any charges due under the plan is August 2021.”
Company officials have consistently maintained that “1.2 terabytes is a massive amount of data that enables consumers to video conference for 3,500 hours, watch 1,200 hours of distance learning videos, stream 500 hours of high-definition video content a month, or play more than 34,000 hours of online games.”
SpaceX Plans Starlink Phone Service, Emergency Backup, and Low-Income Access
SpaceX's latest petition to the FCC details some of its Starlink plans.
A new SpaceX filing outlines plans for Starlink to offer phone service, emergency backup for voice calls, and cheaper plans for people with low incomes through the government's Lifeline program.
The details are in Starlink's petition to the Federal Communications Commission for designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) under the Communications Act. SpaceX said it needs that legal designation in some of the states where it won government funding to deploy broadband in unserved areas. The ETC designation is also needed to get reimbursement from the FCC's Lifeline program for offering discounts on telecom service to people with low incomes.
Starlink is in beta and costs $99 per month, plus a one-time fee of $499 for the user terminal, mounting tripod, and router. As we noted yesterday, the SpaceX filing also says Starlink now has over 10,000 users in the US and abroad. SpaceX should have capacity for several million customers in the US—the company has permission to deploy up to 1 million user terminals (i.e. satellite dishes) and is seeking FCC permission to raise the maximum-deployment level to 5 million user terminals.
While the Starlink beta only includes broadband, SpaceX said it will eventually sell VoIP service that includes "(a) voice-grade access to the public switched telephone network ('PSTN') or its functional equivalent; (b) minutes of use for local service provided at no additional charge to end users; (c) access to emergency services; and (d) toll limitation services to qualifying low-income consumers."
Voice service will be sold "on a standalone basis at rates that are reasonably comparable to urban rates," SpaceX said. The plan isn't finalized, but SpaceX said it is exploring the use of "a white-label managed service provider (MSP) voice platform."
"In this baseline plan, Starlink Services would provide telephone services connecting consumers to its MSP's platform using its network capacity, which is available to consumers through their customer premises equipment," the filing said. "Consumers will have the option of using a third-party, conventional phone connected to a Session Initiation Protocol standards-compliant analog terminal adaptor or a native-IP phone selected from a list of certified models."
SpaceX said it is also exploring other phone-service options:
Starlink Services continues to assess integrating alternative standalone voice applications into the Starlink network, including other third-party providers, or possibly developing its own proprietary solution. The company may adopt such approaches in the event that further testing demonstrates alternative solutions would provide a superior experience to the end customer or, if Starlink Services determines the end user would benefit from the existence of multiple voice solutions to introduce competition and redundancy into the supply chain.
Like other VoIP providers, Starlink would sell a 24-hour battery backup to customers who want it. "At the user level, Starlink Services will offer a 24-hour battery back-up option for user equipment that will provide the ability to make phone calls in the event of a power outage," SpaceX said.
The 24-hour backup offer would satisfy an FCC rule passed in 2015 under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler. Though the backup option described in SpaceX's filing applies to phone service, we've seen from the Starlink beta that the user terminal can deliver broadband with a portable power supply.
SpaceX's filing also detailed backup and redundancy plans at the network level:
Starlink Services will have sufficient back-up power to remain functional without an external power source in emergency situations, will be able to reroute traffic around damaged facilities, and will be able to manage traffic spikes resulting from emergency situations... At the system level, Starlink Services is building redundancy into the network. For example, every user will have multiple satellites in view with which it can communicate. Additionally, every satellite will have multiple gateway sites in view with which it can communicate. The Starlink traffic routing system ensures that every user is served with bandwidth before users demanding more bandwidth get additional throughput assigned, which gives the Starlink network robustness in the event of emergencies requiring high throughput.
SpaceX didn't provide much detail on its Lifeline plans beyond the fact that it intends to offer them.
"Starlink Services currently has no Lifeline customers because only carriers designated as an ETC can participate in the Lifeline program," the company said. But once it gets the ETC designation, SpaceX said it "will provide Lifeline to qualifying low-income consumers and publicize the availability of Lifeline service in a manner reasonably designed to reach those likely to qualify for the service."
Lifeline currently provides a $9.25 monthly subsidy for low-income households to get broadband or a $5.25 monthly per-household subsidy for phone service. Based on Starlink's beta price of $99 per month, the subsidies would not be enough to make that plan affordable for low-income consumers, so we'd expect SpaceX to offer other, cheaper plans to customers who meet the low-income requirements. With Lifeline, each provider seeks reimbursement from the fund after providing service to eligible consumers.
Starlink to be common-carrier service
SpaceX's filing also said that Starlink broadband and phone will be offered as common-carrier services. "For purposes of this [ETC] designation, Starlink Services will provide broadband Internet access service and standalone voice service to the public throughout the Service Areas on a common carrier basis," the filing said.
Whether broadband should be regulated as a common-carrier service has been a partisan battle. The Obama-era FCC classified ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act in order to enforce net neutrality rules, and the Trump-era FCC reversed that classification. Broadband lobby groups bitterly opposed the Title II classification.
"The FCC allows carriers to offer broadband on a common-carrier basis if they so desire," Harold Feld, a longtime telecom lawyer and senior VP of consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Ars.
SpaceX taking on the common-carrier classification as part of its plan to be an ETC and accept government funding doesn't necessarily have any major significance. However, Feld said, "It suggests that [SpaceX is] unlikely to fight against Title II classification. Ideally, they might even support Title II. But at a minimum, this demonstrates that they don't think Title II common carriage is some kind of horrible burden that will prevent them from offering service."
Google’s New Subsea Cable Between the US and Europe is Now Online
Google, together with its partner SubCom, today announced that the company’s privately owned Dunant subsea cable between Virginia Beach, Virginia and Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez on the French Atlantic coast is now operational.
Google first announced this project, which was named after the first Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant, back in the middle of 2018. At the time it expected the project to go live in 2020, but besides dealing with the complications of spanning a long cable between continents, the project leaders probably didn’t budget for a pandemic at the time.
The almost 4,000-mile cable has a total capacity of 250 terabits per second — or enough to transmit the “entire digitized Library of Congress three times every second” (though maybe using Library of Congress data size references is starting to feel a bit antiquated at this point?). Unlike some older cables, Dunant uses 12 fiber pairs, coupled with a number of technical innovations around maximizing its bandwidth, to achieve these numbers.
“Google is dedicated to meeting the exploding demand for cloud services and online content that continues unabated,” said Mark Sokol, senior director of Infrastructure, Google Cloud. “With record-breaking capacity and transmission speeds, Dunant will help users access content wherever they may be and supplement one of the busiest routes on the internet to support the growth of Google Cloud. Dunant is a remarkable achievement that would not have been possible without the dedication of both SubCom and Google’s employees, partners, and suppliers, who overcame multiple challenges this year to make this system a reality.”
With Dunant now being operational, the next Google cable to go live will be the Grace Hopper cable between New York and Europe, with landing sites in Bilbao, Spain and Bude, UK. Google first announced this new cable, which it is also building in partnership with SubCom, last July. It’s expected to go online in 2022 and will feature a total of 16 fiber pairs.
In addition, Google is also building the Equiano cable from South Africa to Portugal. This cable is supposed to go online later this year.
In addition to its privately owned cables, Google is also a partner in a number of consortiums that band together to build cable systems.
Google Play Music Shutdown Dates Set: Service to Be Replaced by YouTube Music by End of 2020
The last dance is looming for Google Play Music, the subscription service that will be fully subsumed into YouTube Music by December 2020, the internet company announced.
In streamlining its music offerings, Google is coming down the home stretch of a months-long migration of users from Google Play Music — which will start shutting down in September — to the YouTube Music app. In May, the company launched a migration tool (available at music.youtube.com/transfer) that lets Google Play Music customers transfer their music libraries to YouTube Music.
Starting in September 2020 in New Zealand and South Africa — and in October for all other global markets — users will no longer be able to stream from or use the Google Play Music app. However, according to Google, it will retain users’ playlists, uploads, purchases, likes and other data until December 2020 to give them time to transfer to YouTube Music. After the end of the year, Google Play Music libraries will no longer be available.
In addition, starting in late August, users will no longer be able to purchase or pre-order music (or upload and download music) from Google Play Music through Music Manager. Once the Music Store is no longer available, users will continue to be able to upload any tracks purchased elsewhere to YouTube Music.
Google’s strategy is to throw all its weight behind YouTube Music, as it continues to battle global rivals Spotify and Apple Music.
“Over the last few years, we’ve worked to build a fantastic fan experience on YouTube Music, merging the very best of Google Play Music with the very best of YouTube,” the company said in announcing the dates for the Google Play Music shutdown. “For users who decide not to transfer their Google Play Music account to YouTube music, we will be sure to cancel your subscription at the end of your billing cycle so you aren’t paying for a subscription.”
The ad-free YouTube Music Premium service is $9.99 per month in the U.S., and provides for offline and background playback. The $11.99-per-month YouTube Premium provides zero ads, offline and background playback for all videos on YouTube.
Google touted enhanced features it has added to YouTube Music “including many that are important and familiar to Google Play Music users,” in the hopes of keeping those users in the fold.
Some of the new YouTube Music features include: “assistive playlist creation,” which lets you add recommended songs based on existing songs in a playlist; collaborative playlists created with other users; and a redesigned player page for Android mobile with improved playback controls and easier access to related music and other features like song lyrics.
YouTube Music also has become available on Android TV, and the service is integrated with Google Assistant (so you can ask Google Home and Nest smart speakers to play recommended music) and with Google Maps on Android mobile apps to let you listen to music in the Google Maps app.
Rock Stars Are Making Fortunes Cashing In on Their Old Songs
Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, and other big-time musicians are selling their catalogs to aggressive new buyers.
Lucas Shaw, Thomas Seal
Bob Dylan was supposed to spend the summer of 2020 on tour, winding his way from the Les Schwab Amphitheater in Bend, Ore., to the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in upstate New York. Instead, stranded at home because of the pandemic, he lined up the biggest payday of his career.
For years, music executives had approached Dylan about buying his catalog, which includes more than 600 songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone. Dylan always turned them down, but in December the 79-year-old reconsidered and made more than $300 million in a pact with Universal Music Group Inc.
The sale was the largest in a spate of recent deals in which stars have cashed in on their old songs. Lindsey Buckingham, Shakira, Neil Young, and producer Jimmy Iovine sold all or part of the rights to their catalogs, while Stevie Nicks and songwriter Ryan Tedder (who’s written for Adele, Beyoncé, and Carrie Underwood, among others) sold majority stakes in theirs.
Music assets are bought and sold all the time, but there’s never been a period as active as the past few months. Industry executives cite the emergence of aggressive buyers, low interest rates, and Covid-19, which has prevented musicians from touring, their primary source of income. Before 2020, Dylan had toured every year for a decade, grossing more than $130 million. Although he put out five studio albums in that span, his earnings from new releases dwindled in the shift from CDs to streaming.
Another factor: the U.S. presidential election. Joe Biden has pledged to increase capital-gains taxes, so the stars wanted to reach agreements before that happens. “These artists are all in their early 70s, mid-70s, and at that age you should be thinking about estate planning,” says Josh Gruss, chief executive officer of Round Hill Music, a fund that owns rights to songs by artists including the Beatles.
Many investors had given up on the music business after the internet battered CD purchases, first with piracy and then iTunes. Record sales dropped more than 40% from 2000 to 2014. As streaming services reinvigorated the industry, investors tiptoed back in. In 2016, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. projected the sector—which comprises live music, radio, recorded music, and publishing—would double in size to $103.9 billion by 2030, with the publishing piece of it almost doubling, from $5.4 billion to $9.3 billion. “People have become increasingly comfortable with where music is headed globally,” says Justin Kalifowitz, CEO of Downtown Music Holdings, which represents the songwriters of the hit Shallow from A Star Is Born, among others. “You’re seeing a flood of capital coming into the marketplace to acquire a discrete pool of extremely well-known song copyrights.”
Songwriters make money in more ways than ever. In addition to radio, commercials, and TV, they collect royalties from streaming services, social media companies, video games, and fitness apps. Think TikTok, YouTube, Peloton, Spotify; the average hit earns income from more than 20,000 sources globally, says Kalifowitz.
This booming market has lured buyers that include private businesses, pension funds, and companies that do little more than buy and sell music rights. No one’s been a more aggressive buyer than Merck Mercuriadis, a former manager of Guns N’ Roses and Beyoncé. He’s spent about $1.75 billion scooping up copyrights to more than 60,800 songs in three years through his Hipgnosis Songs Fund Ltd. In addition to his deals with Buckingham, Shakira, Young, and Iovine, he now owns songs written by Blondie, Rick James, and Barry Manilow.
