The FCC’s Wheeler of Fortune

LAS VEGAS – Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler’s speech yesterday to broadcasters attending the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show here dealt primarily with broadcast-specific subjects.  But as expected, he also used the occasion to tout the Commission’s new Open Internet Order, arguing that broadcasters should support it because, like the must-carry rules, the order “assures that your use of the Internet will be free from the risk of discrimination or hold-up by a gatekeeper.”

To characterize this claim as 100-proof claptrap would be to understate the case.  Put simply, no Internet service provider has, or would have, the tiniest interest in discriminating against anything broadcasters might want to put online.  Indeed, net neutrality is widely embraced by the phone and cable companies.

The real issue is the way in which the FCC – through Title II regulation – proposes to define and enforce net neutrality in the future.

Much has been said about the inefficiencies and investment-reducing effects of Title II regulation, and most all of it is true.  But the less-well-discussed aspect is the potential in it for activist groups and ideologues like Free Press and kindred organizations to exploit this order in attempts to impose certain types of content controls.  >> Read More

Is This What Net Neutrality Is Really About?

Recent congressional hearings held in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) net neutrality ruling provide a glimpse into what is so deeply wrong with this regulation, and why so many activist groups were behind it.

It’s an aspect of this matter of which you were perhaps unaware while the FCC was considering its regulatory strategy. Perhaps you thought net neutrality meant what was said of it: that it was intended to prevent the blocking or throttling of websites, or of “paid prioritization.”

Silly you.  Actually, those were the interests of those companies — like Google and Netflix — that saw in governmental sway over the Internet commercial benefits for themselves.  But what about those groups and individuals who had political or ideological interests, and who played such outsized roles in the deal?

You know, groups like Free Press, Media Matters, Public Knowledge and New America’s Open Technology Institute?  Or what about the large grant-giving foundations, like Ford, MacArthur, Knight, and George Soros’s Open Society Institute that, in addition to munificently funding third-party net neutrality activists, directly lobbied the FCC themselves?

It should now be clear, even to those who weren’t paying attention earlier, that the primary interest these groups had, and have, in net neutrality is their desire to insinuate government in the regulation of speech on the Internet.  >> Read More

 

What Changed the FCC Chairman’s Mind?

On the occasion last week of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s passage of “net neutrality” regulations, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Commission, announced that it was “the proudest day of my public policy life.”  It’s not known whether that statement is a reflection of how little Wheeler feels he’s accomplished in life, or an embarrassing attempt to take credit for something that was forced on him.

What we do know is that the regulation that passed with his vote – and those of the other two Democrats on the Commission – was not the much sounder one Wheeler initially proposed, but a radical version that carries within it opportunities for mischief and much worse than that.

So what happened to change Wheeler’s mind?  The most obvious explanation is the interjection of President Obama who, a few weeks before the vote, publicly stated his view that the FCC should subject Internet service providers (ISPs) to utility-like regulation.  This is the explanation for Wheeler’s switch held by most insiders, and there’s no doubt that these FCC commissioners, their notional “independence” notwithstanding, move like earlier ones to the music of their parties and the presidents who appoint them. >> Read More

Who’s Behind the Push for Net Neutrality?

If “net neutrality” were a life form, it would be classified as a simple organism.  And that lack of complexity, as it happens, is its very appeal to certain “progressives,” garden-variety regulators, and large Internet companies, who see in government regulation of the Internet opportunities to cement and extend their franchises.

The brave and gifted Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Ajit Pai, and former commissioner Robert McDowell, are doing all they can to point out the many already identifiable problems, as well as potential pitfalls, that line the path of this regulatory nightmare.  Among those problems are higher user fees to consumers, a slowdown in the rate of investment in broadband infrastructure, regulatory creep, and the wrong kind of example to set before foreign dictators and tyrants.

Alas, none of this is likely to deter the three Democratic FCC commissioners, as instructed by the White House, from passing this regulation.

What has not been much discussed in all of this is the role in the promotion of net neutrality played by some of the actors: activist groups like Free Press, Public Knowledge, and Media Matters; huge grant-giving foundations like the Ford, Soros, and Knight foundations; and companies like Google.   >>Read More

The FCC’s Net Neutrality Vote

Not unlike the way that people present themselves as avatars in cyberspace, policymakers in Washington present themselves behind a veneer that is usually as predictable as it is tiresome. But not always!  Once or twice a decade some public official will do something that surprises, and in doing so leaves all the other players gobsmacked and reeling.

