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More on Amazon and the sales tax

From Slate:

Amazon has aggressively fought state efforts to impose sales tax on its operations. In 2008, New York passed a law that required online companies to collect taxes if they had deals with marketing affiliates based in the state. The law was designed specifically to target Amazon and other large online retailers—many called it the “Amazon tax.” In response, Amazon sued New York over the law’s constitutionality—marketing affiliates, Amazon argued, did not constitute a significant presence in the state. (Overstock.com, another company that has carefully avoided collecting taxes, took a harder line. In response to the New York law, Overstock canceled its relationships with all New York affiliates, freeing it from collecting any taxes in the state.)

While Amazon is still fighting the New York tax law, the company has been collecting taxes in the state as per the legislation. But Amazon has pushed back against collecting taxes in three other states that passed similar laws—it told its marketing affiliates inColoradoNorth Carolina, and Rhode Island to take a hike, allowing the company to skirt tax collection there. And it has threatened to do the same in other states—including California—where legislators have proposed affiliate-related taxes.

So, is Amazon’s tax-free status unfair? Of course it is. As [Michael Mazerov of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities] points out, Amazon has physical operations in 17 states in which the company and its employees enjoy the fruits of local taxes—police and fire protection, roads, hospitals, and other infrastructure that make its operations possible. Yet Amazon skirts tax collection in most of these places through clever legal tricks. For instance, it has incorporated its warehouses and Web site as separate legal entities in order to argue that it doesn’t really have a presence in Nevada, Texas, and other states. The Kindle offers another example of that strategy—the e-book reader was developed at Lab126, an Amazon office based in Cupertino, Calif. But that office is actually a legal subsidiary, freeing Amazon of collecting any taxes in California.

Anything that drives a company to resort to such trickery cannot be good public policy. The solution will ultimately need to come from Congress, which means it won’t happen any time soon. Out of fairness to brick and mortar retailers, as well as to state and local governments, it needs to happen eventually.

Cutting the cord on cable

I have no plans to change the way I watch TV any time soon, but a lot of other people are at least thinking about it.

The Convergence Consulting Group of Toronto predicts that about 1.6 million U.S. households will “cut the cord,” or cancel monthly cable subscriptions, by the end of 2011, as more content becomes available online.

Time Warner and Comcast recently reported that third-quarter cable subscriber losses more than doubled from a year earlier, though both argued the economy was a bigger factor than cord-cutting.

Research firm Nielsen Co. also says the phenomenon is overstated. At a conference this summer, Howard Shimmel, a senior vice president at the company, said cord- cutting is mainly isolated to young, emerging households that aren’t watching much online programming either.

Nevertheless, media businesses have made strides to stay ahead of the issue, responding by offering on-demand services, digital video recorders and “TV Everywhere” options that allow paying customers to access content over the devices of their choosing.

Dwight recently ran a guest post from a cable cord-cutter. What was fascinating to me was all the comments from people had already done this or who were planning to. A lot of them sounded like too much work in return for the savings, plus a lot of experiences with Comcast that are worse than mine, but to each their own. I didn’t have cable until I was 31. It wasn’t available where we lived when I was a kid, it wasn’t available on the Trinity campus when I was in college, and I was too cheap to spring for it my first few years in Houston. Having finally taken that step, I have no plans to go back. I can see the appeal of just getting the shows you want via the Internet, especially since it’s a lot easier to watch them on a TV now, but for me the value of not having to change my habits outweighs that. My TiVo does what I need it to do, thanks. I know that nothing lasts forever and that sooner or later I’ll be forced to change, but I’m content to wait till that happens. What about you? All Things Digital nd Yglesias have more.a

Amazon was just the beginning

I agree with this.

By telling retail giant Amazon.com that it owes $269 million in uncollected sales taxes, the State of Texas has waded into the national debate over taxing Internet sales. The state comptroller’s office said it has sent similar demands for payment to other online retailers.

Allen Spelce, a spokesman for the comptroller’s office, said he could not release the names of the others, but he said they are “high-profile” online retailers that have not been collecting sales taxes in Texas.

