Consumerist offers consumer tips, like how to return products and how to confound a telemarketer, and covers shopper complaints, like excessive retail markups. And in recent weeks, it's also become one of my favorite sources of information on Net Neutrality, thanks to Cox.
'Net Neutrality is Huge'
Cox, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., writes about money, politics, regulation and consumer issues, with a particular focus on technology and the Internet.
Cox earned a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a master's in film from Boston University. She began her career at Discovery Communications before landing her first full-time writing gig at Kotaku, a news and opinion site about games and “things serious gamers care about.”
After Kotaku, she worked in communications at Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing in Arlington, Va. before landing her current position at Consumerist. I caught up with Cox last week, after the Federal Communications Commission reclassified broadband Internet.
The FCC wants to adopt a new set of rules designed to give regulators greater authority in mandating how broadband Internet services are classified and delivered by service providers.
The FCC thinks regulators should view broadband Internet service providers as telecommunications services rather than information services, as the law presently defines them.
That change in classification would, at least theoretically, permit the FCC to enforce mandates on how ISPs deliver broadband Internet service to their customers, as well as what measures ISPs will not be allowed to take to manage that service.
Sobel: Give us a quick recap of your journey from a history major at UMass through your work at Discovery and now Consumerist.
Cox: My career path has mainly been one of happy, well-timed accidents. Discovery happened to have a suitable role open when I was looking to move to DC for personal reasons, and so I ended up there. It was a great company, and I had a fantastic manager. I’m thankful for everything I learned – about the industry, and about work in general -- in my years there.
But during the same time, I was also working as a freelance writer, covering video games. And when an offer came out of the blue in 2012 for me to take the chance and switch to writing full-time, I couldn’t resist. In the world of video game coverage, those positions are basically unicorns.
Games are both a tech experience and a consumer product. So that, along with my journalism background and the other work in nonprofits, made joining Consumerist a no-brainer. Writing has always been my passion and I’m glad to have landed where I am.
Sobel: Why is it so important for consumers of all kinds, including business professionals, to understand net neutrality and the recent FCC decision?
Cox: Well, do you use the Internet? Then it affects you. And of course, now everyone uses the Internet — It’s the major engine of commerce and creativity in the 21st century.
If you want to watch anything, if you want to apply for a job anywhere, if you want to research where to find a service or a specialist, then you need online access. It permeates every aspect of life and society.
What the FCC’s reclassification order does is make sure that everyone can keep accessing the content they want to online, just as they have done for years. It means that the country’s (or world’s) biggest companies don’t get an unfair edge over smaller businesses and individuals, and that’s something that affects every one of us. It’s huge.
Sobel: A few days ago, before the FCC decision, you wrote a piece that referenced a panel that featured Milo Medin, the Google VP who heads up Google Fiber, Dave Schaeffer, the CEO of Cogent, Kurt Van Wagenen, the president and CEO of FirstLight Fiber, a regional provider in the northeast, and Michael Weidman, the president and CEO of LSN, formerly known as LightSpeed Networks, a regional provider in Oregon and Washington.
You noted: “All four of the executives agreed that they are already busily planning for and investing in the future of their companies, and that reclassification won’t change that. However, the three retail ISP executives (Cogent works a little differently) did explain that the future isn’t all necessarily sunshine and roses.” Can you elaborate?
Cox: Basically, their concerns were that networks are really complicated, dynamic things, which they are. So executives whose job it is to keep expanding hundreds and thousands of miles of fiber and cable, and to make sure they keep up with customer needs as well as local, state and federal regulation are concerned about making sure there are no conflicts in those regulations, and that deployment gets easier (and cheaper) for them and not harder (and more expensive).
So especially without the details of the regulation in front of them to look at, some of the leaders were concerned about very granular, concrete measures like equal access to utility poles or right-of-way for utility sheds, or the costs of dealing with authorities to get cable laid out.
This is stuff that the end consumer doesn’t usually think about, but that has to keep being agreed upon over and over in order to get a network anywhere.
Sobel: In another story you noted, “With the FCC set at long last to vote on strong net neutrality ... everyone is getting their last digs in. While many tech companies have previously spoken out on the issue, both for and against, the big social networks have been slow to plant their flags. That changed today, when Twitter came out swinging, cheering on the FCC’s plan.” Can you explain?
Cox: The big social sites kind of are the Internet, to a lot of users. Facebook is the elephant in the room whenever you talk about tech policy or the Internet, because it is driving so much of, well, everything right now. Its reach is astonishingly broad and deep, so when Facebook takes a strong position for or against something, you notice. And when they don’t, you notice that, too.
Facebook and Twitter had both been relatively quiet on the net neutrality front for a long time, even while other social sites like Tumblr were jumping into the fray. So to have Twitter unambiguously endorse one side marked a shift – not so much in the nature of the conversation, but in who was admitting the conversation was even going on.
Sobel: Let's step aside from net neutrality and touch on your interest in gaming. What are your thoughts about marketers incorporating games into their strategies?
Cox: Everyone’s gaming, right? On their phones, at the very least — and often on a PC, Xbox or PlayStation at home. It’s mainstream. Two indie games just got a shout out in House of Cards, of all things.
We have generations who have grown up with it, to whom games are every inch as normal as television. So thinking of it as an exotic thing or something for a niche, narrow audience is the wrong way to go.
And while I’m at it, any marketers thinking about using games should remember that girls and women represent about half the players.
Sobel: In looking at things like gaming, branding, marketing, media and advertising, it appears net neutrality will have an impact, no matter which way it ends up. What are your suggestions for our readers and how they should be thinking about this issue moving forward?
Cox: Washington thrives on partisan divides and the engine of disagreement, so there are no surprises there. But the good news is, the rest of us don’t have to act like Washington.
So I would encourage everyone to think about how big a role the Internet really plays in their lives, at home and at work. If you work for a company with ten people in it – or if you’re self-employed – you need the ability to move your files and videos and content around just as well as a company the size of Comcast or Google does. And you’ve always been able to, so far, right? That’s how little businesses become big businesses.
And it always has been, even before there was an Internet. The post office has to deliver ever letter with a stamp on it, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s your electric bill or a birthday card from your grandmother or a document from a lawyer.
The interstate works equally well (or poorly) for someone in a 20-year-old jalopy or for a Senator in a Mercedes. When I’m at home and I request Netflix or Google or CMSwire from my browser, I should get them all equally well. And that’s the part that pretty much everyone agrees on.
Sobel: Any final thoughts?
Cox: Tech and data issues are becoming a bigger part of consumer news every day. When all our stuff and all our connections are digital, the rules that those systems have to work within becomes extremely important.