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Commentary: Verizon’s New Tech News Website Censors Out Net Neutrality, Electronic Spying, Credibility

“Verizon’s treatment of the news is a testament to the need for strong Net Neutrality protections.”

Sugarstring's logo is as twisty as its editorial policies.

Sugarstring’s logo is as twisty as its editorial policies.

Verizon Wireless’ launch of Sugarstring, a high-budget tech news website targeting millennial 20-somethings with tech and lifestyle news they can use seemed innocent enough until its editor revealed in a private e-mail Verizon considers reporting on electronic spying and Net Neutrality issues “verboten.

Verizon is deeply embroiled in both issues and evidently has no interest spending money enlightening the masses, so it has told its staff (but not you) both topics are forbidden.

The Daily Dot reported the revelation straight from Cole Stryker, Sugarstring’s editor.

“I’ve been hired to edit SugarString.com,” writes Stryker in a recruiting email to Daily Dot’s Patrick Howell O’Neill. “Downside is there are two verboten topics (spying and net neutrality), but I’ve been given wide berth to cover pretty much all other topics that touch tech in some way.”

Verizon’s cavalier censorship policies say a lot about the company’s interest in controlling the messages that people see and read online. The news site is intended to be a high-profile destination for Verizon Wireless’ mobile customers and will logically get significant exposure from the company bankrolling it.

Verizon might argue that since it pays the bills, it has a right to decide what information should pass through its websites. It is hardly a big stretch for them to argue that if they own the wires over which you receive Internet service, they should have a say in what travels across those as well.

Censorship need not be crude and obvious as it often was on foreign propaganda broadcasts during the Cold War. Today’s “news management” is much more subtle and more insidious.

Take RT (formerly Russia Today), the Moscow-based 24/7 English-language news network. Although dropped by many major cable systems including Time Warner Cable after Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine, the network is still growing and finding more places on the air around the world.

Radio Moscow during the Cold War represented a more overt form of propaganda. Corporations like Verizon have learned to be more subtle.

Radio Moscow during the Cold War represented a more overt form of propaganda. Corporations like Verizon have learned to be more subtle.

RT is nothing like what shortwave listeners used to endure from English-language Radio Moscow World Service during the Communist years. You couldn’t miss that station. Broadcasting on up to 47 frequencies simultaneously, 24 hours a day, it was easily the most commonly encountered signal on the shortwave dial. Plodding features like, “On the Occasion of the 45th Anniversary of the Stunning Achievements of World Socialism,” or “The Voices of Soviet Public Opinion Demand Peace and Progress for the Non-Aligned World” (Part 36) were everything you might expect and less.

Radio Moscow boldly told listeners in its series, “The History of the Soviet Union, the Socialist Revolution, and Its Aims and Results,” that elections in the USSR were superior to those in other countries because the government took the money out of politics. Only by putting national infrastructure entirely in the hands of the people, along with public ownership of the means of production, can a nation achieve true democracy. They didn’t bother to mention the USSR was a one-party state, which made elections pro-forma, or that the entire Soviet economy was a basket case since the days of Leonid Brezhnev. (10:01) You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Radio Moscow has been replaced by RT Television, which in the post-Soviet era now exists primarily to boost all-things Putin. The propaganda has been sharpened up by employing U.S. reporters and moving to the far more subtle practice of “self-censorship.” A former RT reporter fed up with increasingly strident propaganda over the matter of Russia, Crimea and the Ukraine quit live on the air. In a later interview on CNN, Liz Wahl told Anderson Cooper that RT’s staff was made up mostly of impressionable young people eager to win favor from RT’s management. They quickly learned and accepted that certain points of view or story subjects were either frowned upon or outright verboten. Instead of being sent to a gulag for disobedience, those straying from Putin’s party line were taken off stories, reassigned to menial work, or shunned. Who wants that?