Traditional merchants and industry groups have praised Texas’ recent demand to Amazon, saying it’s about time that the world’s biggest online retailer is made to play by the same rules as everyone else.

“It’s really just a fairness issue,” said Steven Bercu, CEO of Austin bookstore BookPeople. “The state, for some reason I don’t understand, has been picking its favorite retailer, and for some reason it’s been an out-of-state retailer.”

“People walk in here, talk to our booksellers, get recommendations, learn about what would be a better choice for reading material — and then it’s not uncommon to hear them say, ‘I think I’ll buy it on Amazon and not have to pay any sales tax,'” Bercu said.

Texas handed Amazon a bill for $269 million the other day. We don’t know yet how much the other retailers have been dinged for, but I’ll bet it’s a nontrivial amount, and I’ll bet there’s still more where that came from. The main question is if, not when, these retailers remit, and whether the matter will ultimately be settled in the courts or the legislatures. Former Deputy Comptroller Billy Hamilton sums it up, and I couldn’t agree with him more:

In the early years of Internet commerce, Hamilton said, political theory seemed to be that promoting online commerce was more important than any lost sales tax revenue.

“I can remember making a speech in 1995 where I said, this is going to be a big problem for states if this online retailing takes off,” he said. “And somebody stood up and said, ‘You’re trying to strangle the baby in the crib.'”

Hamilton, however, said he was bothered by online retailers who acted as if “they had invented manna from heaven and that it should exempt them from the rules of gravity.”

Amazon and other online retailers took the stance, Hamilton said, “that because this was on the Internet and was an incredible business model and this was the future, that somehow that exempted them from any social or any other kind of obligation. When you got right down to it, to me it was a kind of an arrogance.”

Hamilton said the state’s recent demand that Amazon pay up shouldn’t be seen as the endgame in the debate over the issue.

“The comptroller is taking a shot,” Hamilton said. “I wouldn’t hold my breath or imagine this is somehow going to help this budget problem that they’ve got right now — because it’s undoubtably going to be litigated.”

The original justifications for exempting Internet sales from taxation are at least a decade out of date, and are having a significant impact on state and local budgets. Last I checked, even online retailers benefit from things like roads and law enforcement and other things that state and local governments provide, too. The one thing I’ll add is that ideally this would be addressed by Congress, since as I recall the original prohibition on sales taxes for online purchases came from Congress. Unfortunately, I can’t see that happening any time soon, so off to the courts we will surely go. Dan Gillmor has more.

Texas tells Amazon to pay up

Well, that’s one way to attack the budget deficit.

Texas has sent Amazon.com Inc. a $269 million bill for uncollected sales taxes on purchases made by state residents from the Seattle-based Internet superstore over a four-year period.

[…]

R.J. DeSilva, spokesman for the Texas comptroller of public accounts, said the bill was sent to Amazon.com in August. It wasn’t publicly disclosed until Friday, when Amazon.com revealed it in a regulatory filing.

“The company has requested a re-determination, which means this is an ongoing audit and could be decided as part of the administrative hearings process,” DeSilva said in a statement. “The company would send documents, and this process will continue.”

DeSilva said he couldn’t answer any questions because sales tax and audit information is largely confidential under Texas law.

[…]

The Texas comptroller’s office began an investigation of Amazon’s taxing status in May 2008 after The Dallas Morning News questioned why Amazon didn’t charge sales taxes while maintaining a distribution center in Irving near Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

At the time, Amazon.com had sued New York over whether it needed to collect sales taxes there, arguing it had no “physical presence” in that state. That defense dates to a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision covering catalogs and direct mail-order companies but later applied to Internet retailers.

The News report said Amazon had been operating the Irving distribution center since at least 2006. Amazon contended the distribution center was owned by one of its subsidiaries called Amazon.com KYDC LLC, which is located at the same address as its corporate headquarters in Seattle.

In July, Amazon.com purchased the rest of Carrollton-based Woot.com that it didn’t already own. Amazon.com had held a minority stake in the quirky deal-of-the-day website since 2006.

“I don’t know if this will encourage other states, but I hope it will,” said Michael Mazerov, senior fellow in the State Fiscal Project of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. “Amazon is very legally vulnerable.”

