The Continuing Leadership of the U.S. in Global Net Vitality

Regardless of your political leanings, the just-released report by the Telecommunications Research and Policy Institute shows that with regard to the global broadband Internet ecosystem, there is no need to Make America Great Again.  That’s because the U.S. leadership role in this field remains well established, as documented in the study that I authored – “Net Vitality 2.0: Identifying the Top–Tier Global Broadband Leaders – The Net Vitality Index In Detail” (available at trpiresearch.org).

This is the only evidence-based analysis that compares countries on an apples-to-apples basis, based on four essential elements that work together seamlessly to create the Internet’s vitality that we rely on in virtually every aspect of our daily lives.  These are (1) applications and content; (2) devices; (3) networks; and (4) innovation and competitiveness indicators.  Omit one of these elements from the internet equation and the value of the Net to all of us would be greatly diminished.

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Time To Review Kid Vid Regulations

Under Chairman Ajit Pai, the Federal Communications Commission has made some remarkable strides in reviewing and moving to repeal a host of burdensome regulations that have outlived their usefulness. Media ownership rules like the newspaper/broadcast cross ownership ban come to mind, as do the Commission’s highly inflammatory efforts to roll back the enforcement of net neutrality under Title II.

The Commission continues to forge ahead. The next salvo may well be the initiative announced by Chairman Pai to review the rules governing educational and informational programming for children aired by broadcasters, known as the “Kid Vid” rules. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly has agreed to oversee the review of these regulations.

The story of the Kid Vid rules is a familiar one, at least in its broad strokes. Congress enacts legislation to address a perceived problem, in this case deficiencies in broadcast programming aimed at children (Children’s Television Act of 1990). The FCC carries out its obligation to issue regulations implementing the legislation (Policies and Rules Concerning Children’s Television Programming, 1991).

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The Judge Who Holds Key to Future of Media

Federal Judge Richard Leon is not a household name, but he is one of the most powerful men in Washington. As senior judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Leon’s past decisions have altered the fate of some of America’s biggest companies, and his upcoming decision holds the key to the future of the media industry itself.

Leon made history in 2011 by approving the $38 billion Comcast-NBCU merger, positioning the new company as the largest cable and broadcast entity in the U.S. More importantly, his ruling established a hard-to-overlook legal precedent, which has influenced antitrust law and competition policy ever since.

Today, Judge Leon presides over yet another ground-breaking case with similar themes: United States v. AT&T and Time Warner. A mega merger valued at $108.7 billion, the deal seeks to marry a major content distributor (AT&T) with a leading video content producer (Time Warner). Beyond the litigants, the media and communications sector anxiously await the judge’s ruling, and with good reason.

First, the case marks the first time since the Carter administration (1977) that the U.S. Department of Justice has sued to block a vertical merger (i.e., between two companies that do not compete)…..

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Net Neutrality: How Did We Get Here and Where Are We Going?

It’s hard to imagine an issue in today’s media/telecom policy universe that has sparked more controversy or inspired more passion than the innocuous-sounding Net Neutrality. How could such a seemingly simple concept – that Internet access should be open to everyone and that services should be provided on a neutral basis without discrimination by type, price, speed, or quality – create such a firestorm?

One need look no further than the cover of this edition of Inside the FCC for the answer, or at least a major clue: “The Pros and Cons of Internet Regulation.” Many advocates of Net Neutrality believe this goal can’t be achieved without the regulatory hand of government exerting its grip on the Internet – and the more forcefully, the better. In contrast, other advocates of Net Neutrality believe it is a goal best achieved through the workings of the marketplace, and point to the successful operation of the Internet for years prior to any regulation.

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Repealing Media Ownership Regulations: It’s About Time

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed the most reasonable of actions: repealing or revising 40-year-old media ownership rules that long ago outlived any marginal usefulness they might’ve once had.

This should be a no-brainer. But, Washington being what it is, entrenched interests and politicians bent on maintaining the status quo for their own purposes have pilloried Pai for trying to do something that should’ve been done decades ago.

First, the facts. On Oct. 26, Chairman Pai released an Order on Reconsideration and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. This proceeding seeks to accomplish the following:

  • Eliminate the Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rule;
  • Eliminate the Radio/Television Cross-Ownership Rule; and
  • Revise the Local Television Rule to eliminate the Eight-Voices Test and to incorporate a case-by-case review provision in the Top Four Prohibition.

The proceeding would also seek to eliminate the attribution rule for television Joint Sales Agreements; retain the disclosure requirement for commercial television Shared Services Agreements; keep the Local Radio Ownership Rule; and create an incubator program to encourage new and diverse voices in the broadcast industry.

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Reflections on the Microsoft/Ireland Case

Last week the Supreme Court granted a review of a Second Circuit decision upholding Microsoft’s defiance of a U.S. warrant for the production of e-mail messages, stored in a server housed in Ireland, of a man suspected of drug trafficking.

At its simplest, the legal battle between Microsoft and law enforcement is a debate over the reach and intent of a law passed many years (1986) before the coming of age of the Internet.

Microsoft and its allies argue that that law, the Stored Communications Act (SCA), was written at a time when Congress knew virtually nothing about the Internet and what it would become, and that furthermore there is no indication in the language of the law or congressional intent that suggests it could be applied extraterritorially. Continue reading “Reflections on the Microsoft/Ireland Case”

Free Speech Week: Much To Celebrate

Free Speech Week is upon us. Or, as the headline of a story about the week written by Amy Mclean in Cablefax puts it: “What a Time for Free Speech Week.” What a time, indeed.