Avoiding certain topics or points of view at the behest of corporate management (or the state) is just as insidious as directly slanting the news to one’s favor. Few real journalists would accept a job (or stay) at a news organization that was compromised by coverage limits or editorial interference that came from conflict with a corporate or political agenda.

That Verizon chooses to ban stories that embarrass Verizon, such as Edward Snowden’s revelations that Verizon voluntarily provided the National Security Agency (NSA) the phone records of all of its customers and is still actively engaged in tracking its customers’ web activities, does not mean it is going to block you from visiting CNN.com tomorrow. That Verizon doesn’t want to fuel the public consciousness of Net Neutrality is understanding considering the company has paid its lawyers plenty to fight the principle in court, openly admitting it favors paid fast lanes for traffic. But Verizon is clearly on a road that, if unchecked, eventually leads to content and traffic manipulation.

Verizon steps far over the line of jounalistic integrity informing editors to avoid both issues while saying nothing to readers and it isn’t the first time Verizon has crossed the line.

censorshipTim Karr from Free Press reminds us Verizon has a very different view about the First Amendment that the rest of us:

In a 2012 legal brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Verizon mangled the intent of the First Amendment to claim that the Constitution gives the phone company the right to control everyone’s online information. In the brief, which was part of the company’s successful bid to overturn the FCC’s Open Internet Order — Verizon argued that the First Amendment gives it the right to serve as the Internet’s editor-in-chief. The company’s attorneys claimed that “broadband providers possess ‘editorial discretion.'” even when they are “transmitting the speech of others.”

Verizon continued in this vein, asserting that “Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where, broadband providers may feature some content over others.” And that means that Verizon could privilege its SugarString version of the news over the content of real news sites, because the company believes it should be able to “give differential pricing or priority access” to its own content.

What Verizon cannot “manage,” it wants the right to censor:

When it comes to a question of customer freedom vs. profits, Verizon follows the money every time:

In 2011, Free Press and others caught Verizon Wireless blocking people from using tethering applications on their phones. Verizon had asked Google to remove 11 free tethering applications from the Android marketplace. These applications allowed users to circumvent Verizon’s $20 tethering fee and turn their smartphones into Wi-Fi hotspots on their own. By blocking those applications, Verizon violated a Net Neutrality pledge it made to the FCC as a condition of the 2008 airwaves auction.

All of these examples challenge Verizon’s ongoing assertion it has no incentive to censor, block, or interfere with online content, making Net Neutrality unnecessary. You have just seen another example of why Net Neutrality is urgently needed. Verizon has demonstrated repeatedly it puts its own interests above its customers, so regulators should respond with a clear, unambiguous, and robustly enforced policy of Net Neutrality that protects the interests of you and I.

Netflix Aggravates Canada’s Identity Crisis: Protection of Canadian Culture or Big Telecom Company Profits?

netflix caThe arrival of Netflix north of the American border has sparked a potential video revolution in Canada that some fear could renew “an erosion” of Canadian culture and self-identity as the streaming video service floods the country with American-made television and movies. But anxiety also prevails on the upper floors of some of Canada’s biggest telecom companies, worried their business models are about to be challenged like never before.

Two weeks ago, the country saw a remarkable Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) hearing featuring a Netflix executive obviously not used to being grilled by the often-curt regulators. When it was all over, Netflix refused to comply with a CRTC order for information about Netflix’s Canadian customers.

Earlier today, the CRTC’s secretary general, John Traversy, declared that because of the lack of cooperation from Netflix, all of their testimony “will be removed from the public record of this proceeding on October 2, 2014.” That includes their oral arguments.

“As a result, the hearing panel will reach its conclusions based on the remaining evidence on the record. There are a variety of perspectives on the impact of Internet broadcasting in Canada, and the panel will rely on those that are on the public record to make its findings,” Mr. Traversy wrote in a nod to Canada’s own telecom companies.