The company’s defense that “the mere separation of a corporate subsidiary isolates a retail arm from having to charge sales taxes creates no limit to what any corporation could do,” Mazerov said.

He estimated in a 2009 study that state and local governments lose more than $7 billion a year in uncollected sales taxes.

I’ve already said that I don’t see any reason at this point why online sales are exempt from sales taxes. It made some sense in the 90s, but not any more. I’m rooting for the state on this one.

Casinos look to the Internet

Interesting.

Many of the country’s largest casinos, long opposed to gambling games like poker on the Internet, are now having second thoughts.

Although online gambling is popular with millions of Americans, it is illegal in the United States, and the casino industry has considered it a threat.

But a trade group that represents major casinos like Harrah’s Entertainment, MGM Resorts and Wynn Resorts is working on a proposal that would ask Congress to legalize at least some form of online gambling, the group’s chief executive said.

The group, the American Gaming Association, issued a statement in the spring suggesting that online gambling could be properly regulated — the first public indication that its hard-line stance was softening.

[…]

The move by casinos to open the door to online gambling could bring a powerful new lobbying force into Congressional debate. It would also most likely intensify fights in state legislatures as various gambling interests — groups that include lotteries, racetracks and Indian tribes — push lawmakers to grab more gambling dollars for states by moving to the Web.

California, Florida and New Jersey recently made unsuccessful efforts to legalize Internet betting on casino-style games, said Mark Balestra, the director of the BolaVerde Media Group, a consulting firm in St. Louis that tracks Internet gambling. Current law does not prevent in-state gambling over the Internet but to do so across state lines would require a change in federal law.

Just something to keep an eye on in the event that the push for expanded gambling in Texas finally succeeds next year. It’s possible that language to allow for such betting might be proposed, but I doubt it could get enough support to actually be included. But if and when casino gambling is legalized here, expect the campaign to expand it to online action to follow.

Collecting sales tax on Internet purchases

Tax revenues are down in nearly every state. Most states rely on sales taxes for a significant portion of their revenues. Purchases made over the Internet are generally exempt from sales taxes. You do the math.

In recent weeks, legislators in Maryland and Connecticut held hearings on whether to force Internet stores to collect local sales taxes. Last month, Colorado’s $1.3 billion deficit led legislators to pass a law requiring e-commerce sites to tax. New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and others states took or tried to take action last year.

Texas is looking at a two-year budget shortfall of as much as $15 billion. Speaking recently in Austin, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs said the state is losing almost $600 million a year in state and local sales taxes from online purchases.

Over the next decade, online shopping is forecast to grow five times as fast as brick-and-mortar retail, according to a Goldman Sachs research report. It predicts online shopping will go from 4.4 percent of all U.S. retail sales today to 14.6 percent by 2020.

These trends “should create a more favorable climate for leveling the playing field and, in fact, efforts to move forward with legislation have intensified over the past year,” said Wayne Zakrzewski, associate general counsel at J.C. Penney Co.

As I recall, the justification at the time for not imposing sales taxes on Internet purchases was that e-commerce was a new and fragile thing and it needed a little help to ensure that it would survive and hopefully thrive. Mission accomplished, I daresay. I have to say, I can’t see why buying a CD at Cactus Music is subject to sales tax but buying the same CD on Amazon.com is not. In the 1990s it sort of made sense, but not now.

Amazon.com says it shouldn’t have to collect sales taxes from customers in states where it doesn’t have a physical presence, the long-standing criterion for catalog and Internet sellers from a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision. It’s been collecting local sales taxes in New York since 2008 while it uses that defense in its court battle.

In Texas, Amazon.com has operated a distribution center in Irving since 2006 without collecting sales taxes from its Texas customers. Amazon.com says a subsidiary owns the distribution center, which exempts it from the Texas law.

This is just silly. The fact that such a ridiculous loophole exists is by itself sufficient reason to put aside the pretense that there’s something special about buying stuff over the Internet and start treating it like any other act of commerce. We’ve known for a long time that Texas’ sales tax system is largely outdated because it is mostly focused on sales of goods and not services, which as a share of the economy is now larger and growing faster than goods. That’s one reason why there is now some lip service about reviewing the tax code so that obsolete deductions and exemptions might be reviewed and removed. (There was similar talk a few years back about doing the same for property taxes, but that ultimately went nowhere.) Segregating the economy like this makes no sense.