This is precisely what has happened at the FCC in recent days as the newly installed chairman, Tom Wheeler, acting in the wake of a court order, has proposed a reform of that agency’s so-called net neutrality regulations.  In a nutshell, the Wheeler proposal would allow ISPs to provide, for a fee, faster lanes to the consumer for content providers.

If you are one of those people who don’t find the idea of paying more for better things to be a deeply radical idea, your problem is that you’re unschooled in the ways of political posturing, rhetoric, and the lay of the land.  You don’t understand that, to Democrats especially, the “free and open Internet” cannot allow upgrades of the sort that would make any content provider (and that provider’s customers) happier than any other provider or its customers.  Distributive justice, you know.

In the grip of this construct, the Internet must remain a static and unchanging highway, never in need of pothole filling or additional traffic lanes.

Which is not to say that Republicans, too, don’t like Wheeler’s proposal.  Indeed, the confounding fact is that both of the Republicans on the Commission voted against the proposal while all three of the Democrats voted for it!  And in truth the Republicans are correctly concerned about the precedential effect of net neutrality on the formerly unregulated Internet.  In his statement opposing the measure, Republican Commissioner O’Rielly made this argument cogently, just as former commissioner McDowell had before him.

Still, there is the gnawing concern that, given the way the pieces are deployed on the board right now, it might have been better in the long run if the Republicans had given Wheeler some support for breaking from the Democratic ranks.

Whatever the future may hold, one thing is clear: The final resolution of this matter is nowhere in sight.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

 

Net Neutrality Decision: A Welcome Development

Tuesday’s decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, striking down the FCC’s so-called “net neutrality” regulations, is a welcome development.  As noted by many, these regulations amount to a solution in search of a problem, with the only lasting and real-world effects being the creation of the precedent of governmental oversight of the previously unregulated Internet.

Moreover, and as argued in this space a little over a year ago, there is an international dimension to net neutrality, as the existence of these regulations in the U.S.A. advances the agendas of countries like Russia and China in regulating the Internet through the International Telecommunication Union.

Writing today in the Wall Street Journal, former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell makes a convincing case that, for this reason too, the FCC should abandon any further attempts to promote net neutrality.

For the new FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, this development threatens the very real prospect of becoming his signature activity for the duration of his term.  This, because if, at the urging of Internet companies like Google, plus the Obama Administration, Wheeler is importuned to try to resurrect the net neutrality rules, he basically has but two options.  One is to appeal the Circuit Court’s decision, and the other is to attempt to reclassify broadband provision as a “telecommunications service,” rather than an “information service,” something that would allow the imposition of net neutrality regs (and who knows what else) by the same authority that the FCC regulates telephone service.

But if Wheeler goes the reclassification route, it will set off congressional fireworks of a sort that will land him and the FCC in a protracted war with telecom companies, and Republican legislators, without any guarantee of success.

Still, one can only imagine the angst among the net neutrality crowd following yesterday’s decision. As reported in The Hill by Kate Tummarello, Internet companies have “pushed net neutrality with an almost religious fervor.”  Indeed, one of the most ardent pushers, the ludicrous organization called Free Press, coined the sophomoric slogan: “Net neutrality, the First Amendment of the Internet.”

So it’s not at all clear what the FCC’s next step will be, but suffice to say that the Circuit Court’s decision is going to make for some very interesting times there … and elsewhere.

                                               

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

 

Internet Freedom in Peril

Not for the first time, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell has issued a clarion call to all those interested in maintaining a free and open Internet.

In testimony before the House last week, Comm. McDowell made the following points:

(1)  Proponents of multilateral intergovernmental control of the Internet are patient and persistent incrementalists who will never relent until their ends are achieved;

(2)  The recently concluded World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) ended the era of an international consensus to keep intergovernmental hands off of the Internet in dramatic fashion, thus radically twisting the one-way ratchet of even more governmental regulation in this space;

(3)  Those who cherish Internet freedom must immediately redouble their efforts to prevent further expansions of government control of the Internet as the pivotal 2014 Plenipotentiary meeting of the International Telecommunications Union quickly draws near;

(4)  Merely saying “no” to any changes is – quite obviously – a losing proposition; therefore, we should work to offer alternate proposals such as improving the long-standing and highly successful, non-governmental multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance to include those who may feel disenfranchised; and

(5)  Last year’s bipartisan and unanimous congressional resolutions clearly opposing expansions of international powers over the Internet reverberated throughout the world and had a positive and constructive effect.

