Giving Thanks and Taking Action: Protecting Civil Liberties in the Modern Technological Age

As we give thanks during the holiday season, we take a moment to acknowledge the benefit of living in a country that is often a world-model for protecting civil liberties. And yet it seems every week we have learned more about law enforcement surveillance of the American people. The United Church of Christ has long been known for its bold prophetic voice -- supporting racial, gender, and religious equality--which is inconsistent with profiling of people because of their race, undocumented status, or religion. The UCC also has been involved in many areas of advocacy, civic engagement, and civil disobedience, thus we have a strong interest in the just and responsible exercise of law enforcement powers.

New technology is making profiling and surveillance at the same time easier to conduct and also more difficult to detect. We described in this recent letter the unacceptable treatment of people of color and Muslims, who have been inappropriately targeted by law enforcement. The law ostensibly protecting people from this kind of surveillance has not been updated since 1986, leaving many communities vulnerable when they use new technologies, or when law enforcement avails itself of modern techniques. 

New technology should not erode our civil liberties. Law enforcement searches of email, cell phones, GPS devices and online content should receive the same constitutional protection as letters and telephone calls. UCC OC Inc. and its partners in the civil rights and civil liberty communities support legislation introduced by Senators Leahy and Lee to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which would bring the law up-to-date.

Please join this campaign to get 100,000 signatures by December 12 asking the White House to support updating of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which would protect modern communications as much as traditional methods. Please sign the petition by December 12


For an amusing Christmas take on this effort -- visit

9/11 Anniversary a Chance to Transcend Racial Profiling, by Wade Henderson, President & CEO, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

Racial Profiling, an explanation from the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ

Modernizing the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, American Civil Liberties Union

New More Just Prison Phone Rates Move Ahead

The following statement can be attributed to Cheryl Leanza, policy advisor for the United Church of Christ's media justice and communications rights ministry, OC Inc.:


"For ten years, the prison phone industry, led by Securus and Global Tel Link, has stonewalled and delayed while families have waited for the Federal Communications Commission to end predatory prison phone rates.  Now, at long last, we have rules that will bring to an end the unjustified rates.


"The FCC gave the industry innumerable chances to prove their claims that these extraordinary prices are justified.  Not only did the industry refuse to participate, but it asked for even more delay.  The FCC has finally heard the call of justice, and rightly refused to make families suffer any longer.   As Commissioner Clyburn said, 'Justice delayed is justice denied.'"

New FCC chairman Tom Wheeler starts term on pro-consumer note

There are few jobs in the US government with more power to help or harm the country's tech landscape than the chairmanship of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that ultimately decides how telecoms and cable companies go about their business. And Tom Wheeler starts his five-year stint at the helm of the FCC under a fair amount of scrutiny: a former lobbyist for both the cable and wireless industries, it's easy to extrapolate that the President Obama-nominated venture capitalist might not have the best interest of consumers in mind. But are the fears unfounded?

read more

Video Streaming Continues To Gain Acceptance Among TV Viewers

Streaming video on a connected TV device is now the second most popular way for adults 18-49 to view primetime TV programming behind watching traditional live television, according to a recently completed survey commissioned by Crackle, the unit of Sony Pictures Entertainment that offers ad-supported on-demand streaming video programming.

read more

Want to know if your ISP is capping data? Check GigaOm’s updated chart

An updated look at how Internet service providers (ISPs) around the US are trying to implement broadband data caps.

read more

Join us! Ideas for an Online Justice Agenda for Extravagance UCC

Last week I attended an important meeting hosted by the United Church of Christ:  a meeting to envision what a UCC community could look like that existed mostly, or solely, online.   I attended the meeting as a representative of the UCC's historic media justice ministry, which goes by the name of OC Inc. The leaders of Extravagance asked us to envision a community that could reach people who did not have a local UCC church, or were not comfortable or able to come to a physical building.  It was a great treat to be with so many people who were both heavily invested in the church and also deeply immersed in new technology. 