Mercuriadis finds himself up against other specialist funds such as Round Hill Music and Primary Wave Music, which has the deal with Nicks and just announced that it acquired historic Sun Records recordings by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others (not including Elvis Presley). Their spending has prompted more staid investors to take a look, too. Asset managers such as BlackRock and private equity firms KKR and Providence Equity Partners have invested in catalogs and are in the market for more.
Interest from Wall Street—as well as overseas billionaires—grew after a consortium led by Emirati sovereign wealth fund Mubadala sold its stake in EMI Music Publishing Ltd., which was valued at $4.8 billion in 2018, six years after buying it for $2.2 billion. Ukrainian-born billionaire Len Blavatnik fared even better: After acquiring Warner Music Group Corp. for $3.3 billion in 2011, he turned a profit of $7.5 billion when the company went public last year.
To some in the industry the exuberance forewarns of a bubble, with musicians exploiting a hot market and new buyers overpaying. Acquirers now pay 14 to 17 times their share of a song’s earnings, according to independent valuer Massarsky Consulting; Hipgnosis says it pays almost 16 times on average. Some recent deals have been closer to 25. “There’s been a new class of buyers coming into the market recently like pirates at hot and heavy multiples well in excess of norms,” says Matt Pincus, who sold his publishing company in 2017 for about $160 million and now invests in the industry.
Analysts at Stifel Financial Corp. downgraded Hipgnosis’s stock in January. In a note, the brokerage wrote that Hipgnosis has recorded higher valuations of catalogs soon after buying them, despite “not having had sufficient time to add value, or underlying market assumptions to have materially changed.” Mercuriadis dismisses Stifel’s arguments as “almost hysterical,” saying that the valuations are from independent companies and that he gets deals by tapping industry contacts and avoiding auctions; Massarsky calls Stifel’s criticisms “fundamentally unsound.” Mercuriadis previously led music group Sanctuary, which during his tenure hemorrhaged money after expanding, leading to a restructuring and sale. (He recently said its demise was caused by the broader faltering of the sector as it grappled with internet piracy.)
High prices may be here to stay. For one thing, new investors are used to them, and they’re comfortable generating steady returns over the long haul. After all, they say, the life of a hit song is forever, and any investment will eventually go into the black. “You’ll see the lower end of the market cool off,” says Primary Wave CEO Larry Mestel, distinguishing between sales of less reliably bankable recent songs and classics from legends such as Dylan. “The quality end of the market will be there for quite a while.”
BOTTOM LINE - There are so many ways for a song to make money now, so buyers are willing to pay more than ever for rights to catalogs from classic rock’s most famous names.
Denzel Washington & Rami Malek Thriller ‘The Little Things’ Counts $4.8M Debut, Best For Older Guy Fare During Pandemic B.O.
The continued closure of movie theaters during Covid-19, with only 45% of all 5.8K US and Canada movie theaters opened, yielded Warner Bros. Denzel Washington-Rami Malek thriller The Little Things this past weekend, which only opened to $4.8M at 2,171 theaters, the best for an R-rated movie and older guy fare during the pandemic. Worldwide, The Little Things made $7.6M, with money from 20 markets, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and United Artists Emirates.
However, even though there’s not a lot of people coming through movie theaters, including No. 1 chain AMC, that exhibitor capped off a wild week, seeing its market cap mushroom to $4.5 billion and its closing stock price up close to 300% week-over-week on Friday at $13.26. That’s after a square-off between short-selling investors and Reddit investor group buyers. The stock market was so great for AMC, its notable stakeholder Silver Lake cashed out on Friday, converting $600M in the exhibitor’s debt into equity, and then selling those shares for a handsome profit.
Little Things’ 3-day weekend reps a high point in a low-ceiling marketplace since August for older guy fare, besting Solstice Studios’ Unhinged ($4M opening), Focus Features’ Let Him Go ($4M), Open Road’s Liam Neeson movies Honest Thief and The Marksman (respectively $4.1M and $3.1M), and Universal’s News of the World ($2.25M). Warners notches its Little Things notable opening in sync with the pic’s simultaneous release on HBO Max. We’ll assess that whole experiment again in a bit as new intelligence was released this past week.
As far as the exhibition landscape goes, as newly elected US President Joe Biden seeks to get the whole nation inoculated by summer, Illinois and Chicago reopened theaters this past weekend. Boston is reopening with 25% capacity limits starting Monday. The city’s theaters haven’t had their lights on since well before mid-December. AMC Boston Common and South Dorchester will reopen on Feb. 5. Seattle will reopen some cinemas next weekend as well. According to sources, to date, close to 2K theaters have not provided a reopening date. In regards to the B.O. capital states, New York has just over 20% of all movie theaters open, while California has just above 5%.
We still have a long way to go, and with the studios delaying product, even though they’re selling a bulk upfront, I gotta think there remains a belief in the tried-and-true revenue generating theatrical window system — even if physical media is retiring, and streaming is booming. In regards to this whole controversial 2021 theatrical-simultaneous HBO Max release strategy, AT&T Boss John Stankey was on the defense during a Q4 call claiming –and it’s hard to argue this point with him– that “the data points have come in and are consistent with the assumptions,” meaning Warners was correct about how the marketplace was going to suck wind for a while, as more studios abandoned the first half of the year (that said, we await with bated breath for moviegoing to return).
There were other highlights coming away from the 31-day play of Wonder Woman 1984 on fledgling streaming service HBO Max and in theaters: Q4 HBO Max subscribers doubled to 17.4M, and Nielsen reported that viewing of the Patty Jenkins-directed, Gal Gadot DC movie was a monster over the year-end holiday during the Dec. 21-27 corridor, with 2.25 billion minutes of streaming, squashing Disney+’s Soul by 35%.
However, with all these horns blaring, it remains to be seen whether AT&T is making any money off this WarnerMedia experiment. It might be a good form of marketing for the streaming service in the short term, and a means to spike subs during the pandemic by tapping inventory that’s lying around. But where’s the money? Especially on a picture-by-picture basis?
WW1984 has only grossed $152M WW off a $200M production cost, not including P&A spend. The sequel ranked third in its 6th weekend with $1.3M and a running domestic take of $39.2M. I continue to beat the drum that WarnerMedia should have segued product on a picture-by-picture basis to HBO Max in response to the pandemic, versus this knee-jerk full slate move.
As such stats came out this week, AT&T Q4 expenses including roughly $780M “from the impairment of production and other content inventory at WarnerMedia,” with $520M “resulting from the continued shutdown of theaters during the pandemic and the hybrid distribution model for our 2021 film slate,” the telecom reported.
How did Little Things do on HBO Max? We don’t know specifically, number-wise, with Andy Forssell, EVP and General Manager of HBO Max boasting, “We are absolutely thrilled by how Warner Bros.’ The Little Things is performing on HBO Max — it immediately shot up to number one, where it currently remains. Following the breakthrough success of Wonder Woman 1984, The Little Things shows the insatiable appetite our audience has for high quality, feature films.”
On CinemaScore, audiences weren’t wowed by Little Things, giving it a B-, which is lower for Washington in his action thriller genre, compared to the A received by Washington’s Equalizer 2 and A- of Equalizer, B+ from 2 Guns, and A- from Safe House. Some will try to defend that CinemaScore isn’t working with the same sized audience as they are during a normal marketplace. But an audience score is an audience score, and Comscore/Screen Engine’s PostTrak shows a lower 67% positive and a 40% recommend. Those who bought tickets where theaters were open were 55% males, close to 80% over 25, with close to 60% over 35 years old. Caucasians repped 47% of ticket buyers, African Americans 29%, Hispanic 17%, and 7% Asian/other. Critics on Rotten Tomatoes weren’t amused with Little Things at 48% Rotten, but they weren’t amused with Washington’s Equalizer pics either, part 1 and 2 getting a low 59% and 51% Rotten.
In regard to Little Things’ marketing, RelishMix noticed that Warner Bros. “used a short runway, Covid-centric-tactic, given date and day/day release pivots, tapping the studio’s social channels with a SMU Social Media Universe of 53.8M SMU cross-promoted with HBO Max social channel with the emerging 1.8M SMU — and bypassed the tradition ramp-up of new dedicated pages for the film. The Warner Bros. Facebook with 34.3M connected fans, and although only one trailer, posting is robust over the last 3 weeks, with moderate engagement for Facebook views just over 500k. But the well-boosted materials on YouTube have just crossed 20M views for owned and earned posts and reposts, which is strong. Jared Leto’s super social channels (33.1M SMU) for he and his 30 Seconds To Mars band feeds are lifting the SMU Social Media Universe to 109.5M, which is good for the drama/thriller genre.”
Despite WarnerMedia’s newfound love affair with streaming, RelishMix points out, “On the WBPictures Instagram, they want to send a clear message of where you can see the film on the big screen.”
Top markets for Little Things were 1. Dallas-Ft. Worth, 2. Phoenix, 3. Houston, 4. Greater New York Metro area (NJ, CT, and Long Island/Upstate NY theaters), 5. Chicago, 6. Atlanta, 7. Denver, 8. Salt Lake City, 9. Tampa, 10. Orlando.
The pic’s 10 locations this past weekend were: 1. Harkins Estrella Falls Phoenix, 2. West Wind Sacramento Drive-In, 3. AMC Disney Springs Orlando, 4. Santikos Casa Blanca San Antonio, 5. iPic River Oaks District Houston, 6. Santikos Palladium San Antonio, 7. West Wind Solano Twin Drive-In (Concord, CA), 8. West Wind Capitol Drive-In (San Jose, CA), 9. Cinemark North Canton (Ohio), 10. AMC Thoroughbred Nashville.
Meanwhile, some clapping here for Universal, which continues to see its DreamWorks Animation Croods: A New Age continually stay afloat at the weekend box office, even though it’s on PVOD. It just shows that families in those parts of the nation where theaters are open prefer to head to the cinemas for a diversion. The feature is +2% in weekend 10 in the No. 2 spot with $1.84M, and a running domestic $43.9M, with foreign shooting past $100M for a $144.4M WW take. On the recent DEG year-end report, Universal estimated the 18 films it has put out on PVOD in the past 10 months have brought in more than $500 million in revenue in a $30 billion home entertainment 2020, +21% from 2019.
Comscore shows as of this AM, the weekend box office earning $13.1M, +52% from last weekend, but greatly off 84% from the same weekend in 2020. The first month of 2021 has only grossed $70.5M at the domestic box office, off 92% from the $906.6M that 2020 racked up pre-pandemic. Yikes.
The top 10 chart for Jan. 29-31:
Top 10 chart:
1.) The Little Things (WB) 2,171 theaters, 3-day: $4.8M/Wk 1
2.) Croods: A New Age (Uni) 1,901 theaters (+25), 3-day: $1.84M (+2%)/Total: $43.9M/Wk 10
3.) Wonder Woman 1984 (WB) 1,864 theaters (-149)/$1.3M (-17%)/Total: $39.2M/Wk 6
4.) The Marksman (Open) 2,018 theaters (even)/3-day: $1.25M (-38%)/Total: $7.8M/Wk 3
5.) Monster Hunter (Sony) 1,515 theaters (-146) 3-day: $740K (-10%)/Total $11.1M/Wk 7
6.) News of the World (Uni) 1,674 theaters (-200), 3-day: $540K (-31%)/Total: $10.3M/Wk 6
7.) Promising Young Woman (Focus) 1,056 theaters (-180), 3-day: $260K (-34%)/ Total: $4.3M/Wk 6
8.) Fatale (Lionsgate) 1,022 theaters (-110), 3-day: $220K (-45%)/Total: $5.59M/Wk 7
9.) The War With Grandpa (101) 525 theaters (+18), 3-day: $147K (-8%)/Total: $19.6M/Wk 17
10.) Our Friend (Gravitas) 818 theaters (+275)/3-day: $135K (-44%)/Total: $446k/Wk 2
Plex Media Servers are Being Abused for DDoS Attacks
Cyber-security firm Netscout warns of new DDoS attack vector.
DDoS-for-hire services have found a way to abuse Plex Media servers to bounce junk traffic and amplify distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, security firm Netscout said in an alert on Wednesday.
The company's alert warns owners of devices that ship with Plex Media Server, a web application for Windows, Mac, and Linux that's usually used for video or audio streaming and multimedia asset management.
The app can be installed on regular web servers or usually ships with network-attached storage (NAS) systems, digital media players, or other types of multimedia-streaming IoT devices.