Once again, a cogent and persuasive presentation by the FCC’s MFC (Most Favored Commissioner). Read the whole of his testimony here.

                                               

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

 

Google, the FTC, and ‘Plausible’ Justifiability

Though it was surely not its intention, the Federal Trade Commission’s conclusion last week of its investigation of Google invites the question: What useful function does the FTC serve?

Not content, after two years of investigation on the taxpayers’ dime, to largely look past the mountain of evidence of marketplace harm caused by Google’s search and advertising practices, the Commission compounded that error by declining to issue a formal consent order, leaving it in the hands of Google itself, without the prospect of penalty, to change some of its business practices.

As even Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch said in his statement of concurrence and dissent, the FTC’s “settlement” with Google “creates very bad precedent and may lead to the impression that well-heeled firms such as Google will receive special treatment at the Commission.”

In elaboration of his dissent from the settlement procedure, Comm. Rosch added this:

Instead of following standard Commission procedure and entering into a binding consent agreement to resolve the majority’s concerns, Google has instead made non-binding commitments with respect to its search practices….

Our settlement with Google is not in the form of a binding consent order and, as a result, the Commission cannot enforce it by initiating contempt proceedings.  The inability to enforce Google’s commitments through contempt proceedings is particularly problematic given that the Commission has charged Google with violating a prior consent agreement.

What Comm. Rosch delicately calls “special treatment,” the more cynical of us would recognize as political influence peddling, a practice that Google has become quite adept at employing.  First it bankrolled the codification, at the Federal Communications Commission, of “net neutrality” regulations, thereby providing a solution to a nonexistent problem; then it led the successful opposition to the PIPA and SOPA copyright bills, the better to protect its investment in YouTube; now it has neutered the FTC, with the consequence being that it can continue to game its search results in ways that favor companies it controls.

So how has Google managed such political feats?  Well, would you believe that money has played a role?  In the FTC investigation alone Google reportedly spent some $25 million lobbying the matter.  To give an idea of the magnitude of this kind of spending, it equals 10 percent of the FTC’s total annual budget of $250 million.

But in addition to its FTC-specific lobbying, it’s well known that Google has cast its lot, through munificent campaign contributions and public policy support, with the current administration. Though it failed to come to pass, there was undoubtedly substance to the rumor that Google’s Eric Schmidt was being considered for a cabinet post in the Obama Administration.

Even so, there is evidence that the FTC commissioners know what they have done.  Their concluding statement about Google’s search practices, for instance, displays an almost comical defensiveness as they contend that, even if Google’s search practices favor its own companies, that is arguably okay:

In sum, we find that the evidence presented at this time does not support the allegation that Google’s display of its own vertical content at or near the top of its search results page was a product design change undertaken without a legitimate business justification.  Rather, we conclude that Google’s display of its own content could plausibly (emphases added) be viewed as an improvement in the overall quality of Google’s search product….  Although at points in time various vertical websites have experienced demotions, we find that this was a consequence of algorithm changes that also could plausibly be viewed as an improvement in the overall quality of Google’s search results….

Although our careful review of the evidence in this matter supports our decision to close this investigation, we will remain vigilant and continue to monitor Google for conduct that may harm competition and consumers.

Such limp-wristed rhetoric aside, there is a chance that Google will be brought to heel, just not by American authorities.  As it happens, the European Commission has also been investigating Google’s misdeeds, and the odds are good that, lacking the kind of political clout in Europe that it has in the USA, the company may actually receive from the Europeans something more than just a slap on the wrist.  On Dec. 18 the Commission gave the company 30 days to provide it with proposals to settle its complaints, something that could cost Google billions if it fails to do so.

Whatever the Europeans do, however, there remains the FTC’s foozled play, well put in a Bloomberg News editorial:

The FTC missed an opportunity to explore publicly one of the paramount issues of our day: Is Google abusing its role as gatekeeper to the digital economy?  Lawmakers, economists, other regulators, and consumers should all be in on this important debate over whether Google is leveraging its overwhelming dominance of search into unassailable market power in other areas. 

