by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VI, No. XXIII

This Week's Clue: Clark Howard Is A Big Fat Idiot

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For the Week of June 10, 2002

I've known Clark Howard for many years. He's not a personal friend, but we both work in Atlanta, we're both in the media, and we can acknowledge one another on the street. Years ago, when I was at an Atlanta Press Club event plugging my first book, he was in the next booth, and asked for advice about marketing his next book. He just wanted some technical advice about having an accompanying CD done, which I gave gladly, and I thought nothing more of it.

The point is that the headline on this piece is a little misleading (but just a little). Howard's radio show is now syndicated, his books are best-sellers, and he's a big celebrity (while I remain as anonymous as ever). If he wants to call that headline sour grapes and ignore the message that follows that's his look-out.

But the fact is he has made a big deal, on-air, about finding the people who run the companies you have trouble with. He's done this for years. He has, variously, advocated checking the company's press releases, its Web site, and various public documents (on financial sites) in order to find, say, the CEO's address or (better yet) their e-mail address. (Partly as a result it's become harder and harder for reporters to confirm data on press releases - the contact information is increasingly hidden.) Go to the top, he advises his listeners - that's how you get action.

But Clark Howard's own Web site, maintained by Cox Enterprises, has no e-mail access on it. There's no e-mail address for Clark Howard, there are none for his "consumers' action hotline" volunteers and even an e-mail sent to bounces.

I recently called his volunteers, about last week's Postscript on DSL and changing phone carriers. I wanted to e-mail my comment - "don't change phone carriers if you have DSL" but like I said I couldn't. So I had to put an hour into getting a media message out to a messenger who might carry it to the masses. When I finally reached one of these people, and after sending that message along, I asked about the e-mail.

"We found it's more efficient to use the phone," I was told, flatly. Efficient for you, maybe, I replied - what about us? No, he was just too busy, no one there had time for it. In response, I'm afraid I was a bit rude. (I compared her to the phone company.)

By cutting himself off from public e-mail contact Clark Howard proves himself a hypocrite, no better (and in fact worse than) the CEOs he likes to criticize.

But there's a bigger issue in play here. Public figures generally are following Howard's example. They're raising up the drawbridge on their accessibility.

There are some good reasons for this, they say. Beyond spam and viruses, there are calculated "Astroturf" campaigns from various public and private interests. Many are launched, as I've indicated before, from Web sites. (I did a piece recently about MSNBC's Michael Moran getting new e-mail addresses for each of his columns, using just this excuse.) Corporations (or trade groups) could easily flood a Clark Howard e-mail box with phony complaints or political complaints, if it were available.

But the answer in all these cases is the same - a human filter. Don't just filter-out spam, but add-up the Astroturf messages, distribute the useful-but-unimportant notes among underlings for handling, and then pass the good stuff to the boss. I can handle this for my own boxes in about a half-hour each day - if that's a tax on time you're unwilling to pay, hire someone else to do it.

Public figures have "people," people who can be charged with handling the e-mail traffic, just as they're charged with handling the paper mail and the telephone. Refusing to do this cuts public figures (and reporters are public figures) off from the public they're claiming to advocate for.

Many years ago it was common for reporters, even top reporters, to live in the same neighborhoods as their readers. Journalists didn't make much money. But the cult of celebrity has dramatically increased the salaries of some journalists, and increased their power. Many are now just as powerful as the people they cover, and becoming just as inaccessible.

With power you get responsibilities that must be discharged, in every medium, including this one. There are two kinds of people in America today, those who are on TV and those who aren't. Those who are on TV regularly think they're different, and certainly they have responsibilities the rest of us don't. But they're not better than us. And they shouldn't act as though they are. Especially if they are claiming to advocate for us.

Hey, Clark, send me an e-mail.


SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

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Takes on the News

Lieberman Sees Honeypot

Joe Lieberman is not a bear of very little brain. He knows money when he sees it, and there's a ton of money to be made (by politicians) in broadband. That's about all his "National Broadband Strategy Act of 2002" comes to - a call to broadband providers to throw a little money the Democrats' way.

God knows that if Lieberman seriously studied the issue there would be a lot more to do. The Bush tech policy stinks. It's based on supporting monopolies and trying to force consumers to patronize those monopolies on the monopolists' terms. Whether that monopoly is Microsoft alone, or the shared monopolies among 5 major media companies or 4 Bell companies, the policy is the same. Do what we say, no competition allowed.