Plex Media servers punch a hole in router NATs
Netscout says that when a server/device running a Plex Media Server app is booted and connected to a network, it will start a local scan for other compatible devices via the Simple Service Discovery Protocol (SSDP).
The problem comes when a Plex Media Server discovers a local router that has SSDP support enabled. When this happens, the Plex Media Server will add a NAT forwarding rule to the router, exposing its Plex Media SSDP (PMSSDP) service directly on the internet on UDP port 32414.
Since the SSDP protocol has been known for years to be a perfect vector to amplify the size of a DDoS attack, this makes Plex Media servers a juicy and untapped source of DDoS bots for DDoS-for-hire operations.
Netscout says that attackers only have to scan the internet for devices with this port enabled, and then abuse them to amplify web traffic they send to a DDoS attack victim.
According to Netscout, the amplification factor is around 4.68, with a Plex Media server amplifying incoming PMSSDP packets from 52 bytes to around 281 bytes, before sending the packet to the victim.
27K+ Plex Media servers are exposed on the internet
The security firm said it scanned the internet and found 27,000 Plex Media servers left exposed online that could be abused for DDoS attacks.
Furthermore, some servers have already been abused. Netscout said that not only did it saw DDoS attacks using Plex Media servers, but that this vector is now becoming common.
"As is routinely the case with newer DDoS attack vectors, it appears that after an initial period of employment by advanced attackers with access to bespoke DDoS attack infrastructure, PMSSDP has been weaponized and added to the arsenals of so-called booter/stresser DDoS-for-hire services, placing it within the reach of the general attacker population," the company said.
According to Netscout, past PMSSDP attacks have reached around 2-3 Gbps, but the servers could be combined with other vectors for much larger attacks.
This is Netscout's second warning about a new DDoS attack vector being discovered abused in the wild this year. In January, the company warned that Windows Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) servers were also being abused for DDoS attacks.
A Plex spokesperson told ZDNet today that the company is currently working on a patch that "adds an extra layer of protection for those servers that may have been accidentally exposed," which the company plans to release soon.
The Real Shock of the GameStop Mania was that it Didn't Happen Sooner
This week, the investing world looked on with a mix of admiration and horror as members of a Reddit forum devoted to stock trading collectively sent shares of a seemingly moribund company through the roof.
The struggling video game retailer GameStop soared as Reddit users egged each other on to buy, cleverly taking advantage of rules in a game that otherwise would have made a number of hedge funds very rich. Then the stock plummeted as online brokerages took the extreme step of cracking down on trading to stem volatility, prompting an outcry, a lawsuit and calls for congressional hearings.
Throughout it all, befuddled financial analysts on cable TV struggled to explain how an amorphous group of social media users could upend the markets as part of a massive in-joke from which the rest of Wall Street was very much excluded.
"We've seen how social media can be manipulated to expose fault lines in our democracy," said Arthur Levitt, Jr., the former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, in an op-ed. "Are we certain the same isn't happening in our financial markets? Time to find out."
The implication that social media has destabilized the markets, and that perhaps this even represents some emergency, speaks to the sense that this may be a turning point for the financial industry. But it should hardly come as a surprise. The whole spectacle reflects precisely the same dynamics that have rattled politics, media and other sectors for years.
What makes the GameStop story so compelling is not just the unlikely bounce-back of a company that has arguably more in common with Blockbuster or Radio Shack than, say, Amazon or Facebook. The underlying story is that a group of seemingly ordinary retail investors harnessed the power of the internet to humiliate hedge fund investors who had bet deliberately and enormously against GameStop.
Driven by the Reddit forum r/wallstreetbets — whose tagline is "like 4chan found a Bloomberg terminal illness" — the massive run-up in GameStop's stock spelled disaster for the professional investors who thought that they could make lots of money if GameStop shares continued to sink. When the opposite happened, they were forced to pull out at a massive loss.
This is not the first time we've witnessed a so-called "short squeeze." It may be, however, the first short squeeze orchestrated by a bunch of loosely affiliated social media users acting on a meme.
The whole situation carries a whiff of revolution. And the euphoria is palpable on Reddit."To the next galaxy, comrades," read one post title on r/wallstreetbets, or WSB, followed by no fewer than eight rocket emoji to symbolize $GME's meteoric rise. New members flooded into r/wallstreetbets's Discord server, where hundreds of people were seen talking at once in the same voice channel. Elon Musk even joined the celebratory chorus and sent the stock rocketing further.
At its core, what's happening on Reddit is a feature of the internet, not a bug. For decades, early internet pioneers have spread a certain gospel: The ability to communicate with many people all over the globe, instantly, levels playing fields. It flattens hierarchies. It decentralizes and democratizes. It builds communities, and returns power to the people.
That overarching narrative has played out in many positive ways, often with real-world impacts. From the rise of Wikipedia, a tremendous free repository of human knowledge; to the ALS Association's famous Ice Bucket Challenge, a social media sensation that nearly tripled the group's annual research funding for the disease; to the viral images coming out of pro-democracy protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Hong Kong and other places; the internet has been widely hailed as a transformative technology that's given millions a voice, empowered small businesses and spread the value of free speech.
This is the tale of the internet that social media companies desperately want you believe still exists. And in some ways, perhaps, it does.
More recently, though, society has increasingly learned that groups of people can also use this same capability as a force for bad. Conspiracy theorists can abuse social media to spread misinformation that threatens to destabilize democracies, or stymie the response to a pandemic. Violent extremists can use the internet to organize deadly, illegal riots. Hacker groups can use ransomware to hold entire school districts, hospital networks and government agencies hostage, causing millions of dollars in real-world harm.
The underlying theme here is not just the ability for individuals to organize on online platforms; it's their ability to translate that activity into offline results. But even that description risks obscuring the deeper reality: For those who inhabit the internet natively, there is no distinction between online and off. The internet is, and always has been, real life for them.
In many ways, Reddit, which has long billed itself as "the front page of the internet," is its own microcosm reflecting this dynamic. It's a sprawling, self-governed ecosystem where cute animal videos, data science visualizations and user interviews with famous people can co-exist, at least for a time, with edgy, nihilistic hate speech communities and celebrity nudes. To browse Reddit is to survey the vast range of human experience. It's no wonder, then, that a community of several million who jokingly describe themselves as "degenerates" might one day wake up and decide to jointly ruin a hedge funder's day — if for no other reason than they think that it's funny and satisfying to watch the downfall of those who literally bank on other people's failure. Even better when it makes you a millionaire at the same time.
It's too soon to tell whether the saga unfolding with GameStop will go down in history as an example of the internet being used for good, or for ill. But it is very evidently another example of social media's power to unsettle established institutions.
Underlying some of the blowback — particularly among Wall Street types — seems to be a hint of fear. The scheme this time lifted GameStop, but what began as an internet in-joke might be weaponized next time to lift or tank other companies that may be more consequential to the economy. The group has already taken runs at other stocks that hedge funds and others have bet against. If a gang of random internet users can cause millions in losses for institutional investors in a single day, what can't they do?
Defenders of WSB — many of whom used the appropriately named app Robinhood to place their trades — retorted that the stunt has simply exposed the structural bias in financial markets that benefits powerful Wall Street tycoons at the expense of Main Street investors.
"oh no the wrong people are manipulating the stock market," read one viral, sarcastic tweet. Another WSB poster put it more bluntly. "THIS IS A CLASS WAR," wrote user emogalxp. "Stick together and we can make big stocks one by one while f***ing with rich peoples hedges. There are more of us than there are rich people. Invest and hold together. [19 rocket emojis]"
The reality, of course, is that internet users have always had this power. But it's only recently that it's been trained on finance. The fact that powerful people are just now coming to the realization simply reflects how little they've been paying attention.
"I think it's a real example of what we're already seeing with the way media has been upended," said Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in an Instagram video this week. "All of these big institutions have been challenged, quietly and sometimes loudly, at moments, for the last 10 years with the rise of social media."
What's crazy isn't how people keep using the internet to shake things up; what's crazy is why we keep acting surprised when the internet does what it was built to do.
Oregon Supreme Court: State Can Compel Cell Phone Unlocking
Criminal defendants can be forced to unlock their encrypted cell phones using a search warrant, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled
Authorities can legally order criminal defendants to swipe the pattern or punch in the passcode needed to unlock their cell phone, the Oregon Supreme Court has ruled.
In an unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Martha L. Walters, Oregon’s top court found that police may only order a phone unlocked after receiving a search warrant and proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they already know what will be found inside the digital trove.
Portland-area DAs split on lawmakers’ Measure 11 reform
“When the state has obtained a warrant that permits it to search a cell phone, the state will have been required to describe, with reasonable particularity, the evidence that it believes is on the phone and its relevance to the state’s investigation,” according to the 37-page opinion published Jan. 28.
The ruling in question centers on the case of Catrice Cherelle Pittman, a 32-year-old Portland woman who was arrested in Marion County after she crashed her car, injuring several passengers, while allegedly intoxicated on June 4, 2016. Hospital staff allegedly found a large amount of cash, methamphetamine and small plastic baggies on her person, leading Salem police officers to seek access to her Apple iPhone in order to prove drug dealing charges against her.
The trial court ordered Pittman to unlock the phone, but she twice entered the wrong passcode — 123456 — and subsequently was sentenced to 30 days in jail for contempt of court.
Lawyers for Pittman argued the order violated the Oregon Constitution and the Fifth Amendment, which protects people from being forced to incriminate themselves. The argument was buoyed by a number of prominent supporters, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“Encryption may impose obstacles to law enforcement in particular cases. So do window shades. It is sometimes true that constitutional protections interfere with law enforcement investigations,” the organizations wrote in a friend of the court brief. “Constitutional protections must be maintained, if not strengthened, in the digital age.”
But the Supreme Court noted in its ruling that certain incriminating actions, such as revealing a distinctive tattoo or trying on a piece of clothing, already can be ordered by a judge. Justice Walters determined that in all future cases the act of unlocking cannot be used against the defendant, though the contents of the phone can.
Also at play was the legal principle known as a “foregone conclusion” — in essence, whether the cops already had proven they knew the cellphone was Pittman’s because it had been found in her purse. She had never admitted as such at the time of the trial.
The Oregon Supreme Court determined that, in Pittman’s case, the lower court had not done the necessary fact finding to prove that Pittman owned the phone; consequently, the high court has reversed the holding of contempt.
The drug charges were dropped from Pittman’s case during the trial, but she was convicted of second- and third-degree assault. She remains behind bars at Coffee Creek prison at this time.
Internet Blackouts Skyrocket Amid Global Political Unrest
Dave Lawler, Sara Fischer
Where there’s a coup, there will probably be an internet outage.
Why it matters: Internet disruptions in Myanmar early Monday morning coincided with reports that top politicians, including the country’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, were being rounded up by the military. That’s no surprise: internet blackouts are now common around the world when power hangs in the balance.
The big picture: At least 35 countries have restricted access to the internet or social media platforms at least once since 2019, according to Netblocks, a group which tracks internet freedom. Authorities have used the outages to reduce or prevent unrest — or to hide it from public view.
• Blockages are particularly common around elections in Africa, most recently in Uganda.
• Netblocks also reported disruptions in Russian cities during recent protests over the detention of Alexey Navalny. Neighboring Belarus also disrupted the internet during recent protests, as have countries from Algeria to Zimbabwe.
Driving the news: Myanmar’s military followed the tried and true rule of coup plotters everywhere by ensuring they were in control of state TV before making their move on Monday. But they also appeared to follow the more modern playbook.
• Internet disruptions began at around 3am local time, according to Netblocks, and connectivity had by 8am dropped by 50% before being “partially restored” by the afternoon.
• Flashback: In 2019, Myanmar imposed what Human Rights Watch has described as “the world’s longest internet shutdown” in the conflict-ridden Rakhine and Chin states.
Between the lines: The internet was created to democratize information, but it's now one of the most powerful weapons autocrats use to silence dissenters and maintain power.
• Iran and Venezuela are particularly quick to restrict access, according to Netblocks’ data.
• Ethiopia has repeatedly done so so during mass protests, and the government blocked internet and telecom access in the Tigray region ahead of a military offensive there last November — severely impacting the availability of reliable information about the conflict.
• India has disrupted the internet both in response to protests and as a pre-emptive tactic. The government shut off the internet in August 2019 as it anticipated unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir once highly sensitive constitutional changes were announced. It has still not been fully restored.
Between the lines: Authorities often cite a desire to stop the spread of disinformation when implementing internet shutdowns, as in Sri Lanka in 2019 following deadly bombings.
