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Jan. 17, 2014, 9 a.m.

This Week in Review: Net neutrality on life support, and Google and Facebook nab startups

Plus: Lessons from the outrage over the Kellers’ columns about tweeting and cancer, and the rest of the week’s news about journalism and tech.

The end of net neutrality?: Net neutrality was dealt its most severe blow in recent history this week as a federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission doesn’t have jurisdiction to regulate Internet service providers in the same way that it does phone companies. This means Verizon — the company that brought the suit against the FCC — and other ISPs will be free to form deals with online companies to let some of them allow customers to access their sites more quickly for a fee.

There were a ton of angles to explore and opinions to hear out on the ruling, and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram collected many of them in a very thorough roundup. Several good posts explained the basics of the issue: The New York Times has a good primer on net neutrality and the FCC’s role, and The Wall Street Journal explained some of the key passages of the decision. A team of web freedom experts also answered other questions on what just happened and what happens next at Reddit.

The ruling struck down the conflicted legal framework under which the FCC attempted to regulate Internet providers — essentially, the Bush-era FCC classified ISPs as more loosely regulated “information services,” rather than the more strictly regulated phone companies, while the Obama-era FCC tried to apply the same regulation powers to those information services as the telecom companies get. The court said the FCC can’t do that, so this ruling put the ball back in the FCC’s court: They can appeal to the Supreme Court, try to reclassify ISPs as telecom services, or give up on net neutrality and try some other workarounds to enforce open access.

Nilay Patel of The Verge detailed how the FCC ended up in this spot. The Washington Post’s Brian Fung explained how reclassification might work, and The Wrap’s Ira Teinowitz noted that Congressional Republicans have already warned against that path, while consumer groups have endorsed it. Former Wired reporter Ryan Singel also offered a useful account of how the FCC got here, and said the FCC won’t pick a reclassification fight with Republicans and the ISP industry. Instead, he said, the best hope for an open web is building open-access municipal fiber networks.

With or without a protracted reclassification fight, we’re going to see preferential-access deals between ISPs and online companies soon, though the providers insisted the ruling won’t ultimately hurt customers. That’s doubtful, of course, but the bigger damage may be on the producers’ side, where the ruling allows Internet giants to pay more for better user access, crowding out startups and innovation. John Herrman of BuzzFeed has the best explanation of how the threat of a non-neutral web has evolved, noting that, on the surface, the changes might appear positive for customers, as Internet companies pay ISPs to subsidize your data use.

Others, including Tim Wu at The New Yorker, Dan Gillmor at The Guardian, John Judis at The New Republic, and Cale Guthrie Weissman at PandoDaily, made a similar argument about how the ruling will privilege tech monopolies. “The promise, and for several decades the reality, of the internet was decentralization: a network of networks where innovation would take place largely at the edges, not in the center,” wrote Gillmor. “We are on the verge of losing the internet that held such promise, at least for the near and medium term.” Venture capitalist Fred Wilson illustrated how frustrating the scenario would be for entrepreneurs, and Forbes’ Tom Watson expressed concern for the future of nonprofits and social entrepreneurship. Free Press’ Josh Stearns made the case that the end of net neutrality would be a blow to online journalism as well.


Google’s big buy, and Facebook’s small one: Two web giants made noteworthy purchases this week: The much larger purchase was Google’s acquisition of Nest, a company that makes smart thermostats and smoke alarms, for $3.2 billion. Though the price appeared to be something of an overpay, Gizmodo’s Brian Barrett and The New York Times’ Quentin Hardy have the best explanations of what Nest brings to Google: Nest gives Google a real entrée into people’s homes, something that, as Barrett noted, Google has struggled with in the past. It also ties into Google’s move into smart devices, something it’s invested a lot in with its work on self-driving cars. “In whatever form, understanding the connected device, and how people work with it, is a big part of understanding overall behavior, and that is Google’s driving ambition,” Hardy wrote.

On Nest’s end, Hardy pointed out that the company is run by Apple veterans who were already considerably wealthy, so the acquisition isn’t necessarily just about cashing out. Nest’s CEO, Tony Fadell, told Recode and The Verge that his company needed infrastructure more than anything to grow, and Google provides plenty of that.

Of course, Google’s move into smart devices built around daily behavior within the home has people understandably nervous about privacy. Gigaom’s Stacey Higginbotham and Salon’s Andrew Leonard both articulated those worries, and while Nest said its customer data will only be used for Nest products, John Gruber of Daring Fireball pointed out that its policy can change, wondering, “Does anyone seriously think Google doesn’t want the information Nest’s devices provide?”