West U and Bellaire on the Google Fiber bandwagon

The deadline for submitting an application for a city to be a part of Google’s experimental fiber network was last Friday, the 26th. The cities of West University Place and Bellaire got theirs in before the deadline.

Cindy Siegel and Bob Kelly won’t be making any photo-op leaps to promote their respective cities’ cases for bring Google’s fiber to Bellaire or West University Place. Both cities are taking low-key approaches to their responses to Google’s bid requests, and both municipalities have something few other cities can boast; high-density entities with relatively low square mileage, with great proximity to one of the most tech-savvy large cities in the country.

Can Bellaire and West U compete against the others?

“We’re taking a more straightforward, practical approach,” said Bellaire City Manager Bernie Satterwhite. “If you look at what some of the other cities are doing, and look at some of the institutions that would benefit from this, I would think it might diminish our chances somewhat.”

In the same breath, though, Satterwhite told the Examiner: “But, it’s worth our while to pursue this.”

West University Place City Manager Michael Ross, however, thinks his city’s conservative, under-the-radar set of sales pitches to Google, will play to an advantage for his municipality.

“I feel our chances are extremely high,” said Ross. “It’s been proven time and time again that West University Place is a community that is very desirable for technology. We do everything we can with our current provider—what we’d really like is what, in this case, is a ‘supreme’ provider.”

They join Sugar Land in submitting an application, and we know all about Austin. Does anyone know if the city of Houston ever did anything about this? My guess would be No, since I’ve not seen any indication of it. But in the event I just missed it, leave a comment if you know what happened.

The university printing business

Interesting.

An experiment at Rice University to make scholarly research available to anyone with an Internet connection is trying to change the world of academic publishing.

[…]

“The costs of publishing are reduced by digital dissemination, but they are hardly eliminated,” said Charles Backus, director of the Texas A&M University Press, which produces as many as 70 books a year, including some available electronically.

Rice goes further: Every book may be read online for free; none are printed until an order is placed, with the payment covering the cost of printing and delivering the book. There is no sales staff, nor warehouses to hold unsold books.

“It’s unbelievable how expensive it is to produce and distribute these academic titles (in traditional press operations),” said Fred Moody, the sole employee at the Rice press and an evangelist for the digital future. “It’s a model for hemorrhaging cash.”

There is little disagreement about that.

Doesn’t seem like a propitious time for Rice to be investing in such a thing, but at least they’re doing it in a relatively low-cost way. My own alma mater revived their press a few years ago, via the more traditional means of a foundation grant. I wish Rice luck in its venture.

HISD Radio

This, from the inbox, sounds very cool:

K12RADIOHOUSTON: HISD’s NEW SCHOOL OF THOUGHT

The nation’s first custom radio station created for a major school district

(Houston, Texas) No radio tower or transmitter necessary! The Houston Independent School District (HISD) begins live Internet streaming of K12RadioHouston in July of 2010 in preparation for students returning to class in the fall. The station’s 24/7 custom programming opens a new door to welcome parents, staff and the extended family of HISD. Listeners will enjoy a wide range of music while hearing about the many facets of Texas’ largest, and the nation’s 7th largest school district.

Streaming radio stations over the Internet have come a long way. The latest research shows that 60 million Americans listen to Internet radio every week. K12RadioHouston is an example of new online programming that is built around a strong common interest. With more than 200,000 students and 30,000 employees, K12RadioHouston is relevant to nearly a million area residents.

HISD has tapped Houston’s RFC Media to design and produce its new custom radio station. “The move to online sources of music and entertainment is exploding, so why not build a station around a community that shares a common interest, like the education of our children,” said RFC Co-Founder and Houston radio veteran Pat Fant.

