Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Online Freedom: White House pans SOPA

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Maine's congressional delegation appears to be in a holding pattern while attempting to form positions on two bills that address widespread copyright and trademark violations via the Internet. The bills are controversial because they would make online censorship much easier, more effective, and harder to combat.

Over the weekend, the White House issued a statement objecting to the provisions of both the Protect IP Act of 2011 (pending in the US Senate) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (pending in the House) that would allow sites alleged to host or assist violators to be effectively blacklisted and technologically cut off from the Internet almost entirely.
Here's an example. Let's say that a person posts a video to an online forum without permission from its owner. (We're sure you've never done that.) Under existing law (the Digital Millennium Communications Act), the copyright owner can contact the forum's administrator, demonstrate that someone had violated the owner's copyright, and specify where on the forum the violation occurs. The law would then require the administrator to remove the offending post or link.
Should SOPA and the Protect IP Act pass in their current forms, any person — whether they were or were not the copyright owner — could file a motion in court and receive a judge's order specifying any or all of the following four restrictions: 1) require all US sites and search engines to remove all links to that entire site; 2) ban US online-advertising services from serving ads to that site; 3) bar all US payment networks from conducting transactions to or from that site; and 4) require US Internet service providers to block customer access to the site.
The sweeping restrictions, coupled with the fact that a complainant need not prove ownership of the copyright allegedly being violated (nor any requirement that a copyright violation be proved), have aroused the ire of the Internet community, with free-information sites like Wikipedia and Reddit planning to turn their pages black this week in protest against the bills.
The issue will come before the Senate first; the Protect IP Act is slated for a procedural vote this week. Senator Olympia Snowe's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on her position; Senator Susan Collins's spokesman, Kevin Kelley, emailed to say "Senator Collins is still reviewing the bill and has discussed the issue with folks on both sides."
Second District Representative Mike Michaud's spokesman, Ed Gilman, said in an email "We are aware of the concerns that have been raised, and the congressman looks forward to reviewing the final bill when it's available."
Chellie Pingree, 1st District Representative, seemed most on top of the matter. She said through spokesman Willy Ritch's email, "SOPA sounds like it has a noble purpose — stopping online piracy — but the collateral damage from this vaguely worded bill could be significant. I'm convinced that the sweeping language that is used in this bill could have a chilling effect on free speech online. The penalties are overly harsh and it sets up a system in which big entertainment or Internet companies could use the threat of harsh government penalties to effectively stifle competition and innovation."

Occupy Watch: Court looms; camp signs missing

Published in the Portland Phoenix

OccupyMaine has filed its comments on the city's reality-detached answer to Occupy's lawsuit (see "10 Fun Things in the OccupyMaine-Portland Lawsuit," by Jeff Inglis, January 13), and a hearing on the Occupiers' request for court protection from city eviction is scheduled for next week.