Just last week we saw the president raising the specter of whether the government should revoke television licenses based on the content of televised news coverage. The same president has wondered aloud (via Twitter, of course) whether the National Football League should have federal tax benefits revoked if owners continue to allow players to kneel during the National Anthem.

Speech on college campuses continues to be stifled in a variety of ways, from disinviting controversial guest speakers to relegating the expression of opinions by individuals to out-of-the-way “free speech zones.” On some campuses, students are supposed to be warned by professors before controversial topics are discussed in class, lest the students be traumatized. Continue reading “Free Speech Week: Much To Celebrate”

The Enduring Threat of Net Neutrality

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. – H.L. Mencken

No regulatory issue in memory has been quite like that of “net neutrality.” A solution in search of a problem, bankrolled and of early and particular economic benefit to two companies, and a regulation that threatens to give government sway over an industry where it had none before, network neutrality by regulation defies logic, history, and the way the world works. Other than that it’s one terrific idea.

Net neutrality was conjured up by an alliance of left-wing activists, Democratic commissioners of the FCC, and certain Internet companies and their trade associations. The regulations that followed have been on a devolutionary path, such that what was merely bad (net neutrality under Title I) became, in 2015, very much worse – net neutrality under Title II. Continue reading “The Enduring Threat of Net Neutrality”

Electronic Privacy Needs ICPA Update

Privacy advocates won an important victory in July when a federal appeals court ruled to limit the access of the U.S. government to individuals’ e-mail accounts.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said the federal government did not have the authority to issue search warrants for persons’ e-mails stored on servers outside the United States.  The case was brought by Microsoft Corp. in response to a warrant that would’ve compelled Microsoft to turn over customer e-mails stored on a server it maintained in Ireland.  The court affirmed that the Stored Communications Act (part of the broader Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986) did not give the government such powers outside U.S. territory.

This was a key judicial ruling to be sure. But it points up the increasingly urgent need for Congress to update that 1986 ECPA legislation to reflect the realities of today’s global digital environment.

Such legislative efforts have been initiated in recent years, only to languish in committee.  The most notable example was the Law Enforcement Access to Data Stored Abroad (or “LEADS”) Act, introduced in February 2015.

Writing about the LEADS Act when it was introduced, attorney Kurt Wimmer noted in an issue paper for The Media Institute that “cloud computing” as we know it today did not exist when the ECPA was enacted in 1986.  “Our current storage habits for digital records are precisely the opposite of the habits that existed in 1986, when ECPA was adopted,” he wrote.  And so it remains today.

However, there is new hope on the horizon.  On May 25, Reps. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) and Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) introduced the International Communications Privacy Act (ICPA).  Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Chris Coons (D- Del.), and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) introduced identical legislation in the Senate.  These bills (H.R. 5323 and S. 2986) follow in the footstep of the LEADS Act in seeking to establish a rule of law for lawful access to data in the global environment.

Reps. Marino and DelBene (who had also introduced the LEADS Act) said in a statement:

“We were pleased that the LEADS Act gained such widespread support with more than 130 cosponsors in the House.  ICPA improves upon this effort by broadening industry recognition, and we believe it will earn an even greater backing from our colleagues in Congress.  This bill guarantees that users of technology have confidence that their privacy rights will be protected by due process while simultaneously ensuring law enforcement agencies have necessary access to information through a clear, legal framework to keep us safe.”

The bill stipulates that U.S. law enforcement could obtain warrants for the electronic information of U.S. persons physically located in the United States, or nationals of foreign countries that have a Law Enforcement Cooperation Agreement with the United States, provided the country does not object to the disclosure.  Thus, the ICPA would maintain the sovereignty of nations in protecting information stored within their borders.

By clarifying the rules surrounding the release of electronic information, the ICPA would not only protect individual privacy but would also improve the competitive posture of American companies doing business in the global digital economy.  Cloud computing will continue to revolutionize everything from newsgathering and financial transactions to the Internet of Things as the future of business migrates ever more rapidly to the cloud.  The rules governing privacy and the protection of information in that space need to be clear.

Updating the ECPA with the International Communications Privacy Act would reflect today’s reality of cloud computing and provide the legal framework needed to protect the privacy of individuals, support law enforcement, and promote a competitive environment for American companies.  Congress can’t afford to let this one languish.

Netflix, Self Interest, and Net Neutrality

The recent announcement by Netflix that it has been reducing the video quality of its programs on mobile networks for years – something the new net neutrality rules prohibit Internet service providers (ISPs) from doing – has sparked a firestorm by opponents of net neutrality regulations.

From the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and cable and telecom interests have come expressions of outrage that Netflix never acknowledged this practice during the time when regulators were actively considering, and ultimately approving, utility-style regulation of ISPs.

Though Netflix has kept a low profile since acknowledging its throttling, it has averred that it did so to assist some of its customers in remaining under data caps.  FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, though, takes a dim view of that argument, saying in a recent speech that “Netflix has attempted to paint a picture of altruism whereby it virtuously sought to save these consumers from bumping up against or exceeding their data caps.  There is no way to sugarcoat it: The news is deeply disturbing and justly generates calls for government – and maybe even congressional – investigation.” …

The thing that troubles O’Rielly is that this Netflix practice was never revealed in the company’s many filings to the FCC during that agency’s net neutrality proceeding.  >> Read More

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  The full version of this article appeared in The Hill on April 5, 2016.