Not since late 1990’s Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, who defended Canadian content with her support of a law that restricted foreign magazines from infiltrating across the border, had a government official seemed willing to take matters beyond the government’s own policy.

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais threw down the gauntlet when Netflix hesitated about releasing its Canadian subscriber and Canadian content statistics to the regulator. Mr. Blais wanted to know exactly how many Canadians are Netflix subscribers and how much of what they are watching on the service originates in Canada.

With hearings underway in Ottawa, bigger questions are being raised about the CRTC’s authority in the digital age. Doug Dirks from CBC Radio’s The Homestretch talks with Michael Geist at the University of Ottawa. Sept. 19, 2014 (8:40) You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Netflix has operated below regulatory radar since it first launched service in Canada four years ago. The CRTC left the American company with an impression it had the right to regulate Netflix, but chose not to at this time. The CRTC of 2010 was knee-deep in media consolidation issues and did not want to spend a lot of time on an American service that most Canadians watched by using proxy servers and virtual private networks to bypass geographic content restrictions. But now that an estimated 30% of English-speaking Canada subscribes to Netflix, it is threatening to turn the country’s cozy and well-consolidated media industry on its head.

Ask most of the corporate players involved and they will declare this is a fight about Canada’s identity. After all, broadcasters have been compelled for years to live under content laws that require a certain percentage of television and radio content to originate inside Canada. Without such regulations, enforced by the CRTC among others, Canada would be overwhelmed by all-things-Americans. Some believe that without protection, Canadian viewers will only watch and listen to American television and music at the cost of Canadian productions and artists.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN Netflix vs the CRTC 9-22-14.flv

Kevin O’Leary, Chairman, O’Leary Financial Group is furious with regulators for butting into Netflix’s online video business and threatening its presence in Canada is an effort to protect incumbent business models. From BNN-Canada. (8:45)

A viewer watches Netflix global public policy director Corie Wright testify before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in Ottawa (Image: Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press)

A viewer watches Netflix’s Corie Wright testify before the CRTC. (Image: Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press)

But behind the culture war is a question of money – billions of dollars in fact. Giant media companies like Rogers, Shaw, and Bell feel threatened by the presence of Netflix, which can take away viewers and change a media landscape that has not faced the kind of wholesale deregulation that has taken place in the United States since the Reagan Administration.

Before Netflix, the big Canadian networks didn’t object too strongly to the content regulations. After all, CRTC rules helped establish the Canadian Media Fund which partly pays for domestic TV and movie productions. Canada’s telephone and satellite companies also have to contribute, and they collectively added $266 million to the pot in 2013, mostly collected from their customers in the form of higher bills. Netflix doesn’t receive money from the fund and has indicated it doesn’t need or want the government’s help to create Canadian content.

“It is not in the interest of consumers to have new media subsidize old media or to have new entrants subsidize incumbents,” added Netflix’s Corie Wright. “Netflix believes that regulatory intervention online is unnecessary and could have consequences that are inconsistent with the interests of consumers,” Wright said, adding viewers should have the ability “to vote with their dollars and eyeballs to shape the media marketplace.”

That is not exactly what the CRTC wanted to hear, and Wright was off the Christmas card list for good when she directly rebuffed Mr. Blais’ requests for Netflix’s data on its Canadian customers. Wright implied the data would somehow make its way out of the CRTC’s offices and end up in the hands of the Canadian-owned broadcast and cable competitors that know many at the CRTC on a first name basis.

Does Netflix pose a threat to Canadian culture? Matt Galloway spoke with John Doyle, the Globe & Mail’s television critic, on the Sept. 22nd edition of CBC Radio’s Metro Morning show. Sept. 22, 2014 (8:31) You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Mr. Blais, obviously not used to requests being questioned, repeated demands for Netflix’s subscriber data to be turned over by the following Monday and if Netflix did not comply, he would revoke Netflix’s current exemption from Canadian content rules and bring down the hammer of regulation on the streaming service.

