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The right channels: media activist Steve Pierce. Photo by John Whipple.

Access Deterred
Many local governments fail to offer adequate public access to cable, but advocates aim to change that

By Travis Durfee

Steve Pierce has a vision. One day in the near future, Pierce foresees public-access cable channels throughout the Capital Region flourishing as the vibrant electronic democracies they could be, their schedules filled with locally produced documentaries and talk shows on issues of local interest; rebroadcasts of cultural events from the region’s numerous colleges and universities; and local city-council and school-board meetings broadcast like CSPAN, live with multiple camera angles, speaker IDs and subject headings.

As an independent-media advocate and instructor in the department of science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Pierce knows that New York state law requires cable service providers to set aside public-access channels for home-grown programming.

The state’s laws also give municipalities the opportunity to enter into contracts known as franchise agreements with these companies, whereby the cable-service providers must give up to 5 percent of their revenues to local governments. But Pierce also knows that the system is flawed: Though cable companies are required to give money to localities, those governments are not required to spend the money on public-access broadcasting. Therefore, most do not.

“There is a public resource here that can be put into place without a huge investment from the cities’ side,” Pierce says. “It is like money in the bank that people are not aware of.”

Pierce sees a lost opportunity, and he is not alone; he and a number of concerned citizens and community groups throughout the Capital Region have been lobbying their elected officials recently for better funding, facilities and equipment for public-access ventures as their governments begin the tedious and complicated process of renegotiating their cable agreements.

New York state law requires local governments to renegotiate their contracts with the their cable-service providers at least once every 10 years. And for a number of communities the time has come: Albany’s contract with Time Warner is up in 2004, Troy’s contract lapsed three years ago (negotiations are still in progress), and Saratoga’s expires in 2004 as well. Cable-access advocates in each of these communities say that none currently has a functioning public-television system, and they are all looking for better deals this time around.

In Albany, for example, the city last negotiated a franchise agreement with Time Warner in 1994 and asked for 5 percent of the company’s gross annual revenues, the maximum allowed by state law. The city received $947,460 and $953,758 in franchise fees from Time Warner in 2001 and 2002 respectively. But over the past 10 years, the city spent only a fraction of what it received on public-access television: $100,000 on a media-education program at the College of Saint Rose that is open to Albany High School students, but not the public.

“There is a need [for public access] for groups in these communities that want to encourage their activities,” said Aimee Allaud, an Albany resident and member of the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations. “These channels could provide a vehicle for those ends. But [the current system] is set up so that there is barrier after barrier to making this work.”

As Allaud explained, CANA used to tape its meetings to be aired on the city’s designated public-access channels—16, 17 and 18—but the number of hoops the organization had to jump through to air the meetings led the group to abandon the process.

“When we were participating in this ridiculous little scheme, we had to borrow the equipment from Bethlehem, get the tape edited at Saint Rose, then run it out to Time Warner’s [old] building on Washington Avenue to get it aired,” Allaud said. “And there were a number of barriers there—you have to fill out a permission form, you never know when the program is going to be aired, you can’t publicize your shows. [The system] is virtually useless in this effect.”

On April 28, CANA addressed a letter to Mayor Jerry Jennings asking him to appoint a citizens commission to work with the Common Council as it formulates a plan for public access. Allaud said the mayor’s office never responded.

Allaud, other CANA members and Albany residents attended two public meetings held by the city’s Public Authorities and Utilities Committee to discuss the future of public-access television in the city. Alderman Michael O’Brien (Ward 12), who is vice chairman of the Public Authorities and Utilities Committee, said the committee is still in the information-gathering phase, but he hopes it will appoint a citizens council to present the issues to the council and the mayor.

Elsewhere in the Capital Region, local governments have taken more forward steps in negotiating their franchise agreements. Saratoga’s City Council approved a motion on June 4 to hire a field organizer to gather ideas and explore funding options to expand the city’s public access. The city of Troy recently hired a professional cable-franchise contract negotiator from Sacramento, Calif.

Pierce, who has worked with the city officials in Troy on the issue, urged the city of Albany to use a negotiator to ensure that the renegotiation process is as lucrative as possible.

“Unfortunately, the way it unfolds in New York state,” said Pierce, “is you have a multinational media giant that negotiates every day around the world using various kinds of lawyers cutting a deal with municipalities that have done this maybe once every 10 years and who are on the ropes financially. It is a very unfair playing field.

“It is really a travesty that the state capital of the third or fourth largest state [in the nation] doesn’t have public access,” Pierce said. “It doesn’t quite have the feeling of being at the forefront in this realm. They’ve got a great pedestrian bridge over 787 and some great live music, but in terms of media it is not quite there.”

Total PR Awareness
The Pentagon’s answer to criticism of its proposed spy program: a kinder, gentler name
By Glenn Weiser

What’s in a name? Critics called the Pentagon’s proposed Total Information Awareness program a technological Big Brother in the making. Then its creators renamed it Terrorist Information Awareness and said it was merely an elder male sibling who would only go after the bad guys.

Last November, The New York Times reported that Adm. John Poindexter, a Reagan-era national security advisor convicted of five felonies for his role in the Iran-contra scandal, had been hired by the Department of Defense to develop a project that would collect personal data on Americans from numerous public and private sources and integrate it into a huge, searchable database designed to detect potential terrorists. The project alarmed observers who said it would threaten privacy and civil liberties, and even staunch conservatives like former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Rep. Bob Barr joined liberals in opposing it.