The outcome of the hearing will shift the Occupation into a new phase. Either it will become a rare Occupation that has received court shielding, or it will turn into an unauthorized encampment that the city may attempt to clear out. Some Occupiers have said they will leave if a judge rules against them; others have said they will not leave, even if staying means defying a court order.
Portland officials have been peaceful, though bureaucratically aggressive, in attempting to remove the encampment; if the city wins the case and some Occupiers defy an order to leave, what happens next will be of great interest to all concerned about free speech and use of public spaces.
The police attitude toward the protest is in some question, following a mysterious situation over the weekend, summarized in a Facebook post at 8:34 pm Sunday that begins "Every single sign from Lincoln Park was taken." All the signs along the park's fences were removed. It wasn't just handmade signs; wooden signs, professionally made banners, including one for Maine Veterans For Peace, and an American flag were taken down.
"The only thing that was left behind was the exit signs that we had put up at the city's request," says Occupier Jennifer Rose.
It's unclear when it happened, since nobody was caught in the act, but Occupiers who were in the encampment say it likely happened in the midafternoon on Sunday, just before the 3 pm General Assembly, which happened at the Meg Perry Center. (Because most of the stolen signs were on the fence along Congress Street, they are apparently not visible on surveillance cameras at the county and federal courthouses; the Occupiers moved nearer those cameras in October following a bomb attack on the camp, specifically in hopes of catching or deterring future troublemakers.)
Rose, who discovered the theft, says she called the police when she noticed the signs were missing. She was told that the city had not taken them down (this position was repeated by city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg on Tuesday), and that officers would come to the park to take a report.
Some time later, when officers had not yet been by, Rose called the police again, and was asked to come to the station. Between 8 and 9 pm Sunday, she did that, and spoke to two officers, including a lieutenant, whose name she did not record.
The lieutenant "told us first that anything left in a park becomes public domain, so the signs can't be stolen," Rose says, noting that when people lose their wallets or phones, or leave picnic baskets unattended to play elsewhere in a park, they don't give up their ownership of those items.
The officer also told her the encampment was "in the park illegally without a permit" — a conclusion that is undecided, pending next week's court hearing — and suggested that "some citizen took it upon himself to take everything down."
Noting that it is considered theft if campaign signs are removed from public parks, Rose says the political nature of Occupiers' signs should afford them the same protection. But "We were not even allowed to do a police report on it," she says.
Clegg, the city's spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the encounter at the police station was "a respectful conversation" that included a section about whether the signs were abandoned property, but mostly involved the officers' attempts to determine who owned the signs and how much they might be worth.
OccupyMaine's lack of an official leader "made it awkward for the police" to take a report from someone they weren't certain was the owner of the signs, Clegg said. Nevertheless, it appears that the city is acknowledging things should have been handled differently: Clegg said that Acting Police Chief Mike Sauschuck will be contacting John Branson, the attorney representing OccupyMaine, to offer to take a report from a representative of the group.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Legal Ease: 10 fun things in the OccupyMaine-Portland lawsuit

Published in the Portland Phoenix

OccupyMaine sued Portland late last year, seeking a court's permission to stay in Lincoln Park, given that the City Council has refused to brook any possibility of anyone remaining overnight in a city park for any reason (including free speech, expression, or assembly). The city has now replied with a court filing even longer than Occupy's. Together they provide the first full airing of the differences between the two groups' positions on the Occupation in Lincoln Park. We've read the lot, and found some fascinating passages in both filings.

From OccupyMaine
• Occupy observes something rarely considered in Maine courts: that the state Constitution provides additional rights beyond those recognized in the US Constitution and its First Amendment. One such Maine-specific right is "to institute government and to alter, reform, or totally change the same, when their safety and happiness require it." The Occupy suit stops short of saying this is what the Occupiers are doing — though it does suggest that it's what they want.
• While tacitly admitting that the decision-makers at least paid lip service to content-neutrality while denying OccupyMaine's petitions to stay in Lincoln Park, the suit argues that the markedly colder reception given by the City Council (as compared with the inviting welcome given to businesses) constitutes a content-specific action.
• OccupyMaine cites the oft-vilified Citizens United ruling by the US Supreme Court as offering protection to the encampment, saying the Supreme Court "has observed advocacy of a politically controversial viewpoint is the essence of First Amendment expression."
• The Occupiers say that tenting is "integral to the protestors' message," though many Occupiers have been working very hard to establish the Meg Perry Center as a base of operations, and to expand protest activities well beyond the encampment.
• The Occupiers say Portland's anti-loitering ordinance prevents any assembly in the overnight hours, with no exceptions for Constitutionally protected speech or other permissible actions, and argue that this is too restrictive.