During the meeting we spent considerable time discussing what is church and what a church online could be.   As I reflected on the meeting afterward, I was excited to see where this next chapter of ministry would lead the UCC.  I also was delighted because the UCC has been such a significant leader in communications rights and media justice, and this new ministry is a chance to deepen further the modern connection to this work.  As is true with most UCC churches, I hope an important part of the new work is social justice ministry.  And the world of communications rights and media justice would be a logical focus.  As the UCC and other churches embrace virtual community, it is important that we understand the inherent justice challenges in the new technological landscape.  Just as we fight to improve the functioning of democracy even as we advocate as part of our civic institutions, we should maintain a focus on the just use of technology as we utilize it to bring full incarnation to the United Church of Christ online.


To that end, I thought it would be useful to lay out a few of the justice issues that UCC OC Inc. is working on now, to offer them for consideration as the Extravagance team considers how to move ahead. 


Social media:  making our members into a product?  Social media is part of modern life, whereas in previous decades in the U.S. we used to socialize in bowling leagues and church social halls, we now have moved to virtual communities.  According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, as of May 2013,  72 percent of online adults use social networking sites, even those ages 65 and older have roughly tripled their presence on social networking sites in the last four years.   Half of teenagers own smartphones. 


But social media is a business; it is not a church-owned social hall.  Social media companies have offered many services for free, but as many a wag has noted, if the product is "free" you are the product.  For example, Facebook's new policies on including user images in advertising are currently under federal investigation.  And this does not even begin to address the data the government might be collecting in violation of our civil liberties, and the civil liberties of perhaps some of our sister and brother faith communities, such as the Muslim community.  UCC OC Inc. has been involved in seeking improved choices by the companies themselves, and also improved regulation to protect children and teens.


Social media:  who decides what we see?  Moreover, social media users cannot make their own ethical choices about what they see and what others see -- so we may not be able to see images of breastfeeding mothers, at the same time that violence against women is distributed widely.  It was great to see the successful campaign to persuade Facebook to address violence against women more actively.   Twitter just became a public company--the drive to earn revenue will increase.  In my conversations with UCC leaders, at least some online users have felt that Facebook's system of advertising feedback lead to their advertisements being pulled--not that different from when UCC's still speaking advertisements were pulled from some television stations. 


As we use social media, such as public and private Facebook pages, YouTube, Pinterest  and others, it is important to remain aware that we are meeting in a for-profit public space.  As we use the technology--which we should--we cannot stop pushing for it to be more just in its implementation.


Fair rules of the road for unpopular or noncommercial content.  Today, for the most part, when people view video streaming or other content online, their only limit is in the speed of their broadband connection.  But those days are not likely continue, especially absent strong widespread public engagement.  This is perhaps one of the most fundamental communications justice issues afoot, largely occurring outside of the public eye.  It extends the for-profit meeting hall metaphor to a new level--in the U.S. the physical networks, the wires, that we use to connect with each other are owned by private companies. 


While for much of the Internet's history regulations governed the use of these wires, it is no longer the case.  For this reason, UCC OC Inc. is part of the effort to persuade the US to adopt policies  mandating "net neutrality" or "open access."  It is the principle that private companies that own the wires cannot use the wires as a monopoly for their own gain at the expense of other content.  In the past commercial networks have removed controversial content and blocked large downloads (of the Bible no less!).   Network companies are considering charging content creators to distribute content--like the potential deal between ESPN and Internet companies.  But what about noncommercial content?  Who can pay for the distribution of church content, social justice advocacy and content serving vulnerable communities?  Will church YouTube channels go the way of cable access while commercial content is still as powerful as NBC or ABC today? UCC OC Inc. is a leader in demonstrating open Internet is important to the faith community and others.


A good example of this is text messaging.  The parameters for text message donations are set by the mobile phone companies that control them.  Currently donations are capped at $10 each.  These rules are not designed to undercut noncommercial or church fund-raising, but the impact is the same.  And occasional mistakes show that non-profits and churches have little leverage in these relationships.  In another recent change, just this week Comcast started to experiment with data caps--one industry publication estimated this might cost 40 cents per hour for Netflix movies. While this is a small sum today, the potential if this were to be a routine industry practice is of concern.  Historically we have always set aside space for noncommercial speech and civic discourse--whether that was the town square or public broadcasting.  The noncommercial space of tomorrow without net neutrality is fragile, which is why UCC OC Inc. helped lead the National Council of Churches Communication Commission to adopt a resolution supporting net neutrality.  But we don't have a UCC synod resolution yet -- maybe it is time?