First, the music has to be right, and that’s where RFC’s President and Chief Programmer – Cruze – comes in with true music variety not routinely found on ordinary radio. “Our roots go very deep in the cross-cultural and genre-specific categories that will help keep K12RadioHouston balanced and tuned for long periods of listening and entertainment. This is our specialty and there is no substitute for it, “said Cruze.

“We’ll embed news items of interest around the music to spotlight the District’s exceptional students, teachers and too often unnoticed accomplishments. Did you know HISD even has a program for students to earn a pilot’s license? A student may be licensed to fly a plane before they can drive a car,” Fant added.

Sponsor support of K12RadioHouston will be a new source of revenue to the school District. RFC Media will be seeking sponsor support from area business leaders for the nation’s first full-time custom radio station created for a major school district. To maximize the value for sponsors, the station will be easily accessed across the mobile digital networks with a custom iPhone application that enables one-touch listening anywhere to K12RadioHouston.

Channel 11, KHOU-TV is the television partner for K12RadioHouston. Listeners will access the station through a link on www.KHOU.com as well as through the District’s own website at www.hisd.org. “KHOU is proud to be the exclusive media partner for K12RadioHouston. We understand the role that education plays not only in our children’s future, but in the future of this great city. That’s why we are excited to help provide this innovative and family-oriented content to our community,” said KHOU’s President & General Manager Susan McEldoon.

HISD’s Chief District Relations Officer Lee Vela said, “This gives our schools a place to spotlight school events, and it’s a great opportunity for HISD students who are preparing for media careers to produce radio programming. The communications magnet students at Jack Yates High School are a good example.”

I had a lot of questions about this, and was fortunate to get a chance to sit down with Pat Fant and throw all of those questions at him. Here’s what he said to me.

Download the MP3 file

I’m looking forward to seeing how this all comes together. It’s a great idea, and I hope it’s a big success.

Sugar Land wants Google Fiber for Communities

Sugar Land joins Austin in making a concerted pitch to bring Google Fiber For Communities to their town.

“This project is suited to Sugar Land. Our population is highly educated. We have high standards,” said Sharlett Chowning, director of information technology in her presentation to City Council on Tuesday.

The proposed Internet speeds would be “like downloading a full-length 3D high-definition video in five minutes,” Chowning said.

Interested communities must submit an application by March 26, and the city’s department of information technology is working on Sugar Land’s submission.

Here’s the official city of Sugar Land web page on their effort, complete with logo, slogan, action items for individuals who want to get involved, and social media links. Are we gonna get in the game, Houston, or are we just going to sit back and let these other cities take the initiative?

Do we want Google Fiber For Communities in Houston?

Perhaps you’ve heard about Google’s latest project.

We’re planning to build and test ultra high-speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations across the United States. We’ll deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today with 1 gigabit per second, fiber-to-the-home connections. We plan to offer service at a competitive price to at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Dwight Silverman wondered what Houston might do about this.

I e-mailed Richard Lewis, the city’s chief technical officer, and asked him if Houston was indeed an “interested in community”. I heard back from Janis Evans, director of communications for Mayor Annise Parker. She said:

This looks interesting. However, the city would need some time to take a harder look at it, which we are doing.

Houston was aggressive when it came to plans in the mid-2000s to set up a citywide Wi-Fi network – a project that imploded when the chosen vendor, EarthLink, decided to get out of the business. All that’s left of the endeavor now are some downtown Wi-Fi hotspots.

If the city wants to work with Google, they can click the button on this page to apply. And, if you’re a resident or group interested in nominating your community, there’s a button for that on the page, too.

How about it, Houston? Are you an “interested community”?

If we are, we’re going to need to step it up. The city of Austin has already taken official action – they’ve submitted an application, asked for public support, and have their City Council involved. In addition, there’s a grassroots campaign going on as well.

If Austin is going to convince Google to build here, it’s going to take a strong community response. In fact, there is a whole section of questions for the City to document the community response to the initiative.

The “Big Gig Austin” initiative has been created by a number of supporters, who want to work in support of the Google RFI. We’ve got about one month to document how incredibly badly Austin wants this network to be built here.

The official rollout of the project will be happening in the next few days. In the meantime, we’ve created a couple of resources.