                                               

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

The ITU and the Internet

In 1971, when China was first admitted to the United Nations, William Rusher quipped that it was "a case of loosing a China in the bullshop.”  Such is the first thought that comes to mind in reflection on the latest bit of mischief to issue from the UN, in this case courtesy of that body’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

The second thought is of the power of precedents in law and policymaking.  Policywise, precedents can be likened to the engine of a train, the caboose of which is incremental or galloping movement in the same direction.

So the take-away from the vote last week in Dubai by 89 countries, including such freedom-loving regimes as those of China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela (you know, the usuals), is that it’s just a matter of time before many of those same countries claim the right, under the UN charter, to control the Internet through such things as filtering, identifying users, and surveillance.

Defenders of last week’s vote, like the head of the ITU, disingenuously claim that “The conference was not about Internet control or Internet governance….  And indeed there are no treaty provisions on the Internet.”  The key word here is “treaty,” since tucked away in the appendices, as reported by Ars Technica, is this sentence:

[WCIT-12 resolves to invite member states] to elaborate on their respective positions on international Internet-related technical, development and public-policy issues within the mandate of ITU at various ITU forums including, inter alia, the World Telecommunications/ICT Policy Forum, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development and ITU study groups. 

So for the first time, the precedent has been established that the UN is an appropriate body for the deliberation of policy issues affecting the Internet.  Never mind that this resolution is not binding on those countries, like the United States, which voted against the International Telecommunications Regulations.  The point survives: From this time forward the UN’s ITU will provide cover for those nations that wish to wall their citizens off from the open Internet.

Nor is this the only dangerous precedent to be noted in the context of the WCIT.  As warned two years ago by Ambassador Philip Verveer, the adoption by this country of so-called “net neutrality” regulations itself provides an opportunity for international mischief making.

As Robert McDowell, than whom no other FCC commissioner in memory has been right more often, put it in congressional testimony earlier this month:

Should the FCC’s regulation of Internet network management be overturned by the court, in lieu of resorting to the destructive option of classifying, for the first time, broadband Internet access services as common carriage under Title II, the FCC should revive a concept I proposed nearly five years ago – that is to use the tried and true multi-stakeholder model for resolution of allegations of anti-competitive conduct by Internet service providers….

If we are going to preach the virtues of the multi-stakeholder model at the pending World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, we should practice what we preach.  Not only would the U.S. then harmonize its foreign policy with its domestic policy, but such a course correction would yield better results for consumers as well. 

                                               

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

 

Defending the First Amendment in the 21st Century

By guest blogger HAROLD FURCHTGOTT-ROTH, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.

On September 11 and the following days, violent mobs attacked Americans and American property in Cairo, Benghazi, and cities throughout the Middle East.  Americans were murdered.  Embassies were ransacked.  Americans in the region, and even here at home, were threatened.

Many innocent victims have fallen in the path of recent violence; the First Amendment should not be among them.  Make no mistake: The violence around the world is aimed not at our country as an economic power, but at America as the champion of free speech.  Make America cower in fear, make us seek to silence unpopular voices, make us censor speech, and the First Amendment is not only destroyed.  So too is America.

America was founded not to allow mobs to destroy everything in their path, but for the opposite effect.  America is the triumph of the individual over the government, and with it the triumph of individual views, individual speech, and even repugnant individual views.  In America, we are protected from mob rule.  Those who truly hate America seek to destroy that triumph of the individual.  To see those who would destroy America, simply look at the mobs on television.

The motivations for each member of a violent mob need not be the same.  Some individuals may have a long-standing hatred of America.  Others may have been stirred to violence by an incendiary speech.  In the demonology of anti-American violence, the date September 11 is an unlikely coincidence.

But we in America have been repeatedly told a different story for the cause of violence against us.  We are told that the violence was sparked not by general anti-Americanism but by one video, supposedly made in America, and posted on one website.  The purportedly offending video was not produced by our government or placed on a government website.  So we are told, and perhaps even expected to believe, that a single video was the flame that ignited millions of people to protest, sometimes violently, against the United States.  The very story is an offense not merely to common sense but to the First Amendment.