Poindexter once said in a congressional hearing that it was his duty to mislead Congress, so in February, a suspicious Senate voted to block funding for the project until the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) submitted a report explaining how the proposed undertaking would balance national security and privacy concerns. DARPA responded on May 20, saying it was worried that the public had gotten the wrong idea about the program, and changed the project’s name. Moreover, the agency claimed it would employ only hypothetical data in designing its database, leaving the onus of obeying privacy laws to the government agencies that would use it with real information. Every effort would be made not to spy on innocent Americans.

Critics still reacted with derision. “Name changed, problem solved,” read the headline describing the DARPA report on the Web site of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (www.epic.org), a leading privacy group. Although EPIC’s director, Marc Rotenberg, did not return calls requesting comment on the report, he told Reuters that compared to telephone wiretaps and other types of electronic eavesdropping, TIA would be subject to far less oversight. “This research program still has at its core a belief that a centralized system of surveillance can be made privacy-friendly, and I think that premise is essentially rejected by the U.S. Constitution,” Rotenberg said.

TIA, as first conceived, would have allowed the Pentagon to cull information about Americans from virtually every available source, including credit-card purchases, bank statements, medical and prescription records, visa applications, driving- and airline-travel records, logs of Internet users’ Web surfing and e-mail, telephone records, and employment history. A vast database would then be established, and data-mining technology would be used to comb it, looking for patterns identifying possible terrorists. Another aspect of the program, biometric technology, would enable spy cameras to spot people by recognizing their irises, facial wrinkles, and gaits even at great distances and then integrate that information into the database. It is not sure, though, if the as-yet-undeveloped technology needed to power it is even possible.

The 102-page DARPA report attempts to put a smiley face on the endeavor. To explain the name change, DARPA said in a statement, “The program’s previous name, ‘Total Information Awareness’ program, created in some minds the impression that TIA was a system to be used for developing dossiers on U.S. citizens. DOD’s purpose in pursuing these efforts is to protect U.S. citizens by detecting and defeating foreign terrorist threats before an attack.” The report itself adds, “Safeguarding the privacy and civil liberties of Americans is a bedrock principle,” and promises that spot audits of the information being gathered will be permitted and technical safeguards such as antihacking protection used.

Some senators, however, remained wary. In a New York Times story, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who authored the bill requiring the report, said that even though the name had been changed, DARPA’s aims and plans were essentially unchanged. Wyden also told Reuters that existing privacy laws did not foresee that the government might scrutinize commercial databases, adding, “Most people don’t know that the laws that protect consumer privacy don’t apply when the data gets into the government’s hands. ‘Lawfully collected information’ means just about everything.”

Sen. Russell D. Feingold, (D-Wisc.), was more emphatic, telling the Times that current privacy laws were insufficient to deal with data-mining technology. Calling for a halt to the project, he said, “The administration should suspend not only the TIA, but all other data-mining initiatives in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security until Congress can determine whether the promised benefits come at too high a price for our privacy and personal liberties.”


Shannon DeCelle

A Voice Against the Empire
By Derek Scholes

Acclaimed Indian authoress and political activist Arundhati Roy addressed approximately 200 people at the Best Western Sovereign Hotel in Albany on Saturday. Roy rose to fame when she won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1997 for her first novel, The God of Small Things, which has been translated into more than 20 languages and has sold more than 6 million copies. More recently, Roy’s writing has focused on political issues, and she is a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism.” After recently receiving the Lannan Foundation Prize for Cultural Freedom, the $350,000 prize money from which she has distributed to progressive causes in India, Roy was in the Capital Region to receive this year’s Noam Chomsky Award from the Justice Studies Association.

Describing herself as “a subject of the U.S. Empire . . . a slave who presumes to criticize her king,” Roy saw the invasion of Iraq as cowardly. “After using the good offices of U.N. diplomacy, economic sanctions and weapons inspections to ensure that Iraq was brought to its knees, after making sure that most of its weapons had been destroyed, the coalition of the bullied and bought sent in an invading army, and then the corporate media gloated that the United States had won a just and astonishing victory.”

Roy accused the corporate U.S. media of behaving like a propaganda machine for the U.S. government before the war. “Public support in the U.S. for the war against Iraq was founded on a multi-tiered edifice of falsehood and deceit coordinated by the U.S. government, and faithfully amplified by the press. We had the invented links between Iraq and al Qaeda. We had the manufactured frenzy of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. No weapons of mass destruction have been found. Not even a little one.”

She noted that the Central Intelligence Agency is now undergoing a review to determine whether it was wrong in its assertion that Saddam Hussein harbored nonconventional weapons, lamenting that “meanwhile, in passing, an ancient civilization has been casually decimated by a very recent, casually brutal nation.”

Discussing before her talk why she chose to visit the United States, Roy said, “It is important for those of us who are against the war across the world, across national borders, to really reach out to each other.” It is her belief that the U.S. government’s aggressive foreign policy and free trade are very much connected. “It’s important that the project of corporate globalization is dismantled and laid on the table for ordinary people to understand. What destroyed Argentina and what destroyed Iraq was the same engine with different weapons—the IMF checkbook or the cruise missile.”

Asked how she maintains an optimistic outlook when faced with the power of the Bush administration, she replied, “It would be nice if what I do or say achieved a different way of seeing the world. But I would have to do it and say it anyway, because that is the way I want to be. It’s not going to come to a stage where, all of a sudden, the people that I admire are in the White House and everything is all right. So you find a way of pursuing beauty and grace and art and happiness and having fun. If we don’t have that, what are we fighting for?”


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