24-Hour Twitter Campaign

If, in the next 24 hours, if we can get 200 people to follow @BigGigAustin, I’ll ask the City to put us in a press release. I know there have been discussions about sending out a press release about the Google fiber project. If we can get that kind of following so quickly, I’ll ask the City to cite us in their press release as an example of how Austin is rallying behind this project.

That was posted Wednesday at noon. As of now, there are 199 followers of @BigGigAustin, so they didn’t quite make their goal by the stated deadline, but that’s still a pretty good showing.

So that’s what Austin is doing, and if we want Houston to be a part of this, that’s an example of what we’re up against. What do you say, folks?

How green is your website?

Here are two thoughtful and interesting posts about data centers and carbon neutrality from my friend and Trinity classmate Robert Nagle; a postscript with some added thoughts is here. I’m glad to see that my webhost does pretty well in this regard, though it’s purely by accident from my perspective, as I’d never really thought about this before. But I have now, and I recommend you check out what Robert has written and give some thought to it as well. And maybe if we can’t get data centers to be much greener than they already are, we might be able to come up with some creative ways to blunt their impact.

College for $99 a month

Behold the future of higher education.

StraighterLine is the brainchild of a man named Burck Smith, an Internet entrepreneur bent on altering the DNA of higher education as we have known it for the better part of 500 years. Rather than students being tethered to ivy-covered quads or an anonymous commuter campus, Smith envisions a world where they can seamlessly assemble credits and degrees from multiple online providers, each specializing in certain subjects and—most importantly—fiercely competing on price. Smith himself may be the person who revolutionizes the university, or he may not be. But someone with the means and vision to fundamentally reorder the way students experience and pay for higher education is bound to emerge.

In recent years, Americans have grown accustomed to living amid the smoking wreckage of various once-proud industries—automakers bankrupt, brand-name Wall Street banks in ruins, newspapers dying by the dozen. It’s tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion. Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They’re also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows.

In combination, these two trends threaten to shake the foundation of the modern university, in much the same way that other seemingly impregnable institutions have been torn apart. In some ways, the upheaval will be a welcome one. Students will benefit enormously from radically lower prices—particularly people like Solvig who lack disposable income and need higher learning to compete in an ever-more treacherous economy. But these huge changes will also seriously threaten the ability of universities to provide all the things beyond teaching on which society depends: science, culture, the transmission of our civilization from one generation to the next.

It’s a fascinating read, part awesome and part scary. Or maybe it’s just a whole lot of hype and doesn’t really mean much.

The stories of working people putting themselves through accelerated degree programs through self-study are inspiring, and all, but there’s nothing really new here. There has never really been any question about whether hard-working and motivated students could learn at their own pace– these stories pre-date the Internet. The history of science is full of brilliant auto-didacts who learned their subject from public libraries and the like, and anybody who has spent any time in higher education has encountered somebody who was self-taught or home-schooled who blew away all their peers.

The question has always been whether self-paced online education can work on a mass scale– for people who aren’t motivated to put in 18 hours a day studying toward a specific goal. I don’t really see anything in the article that addresses that question. I think this has the potential to be a great deal for people with a strong sense of self-motivation and good work ethic, but I suspect they’ll end up making lots of money off people who start classes, and then lose interest, but never get around to officially dropping out.

Check it out and decide for yourself. Thanks to Steve Benen for the link.

FCC to move forward on Net Neutrality

Good news.

The fight for Net Neutrality took a big step forward on Monday with the chair of the Federal Communications Commission announcing plans to expand the rules to protect a free and open Internet.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Julius Genachowski said the FCC must be a “smart cop on the beat” preserving Net Neutrality against increased efforts by providers to block services and applications over both wired and wireless connections.

Glad to hear it, and I have faith they’ll do a good job of it, as they appear to be pointing in the right direction. Rep. Ed Markey, a co-author of net neutrality legislation, praised Genachowski’s speech. Even more encouraging, it appears that the votes are there on the FCC to get this through. Expect the rule-making process to start next month, with a vote early next year.

From the “Things could always be worse” department

Lots of people hate their ISPs, often for good reason. But rest assured, your ISP surely provides better throughput than this. I just wonder if they followed the standard for this test.

