Minutes after I sat down to write this, a commercial came on television advertising all the innovative programs that Verizon brings to needy schools across the country.
That’s how unbelievably deep the offense burrows. It’s in your home, plastered all over the street and on the sides of highways, and now… the commercials… are… in… public… schools.
None of this should come as a surprise. I hate to beat a dead Boston Olympics dressage horse, but in a state where leaders have routinely shown that the whims of their business cronies and donors are far more important than the needs of the most vulnerable residents, nothing comes as a surprise.
There is reason to be concerned. Some mainstream outlets may have naively applauded news over the weekend that, according to a press release from Boston Public Schools, “1,100 students and teachers at three district middle schools [will get] iPads as part of a [Verizon] program aimed at integrating technology-based learning into classrooms.” Scratch the surface of those tablets, however, and the subject’s hardly worthy of a puff piece.
It goes without saying that BPS needs more technology. Whether you’re on the STEAM-powered bandwagon or skeptical of it, all statistical and anecdotal evidence available suggests that there is nowhere close to enough internet access for Boston students, in school or at home.
Those problems considered, it’s something between ironic and nauseating that Superintendent Tommy Chang and Mayor Marty Walsh are making it look like Verizon, of all entities, is here to save the day. With a mere 1,110 iPads, whose placement was facilitated by the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies, a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grantee. It’s all quite Kafkaesque in a unique way that those who have seen bully tactics used by innovation giants in their push for charter schools will recognize.
I wouldn’t have to say this next thing if the bigger outlets covered massive corporations as much as they follow the New England Patriots. That’s not the case, though, so as a baseline for why the likes of Verizon shouldn’t be given ad space on BPS walls—no matter how many iPads they provide to “students at the Timility, Edwards and McCormack middle schools,” or any other school, even with the promised “two years of… data plans for 24/7 internet access in the classroom and beyond,” as well as “a full-time technology coach from non-profit organization Digital Promise”—here are some critical points from Bruce Kushnick, executive director of New Networks Institute, a consortium of independent telecommunications, broadband, Internet and technology analysts, forensic auditors and lawyers, writing in DigBoston earlier this year:
The media has heralded Verizon’s supposed promise that the entire city will be getting fiber to the home. Mayor Walsh, in his State of the City address, exclaimed, “We’re making Boston a fiber optic city … 27,000 families have new internet and cable options in Dorchester, Roxbury, Roslindale, and West Roxbury. The rest of the city is on the way.”
Verizon’s carefully worded statements, however, mask its real plan, which is to migrate wireline customers to wireless, leaving much of Boston without any Verizon wire to the home or business. The reason that Verizon is actually deploying fiber is to connect the many internal sites in Verizon Wireless’ network—like its cell towers. And Verizon is tapping the telephone utility ratepayer for the cost of building out the fiber needed to run that network.
It gets uglier. As my colleague Jason Pramas has explained, “Verizon is a world class tax dodger and loves soaking the government for free handouts”:
According to the nonprofit Citizens for Tax Justice, between 2008 and 2013, the corporation made over $42 billion in profits, received a $732 million tax break (an effective federal tax rate of -2 percent), and paid almost $1.3 billion in state taxes (an effective state tax rate of 3 percent). In the first quarter of 2016, Verizon has made $4.31 billion in profits… Verizon has also received about $149 million in state and federal subsidies. Free money. And about $1.5 billion in federal loans, loan guarantees, and bailout assistance. Almost free money.
Got it!? And officials are still willing to be seen in public with these people. As Mayor Walsh and Superintendent Chang were last week, when they introduced the tablet program to phenomenal applause in Roxbury. Shamelessly, in front of giant cutouts of professional jocks flanking Verizon logos. And those were just the optics.
For the children at these schools, there was also a “Minor Student End User Participation Agreement”—to be signed by a parent or guardian—which includes an arbitration clause and makes it clear that, among other things, the kids are not to share the devices (“The wireless device is intended for Student Participant’s use alone, solely for purposes of the program, and it cannot be sold or transferred to any other person or entity”), and must return them after the program is over (“At the end of Student Participant’s participation… Verizon Wireless will discontinue wireless service to the device and you agree to return the device to the district program manager”).
As for privacy…
Information about the Student Participant’s use of the wireless device and service, including, but not limited to, details of when he or she used data services or placed calls and to whom, is information of Digital Promise, as the customer of record for the device and service. Therefore, this information may be accessed by and shared with Digital Promise, and those parties to whom Digital Promise authorizes, including the Verizon Global Corporate Citizenship Organization (“VGCCO”).
The obvious reaction to all of this: Why would anybody criticize a company for giving free tablets and service to students who desperately need those resources? Which is why we need less obvious reactions and more people willing to see the big picture. And to react to the wedgie that these major brands are giving people with their right hands while they masturbate us southpaw.
As a society, we’ve long ago entered a zone in which the giants that regularly crush people for profit can also then masquerade as heroes. Still, it’s horrifying to see these kind of lopsided partnerships not only flourish but receive fanfare in Mass. There’s no apparent end to the parade for tax dodgers; just a few hours after the city announced the Verizon iPad initiative last weekend, media relations people sent out yet another head-scratcher: “GE Foundation Leader Provides Keynote Address on Future STEM Economy at BPS Fall Open House.”
By comparison, Cambridge supplies all of its students with Chromebooks; so while they also require the contractual right to track and monitor students, the data isn’t shared with any nonprofit or company. As for Brookline, or Milton… let’s just say that neither has one of the 25 schools, in addition to the three in Boston, where the Verizon Innovative Learning program is expanding to this year, and that their public officials are less quick to exchange valuable billboard space and access to impressionable young minds for some loaner iPads.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.