Access to communications for all.  Thirty percent of people (90 million) do not have broadband access at home, for reasons of cost, access, and digital illiteracy.  And people of color are much more likely than whites to access broadband via mobile devices, with all the bandwidth and other limits those devices bring--it is still very difficult to apply for a job or write a resume on a smart phone.  In fact, the government program to support simple voice telephones for low-income people is under attack.  And while UCC OC Inc. and a range of allies have just persuaded the Federal Communications Commission to bring down the price of a long-distance telephone call to prison, the prison industrial complex is developing ways to charge families and inmates for the use of email and video conferencing.  A young LGBT person in rural America might not be able to access the many resources available without broadband; an impoverished family in the inner-city might be sending their children to McDonald's to access broadband to do their homework.  UCC OC Inc. has been a leader in advocating for policies to support technology for underserved communities.


Ethical use of technology.  As we have started to explore what theology might look like and mean online, we also face some practical immediate questions about how to go about using it as ethical people.  An obvious point for people of faith is the importance of addressing online bullying.  But other questions abound -- the UCC Insurance Boards have started to offer guidance for the appropriate ways for clergy and members to communicate online in a manner that echoes the UCC's safe church initiative.  This is a rapidly evolving field where some of the most cautious advice may be hard to implement if we are to truly become an online community. 


While technology can improve and augment in-person and long-distance relationships, technology can also become a crutch or a wall between us and our loved ones.  There is an emerging community looking at media fasts, technology Sabbaths and other techniques to make sure technology plays a helpful and supportive role, but does not move into negative or obsessive behavior.   Check out UCC OC Inc.'s media violence fast next September, and the technology Sabbath March 2014.


Children. As adults we can model appropriate use of technology for our children.  An astounding 38 percent of children under two years old have used a mobile device and three quarters of children under eight have access to a mobile device at home, while the under-eight crowd's total screen time still totals almost 2 hours daily.   As the technology visionary Sherry Turkle noted in Alone Together, while teens recognize that they often overindulge in technology and communications, they are anxiously looking to see whether the adults in their lives can offer positive role models.  Do we stack up?  Do we put away mobile phones and blackberries at dinner, when our children are talking to us?  A supportive community will both use and manage media well, for example using these resources from the American Academy of Pediatrics for children's media use. 


The world of communications justice is vibrant.  UCC is a leader and has partners in organizations like the World Association for Christian Communications.  As we move ahead on the grand experiment of Extravagance UCC, it is also time to more fully embrace our long history in justice online. We invite everyone working on Extravagance to join us!  Let's start a dialogue about how we can work together.

A new way to skin the net neutrality cat

The main trouble with the Federal Communications Commission’s network neutrality rules is that the rules, as written, don’t really address the problem they’re trying to remedy. They attempt to regulate what is essentially anti-competitive behavior by Internet service providers, or the potential for anti-competitive behavior, by treating it as a matter of communications law, instead of antitrust law.

read more

Mobile phones are now as crucial as food and water in emergency aid

Foreign aid is streaming into the Philippines from around the world as the news of the devastation wrought Super Typhoon Haiyan spreads, but it’s no longer just food, water and shelter.

read more

Wireless competition is good for consumers — even if it costs taxpayers extra

The Federal Communications Commission, under the leadership of freshly-confirmed chairman Tom Wheeler, is hard at work on rules that will govern an upcoming spectrum auction. AT&T and Verizon, the nation's largest wireless carriers, want the FCC to hold an unrestricted auction that could allow them to maintain or even widen their lead in premium low-frequency spectrum. Their smaller competitors, especially T-Mobile, are urging the FCC to adopt rules to guarantee that the largest carriers do not wind up with a disproportionate share of that spectrum.

read more

Twitter’s handle on DC evolving

Twitter, already an established Silicon Valley player and long a DC outsider, may have little choice but to get more involved in the Washington game -- as was the case for Facebook and Google.

read more