You kids today, you don’t know what it was like

And that’s a pretty good thing, as evidenced by GeekDad’s list of 100 things your kids may never know about – things like typewriters, relying on the evening news for all your sports highlights (am I the only one who remembers services where for a fee you could call a number and get a recording with more-or-less updated scores and game results?), and having to manually unlock a car door. My girls live in a world where whatever they want to watch on TV is available to them at any time, and where they can see and talk to their grandparents on the computer. I never fully appreciated the concept of a generation gap till I started realizing stuff like that. All I can say is I like their world better.

Metro meetings update

Carolyn Feibel follows up on the matter of Metro not posting committee meeting notices online.

To clarify one point: Metro board committees always meet right before the regular board meetings, on the same day. Those meeting times and agendas are posted on the agency Web site. But committees also often meet on other days, usually the week before the main board meeting.

CEO Frank Wilson explained that except for the morning before the monthly board meeting, the ad hoc committees do not meet at regular times. He said committee members often change or cancel the agreed-upon time, sometimes at the last minute, if a conflict comes up with their work lives.

“It has been a huge challenge for us to get those things scheduled,” he added.

Wilson said that posting the times of all the committee meetings could cause a member of the public to show up at Metro headquarters, only to find out a meeting had been moved or canceled.

“We want to be open at all times, but at the same time we don’t want to inconvenience you or the public,” he said.

There are a number of responses to this. One is that a Web site, by its nature, is a good place to update meeting times instantly. The other option is for committee members to settle on fixed meeting times and commit to those, as they do over at Houston City Council.

Wolff told me that he would discuss different options with the board this month.

But spokeswoman Raequel Roberts gave me a different response, which has been echoed on the agency’s blog. That response is simpler: Metro is not legally bound to give public notification, since the committees do not involve a quorum of the board. Technically this is correct since each committee only has three members and a quorum would be five.

That said, Metro may want to open these up to the public as a matter of policy. The agency has long been dogged by a reputation for secrecy; Wolff contends that any reticence has developed defensively, after years of being under fierce attack by anti-rail political foes, notably former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Sugar Land Republican.

Let’s not overthink this, OK? If you really want to be open about committee meetings, you can set regular hours for them, so that there’s a default time and place for them to be. You can use various forms of modern technology – Twitter, text messages sent to those who sign up for them, likely other gewgaws that I can’t think of offhand – that can deliver last-minute notices about changes or cancellations to those who want to know about them. In short, where there’s a will, there’s a way. But first you have to have the will. Tom DeLay isn’t here any more, we’ve already built one line and are working on three more now, public sentiment is a lot more pro-transit than it used to be, and so on. It’s time to quit cowering, and to recognize that in the end, doing right by the public will be your best defense against whatever the attacks the next DeLay will throw at you.

Post the meeting notices already

Apparently, it’s not so easy finding out when Metro has a committee meeting.

Metro does post the time of its regular monthly board meeting on its Web site, but not for the committee meetings. Reporting on government agencies has taught me that many decisions tend to get made in committee. Attending committee meetings is a good way to learn how an agency functions and to meet some of the key players.

Metro’s media contact, Raequel Roberts, said the only way to find out when the committees meet every month is to go to Metro headquarters downtown and check the lobby bulletin board. A meeting notice also is posted at the downtown Harris County courthouse, she said.

I asked her if there was someone I could call to find out the meeting schedule without using so much time, gasoline or Metro fare. Roberts told me no.

I am paid to keep tabs on public agencies. So if Metro wants me to jump through that hoop, then fine. But what about the thousands of Metro customers spread out over the 1,285-square-mile service area? What if they want to attend a committee meeting? Should they have to come downtown just to find out the meeting time, and then come downtown again to attend the meeting itself?

“They’re throwing up a veil of secrecy over the agency that shouldn’t be tolerated in the computer age,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, an advocacy organization that promotes open government. “Government agencies often forget for whom they work.”

Bill Ogden, a First Amendment and media lawyer in Houston, said the Internet is one of the easiest ways for the government to keep the public notified. The Internet is “cheap and the most readily accessible, so there’s no excuse not to do it.”