• Turkey temporarily blocked access to several social media platforms last February amid reports that dozens of Turkish troops had been killed in an airstrike in Syria.
• Then there are countries like China where the internet is highly censored to begin with.
Yes, but: As with so-called “fake news” laws, such restrictions are often motivated by a desire to control the narrative and prevent inconvenient information from proliferating.
The bottom line: Internet censorship by government or military forces is one of the clearest signals that democracy is being tested.
Are Private Messaging Apps the Next Misinformation Hot Spot?
Telegram and Signal, the encrypted services that keep conversations confidential, are increasingly popular. Our tech columnists discuss whether this could get ugly.
Brian X. Chen and Kevin Roose
Encrypted messaging apps, which protect the privacy of online conversations, were once special tools used primarily by people working in professions where confidentiality was prized, like law, journalism and politics.
Now everyone is jumping on board. In the last month, tens of millions of people have downloaded the private messaging programs Telegram and Signal, making the two services the hottest apps in the world. Some new users include far-right groups that were barred from posting on Facebook and Twitter after the storming of the U.S. Capitol.
The shift to private messaging has renewed a debate over whether encryption is a double-edged sword. While the technology prevents people from being spied on, it might also make it easier for criminals and misinformation spreaders to do harm without getting caught.
So we decided to walk through the differences between public social networks and private messaging apps to discuss their pros and cons.
BRIAN Hello, Kevin! You’ve been down the, ahem, misinformation rabbit hole for quite some time. There’s been a lot of chitchat among journalists and scholars about the mass migration from public social networks like Facebook and Twitter toward private messaging services. In general, there’s concern that misinformation could become even more difficult to fight in private channels.
So come up to the surface for a moment. Can you explain what’s going on?
KEVIN I can try! So in the world of extremists and conspiracy theorists that I follow, there’s been a kind of frantic mass migration from big platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as those platforms crack down on misinformation and hate speech. A lot of the biggest figures in that world — including groups like the Proud Boys and QAnon conspiracy theorists — have moved onto more private platforms, where there’s less danger of getting deplatformed.
So there’s now this debate about whether it’s good that all these unsavory characters from the dregs of the internet are disappearing from big social platforms, or whether it’s dangerous to have them congregating in spaces where researchers, journalists and law enforcement can’t keep tabs on them as easily.
BRIAN Perfect. So the migration is heading toward Signal and Telegram. The apps offer “end to end encryption,” which is a jargony way to describe messages that get scrambled to become indecipherable to anyone except for the sender and the recipient.
The obvious benefit is that people are ensured privacy. The possible downside is that it’s tougher for the companies and law enforcement to hold misinformation spreaders and criminals accountable because their messages won’t be accessible.
So what’s your take? Are you concerned?
KEVIN Honestly, not really?
It’s obviously not great for public safety that neo-Nazis, far-right militias and other dangerous groups are finding ways to communicate and organize, and that those ways increasingly involve end-to-end encryption. We’ve seen this happen for years, going all the way back to ISIS, and it definitely makes things harder for law enforcement agencies and counterterrorism officials.
At the same time, there’s a real benefit to getting these extremists off mainstream platforms, where they can find new sympathizers and take advantage of the broadcast mechanics of those platforms to spread their messages to millions of potential extremists.
The way I’ve been thinking about this is in a kind of epidemiological model. If someone is sick and at risk of infecting others, you ideally want to get them out of the general population and into quarantine, even if it means putting them somewhere like a hospital, where there are a lot of other sick people.
It’s a pretty bad metaphor, but you see what I mean. We know that when they’re on big, mainstream platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, extremists don’t just talk among themselves. They recruit. They join totally unrelated groups and try to seed conspiracy theories there. In some ways, I’d rather have 1,000 hardened neo-Nazis doing bad stuff together on an encrypted chat app than have them infiltrating 1,000 different local Dogspotting groups or whatever.
BRIAN I see where you’re going with this!
When you open Facebook or Twitter, the first thing you see is your timeline, a general feed that includes posts by your friends. But you could also see posts from strangers if your friends reshared them or Liked them.
When you open Signal or Telegram, you see a list of the conversations you are having with individuals or groups of people. To get a message from someone you don’t know, that person would need to know your phone number to reach out to you.
So to complete our analogy, Facebook and Twitter are essentially billions of people packed into an enormous auditorium. Encrypted messaging apps like Signal and Telegram are like big buildings with millions of people, but each person is living inside a private room. People have to knock on one another’s doors to send messages, so spreading misinformation would take more effort. In contrast, on Facebook and Twitter, a piece of misinformation can go viral in seconds because the people in this auditorium can all hear what everyone else is shouting.
KEVIN Right. Facebook and Twitter are the big, germ-filled auditoriums, and Signal and Telegram are the college dorms. You can definitely get your roommate sick, but spreading it to your entire floor is going to require some effort.
BRIAN I confess that I am worried about Telegram. Other than private messaging, people love to use Telegram for group chats — up to 200,000 people can meet inside a Telegram chat room. That seems problematic.
KEVIN I do think the crackdowns of the big platforms will make it harder for these groups to congregate out in the open. But I share your worry about the encrypted apps becoming, essentially, huge shadow social networks. These apps are designed for one-to-one messaging, but the addition of features like forwarding, combined with the big caps on maximum chat sizes, makes them vulnerable to the same kinds of one-to-many contagion effects as the big broadcast platforms.
It’s interesting to note that WhatsApp has restricted message forwarding for exactly this reason. People were using it to spread misinformation to thousands of people at a time, and it was creating a ton of havoc in places like India. I’m not sure why Telegram hasn’t done something similar, but it seems like something they’ll have to address, along with maybe rethinking their current room size limits.
Are you worried about Signal at all?
BRIAN I’m not as worried about Signal. Similar to WhatsApp, Signal set a limit so that you can forward messages to only five people at a time. So it would be time-consuming for misinformation spreaders to make a message go viral. Also, Signal limits group chats to up to 1,000 people. That’s large, but not as huge as a Telegram group chat.
I reached out to Signal and Telegram, by the way.
Moxie Marlinspike, Signal’s founder, said there was minimal risk for misinformation to become a big problem on the app because inside it, people are not exposed to algorithms like Facebook’s that surface other people’s posts and stoke the spread of misinformation.
Telegram did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The company’s website doesn’t contain language about limits on message forwarding. This makes me nervous.
While I am concerned about Telegram in general, it’s important to note that group chats there are not end-to-end encrypted. Neither are forwarded messages. So if Telegram or law enforcement authorities wanted to investigate the contents of a big group chat, they could do so, in theory. If Telegram does become the next misinformation hot spot, we won’t be helpless. I may be murdering our analogy, but there will be methods for contact tracing!
KEVIN Right. And the rest of us non-extremists can rest a little easier knowing that our feeds won’t be overrun by Proud Boys and neo-Nazis, because at least Facebook and Twitter and YouTube are doing a little more filtering of the bad stuff? Maybe not a perfectly fitted N95 mask, but at least a neck gaiter.
OK, now I am officially retiring this metaphor.
BRIAN I want to end on a note of optimism, which is rare for me. Private messaging apps are a net positive. Every app and object that connects to the internet has the potential to spy on us, so we desperately need tools that keep our online conversations private. We aren’t going to let the bad guys ruin this for us.
Australia’s PM Suggests Bing Adequate If Google Blocks Searches Down Under
It used to be a joke, but it’s not so funny anymore. Google is threatening to block searches in Australia if the country implements a compulsory profit-sharing deal that would force tech giants like Google and Facebook to pay media companies for their content. But Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, isn’t sweating it.
Morrison suggested Monday at the National Press Club of Australia that Australians can just use Microsoft’s search engine Bing if Google really wants to leave the country.
“Are you confident that alternate search engines are going to be able to fill a massive void left by Google and Australians won’t be left worse off?” asked Rosie Lewis, a reporter for the Australian newspaper.
“I can tell you Microsoft’s pretty confident,” Morrison responded with a self-assured chuckle.
“When I spoke to Satya the other day, there was a bit of that,” Morrison said while rubbing his hands together and referring to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
After the polite chuckles had died down, Morrison returned to talking points he’d made before, insisting that Australians make Australian law and that the government will not respond kindly to any threats from Google.
“Look, these are big technology companies. And what’s important for Australia is that we set the rules that are important for our people,” Morrison said. “And having a news environment in this country that is one that’s sustainable and is supported commercially, then this is vital to how democracies function.”
The proposed profit-sharing program has been dubbed the Media Bargaining Code and Google users in Australia are currently being inundated with ads about how the proposed program would harm the internet every time they visit Google.
Morrison noted at today’s event that when he met with the leaders of other nations at G20 meetings over the years he often talked not just about how to keep international corporations accountable through tax, but about how to get everyone on the same page when it came to antitrust and competition policy issues.
“I would like to see more alignment between the world’s economies on these sorts of things,” Morrison said, perhaps nodding to the fact that there’s been little traction in the U.S. to break up any of the big tech companies that are sitting on home turf.
But then Morrison hinted at implications of the Media Bargaining Code that haven’t taken centre stage. One potential consequence, as Morrison suggested, was that online speech might be regulated in new ways to ensure a more civil discussion.
“We just want the rules in the digital world to be the same that exist in the real world… in the physical world,” said Morrison. “And that means you can’t go around abusing people and carrying on like people do. You wouldn’t behave like that in a room like this. Or I don’t think you would.”
Needless to say, this element hadn’t really been discussed in mainstream Australian media as a potential consequence of the Code being enforced. But it makes sense that Morrison might be sensitive about the things that are said online. Morrison has become a meme more than once, and if people online were talking about the time you allegedly shit your pants at McDonald’s, you’d probably want a crackdown on trolls as well.
U.S. Senators Propose Limiting Liability Shield for Social Media Platforms
Nandita Bose, Chris Sanders
Three Democratic U.S. senators introduced a bill that would limit Section 230, a law that shields online companies from liability over content posted by users, and make the companies more accountable when posts result in harm.
Called the SAFE TECH Act, the legislation would mark the latest effort to make U.S. social media companies like Alphabet Inc’s Google, Twitter Inc and Facebook Inc more accountable for “enabling cyber-stalking, targeted harassment, and discrimination on their platforms,” Senators Mark Warner, Mazie Hirono and Amy Klobuchar said in a statement.
In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, many lawmakers have been studying ways to hold Big Tech more accountable for the role they played in the spread of disinformation before the riot and about policing content on their platforms.
Several Republican lawmakers have also been separately pushing to scrap the law entirely over decisions by tech platforms to moderate content. Republican former President Donald Trump repeatedly pushed for the legal protection to be stripped away over what he alleged was censorship against conservatives.
The calls for changing the law grew louder after platforms such as Twitter and Facebook started labeling Trump’s posts about the elections and then after the Capitol attack blocked Trump’s account, citing a risk of further incitement of violence.
The chief executives of Google, Twitter and Facebook have previously said the law is crucial to free expression on the internet. They said Section 230 gives them the tools to strike a balance between preserving free speech and moderating content, even as they appeared open to suggestions the law needs moderate changes.
The bill from the three Democrats would make it clear that Section 230 - which was enacted in 1996 as part of a law called the Communications Decency Act - does not apply to ads or other paid content, does not impair the enforcement of civil rights laws, and does not bar wrongful-death actions.
“We need to be asking more from big tech companies, not less,” Senator Klobuchar said.
“Holding these platforms accountable for ads and content that can lead to real-world harm is critical, and this legislation will do just that,” she said.
There are several other pieces of legislation aimed at changing the law doing the rounds, including one from Republican Senators Roger Wicker and Lindsey Graham. There is another one from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and a bipartisan bill from Democrat Brian Schatz and Republican John Thune.
Reporting by Nandita Bose and Chris Sanders; editing by Jonathan Oatis
Now It's The Democrats Turn To Destroy The Open Internet: Mark Warner's 230 Reform Bill Is A Dumpster Fire Of Cluelessness
For the past few months we've been seeing a ton of terrible/ridiculous/awful/unconstitutional bills coming from mostly Republicans to try to wipe out or undermine Section 230. Most of those were focused on trying to force websites to do less content moderation. Now that the Democrats are back in power, it appears we're going to be getting the opposite. Senator Mark Warner has introduced his new Section 230 reform bill, called the SAFE TECH Act ("Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism, and Consumer Harms Act" co-sponsored by Senators Mazie Hirono and Amy Klobuchar), and it is one of the worst Section 230 bills I've seen. It is difficult to explain just how bad this bill is concisely, because it has so many bad ideas crammed into one single bill. It's as if none of these three Senators or their staff spoke to anyone who actually understands how the internet works, or how content moderation/trust and safety works. It's stunning in the ignorance it displays.