Blais

Blais

The deadline came and went and last week Netflix defiantly refused to comply with the CRTC’s order. A Netflix official said that while the company has responded to a number of CRTC requests, it was not “in a position to produce the confidential and competitively sensitive information, but added it was always prepared to work constructively with the commission.”

Now things are very much up in the air. Many Canadians question why the CRTC believes it has the right to regulate Internet content when it operates largely as a broadcast regulator. Public opinion seems to be swayed against the CRTC and towards Netflix. Canadian producers and writers are concerned their jobs are at risk, Canadian media conglomerates fear their comfortable and predictable future is threatened if consumers decide to spend more time with Netflix and less time with them. All of this debate occurring within the context of a discussion about forcing pay television companies to offer slimmed down basic cable packages and implement a-la-carte — pay only for the channels you want — is enough to give media executives heartburn.

To underscore the point much of this debate involves money, American TV network executives also turned up at the CRTC arguing for regulations that would compensate American TV stations for providing “free” programming on Canadian airwaves, cable, and satellite — retransmission consent across the border.

Netflix does not seem too worried it is in trouble in either Ottawa or in the halls of CRTC headquarters at Les Terrasses de la Chaudière in Gatineau, Québec, just across the Ottawa River. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Heritage Minister Shelly Glover have made it clear they have zero interest in taxing or regulating Netflix. Even if they were, the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement may make regulating Netflix a practical impossibility, especially if the U.S. decides to retaliate.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Canadian Press CRTC vs Netflix 9-19-14.mp4

Dwayne Winseck, Carleton School of Journalism and Communication, defended the role the CRTC is mandated to play by Canada’s telecommunications laws. (1:41)

Comcast-TWC Merger Now Issue in N.Y. Governor’s Race: Secret Meetings, New Questions

Gov. Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo

Does N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo support or reject the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable and why has an administration official been meeting behind closed doors with the companies involved?

If the merger is successful, more than 95 percent of upstate New York will be served by a single cable operator – Comcast, with little chance Verizon will mount a major challenge for video, broadband, and phone service customers outside of the areas where FiOS fiber upgrades have been announced. Although the Cuomo Administration promised an in-depth investigation into the merger, the governor has kept his own views close to the vest and has not publicly supported or opposed the transaction. But an administration official has met privately with executives of both cable companies and state regulators behind closed doors according to a new report.

According to public schedules obtained by Capital, Comcast representatives met at least three times in August with PSC members or staff in what one former commissioner called unusual circumstances.

James Larocca, a N.Y. PSC commissioner from 2008-2013, said it is not typical for officials from the governor’s office to meet with state regulators and cable executives in the same closed-door meeting.

“I did not meet with the second floor on pending matters and I’m not aware that other commissioners ever did,” Larocca said.

It is not unusual for companies with business before the Commission to meet with its staff or commissioners in ex parte conversations to set the parameters of hearings, filings, and other regulatory proceedings. All such meetings appear to have been properly disclosed by the PSC staff and the companies involved. But the fact some were held behind closed doors with a Cuomo Administration official and without public disclosure of the subjects discussed bothers some.

corporate-welfare-piggy-bankSusan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said what was discussed behind closed doors should be disclosed so the public can see what top state officials are saying to the cable executives.

“There are questions as to whether the PSC is a strong enough advocate for the people or the industry,” Lerner told Capital. “The agency has lost sight of its initial mission, which is to serve the public in regulating these absolutely essential services.”

Gerald Norlander at the Public Utility Law Project ponders what would happen if there were two negotiating tables discussing the merger, one public and the other secret.

“If there is a second table where views are exchange and negotiations are occurring, it doesn’t do well for transparency,” he said.

Public statements from both Comcast and the Cuomo Administration did little to clear the air.

“It was an initial meeting to discuss the public interest benefits of the transaction for New York,” a Comcast representative said in a one-sentence statement in response to questions about the meeting.