[…]

Two Metro board members said they didn’t see any problem with posting the committee meetings on the Web.

“I think it’s fine to do that,” said George DeMontrond, III, who chairs the Government/Public Relations Committee. “I don’t know why they don’t do it.”

“I don’t know why they shouldn’t be on the Web site, unless there was some reason they were trying to keep it quiet,” said Terence Fontaine, who was just sworn in as Metro’s newest board member.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly the appearance it gives. Bill Ogden is correct, there’s no reason or excuse for not doing this. Perhaps the board members who agree with that can take it upon themselves the make it happen.

Let’s do the time warp again

Businesses try to restrict Internet access for employees, employees diligently try to find ways around these restrictions. What year is it again?

It’s a common complaint from young people who join the work force with the expectation that their bosses will embrace technology as much as they do. Then some discover that sites they’re supposed to be researching for work are blocked. Or they can’t take a little downtime to read a news story online or check their personal e-mail or social networking accounts. In some cases, they end up using their own Internet-enabled smart phones to get to blocked sites, either for work or fun.

So some are wondering: Could companies take a different approach, without compromising security or workplace efficiency, that allows at least some of the online access that younger employees particularly crave?

“It’s no different than spending too much time around the water cooler or making too many personal phone calls. Do you take those away? No,” says Gary Rudman, president of GTR Consulting, a market research firm that tracks the habits of young people. “These two worlds will continue to collide until there’s a mutual understanding that performance, not Internet usage, is what really matters.”

[…]

There is, of course, another side of the story — from employers who worry about everything from wasted time on the Internet to confidentiality breaches and liability for what their employees do online. Such concerns have to be taken especially seriously in such highly regulated fields as finance and health care, says Nancy Flynn, a corporate consultant who heads the Ohio-based ePolicy Institute.

From a survey Flynn did this year with the American Management Association, she believes nearly half of U.S. employers have a policy banning visits to personal social networking or video sharing sites during work hours. Many also ban personal text messaging during working days.

Flynn notes that the rising popularity of BlackBerrys, iPhones and other devices with Web access and messaging have made it much trickier to enforce what’s being done on work time, particularly on an employee’s personal phone. Or often the staff uses unapproved software applications to bypass the blocks.

As a result, more employers are experimenting with opening access.

Didn’t we have this debate, like, last decade? I realize that Internet usage is more pervasive now, but the basic threats – productivity losses, exposure to malware, corporate security breeches, bandwidth overload – are the same, and people are now that much more used to having the Internet at their disposal. I don’t see how trying to clamp down now is going to be any more successful than it was ten years ago when the debate was over employees’ usage of email, though perhaps the current dismal environment for job-seekers will put a temporary lid on the complaints about it.

Of course, if employers really want to kill of websurfing at work, I have a simple solution for them, which I can guarantee will work: Make IE6 your standard platform, and disallow any updates to the browser or installations of new browsers. That’ll keep ’em out of Facebook and on their jobs.

Let the results speak for themselves

Seems to me there’s an easy and straightforward way to resolve the debate that Burka and the Texas Politics Project are having over the efficacy of the latter’s Internet-based polling: Why don’t we compare the results they get to what actually happens next year and see how close they come to the mark? I mean, the reason we know that Zogby Interactive polls are crap is because they were such a crappy predictor of the actual results back in 2006, when they were being prominently partnered with NBC/WSJ for those elections. Maybe we’ve learned how to do these polls better since then, maybe the UT folks are just better pollsters than John Zogby, and maybe the method is still crap regardless of who’s doing it. Seems to me that if the UT folks can provide regular updates, right up to the election next March, we’ll find out soon enough.

I mean, many people, including as I recall one Paul Burka, once thought robopollers like Rasmussen and SurveyUSA were questionable, until they established a track record that demonstrated their accuracy. The idea behind Internet polling is plausible enough, it’s just a matter of seeing if the experience can match the theory. Maybe this will be a good test. In the meantime, to keep things interesting during the intervening year, maybe Burka and Professors Henson and Shaw can come up with a friendly wager on the outcome. I’ll leave that to them to determine. What say you, fellows?