About the only good thing I'll say about it, is that (unlike most bills) at least Warner released a redline version to show how it would actually (massively) change Section 230. He also put out an incredibly disingenuous FAQ that flat out lies about... nearly everything. We'll go through that in a bit.
Basically, this bill takes nearly every single idea that people who want there to be less speech online have had, and dumped it all into one bill. There's a lot in there, and nearly all of it is bad. Last week I wrote about a draft bill in the House that suggested carving out civil rights law from Section 230. In my analysis of that bill, I noted that it appeared to come from a well meaning place, but was simply misguided. This bill, which also includes a carveout for civil rights law, does not come from a well meaning place. The drafters of the bill are either malicious or ignorant. It's not a good look for Senators Warner, Hirono, and Klobuchar.
A key thing to recognize is that it's obvious that the drafters of this bill believe the myth that 230 protects "big" tech companies. The bill is written as if it is only talking about Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Warner handwaves away the idea that the bill would destroy smaller companies in his announcement by ridiculously (and against all evidence to the contrary) saying that startups are too small to sue, so it would only be used against larger companies.
The most devious and nefarious part of this is that the bill effectively wipes out Section 230 protections for the entire internet while pretending it's just a minor change. This bill is about as close to a full repeal of Section 230 as you can get realistically. In the press release about the bill, Warner claims that it's just a tweak to 230 because "these changes to Section 230 do not guarantee that platforms will be held liable in all, or even most, cases," but that would also be true with repeal. Because most things that people want to blame on internet websites are not actually violations of the law. And, assuming a form of distributor liability is what the courts decide on, that would mean websites wouldn't be liable for most things on their site anyway -- but would result in long and costly legal battles before they could prove that.
And this bill guarantees the same exact thing. The biggest, most consequential change, is that it takes the famous "26 words," which are Section (c)(1) of the current law, removes the protections entirely if money exchanges hands, and then changes it from an immunity to merely "an affirmative defense." That may not seem like much, but it basically wipes out all of the actual benefits of 230.
Saying that you don't get (c)(1) if money exchanges hands, basically wipes out Section 230 for many, many services. All web hosting would no longer be protected by Section 230. If, as many people have been demanding, social media offers up paid options (say, to remove ads), doing so would remove their 230 protections. Incredibly, this bill is coming from the same people who have been saying that Facebook and Twitter should offer a "paid version" without ads or tracking -- but, under this bill, if they do that, they'd lose 230! Incredibly, under this bill, the two cases that inspired Section 230 -- the CompuServe case and the Prodigy case -- would not be eligible for 230 protections, because both were paid services!
The switch from (c)(1) being an immunity to being "an affirmative defense" in which the website "has a burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence" basically erases the key procedural benefits of Section 230 -- which is that it gets cases tossed right up front. This gets somewhat deep in the weeds of civil procedure, but having (c)(1) as an immunity allows companies to file a relatively straightforward motion to dismiss upfront, without having to do a lot of expensive legal work, and argue that, because of 230, there is no legitimate claim in the complaint, even if everything in that complaint is accurate. This is the key benefit of 230 in protecting websites.
But by making it an affirmative defense, which the website has to prove by a preponderance of evidence, you've just made everything a lot more expensive and it will take a lot longer to deal with. Not only are you going to have to pay a lot of expensive lawyers a lot more money to make a preponderance of the evidence claim, many courts find that such determinations are issues of fact, not law, meaning that they need to go to a jury. If a case goes to trial and has a jury, you're talking about it costing at least a million dollars for any company, and probably a lot more.
This wipes out the entire benefit of Section 230 by itself. Most companies, of course, will then try to avoid just having to face this by quickly taking down anything even remotely questionable or anything that people complain about. And they'll still get sued. This bill would absolutely destroy most of the open web.
The second massive change, is that it would exclude Section 230 entirely from "injunctive relief" claims for failing to remove "harmful" content. In other words, this would allow a bevy of lawsuits from people who just want something taken offline (and aren't asking for monetary damages), that they will claim creates "harm" to them, and the websites can no longer respond with 230. While supporters of this bill might argue that filing such a lawsuit alone would be expensive, so this wouldn't be abused, that ignores how frequently we've seen especially the rich and powerful try to use any legal means possible to remove content they dislike from the internet. This clause is like a free shot for the rich and powerful to silence criticism. It's like a pro-SLAPP clause!
The bill then adds a bunch of other carveouts from 230: civil rights law, antitrust, harassment, stalking, human rights law and wrongful death. As we already discussed, while it may sound good to say this can't be used to block civil rights cases, in actual practice a bunch of recent "civil rights" cases have involved white supremacists, out-and-out misogynists, and other terrible people claiming that their civil rights were violated by being kicked off of platforms. Enabling such lawsuits seems incredibly short sighted.
This bill is dangerous.
And what's truly obnoxious about it is that in the FAQ about it, Mark Warner pretends otherwise.
Q: Won’t removing Section 230 immunity bring back the perverse incentive structure Section 230 was meant to address and actually lead to less content moderation?
A: No. Section 230 effectively cut off the development of case law for the past 25 years based on the flawed reasoning of a single state court judge. By peeling back Section 230 immunity for particularly serious harms—such as civil rights violations, stalking, and harassment—internet platforms will be incentivized to ramp up their address problems in these areas, problems that have otherwise been allowed to fester and grow without exposure to potential liability. These reforms do not render ICS providers liable for all – or even most – third-party content, including where they engage in moderation activity. Nor do these reforms alter the already-steep hill plaintiffs must already climb. Rather, these reforms allow victims an opportunity to seek redress where they can potentially show that a platform has directly contributed to their injury.
This is magic wand thinking. Oh, if we just make websites potentially liable for what people do on them, won't the websites magically fix these societal level problems? No, that's not what happens. Instead, smaller websites decide it's not worth the hassle at all and stop accepting 3rd party content, and larger companies just get more aggressive in policing all sorts of protected speech. Would a "#MeToo" situation ever be allowed to happen if this law was in place? No fucking way. Harvey Weinstein and all sorts of powerful rich men would sue the shit out of Facebook and Twitter to stop that.
The final sentence above is the most pernicious of all. Section 230 already does not apply if the platform contributed to the injury. It already doesn't apply if the platform helped to create the injurious content. What this bill does is not allow for that which is already allowed. It completely wipes most 230 protections off the map.
Q: Will making internet platforms liable for third-party content lead internet platforms to overreach in their content moderation efforts thereby chilling speech from the very groups you’re looking to protect?
A: No. The SAFE TECH Act was developed in partnership with, and has the strong support of, a wide array of civil rights groups. We need to recognize that threats, harassment, and targeted intimidation silence the voices of far too many racial minorities, women, and other marginalized groups by driving them from social media and other online platforms. Under the status quo, platforms have been able to ignore these harms – even where their continued inaction, and even their product design, contributes to these injustices. As these online harms spread to the real world—in places like Charlottesville, Kenosha, and at the U.S. Capitol—their negative impact has only become more unmistakable. The SAFE TECH Act simply allows victims an opportunity to hold platforms accountable when their deliberate inaction or product design decisions produce real-world harm, making the online world a more open and welcoming environment for all to participate.
What?!? Note that they don't say that the bill was developed with actual content moderation experts. To say that this wouldn't be used to stifle and chill speech from vulnerable groups and people is ludicrous. Of course it will. Everything about the bill is designed in a way that opens it up to abuse by the rich, powerful and privileged. Everything about the bill allows them to file costly lawsuits (or threaten to do so) and pressure websites to pull down all sorts of criticism.
That Warner and his co-sponsors deny this suggests that they have absolutely no understanding about how any of this works.
Q: Will exposing small tech companies and startups to liability and increased litigation costs drive them out of business and simply entrench the dominant player (e.g., Google, Facebook)?
A: This concern is gravely exaggerated. As an initial matter, smaller players do not have the reach of the Googles and Facebooks of the world and, as a result, are less likely to cause significant harm. Moreover, potential plaintiffs are unlikely to bring an action against a small tech company or startups out of fear being able to collect sufficient damages to make the effort and cost of litigation worthwhile. Indeed, in many cases plaintiffs’ attorneys would not even take these cases given the low likelihood of meaningful damages. In addition, a string of judicial decisions on standing requirements over the last 10 years, along with a range of tort reforms enacted by state legislatures (including anti-SLAPP laws to penalize frivolous or bad faith lawsuits), have significantly altered the legal landscape since Section 230 was enacted in 1996.
More importantly, things like protecting civil rights and preventing harassment should be built into internet platforms by design. Today’s online giants claim that their massive scale makes it too difficult to effectively moderate content – a social cost borne by users and vulnerable communities. Had these companies been exposed to potential liability from their inception, in many cases they would have designed their platforms
This is... again... completely disconnected from reality. There are so many stories of smaller platforms being sued for 3rd party speech. Hell, I was sued for third party speech and protected by 230. Under this bill, that case would have been a lot more expensive and almost certainly would have bankrupted us. Many of these lawsuits are not about "collecting sufficient damages" but about forcing the small tech company or startup to have to waste all their money on the lawsuit. How disconnected from reality are these Senators?
And, sure, it might not be as bad if there were strong anti-SLAPP laws in every state and a strong federal anti-SLAPP law, but we don't have that. In fact, many courts won't even apply state anti-SLAPP laws in federal court. At best, I'd say maybe 20% of cases that should be protected by anti-SLAPP laws have access to them. So to say "oh, no big deal, anti-SLAPP will cover it" is again nonsense.
That final paragraph is also completely disconnected from reality. This country has spent decades trying to solve for systemic racism and civil rights violations, and we're still failing. The government has failed in so many ways on this, and now Warner's saying "oh, tech companies can magically solve this if only they could be sued." This is fantasy land thinking.
Q: What is the scope of the carve-out for paid content? Does it cover anything beyond paid advertisements?
A: The SAFE TECH Act makes clear that Section 230 immunity does not apply to any paid content. This would include advertisements as well as things like marketplace listings.
Uh, no. From the language of the bill itself, it says:
"... except to the extent the provider or user has accepted payment to make the speech available..."
That certainly looks like it applies to all paid content. And, even worse, to things like web hosting. Or if Facebook or Twitter ever offered accounts where you pay to remove ads. Or, hell, to us on Techdirt, where some of our community have paid to support us, and we provide them extra features. Based on this, if any of our financial supporters (a key source of revenue for us) says anything that we get sued over, we can no longer claim 230 protections against it. That's ludicrous. Not only would we have to shut down our comments, we'd likely be unable to let people support us directly any more (meaning we'd likely shut down entirely).
Q: Will the SAFE TECH Act break the internet?
A: No! The internet was a far different place when Section 230 was passed. The scope, influence, and impact of modern internet platforms were unimaginable in 1996. Like all regulation, Section 230 must be updated to address the current state of affairs – including the unintended consequences of the law. The SAFE TECH Act brings Section 230 into the modern age by addressing those areas in which the law has been abused by platforms—such as civil rights, stalking, and harassment—in a targeted way. It is also important to remember, that even with the changes proposed in the SAFE TECH Act, Section 230 does not impose liability on anyone. There must still be a violation of some law and plaintiffs must still prove causation, harm, and damages. And the application of that law to an internet platform still cannot run afoul of the First Amendment.
To say this after misunderstanding (1) how content moderation works, (2) how civil liability works, and (3) the nature of vexatious lawsuits works... is just astounding. This bill would absolutely gut much of the internet. Smaller websites would likely have to shut down key services (and may have to shut down entirely). A massive wave of ambulance chasing, SLAPP suits would come next. Trolls and racists would flip the law on its head to sue companies. This would be an utter disaster.
And tragically, reporters are falling for Warner's framing. The Washington Post's article on this claims that the bill "preserves the thrust of Section 230." It absolutely does no such thing. It guts every bit of 230 to its core.
What Went Wrong with America’s $44 Million Vaccine Data System?
The CDC ordered software that was meant to manage the vaccine rollout. Instead, it has been plagued by problems and abandoned by most states.
The first time Mary Ann Price logged into her employer’s system to schedule a vaccine, she found an appointment three days later at a nearby Walgreens pharmacy. She woke up the next day to an email saying it had been canceled.
So she logged in again and found an opening that afternoon at the local surgical hospital.
“When I showed up, they said they wouldn’t honor it—they were only doing their own staff,” Price says. But when she tried a third time to make an appointment, she was blocked from doing so: according to the system, she was already in the middle of getting a vaccine.