From the city of Portland
• Under cover of claiming that descriptions of several discrete parts of relevant public meetings are "summaries" of those entire meetings, the city denies reality by, apparently, claiming certain interactions never happened — such as, for example, the December 7 comments by Martin Steingesser that the city granted a multi-million-dollar tax break to the Pierce Atwood law firm.
• In a further departure from actual facts, the city claims OccupyMaine has not demonstrated in the park, nor protested on sidewalks, nor marched in the streets. The group members "have done absolutely no active protesting other than just living in the park 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," says the city's filing.
• The city admonishes OccupyMaine for filing suit, despite the clear expression by councilors that a lawsuit would be preferable — with councilors Jill Duson and Kevin Donoghue specifically urging getting to court quickly. And it claims suffering "significant harm," though the primary municipal expenditure is as much as $15,000 in hiring an outside lawyer to handle the case, rather than using the city's staff attorney.
• The city says it will not forcibly evict the Occupation. Responding to a passage in the Occupy suit saying "Absent . . . relief by this Court . . . the [Occupiers] face . . . forcible removal by the Portland Police Department," the city says: "City denies the . . . allegations."
• The city gives express written permission for a 24-hour continuous march through Lincoln Park: "OccupyMaine members could march through the park after 10:00 p.m. while expressing their message in a peaceful way, and there would be no ordinance violation." It also gives OccupyMaine specific permission to engage in "their expressive activities twenty-four hours a day on adjoining sidewalks or in other public spaces not subject to the City's Parks Ordinance."

Press releases: New faces

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and its sister papers announced at 4 pm last Friday that an effort was under way to bring in new owners to take over the papers, in the wake of Richard Connor's abrupt departure back in October.
Led by Chris Harte, who back in the pre-Blethen 1990s was president of the Press Herald, the prospective investors say they want to add capital to the papers, and talk nicely about committing to the community. (Personally, Harte has long been a generous giver to causes in town and around the state.) But the announcement also mentioned "disciplined management," which could be corporate-speak for additional cuts.
Releasing news late on Friday afternoons is often a way to limit aggressive reporting on controversial announcements, because fewer reporters work weekends, and because sources can safely claim to be out of the office, and thereby avoid tough questions — at least until the initial round of stories comes out with the news itself.
In any case, there are plenty of important details to be fleshed out over time.
First, there's the deal itself, which is not yet done — rather, the existing owners and the new investors have agreed "terms" under which the investment would happen. So it's really an announcement of nothing except what most Press Herald watchers assumed was happening: talks with potential investors about who is going to run the company now that its only media-experienced leader, Connor, is gone.
Next, the prospective new investors haven't yet met with the union representing most of the company's workers. That's actually two problems. The union is a part owner of the company, and apparently hasn't had any say in the terms of this deal; it is a minority owner, but being denied a seat at the table for discussions like this is a serious blow to the union's claim to a voice in management. And it raises extremely big questions about worker compensation; while the union trumpeted the fact that in September it reached a contract that did not include wage or benefits cuts, that's only true because the new agreement punted talks about pay and extras to the middle of 2012.
Those are the most pressing questions, but there are others. Harte, an heir to the Harte-Hanks newspaper fortune, is a major investor in Current Publishing, a group of community weekly papers covering the southern and western suburbs of Portland. (I worked at Current Publishing for four years, ending in 2005.) It will be interesting to see whether his involvement will lead to increased competition — or perhaps collaboration — between the weeklies and the Press Herald.
Harte politely declined to comment for this piece, saying it was "too early" to say anything. But over the years, in previous conversations with me, he had always specifically denied there was any substance to the recurring rumors that he was interested in purchasing the paper. Perhaps it was a much lower cost than ever before that got him this time, or public-spiritedness on the part of a longtime newspaperman. It's certainly not without bitter awareness of the risk; when the Minneapolis Star Tribune exited bankruptcy in 2009, he walked away empty-handed, leaving millions in investments behind.
Other major investors' effects on the paper will be worth watching, too. The group includes greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner, who told Boston magazine in 2011 that he would not guarantee editorial independence from owners' influence if he were able to purchase the Boston Globe from the New York Times Company.
And there's Jack Griffin, often described as former Time Inc. CEO — but he held that post for just five months before being booted in February 2011 because "his leadership style and approach did not mesh with Time Inc. and Time Warner," according to an email to Time employees from Griffin's boss at the time. Before that, he had been head of the Iowa-based company publishing Better Homes and Gardens,Family Circle, and Ladies' Home Journal.
As for Connor, remember the houses he transferred into his wife's name the day before abruptly tendering his resignation? The Falmouth one (oceanfront, with six-bay garage) is on the market, asking $2.7 million.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Better by the dozen: Twelve sweet ideas for Maine in 2012