The second purchase was smaller, but had more potential implications for social news: Facebook bought Branch and its sister service Potluck, both of which center on structured conversations around news links, for $15 million. Mathew Ingram of Gigaom said Branch could help Facebook figure out how to create spaces for smart discussions, an issue with which Facebook continues to have difficulty, though The Daily Dot’s Kate Knibbs was more skeptical about the usefulness of Branch and the wisdom of the purchase.

The Lab’s Joshua Benton suggested that this purchase has the distinct smell of an “acquihire,” an acquisition done more for a startup’s employees than for its product. SiliconBeat’s Brandon Bailey also reported that the acquisition was indeed an acquihire, and that Facebook is not actually getting the rights to Branch’s technology. (What this means for the product itself is unclear.) Bailey and others noted that Branch’s Josh Miller has been a critic of Facebook in the past, and PandoDaily’s Michael Carney questioned the fit, given Branch’s roots in Obvious, an incubator co-founded by Twitter’s founders.


Social media and the power to tell personal stories: Former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller and his wife, Emma, triggered a debate about publicness, publishing authority, and social media (along with a whole lot of criticism) when they both wrote columns about Lisa Bonchek Adams, who has been blogging and tweeting about her increasingly painful experience with breast cancer for several years. Emma Keller’s column in The Guardian, published last week, wondered if Adams was sharing too much, asking her tweets were “a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies.” Bill Keller’s column in the Times this week was a bit less severe but questioned whether Adams’ documentation was glorifying a method of dealing with cancer that isn’t for every patient.

Shortly after Bill’s column ran, The Guardian deleted Emma’s column, explaining its rationale a couple of days later. The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, issued a mild rebuke of Bill’s column, saying it struck a wrong note on tone and sensitivity and appeared to some as a double-barreled attack with his wife on Adams.

The rebuke from others was much stronger. BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin, who herself was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, catalogued Bill Keller’s faults in both tone and fact on Twitter. Likewise, Gawker’s Adam Weinstein, Wired’s Maryn McKenna, and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram all issued scathing critiques of the Keller’s condescension.

There were several smart pieces that attempt to pinpoint exactly what the Kellers weren’t understanding about social media and self-disclosure, including one by sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci, who wrote that the Kellers got Adams’ case so wrong because they merely perused her postings: “Social media is not a snapshot that can be understood in one moment, or through back-scrolling. It’s a lively conversation, a community, an interaction with implicit and explicit conversations and channels of signaling, communication and impression.” The Atlantic’s Megan Garber said the Kellers misidentified one Twitter user’s style of writing as some sort of “this is the way we treat death now” trend, when Twitter is anything but a monolith.

The Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins said the Kellers ultimately objected to someone else without their professional or cultural cachet being able to tell their story, and NPR’s Linda Holmes made a similar point, arguing that traditional media assumes some sort of presumption of importance is necessary to public writing on personal subjects, while that presumption isn’t present in the social media environment in which Adams writes. Adams’ writing on Twitter is “not meant to announce its own heft as appearing on an op-ed page does,” Holmes wrote. “She didn’t ask for endorsement, she didn’t ask for sign-off, she didn’t ask for agreement. She’s just telling a story.”

Reading roundup: A few other stories to take note of this week:

— After years of hemorrhaging money and months of trying to find a buyer, AOL unloaded its hyperlocal news network Patch on Hale Global, “an investment company that specializes in turning around troubled companies through technological innovation,” as The New York Times put it. As Recode noted, AOL will maintain a small stake in Patch, but Hale will take over its operation and AOL is done funding Patch’s losses. Hale and AOL are both saying Patch’s 900 sites will remain open. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram noted the clear lesson here: Hyperlocal doesn’t scale.

— The Knight News Challenge announced the winners of its most recent round of grants, which focused on health and data. A total of $2.2 million went to seven projects, and the Lab and American Press Institute highlighted one of them, the Solutions Journalism Network.

— NBC News announced it’s partnering with and investing in NowThis News, a social video news startup funded by BuzzFeed chairman Ken Lerer. New York magazine, meanwhile, published a feature on Lerer and his son, Ben, and their growing role as tech company funders.

— New York Times reporter James Risen appealed his long legal case to protect a confidential source to the Supreme Court this week, setting up a potentially definitive fight over whether journalists have the right not to name their confidential sources in response to court orders. Vocativ also talked to Risen about the case.

— Finally, two other interesting pieces, one an interview with the AP’s Eric Carvin on the state of social media and journalism, and the other a Columbia Journalism Review piece on research into the quality of the New Orleans Times-Picayune after its digital overhaul.

Image of Ethernet cable by Bert Boerland used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 17, 2014, 9 a.m.
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