Not exactly, says the Cuomo Administration.

“The meeting was to explain the new law, the PSC’s new powers and its expanded oversight,” Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said.

As has been the case during much of the merger debate, Time Warner Cable has remained silent and has refused to comment.

Comcast oregonThe governor himself has avoided taking sides, claiming he will abide by the recommendations made by the PSC. But if true, why involve the governor’s office in the merger or meet privately with either the PSC or the companies involved?

“The state is taking a hands-on review of this merger to ensure that New Yorkers benefit,” Cuomo said in May. “The Public Service Commission’s actions will help protect consumers by demanding company commitments to strong service quality, affordability, and availability.”

Cuomo himself has received at least $200,000 in campaign contributions from Comcast and Time Warner Cable. With customer satisfaction scores for both Comcast and Time Warner Cable in the basement, lobbying has been a necessity and Time Warner Cable is one of the state’s top lobbying forces, spending $500,000 of its subscribers’ money in New York in 2013 alone. Comcast spent $60,000, despite only serving a small sliver of customers in downstate New York.

The two companies also donated a combined $500,000 to a secretive state Democratic party account which Cuomo controls. Ironically, some of that money was used to run ads celebrating Gov. Cuomo’s efforts to get money out of politics.

New York Democratic candidate Zephyr Teachout is seeking to oust Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the fall election. One of the issues she is campaigning on is Cuomo’s significant contributions from Comcast and Time Warner Cable and his apparent lack of interest in stopping the merger. At a campaign stop in Syracuse, Teachout claims Comcast will raise your rates and offer no significant benefits to New Yorkers. She’d strongly oppose the merger and media consolidation in general, if elected. WRVO Radio reports. Aug. 29, 2014 (1:26)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Teachout

Teachout

Cuomo’s Democratic primary opponent Zephyr Teachout and her running mate, Tim Wu (who coined the term “Net Neutrality”) are less murky on the issue. Both strongly oppose the merger and cable industry consolidation generally and have expressed serious concern about the governor’s acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from both Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

Andrew Letson’s Politics Blog considers the differences between the two campaigns striking.

“It’s a sharp contrast – between the hypocritical man in office taking money from corporate interests and the candidates with integrity who are funding their campaign through largely individual donors,” Letson writes.

“[Both Wu and Teachout] have said that they would work to block the frightening Comcast-Time Warner merger, something that’s certainly on the minds of many New Yorkers,” says Letson. “What’s nice about that is that New York actually has a lot of power when it comes to this merger, so opposition from both the governor and lieutenant governor would go a long way.”

Letson is a Teachout campaign volunteer, so it is no surprise which candidate he supports.

Canceling Comcast Is Like a Bad Breakup – Listen and Cringe As Comcast Desperately Begs You to Stay

Comcast-LogoDo you remember that high school love that killed you when they decided it was time to move on? You begged, you pleaded for them to change their mind to no avail. Nothing you said made any difference.

Some people never get over that teenage tragedy… and then they go to work for Comcast’s customer retention department indefatigably browbeating departing customers in a misguided effort to salvage damaged relationships with the cable company.

Stop the Cap! reader Bryan shares with us several minutes of the Block family’s life they’ll never get back. After 10 minutes on the phone repeatedly requesting to cancel Comcast service, Block and his wife decided to record the ongoing absurdity to share with the world. The result is eight more minutes of cringing embarrassment as an increasingly exasperated retention representative repeatedly demands to know why they want to leave.

never leaveIt all sounds like eavesdropping on your roommate’s breakup with their boyfriend. Or leaving a cult. This guy just can’t understand what the heck you were thinking when you decided Comcast was no longer right for you. Block was in no mood to explain himself, but for the benefit of others, we’d love to arm you with a few reasons to explain why you don’t want anything more to do with Comcast:

“Being that we are the number one provider of Internet and TV service in the entire country, why is that you are not wanting to have the number one rated Internet service available,” the retention rep demanded to know.