Published in the Portland Phoenix; what's below are my parts of a longer piece co-written with Deirdre Fulton and Nicholas Schroeder

Improving opinion polling
Pretty much as soon as the champagne glasses are empty, the state — and the nation — will return to Election Mode. With the presidency, one of Maine's US Senate seats, and the entire state legislature in the running, it'll be impossible to avoid the blitz of advertising, reporting, campaigning. At the core of much of that noise will be public-opinion polls, asking about issues, candidates, political parties, and anything else campaigns and pollsters can think up.
Polls obviously influence campaign efforts and media coverage, but they can also affect campaign contributions and support, particularly in multi-candidate races, as many of 2012's are shaping up to be. For all those reasons — and because polls can offer deeper insights into our collective psyche — it's important that opinion polling be done well.
But what, exactly, does that mean? The central piece is that the way the poll is conducted — from selection of the people who are polled, as well as how they are screened (to find likely voters, for example), and reporting of the results with complete statistical information (margin of error, confidence level) — is made public, so we can know how to respond to the results.
Of course, this takes a degree of public comfort and familiarity with the mechanics of polling — most especially, understanding the statistics behind why, and how, properly sampled groups of 400 to 700 people can, in fact, truly represent the opinions of much larger populations (like a 1.3-million person state, or a 300-million person nation).
The Maine People's Resource Center, a non-profit affiliated with the progressive Maine People's Alliance, has been working for the past couple years on establishing a poll-savvy culture here in Maine. By doing its own polls and releasing not only the results but the underlying data, and critiquing the available information about other polls conducted in Maine (by pollsters in-state and from away), MPRC is elevating the discourse around what Maine people actually think and want.
As the only group that conducted a poll for Portland's first-ever ranked-choice voting mayoral slate, by releasing all of its raw data as well as its methodology and analysis, and certainly as an organization willing to engage in discussions about polling, MPRC is bringing transparency and accountability to a challenging area of public debate. "When people make an argument based on public opinion, they are in a way speaking with the voice of all of us," says MPRC communications director Mike Tipping, explaining why his group is working to improve understanding of what public opinion actually is, and how various pollsters measure it — and is putting its own polls at the forefront of transparency, accountability, and open discussion. With MPRC's help, we'll all be better informed about the real state of Maine politics in 2012, no matter which polls we're looking at.

Wine by the tap
The Maine incarnation of an emergent global trend popped up at Havana South in Portland a couple years back, but is only now gaining momentum, and may really expand in 2012. It's wine in a keg. A boon to wineries, shippers, distributors, restaurants, and wine drinkers alike, wine that is "bottled" in sixth-barrel-sized kegs saves on materials, shipping, and storage, and keeps wine fresher longer. One such keg holds 220 glasses of wine, says Eric Agren, owner of Fuel, a Lewiston restaurant that joined the wine-keg movement a couple months ago. "That's equivalent to cases and cases and cases of wine," he says, marveling at the reduction in glass, cork, cardboard, and fuel needed to package and ship it all.
Kept under pressure with nitrogen, and with white wine run through a cold plate to chill it before dispensing, the kegs save Agren "about 30 percent on the cost of the wine," allowing him to charge $7 a glass for each of his two kegged wines, instead of the $9.50 he would charge if that same wine were poured from a bottle. With an investment of just a few hundred bucks for a tap and pressure system, it's a relatively easy way to save money for restaurants — and isn't out of reach for aficionados at home.
The major stumbling block, Agren says, is consumer perception. Keg wine is not box wine; rather, it comes from the high-end boutique wineries that are most concerned with green practices (like organic vineyards, carbon-neutral production, and so on), so the quality is not a concern. Best of all, like beer kegs, the wine kegs get reused, going back to the winery for cleaning and refilling over and over. It's almost like a neverending supply of eco-friendly, delicious wine!