Price is 70 and works for the West Virginia state senate, which has deemed her an essential worker. Her state has been lauded for its rollout of vaccinations—so far 10% of its citizens have been given at least one shot.
Her frustration is echoed by millions of Americans who have struggled to get vaccines through various chaotic systems. But unlike others in some states, she wasn’t encountering these problems with a third-party consumer service like Eventbrite, or even through an antiquated government system. She was on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s brand-new, $44 million website called VAMS—the Vaccine Administration Management System, built by the consulting firm Deloitte.
Unless you’re in one of the few states using it, you may not have heard of VAMS. But it was supposed to be a one-stop shop where employers, state officials, clinics, and individuals could manage scheduling, inventory, and reporting for covid shots—and free for anyone to use.
The Biden administration has inherited a web of tech systems and policies that it must navigate to meet its goal of administering 100 million doses in the first 100 days.
Instead, “VAMS has become a cuss word,” Marshall Taylor, head of South Carolina’s health department, told state lawmakers in January. He went on to describe how the system has badly hurt their immunization efforts so far. Faced with a string of problems and bugs, several states, including South Carolina, are choosing to hack together their own solutions, or pay for private systems instead.
Clinic workers in Connecticut, Virginia, and other states say the system is notorious for randomly canceled appointments, unreliable registration, and problems that lock staff out of the dashboard they’re supposed to use to log records. The CDC acknowledges there are multiple flaws it’s working to fix, although it attributes some of the problems to user error.
As for Price, she waited at the hospital for 45 minutes before getting an administrator to actually cancel the appointment they wouldn’t honor. “She said they keep trying to get taken off the list [of vaccine sites], but VAMS puts them back on,” she says.
The chaos of the vaccine rollout in the US has been well documented: states receiving half their expected doses; clinics canceling first shots because of unreliable supplies; people endlessly hitting “Refresh” on sign-up websites or lining up outside clinics without an appointment, hoping for a spare shot.
The CDC saw this coming.
“VAMS was intended to fill a need that states and jurisdictions were not equipped to do themselves,” says Noam Arzt, the president of HLN Consulting, which helps build health information systems.
“It was clear we needed a way to run these clinics, to schedule people to go, and try to make sure they come back for their second dose,” he says.
So early in the pandemic, the CDC outlined the need for a system that could handle a mass vaccination campaign, once shots were approved. It wanted to streamline the whole thing: sign-ups, scheduling, inventory tracking, and immunization reporting.
In May, it gave the task to consulting company Deloitte, a huge federal contractor, with a $16 million no-bid contract to manage “covid-19 vaccine distribution and administration tracking.” In December, Deloitte snagged another $28 million for the project, again with no competition. The contract specifies that the award could go as high as $32 million, leaving taxpayers with a bill between $44 and $48 million.
Why was Deloitte awarded the project on a no-bid basis? The contracts claim the company was the only “responsible source” to build the tool.
In reality, many states are choosing to pay other vendors rather than using VAMS for free. Others are doing essentially nothing, leaving the planning up to county health departments. That’s how you get a situation like the one in Florida, where counties are desperately scheduling clinic visits on the website Eventbrite, more commonly used for concerts and conferences.
“The public health agencies are under significant duress,” says Arzt. “These folks are working night and day, with the same constraints and problems—their kids are at home, people are getting sick. It’s very difficult to manage anything, let alone a campaign like this.”
MIT Technology Review has yet to get a complete list of states using VAMS, despite multiple attempts. According to a CDC press officer, “The VAMS system doesn’t make this data publicly available yet.”
According to a Deloitte spokesperson, however, “10 jurisdictions, three federal agencies, and one hospital system” across the whole of America are current users, and “more than 1,150,000 vaccines have been administered through VAMS.”
Several states that have been using VAMS are backing away. Virginia, where many individual vaccination sites had already chosen to adopt alternatives, is moving from VAMS to a commercial system, PrepMod. After participating in a trial of VAMS, California also picked PrepMod but clinics there have blamed that system for delays in their vaccine reporting.
To better understand the challenges facing people building these tools, I called Derrick Stone, a software development manager at UVA Health in Virginia. While the public health department is using VAMS, his organization is using VaxTrax, a tool built in house by Stone’s team two years ago to track employees’ mandatory flu vaccines.
“A lot of what these systems do is trivial, but the task was undefined,” he says. “You had to try giving some shots, learn from it, and then figure out how to revise it to be more efficient. It really requires something flexible.”
Indeed, a lack of flexibility has become a block for many clinics trying to use the CDC system. This has led to confusion, and difficulty in keeping patients properly informed.
“When people signed up with VAMS, I couldn’t send specific instructions about the drive-through: Eat before you come, use the bathroom,” says Lorrin Pang, the district health officer in Maui, Hawaii, who’s been running a drive-in clinic at the island’s college. “Elderly guys who didn’t get the message—a lot of them had to get out of their cars and be helped to the bathroom.”
The world is so interconnected that stockpiling vaccines won't insulate the most advanced economies from the financial impact of the virus.
Pang says he spent three weeks trying to sign into VAMS, but he constantly ended up in the dashboard for patients instead of clinic administrators. In the meantime, his staff was vaccinating hundreds of people a day and keeping track of their information on paper forms. The college set up a bank of volunteers to sit in a room and copy all the information into VAMS.
Eventually, the local hospital helped him get signed into the system. The clinic used it for three days. On the last day, 20 new volunteers came in ready to work. But they’d already signed into VAMS to get their mandatory shots, and there was no way to switch them from patient accounts to staff ones.
The next day, they went back to paper.
“A good system is easier to use than it is not to use. If people are writing this on paper, there’s something wrong,” says Stone. “How are you going to do 100 million shots in 100 days and have someone enter it all in by hand?”
“VAMS is fussy. There’s days when VAMS works, and days when VAMS doesn’t work,” says Courtney Rowe, a pediatric urologist at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, who has been volunteering to monitor people for reactions after their shots. She takes it as an opportunity to help people get set up for their second appointments. “I basically function as tech support,” she says.
Online sign-ups are especially challenging for older people, perhaps the worst group to beta-test a new system. Many seniors probably lost their internet access when libraries and senior centers closed; only 59% have broadband connections at home, according to a 2019 Pew survey. While many states offer phone lines for making appointments, people around the country have complained about endless waits.
“It won’t work on Internet Explorer; it only works in Chrome. The ‘Next’ button is all the way down and to the right, so if you’re on a cell phone, you literally can’t see it,” says Rowe. “In the first round, people using VAMS mostly had advanced degrees. If you’re 75 and someone asks you to log into VAMS, there is zero way it’ll happen without help.”
After I spoke with Rowe, Connecticut opened up vaccinations to anyone over 70. Her prediction came true immediately. On the first day of a new vaccination clinic in Vernon, Connecticut, 204 vaccines were ready but only 52 seniors had made appointments in VAMS.
“Our residents, and those from around the state that we’re serving at this clinic, are frustrated, angry, and confused by the ineffectiveness of this registration system,” town administrator Michael Purcaro said at a press conference.
Elderly people aren’t the only ones who will struggle if vaccination requires online sign-up. Language barriers will become a significant problem, especially for non-native English speakers doing high-risk essential work. People in rural or poor urban areas often have limited access to the internet in the first place, a problem disproportionately affecting the same Black and Latino communities that have suffered the worst traumas of the pandemic.
“There are some real equity concerns,” says Stone. “What happens when you go to a city and 20% of the population can’t get the notices?”
So what went wrong? In an email, a CDC spokesperson defended the system and said that appointments are not randomly canceled, despite what many clinicians have claimed: the problem, she said, was user error. She also outlined several fixes that have been made in response to feedback. VAMS now includes warnings when administrators do something that might change patient appointments, for example.
If you live in Gregg county, Texas or Terrebonne parish, Louisiana, you might be out of luck.
The CDC also recommends that the authorities using VAMS help those who might have trouble with the system, by staffing call center hot lines and using “third-party clinics that do not require recipients to register in advance or have an email.”
To some watchdogs, VAMS is the latest example of a broken system for building government technology. Deloitte has a long history of making malfunctioning things for state and federal governments: most recently, it was in the news for charging states hundreds of millions of dollars for unemployment websites that did not work.
In response to questions about the flaws with VAMS, a Deloitte spokesperson sent a statement that the company was proud to support the vaccine campaign and “help end the covid-19 pandemic so that our families and communities can recover and thrive.” He did not address specific questions.
Deloitte may be representative of a broken system, but it’s certainly not alone. CGI Federal, for instance, has landed over $5.6 billion in federal IT contracts since getting fired after its disastrous development of the Healthcare.gov website.
“Nobody wants to hear about it, because it sounds really complicated and boring, but the more you unpeel the onion of why all government systems suck, the more you realize it’s the procurement process,” says Hana Schank, the director of strategy for public-interest technology at the think tank New America.
The explanation for how Deloitte could be the only approved source for a product like VAMS, despite having no direct experience in the field, comes down to onerous federal contracting requirements, Schank says. They often require a company to have a long history of federal contracts, which blocks smaller or newer companies that might be a better fit for the task.
Those inefficiencies are magnified in the health sector. America’s heavily privatized medical system was held together by duct tape and bubble gum long before the biggest public health crisis of our lifetimes.
“The health-care software industry is enormous, and it exists largely because it’s privatized, it’s not standardized,” says Stone. “There are a lot of free-market inefficiencies. And the country doesn’t have a public health infrastructure, so there isn’t any real drive to fix it.”
“You think about the industries that have been transformed by technology—someone said, How do we get a pizza to your house faster? That’s a competitive advantage,” he says. “That has not happened in American health care.”
To Rowe, the doctor at Connecticut Children’s, it’s frustrating to see so much innovation in making vaccines, and so little in actually getting them to people. “How much money was put into the science of making the vaccine? How much money is being put into the distribution?” she asks. “It doesn’t matter that you made it if you can’t distribute it.”
To Mary Ann Price, it’s important to give credit where it’s due: when VAMS works, it works. After two failed appointments and a 45-minute wait at the hospital, her third time in the system was a success. She got a QR code that made check-in a breeze at the health department’s mass vaccination site the next day, and then immediately received her vaccination card as a PDF.
But she hasn’t scheduled her second shot.
“There’s no point in scheduling it three weeks out, because the state of West Virginia doesn’t know if they’ll even have any vaccines,” she says.
Nextdoor Is Quietly Replacing the Small-Town Paper
While Facebook and Twitter get the scrutiny, Nextdoor is reshaping politics one neighborhood at a time
One year ago, Delaware’s second-largest school district was in trouble. A failed referendum in 2019, on the heels of state funding cuts two years prior, had left it staring down a $10 million deficit that raised the specter of teacher layoffs, the end of sports and extracurriculars, and the demise of a promising magnet-school program. For a district already pummeled by an exodus of well-off families to private and charter schools — whose 14,000 students are roughly 75% nonwhite, 40% low-income, and more than 20% with special needs — it felt like the type of blow that could echo for generations.
Leaders and parent advocates in the district, the Christina School District in Newark, Del., had been banking on the referendum to pass. They knew that convincing residents to raise their own property taxes, often on behalf of kids other than their own, was never easy. But they had made what they thought was a compelling case through informational websites, word of mouth, and outreach to local media, the same strategy that had helped them pass a similar measure three years prior.
They never expected the campaign would also hinge, in part, on their ability to counter misinformation on Nextdoor, a platform best known for helping neighbors find a good plumber or a lost cat.
At its core, Nextdoor is an evolution of the neighborhood listserv for the social media age, a place to trade composting tips, offer babysitting services, or complain about the guy down the street who doesn’t clean up his dog’s poop. Like many neighborhood listservs, it also has increasingly well-documented issues with racial profiling, stereotyping of the homeless, and political ranting of various stripes, including QAnon.
But Nextdoor has gradually evolved into something bigger and more consequential than just a digital bulletin board: In many communities, the platform has begun to step into roles once filled by America’s local newspapers. “Anecdotally, Nextdoor has gone from being kind of sub-Facebook to actually being the main platform you hear people discussing as a vector for local news and events and discussions,” says Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
The company now operates in some 268,000 neighborhoods globally and has reportedly eyed going public at a valuation of $5 billion. Though it hasn’t disclosed how many people use its service, a Chicago city official told OneZero that Nextdoor has 277,760 users within the city, accounting for about 17% of all Chicago households, by the city’s calculation. If that penetration rate were representative of the rest of the country, Nextdoor would have about 34 million U.S. users, making it the country’s eighth-largest social network. For comparison, in 2018 the total daily circulation of all U.S. print newspapers was about 30 million, down from 63 million in 1984. (TV news viewership and digital news readership are significantly higher.)