The facts don’t support the story.  The Internet has more than 600 million websites, or about one for every 10 people in the world.  YouTube alone, the site of the allegedly offensive video, has more than 100 million videos.  For nearly 20 years, the Internet has made available more than enough content to offend just about anyone.  Yet over the same period, even the most virulently anti-American groups have not rationalized violence against America based solely on the content of a specific website.  Not until now.

Also troubling is the response of our government.  A clever government would not be ensnared in debates over the contents of documents or the views of individuals.  But rather than steer clear of judgments that impinge the First Amendment, our government has, likely unintentionally, fallen into a trap of taking positions that at best are troubling for the First Amendment.

For example, our embassies and even the State Department have issued statements that place our government in the awkward position of having opinions about the content of videos and even the intent of individuals.  Before the initial attack on September 11, the Cairo embassy issued the following statement: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings….”  The statement begs the questions of “Which efforts” and “Which individuals?”  The answers to these questions are not positions that our federal government should be taking.

Two days later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did little better when she stated: “To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible.  It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose to denigrate a great religion and provoke rage.  But as we said yesterday, there is no justification – none at all – for responding to this video with violence.”

First, Secretary Clinton appears to conclude that the video was in fact the cause of the violence.  Are we really to believe that but for that video, no violence would have occurred, no Americans would have been murdered, and peace would prevail in the world?

Second, while she is careful to state that it is her personal view that the video is “disgusting and reprehensible,” Secretary Clinton finds it difficult to separate her personal views from the views of the Office of the Secretary of State, an office that now appears to have views about the content of at least one video.

Perhaps even more troubling is the slippery slope the government places itself on when it comments on the content of publications, whether videos, books, magazines, newspapers, or Internet sites.  Even if the First Amendment permitted such governmental review and judgment – which it does not – does our government want to be in the position of having views about videos?

Not all offensive videos are low-budget and of poor quality.  The 1915 Hollywood film “Birth of a Nation” is repugnant in many ways.  It is commercially available on the Internet.  Does our government have a view about this movie, or any of the other of hundreds of millions of videos on the Web? 

Rather than proudly trumpet the First Amendment, the beacon of hope around the world for countless downtrodden people, including those who cannot practice religion at home, Secretary Clinton seems mildly apologetic about it: “I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day.”

Yet people around the world fully understand why the United States does not “prevent these kind of reprehensible videos.”  There is no mystery.  The answer is not technology.  The answer is the First Amendment, at the core of our national values.  When the day comes that America submits to mob rule and begins censoring speech, America will have been destroyed.  And with it, the hopes and aspiration of people around the world who yearn for nothing more than the protection of the First Amendment, rights that are present nowhere else in the world.

In recent days, anti-American riots have continued around the world, purportedly aimed at one video.  International figures, even some considered “allies” of the United States, have asked us to prosecute those involved in the video.  President Morsi of Egypt is one of those leaders.  The head of Hezbollah in Lebanon has asked for continued protests against the United States over the video.

Amazingly, practically every American has seen images of a man, purported the producer of the offending video, embalmed in clothes and in police custody.  News reports tell of government officials looking into the details of the offending video.  Is this possible under the First Amendment?

One might expect ordinary Americans to stand up in outrage to the demands of foreign mobs to dictate censorship in America.  The First Amendment is under attack not from home but from abroad. 

In 1952, after being interrogated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, one of the most powerful plays in the American canon.  It tells the story of individuals standing up to mobs and associated intimidation. 

But the reaction today is largely silence.  Many Americans join the mob.  Government officials denounce the video.  Law enforcement officials interrogate people associated with the video.  Media accounts rarely comment on the rights of individuals.

It is not merely the American media that have been silent.  The voices of America’s political leadership have provided no full-throated defense of the First Amendment.  We should not apologize for it.  We should not shrink from it.  What distinguishes America and what makes us the envy of the rest of the world is the First Amendment.  We should be proud of it.  When our loyal and dedicated government servants are murdered abroad, and murdered purportedly for America’s First Amendment, we should at least mention the liberties they helped protect.

President Lincoln in 1863 noted that the Civil War was a test of “whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”  At the time, he was speaking of the proposition that all men were created equal.  Today, he might speak of whether a nation conceived and dedicated to the First Amendment can long endure.  We are engaged in that war now.  And we are not yet winning.

                                   

Mr. Furchtgott-Roth can be reached at hfr@furchtgott-roth.com.  The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute’s Board, contributors, or advisory councils.