Our answer: Because you want to cap our broadband experience, you charge outrageous prices for renting a cable modem, and your speed claims mean nothing if we don’t actually get those speeds because of yet another outage or service problem.

“So you’re not interested in the fastest Internet in the country,” Comcast’s rep asks.

Our answers: Sure I am, which is why I am switching to the fiber competitor that delivers those speeds -0r- Not if you are putting a usage cap on me. Who wants a Ferrari they are told can’t be driven beyond the block?

“You don’t want something that works? …So why don’t you want something that’s good service and something that works,” asks Comcast’s rep.

Our answer: Do you actually subscribe to Comcast yourself? You guys didn’t win Worst Company in America honors for nothing.

“I’m really ashamed to see you go to something that can’t give you what we can,” argues the rep.

Our answer: That’s right. My long ongoing nightmare of bad service, high prices, and usage capped Internet is finally over. See ya.

If you really want Comcast to convince you to stay, tell them you want a permanent waiver in writing from any usage limits and/or overlimit fees. Demand aggressive discounts that deliver real savings, and never take their first offer. If they can waste 18 minutes of Ryan Block’s time, you can be just as ruthless when demanding a better deal for yourself.

As Ryan indicates, this retention representative is the perfect example of how Comcast won its reputation as one of most hated companies in America.

Matchless New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio Promises to Hold Telecoms’ Feet to the Fire

de Blasio

de Blasio

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an ambitious plan this week to make the city a favored home for new high-technology jobs with a commitment to guarantee every neighborhood in the city is wired for high-speed Internet access.

de Blasio’s remarks came at the opening of the city’s “Internet Week,” an event promoting innovative uses of broadband.

“We take an energetic view of helping this sector grow,” said de Blasio. “We can’t continue to have a digital divide that holds back too many of our citizens.”

The mayor noted Harlem will be the home to the nation’s largest continuous free-access Wi-Fi network when it is completed.

“This will bring free Wi-Fi to 80,000 people between 110th Street and 138th Street,” de Blasio said during a news conference on West 18th Street in Manhattan. “And it’ll be a great model for us going forward.”

Under the former Bloomberg Administration, New York City already announced several other regional free Wi-Fi hotspots, in various stages of development:

Brooklyn:

  • Fulton Street corridor
  • BAM Cultural District
  • Brownsville
  • Downtown Brooklyn

Manhattan:

  • Flatiron Districton
  • Along the Water Street Corridor
  • East River waterfront
  • 125th Street corridor in Harlem
  • Roosevelt Island

Queens:

  • Long Island City

Staten Island:

  • St. George commercial district

Bronx:

  • Fordham Road

Harlem will be the home of the nation’s largest free-access Wi-Fi network when it is completed. The new network attempts to reduce the digital divide by including computer-equipped mobile vans that the public can use to access the Internet even if they lack a computer at home. But as NPR reports, these types of projects have often run out of steam in the past, especially if the project cannot keep up with maintenance and upgrades to meet future needs. Dec. 23, 2013 (6:17)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

logo_IWNY_2de Blasio also announced his intention to explore converting 10,000 of the city’s barely-used pay phones into Wi-Fi hotspots.

To coordinate this broadband renaissance, the mayor announced a new broadband task force will study universal broadband to help the nearly one-third of New Yorkers who currently do not have high-speed Internet access, including many in the city’s public housing developments.

But the mayor may find the city will have to pay for broadband improvements itself. Time Warner Cable and Cablevision cannot be compelled to provide Internet access outside of the terms of their franchise agreements and it will be years before Verizon has deployed its FiOS fiber network throughout the city. Neither provider can be legally compelled to offer a low-cost Internet option, although Comcast and Time Warner Cable both have discounted access available to families with school-age children that qualify for federal assistance programs.

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