The app boomed in popularity during the pandemic, reporting an 80% jump in user engagement in the first two weeks of March 2020, as neighbors sought advice on where to find toilet paper and masks, and stay-at-home orders hindered in-person interactions. It also became an important communication tool for local authorities about shutdown measures, mask mandates, and testing sites. As Nextdoor begins to outcompete local news sites for readers and ad dollars, it’s worth asking what’s gained and lost by that shift — and whether it is in the public interest.
What makes that question hard to answer is that Nextdoor is fundamentally opaque. You can’t view posts from outside your own locale, and there aren’t public analytics about what types of posts perform well or poorly. In reporting this story, I contacted Nextdoor four times over a period of three months. The company never responded. Ultimately I decided to write about it primarily through the lens of my own network, in the small city of Newark, Delaware, population 33,000. (I also gained access to the Nextdoor network for Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, a gentrified urban enclave, and spoke with researchers and users elsewhere.)
In Newark, I’ve had a front-row seat for Nextdoor’s emergence as a force in local politics, with the school district referendum as a watershed. As the 2019 referendum approached, I saw Nextdoor posts claiming that the district was squandering money, that its administrators were corrupt, and that it already spent more money per student than certain other districts with higher test scores. The last of those was true — but left out the context that Christina hosts both the state’s school for the deaf and its largest autism program.
District advocates told me later that they had wanted to post counterarguments to the platform, but were hindered by Nextdoor’s decentralized structure. Some district officers, for instance, couldn’t even access the posts and discussions happening in the city of Newark, because they were only visible to other Newark residents, and they lived outside the city’s borders. (The district’s headquarters are actually in nearby Wilmington.)
After the referendum failed, some pointed to misinformation on Nextdoor as a factor in its defeat. As one frustrated parent told the local weekly paper, the Newark Post: “It’s hard to combat that, if that’s where the public is going for information.”
The district began planning for another referendum in 2020. If it failed again, the consequences would be dire.
While social networks like Facebook and Twitter have faced a litany of scandals, Nextdoor has managed to duck the headlines and Congressional hearings. That may be at least partly due to some real virtues of the way it’s designed. Nextdoor’s feed-ranking algorithm feels less aggressively optimized than those of larger networks. There’s no such thing as “followers,” so there’s little incentive for users to post clickbait or engagement bait. The network’s intimate scope, with each user identified by their real first name, last initial, and neighborhood of residence, can make using Nextdoor feel less like a game of influence and more like, well, actually talking to your neighbors. It’s hard to go viral when your audience is limited to your immediate area.
“Good news,” which can be hard to come by on local TV newscasts or on the front page of a newspaper, often features prominently on Nextdoor. The most popular posts on my network in recent months have included one from a resident praising a local restaurant for its efforts to feed the hungry on Thanksgiving, and another from a resident who built an elaborate model train display in his window and invited families with kids to stop by to view it, as a Covid-safe winter activity. Found pets on Nextdoor seem to be nearly as common as missing ones. Seniors have been using the app to share tips on where to get their Covid vaccinations.
Not all of Nextdoor’s effects are so wholesome, however. A closer look reveals several design features that tend to tilt neighborhoods’ priorities toward the interests of their squeakiest wheels — sometimes at the expense of their most vulnerable, and sometimes at the expense of the truth.
Nextdoor seems to be most effective at amplifying well-off residents’ quality-of-life concerns. By requiring a verified mailing address at sign-up, the platform systematically excludes the homeless, who often become scapegoats in Nextdoor discussions, as Rick Paulas previously explained in OneZero. Though the platform’s user guidelines discourage discussions of national politics, in the past year, Nextdoor has drawn scrutiny for its role in discussions of race, class, and crime. Rahim Kurwa, an assistant professor of criminology and sociology at the University of Illinois, Chicago, published a 2019 paper describing Nextdoor as a “digitally gated community.”
Posts warning of crime and “suspicious” people arrive in Nextdoor feeds devoid of the context that a good local reporter might add, such as putting local crime rates in historical perspective or noting root causes such as unemployment or cuts to social services. “You get the sense that people enjoy and find the site’s value in the work of policing other people,” Kurwa told me. “You see these escalations or these mini-one-day panics over someone being ‘out of place,’” which are often racially tinged.
That’s a problem Nextdoor shares with other hyperlocal apps like Citizen and Neighbors — and, to be fair, with local TV newscasts, whose unofficial motto a New York magazine writer once famously skewered as, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
A problem more specific to Nextdoor is that — even more than some other social networks — the platform makes it hard for users to distinguish truth from untruth. You can post an image, but the majority of posts are text-only, and posting a link to another website doesn’t unfurl any preview of the headline or image to encourage readers to click through, as Facebook and Twitter do. As a result, “facts” cited in support of users’ opinions often come sans citation.
Unlike the leading social platforms, which prioritize original posts over the replies or comments, reply threads on Nextdoor form the core of its content — a trait it shares with Reddit. But Nextdoor lacks Reddit’s upvoting and downvoting mechanism for elevating some replies over others. Instead, it tends to surface and even send push notifications for the posts that are getting the largest volume of replies, meaning that controversial comments drawing lots of angry rebuttals get amplified instead of buried. Arguments on Nextdoor tend to have a he said, she said character, regardless of which side has the more persuasive points or the preponderance of evidence.
The site’s unpaid moderators are not always well-equipped to settle these feuds. Each neighborhood’s mods, or “leads,” are residents who are nominated for the position by other moderators on the basis of their “behavior and qualifications,” and who agree to volunteer their time without compensation. They can decide to take posts down or leave them up, and close discussions or leave them open, with few options in between. (Moderators can privately message the poster, but can’t uprank, downrank, fact-check, or otherwise modify their posts, and only Nextdoor staff can ban users.)
One of the moderators in my neighborhood until recently was Chris Hamilton, who also happens to be my district’s representative on the Newark City Council. Hamilton told me he had no intention of becoming a moderator and has never been fully clear on how it happened. “They made me a moderator right after I got into office,” in 2017, Hamilton said. Looking at the app one day, he recalled, “I saw a leaf next to my name and I thought, ‘Hey, that’s interesting.’” (A leaf icon denotes a moderator.) “All of a sudden I started getting emails asking me to weigh in on whether this or that post should be banned.”
Hamilton relinquished his moderator role last year, citing the workload. In the Christina School District referendum, he said, he observed people on both sides cherry-picking statistics to support their view, with no one to adjudicate which ones were valid. “Anybody with an opinion can post and act like an expert,” he said. “So as it gets more broadly used… let’s just say, you have to watch the quality of the posts now.”
At times it seems that the key to being heard on Nextdoor is sheer persistence. Any regular user of the app can probably name a few of the most vocal and aggressive users in their network, whose comments seem to pop up on just about every thread. If Nextdoor at its best is a neighborly town square, Nextdoor at its worst is more like an inconsistently moderated online comment section in which the ignorant loudmouths are people you’re also forced to encounter in real life.
The best and worst of Nextdoor’s dynamics were on display as cities used the network to distribute information about Covid-19. Chicagoans who opened their Nextdoor app on November 13, for instance, saw a post from the city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, atop their news feed. In bold font, it announced that a new stay-at-home order would take effect citywide on November 16. “Chicago, please only leave your home for essential needs, including work and school,” Lightfoot wrote. “At home, please avoid inviting any guests over.”
Within hours, the post had sparked hundreds of comments from Nextdoor users. Some were supportive. More were angry.
“Can I advise you to shut the hell up?” responded one resident, from the city’s Kelvyn Park neighborhood. “I’m not incarcerating myself at home so that you can exercise control and manipulation. Thaaaaaanks.” The post was among the most-liked in the thread. Another popular response, from a user in East Jefferson Park: “I could careless [sic] what the Governor and Mayor say. This part of their political agenda.” A resident of Clearing posted a recent video of the mayor herself using a megaphone, without a mask, at a crowded outdoor gathering celebrating Joe Biden’s presidential election victory. The user added: “This was last week in boystown…. Hypocrite.”
The angriest, least evidence-based responses were among the most popular — and the most visible, generating reply threads of their own that quickly devolved into shouting matches. Because Nextdoor’s algorithm often generates push notifications for the most-discussed topics, such arguments can generate feedback loops, drawing in users who might not have sought them out otherwise. Once you’ve replied to a thread, the app sends updates as more replies roll in, making them hard to ignore.
Nextdoor’s rules prohibit posts or comments that contain “false or misleading information about Covid-19,” but do not prohibit posts questioning public health orders. Lightfoot’s post clearly got word out. Yet the context in which it appeared on Nextdoor served to undermine the message, casting doubt on its legitimacy and implicitly urging people to disregard it.
On the other side of that coin, social platforms are becoming ever more central to the city’s communications, said Han Nguyen, director of digital strategy for Mayor Lightfoot.
While the mayor’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have a larger audience, Nguyen said in a phone interview that he sees Nextdoor as filling an important niche among social platforms because it inherently treats users as members of a community. Nextdoor gives cities the ability to post messages to every user within their jurisdiction, which appear at the top of people’s feeds when they log in.
He believes anecdotally that users are more engaged in local issues on Nextdoor than on other platforms, with a higher ratio of active commenters to lurkers. “If you’re talking about hyperlocal and you’re not thinking about Nextdoor, there’s a real missed opportunity there.”
As an example of Nextdoor’s positive side, Nguyen pointed to a December 7 post by Lightfoot that read simply, “Do you personally know someone who has gotten COVID? Let us know in the comments.” Hundreds of comments rolled in, most of them answering in the affirmative and drawing sympathetic reactions. Nguyen said he believes those personal testimonials not only created human connections, but may have also helped to personalize and drive home for Chicagoans the urgency of an issue that is often talked about in numbers and abstractions.
Nguyen noted that the company sent a representative to meet with him soon after Lightfoot took office in 2019, encouraging her to use the platform as a communication tool. Nextdoor did not respond to my requests to confirm this or share usage data in other cities.
In some ways, Nextdoor is filling a gap left by a dearth of local news outlets. “In discussions of how people are finding out about local news, Nextdoor and Facebook Groups are the two online platforms that crop up most in our research,” said Columbia’s Emily Bell. Bell is helping to lead a project examining the crisis in local news and the landscape that’s emerging in its wake.
“When we were scoping out, ‘What does a news desert look like?’ it was clear that there’s often a whole group of hyperlocal platforms that we don’t traditionally consider to be news,” Bell said. They included Nextdoor, Facebook Groups, local Reddit subs, and crime-focused apps such as Citizen and Amazon Ring’s Neighbors. In the absence of a traditional news outlet, “people do share news, they do comment on news,” she said. “But they’re doing it on a platform like Nextdoor that really is not designed for news — may be in the same way that Facebook is not designed for news.”
Like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, Nextdoor makes money by charging businesses to place ads among the posts that appear in users’ feeds. More than those other platforms, Nextdoor focuses on local advertisers — including many of the same ones that historically sustained local newspapers. As in the local paper, you’ll find on Nextdoor ads offering grocery coupons, home insurance, and yoga classes, as well as a classified ad section.
While Nextdoor has not been a main driver of local news’ decline — Google and Facebook are much bigger culprits, commanding the majority of digital advertising spend, while Craigslist dealt the primary blow to the classified section — its rise is coming at a time when many local papers are teetering on the precipice. Between 2005 and 2020, the United States lost more than one-fourth of its local newspapers, according to the most recent annual report on “news deserts” from the University of North Carolina. And that was before the pandemic “super-charged” the trend, said Penny Abernathy, the report’s author and a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s journalism school.
Newark isn’t a news desert, but it isn’t exactly an oasis, either. Its only true local news source is the Newark Post, a free, weekly paper that employs one full-time journalist to write and edit most of the articles and take the photos. (It also shares a second reporter with another local paper in the same chain.) That full-time journalist, Post editor Josh Shannon, has come to view Nextdoor as a double-edged sword.
“I’ve definitely noticed in the last year or two that Nextdoor seems to be a bigger part of the conversation,” Shannon said in a phone conversation. “But the weird thing is, it’s so closed off that it’s really hard to get a sense of what’s spiraling on there, and obviously there’s an ability for misinformation to form.” He cited the school district referendum as an example.
For local reporters, the rise of Nextdoor and other social platforms also presents a more subtle, long-term problem. “The biggest frustration I have is the power it gives the government,” Shannon said.