A true alternative policy would be to support competition. Such a policy would support open source software, it would require a fair market settlement of the present dispute between copyright holders and media users, and it would endorse alternative technologies like 802.11. The best tech policy would eliminate government subsidies like the "Universal Service Fund," which new technology has made obsolete. It would be truly market-driven, from the bottom-up and not the top down.

Instead, it looks like Lieberman is just looking for political honey (and money is honey) from the usual suspects - the Bells, the cable guys, the software companies, the copyright industries. There's nothing here for consumers, nothing here for small businesses, and nothing here for the next-generation businesses that haven't been born yet.

Joe, take government's hands off the technology market, and stop putting your hand out for campaign contributions. This so-called policy of yours stinks to high heaven.


ICANN Dead? (But They Don't Know It)

ICANN's death as a private agency has gone unremarked by the major media. It's much like other stories of corruption since 9/11 - editors are afraid to go into it for fear of being called unpatriotic.

But the story is worth telling nonetheless. The coming retirement of Stuart Lynn and the resignations of both policy majordomo Andrew McLaughlin and attorney Joe Sims was buried, even by the normally-reliable UK Register.

Webloggers noted that dissident board member Andy Muller-Maguhn was the first source on this, and wondered who might succeed Lynn when he leaves in mid-year.

Some speculated ICANN will go away, or be replaced by something else, but that misses the point. In fact there are two groups of stakeholders here. There are governments who control country-code TLDs (and the businesses they've assigned to manage them). There are registrars for the "international" TLDs like .com and .net. In some cases (like Neulevel) these are the same people. By letting ICANN die, the U.S. government (and its assigns) can take back control of policy issues regarding .com, .net and the like, albeit loosely (and now, secretly).

There's no place for "the people" of the Internet in any of this. It's big governments, which may or may not be democratic, on the one hand, and big businesses, which definitely aren't, on the other hand.

The only real protections users have lie in anarchy and the market. There remain no uniform rules for what can be read and/or written, uploaded and/or downloaded, in this medium, with one exception. Child pornography is beyond the pale and no computer (or user) is safe from any government effort (no matter how "intrusive") to put those people into a deep, dark hole of horror for life if they store or pass it around. The U.S. government is trying to do the same thing regarding terrorism, but since it doesn't know what it's fighting (Islam, violence, government opposition?) that effort isn't going very far.

The copyright industries are trying to gain absolute power regarding music, books, and all other digital files. They're trying to require permission, and control, before you read or write anything. They think their control of national governments (and a few international structures) can support this, and thus ICANN is now irrelevant to them. They assume that our fear of terrorism will be the cover under which their efforts at "law enforcement" will succeed.

But they won't. There remain two things they haven't counted on. As the Clued-in know, these are the market and Moore's Law. The market and Moore's Law will keep the dedicated one-step ahead of the cops, a second center of power against the state and the big corporations. In that shadowy world, of course, will lurk pedophiles, terrorists, and other "evil-doers." But by over-reaching, governments have made the underground necessary.

The question we must ask ourselves is how many of us will live in that underworld, how much of our Internet usage we'll rely on that underworld to supply, and when governments might wake up to the fact that the only way to win is with reasonable, market-based mechanisms?


Good Government

How's that for a headline? The fact is there have been several examples of good government lately:

Sure, Washington generally remains no friend of technology. Hollywood is pushing legislation that would mandate copy protection in all analog-digital conversion chips (a sure way to send the computer business overseas). The FCC is still moving toward kicking alternative ISPs off the phone and cable lines. We're a long way from getting a technology rally and getting the economy moving again, thanks to government interference urged on by special interests.

But the technology industry and technology users are starting to rouse themselves, and some in Washington are starting to see there are more votes to be had here than in protecting Hollywood moguls. In the long run law can't outrun Moore or the market, but wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to wait until that long run to find out?


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in are AOL users. Nearly 60% told a ChangeWave survey they plan to quit the service in the next year. (Let's see if they follow through.)

Clueless is the IAB study claiming the Internet ad slump is "not so bad." It's on a par with President Herbert Hoover's famous remark that "we're not in a recession, just a small depression."


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