In the past, he explained, public officials needed local news outlets to get their message out, so they had little choice but to take reporters’ calls. That meant accepting that their perspective would form part of the story, but would be fact-checked and brought together with information from other sources, some of which might challenge or contradict the official line. For instance, the Chicago Tribune’s story on Mayor Lightfoot’s shutdown order buttressed the news with extensive public health data, interviews with experts, regional and statewide context, and discussion of the tradeoffs involved. When Shannon covers a major crime or arrest by Newark Police, he’ll seek out court records and interview people who knew the suspect and victim, giving him the chance to raise questions about the officers’ actions.
Now, Shannon said, “These social media outlets give governments and police agencies and universities a chance to bypass the media” and present their press statements to the public as the whole story, often beating the press to the news. Readers on Nextdoor don’t necessarily know to take authorities’ version of events with a grain of salt, giving them a one-sided picture.
While Shannon said he’s fortunate to still have good relationships with many Newark officials, “There are definitely organizations and agencies that don’t feel like they need to answer questions anymore because they feel like they have other platforms to reach people. They’ll post it on Nextdoor, post it on Facebook, and they’ll link back to their own website. We can call and call and call and they don’t bother to call back.”
While it may serve advertisers well, Nextdoor so far shows few signs that it’s capable of replacing the accountability journalism that defined local news at its best, Northwestern’s Abernathy told me. “What Facebook or Nextdoor are good at is, if there is an obvious news event, they’re good at giving you what people in the community are saying is up-to-the-minute information. It could be that the Piggly Wiggly is open, or the power just came back on at their house. Is it always verifiable? Probably not. Can you always translate that into what it means for you? Probably not.”
“What it’s not good at giving you,” Abernathy continued, “is what historically the best local newspapers have done — which is to give you the information on not just what’s happening in the moment but issues that are bubbling just below the surface that are going to affect the quality of your life and of future generations. Issues around education, the environment, health, infrastructure, economic development, politics, and even the part that is what some economists call the qualitative capital of a community, its cultural history.”
Sociologist Sandra Ball-Rokeach, a professor emerita at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, said Nextdoor can play a modest sort of community-building role by connecting neighbors around discussions on certain topics. But she agreed it’s no substitute for local journalism. When people turn to Nextdoor instead of a local paper, Ball-Rokeach said, “They’re getting to know which plumber to hire. They’re getting to know the latest controversies on the trailers for homeless people in the park. But they’re not getting to know what’s really important in terms of the decision-making at multiple levels of government and how those decisions are being affected by various different power players.”
A month after the failed Christina School District referendum in 2019 the school board voted 4–3 to eliminate 63 jobs, with the alternative being bankruptcy and a bid for a state bailout. Some parents gave up hope; a neighbor of mine who had been among the district’s staunch supporters abruptly sold her house and moved her family to suburban Pennsylvania, where public schools are better-funded. Others who could afford it moved their children to private schools, furthering one of the trends that had put the district in tough shape to begin with.
The district and its backers started planning another referendum campaign for 2020, with the stakes now desperate. On the chopping block if they failed again would be not just teacher and staff jobs, but after-school sports, extracurriculars, and a nascent, award-winning magnet-school program. In fact, the school board voted to make all those cuts a month before the referendum in order to balance its budget; only if it passed would they be reversed.
This time, their strategy included arming supporters with facts and counter-arguments to post whenever they encountered criticism on their respective Nextdoor networks around the district. “There was definitely more of a cohesive effort to provide talking points to community activists,” said Claire O’Neal, a parent who won appointment to the school board later that year. “It so happened that Nextdoor was one of the places where misinformation was being spread.”
As the special election approached, something unexpected happened: Nextdoor threads 50 and 100 replies long dug deep into the district’s finances, its budget, administrator salaries, and what the consequences might be if the referendum passed or failed. Unlike the year before, the district’s supporters seemed to outnumber its detractors. The discussions were among the hottest topics on Newark-area Nextdoor networks, making what would typically be a low-turnout election feel like a high-stakes event, the topic everyone was talking about.
On election day, June 9, polling places had lines out the door — a rarity for a single-issue local election. Turnout was unprecedented, nearly doubling that of 2019. And the result was a landslide: Some 70% of voters approved all four funding requests, with more people voting “yes” than the total number who had voted the year before. Suddenly, the district’s future looked hopeful again.
Exactly what role Nextdoor played in that dramatic turnaround is hard to disentangle. The option to vote by mail due to Covid-19 may have helped; the sense of urgency for the district certainly did. O’Neal believes the informal Nextdoor information campaign made a difference. “I do think it was a factor in its passing,” she told me. The lesson for the district, and other public agencies, she believes, is that they can no longer win the battle of public opinion on their own. They have to actively enlist advocates in the community to wage it on their behalf on Nextdoor and other hyperlocal online networks.
“It just requires more of individual citizens,” O’Neal said. “It’s a lot more work because there’s just so much information out there, and it’s up to you to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. There’s a part of that that’s beautiful, and there’s a part of that that’s really scary.”
I Talked to the Cassandra of the Internet Age
The internet rewired our brains. He predicted it would.
Michael Goldhaber is the internet prophet you’ve never heard of. Here’s a short list of things he saw coming: the complete dominance of the internet, increased shamelessness in politics, terrorists co-opting social media, the rise of reality television, personal websites, oversharing, personal essay, fandoms and online influencer culture — along with the near destruction of our ability to focus.
Most of this came to him in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Goldhaber, a former theoretical physicist, had a revelation. He was obsessed at the time with what he felt was an information glut — that there was simply more access to news, opinion and forms of entertainment than one could handle. His epiphany was this: One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. To describe its scarcity, he latched onto what was then an obscure term, coined by a psychologist, Herbert A. Simon: “the attention economy.”
These days, the term is a catch-all for the internet and the broader landscape of information and entertainment. Advertising is part of the attention economy. So are journalism and politics and the streaming business and all the social media platforms. But for Mr. Goldhaber, the term was a bit less theoretical: Every single action we take — calling our grandparents, cleaning up the kitchen or, today, scrolling through our phones — is a transaction. We are taking what precious little attention we have and diverting it toward something. This is a zero-sum proposition, he realized. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.
The idea changed the way he saw the entire world, and it unsettled him deeply. “I kept thinking that attention is highly desirable and that those who want it tend to want as much as they can possibly get,” Mr. Goldhaber, 78, told me over a Zoom call last month after I tracked him down in Berkeley, Calif. He couldn’t shake the idea that this would cause a deepening inequality. “When you have attention, you have power, and some people will try and succeed in getting huge amounts of attention, and they would not use it in equal or positive ways.”
In 1997, Mr. Goldhaber helped popularize the term “attention economy” with an essay in Wired magazine predicting that the internet would upend the advertising industry and create a “star system” in which “whoever you are, however you express yourself, you can now have a crack at the global audience.” He outlined the demands of living in an attention economy, describing an ennui that didn’t yet exist but now feels familiar to anyone who makes a living online. “The Net also ups the ante, increasing the relentless pressure to get some fraction of this limited resource,” he wrote. “At the same time, it generates ever greater demands on each of us to pay what scarce attention we can to others.”
In subsequent obscure journal articles, Mr. Goldhaber warned of the attention economy’s destabilizing effects, including how it has disproportionate benefits for the most shameless among us. “Our abilities to pay attention are limited. Not so our abilities to receive it,” he wrote in the journal First Monday. “The value of true modesty or humility is hard to sustain in an attention economy.”
In June 2006, when Facebook was still months from launching its News Feed, Mr. Goldhaber predicted the grueling personal effects of a life mediated by technologies that feed on our attention and reward those best able to command it. “In an attention economy, one is never not on, at least when one is awake, since one is nearly always paying, getting or seeking attention.”
More than a decade later, Mr. Goldhaber lives a quiet, mostly retired life. He has hardly any current online footprint, except for a Twitter account he mostly uses to occasionally share posts from politicians. I found him by calling his landline. But we are living in the world he sketched out long ago. Attention has always been currency, but as we’ve begun to live our lives increasingly online, it’s now the currency. Any discussion of power is now, ultimately, a conversation about attention and how we extract it, wield it, waste it, abuse it, sell it, lose it and profit from it.
The big tech platform debates about online censorship and content moderation? Those are ultimately debates about amplification and attention. Same with the crisis of disinformation. It’s impossible to understand the rise of Donald Trump and the MAGA wing of the far right or, really, modern American politics without understanding attention hijacking and how it is used to wield power. Even the recent GameStop stock rally and the Reddit social media fallout share this theme, illustrating a universal truth about the attention economy: Those who can collectively commandeer enough attention can accumulate a staggering amount of power quickly. And it’s never been easier to do than it is right now.
Mr. Goldhaber was conflicted about all of this. “It’s amazing and disturbing to see this develop to the extent it has,” he said when I asked him if he felt like a Cassandra of the internet age. Most obviously, he saw Mr. Trump — and the tweets, rallies and cable news dominance that defined his presidency — as a near-perfect product of an attention economy, a truth that disturbed him greatly. Similarly, he said that the attempted Capitol insurrection in January was the result of thousands of influencers and news outlets that, in an attempt to gain fortune and fame and attention, trotted out increasingly dangerous conspiracy theories on platforms optimized to amplify outrage.
“You could just see how there were so many disparate factions of believers there,” he said, remarking on the glut of selfies and videos from QAnon supporters, militia members, Covid-19 deniers and others. “It felt like an expression of a world in which everyone is desperately seeking their own audience and fracturing reality in the process. I only see that accelerating.”
While Mr. Goldhaber said he wanted to remain hopeful, he was deeply concerned about whether the attention economy and a healthy democracy can coexist. Nuanced policy discussions, he said, will almost certainly get simplified into “meaningless slogans” in order to travel farther online, and politicians will continue to stake out more extreme positions and commandeer news cycles. He said he worried that, as with Brexit, “rational discussion of what people stand to gain or lose from policies will be drowned out by the loudest and most ridiculous.”
Mr. Goldhaber said that looking at Mr. Trump through the lens of attention gives a deeper understanding of his appeal to supporters and, potentially, how to combat his style of politics. He said that many of the polarizing factors in the country are, in essence, attentional. Not having a college degree, he argued, means less attention from corporations or the economy at large. Living in a rural area, he suggested, means being farther from cultural centers and may result in feeling alienated by the attention that cities generate in the news and in pop culture. He said that almost by accident, Mr. Trump tapped into this frustration by at least pretending to pay attention to them. “His blatant racism and misogyny was an acknowledgment to his supporters who feel they deserve the attention and aren’t getting it because it is going to others,” he said.
His biggest worry, though, is that we still mostly fail to acknowledge that we live in a roaring attention economy. In other words, we tend to ignore his favorite maxim, from the writer Howard Rheingold: “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”
Where do we start? “It’s not a question of sitting by yourself and doing nothing,” Mr. Goldhaber told me. “But instead asking, ‘How do you allocate the attention you have in more focused, intentional ways?’” Some of that is personal — thinking critically about who we amplify and re-evaluating our habits and hobbies. Another part is to think about attention societally. He argued that pressing problems like income and racial inequality are, in some part, issues of where we direct our attention and resources and what we value.
As someone who writes about online extremism, I found one line of his eerily compelling. “We struggle to attune ourselves to groups of people who feel they’re not getting the attention they deserve, and we ought to get better at sensing that feeling earlier,” he said. “Because it’s a powerful, dangerous feeling.”
Attention is a bit like the air we breathe. It’s vital but largely invisible, and thus we don’t think about it very much unless, of course, it becomes scarce. If that’s the case — to extend a tortured metaphor — it feels as if our attention has become polluted. We subsist on it, but the quality has been diminished. This is certainly true in my life, where I’ve become so reliant on the constant stimuli of our connected world that I find myself frequently out of control of my attention. I give it to others too willingly — often to those who will abuse the privilege. I’ve also become dependent on the attention of others, even those who bestow it in bad faith. I’ve become a version of the very person Mr. Goldhaber described in 1997, for whom “not being able to share your encounters with anyone would soon become torture.”
Maybe you feel this way too.
“The fundamental thing is that you can’t escape the attention economy,” Mr. Goldhaber told me before we hung up. That much feels true.
But we can try to follow Mr. Rheingold’s advice. We can explore the ways in which our attention is generated, manipulated, valued and degraded. Sometimes attention might simply be a lens through which to read the events of the moment. But it can also force us toward a better understanding of how our minds work or how we value our time and the time of others. Perhaps, just by acknowledging its presence, we can begin to direct it toward people, ideas and causes that are worthy of our precious resource.
In other words, I’m finally going to pay attention to where we pay attention.
Until next week,
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