Orts and All

Regulating the ’Net.  Much has been alleged in recent days about the risks to the independence of the Internet were the copyright bills currently before Congress to become law.  As mentioned here and here, the most extravagant of these allegations are flummery of the first water, but copyright issues aside, the ’net is indeed on the cusp of a significant transformation.

Evidence of this can be seen in the actions of the FCC, whether on its own initiative or by its implementation of regulations after passage of legislation into law.  The Commission’s codification of  "net neutrality" rules was the first example of the Internet’s capture.  The action currently underway by the FCC to promulgate regulations re the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, a law which, among other things, mandates captioning for online video, is another.

Goes without saying that making online video accessible to the deaf is a nice thing to do, and for many that’s the end of the story.  But people who are familiar with the way laws and regulatory policies evolve know that things like these have a precedential impact in Congress, the courts, and the regulatory agencies, and that very often these precedents are then offered up in justification of other laws or rules that are not so nice.

In any case, the point here is that it’s already too late in the day for people who have an idealistic interest in the Internet to fret the future loss of its independence.  Thanks to the majority at the FCC and/or in Congress, the Internet’s pristine independence has already been lost.

Media Matters.  The organization called Media Matters for America, which exists to demean and (where possible) destroy conservative journalists and organizations like FOX News, has now come out with a contrived accusation against George Will.

The gravamen of MMA’s contrivance is that, as a Board member of a conservative grant-giving group (the Bradley Foundation), Will should be required to mention this connection whenever he writes about or cites the work of any of the groups to which Bradley contributes!

Given that Bradley funds a very large number of conservative think tanks and other enterprises, this would mean, as a practical matter, that Will would have to include this disclosure pretty much all the time since he is, after all, a conservative himself and cites these organizations’ work frequently.

As the Washington Post’s executive editor put it, in reply to a request from MMA for comment: “Is it seriously a surprise to you that George Will quotes experts from conservative think tanks more often than he quotes experts from liberal think tanks?”

What a relief! The latest news is that Keith Olbermann, who is faithfully viewed nightly by at least 16 people, may be staying on at Current TV, a network that captures the imagination of dozens.  

It’s been a close call for the past few days, but as this is being written word is out that Olbermann and management of Current, who have been at loggerheads over something or other, have resolved their differences.  So a country that has been paralyzed with fear that things might not work out can breathe again. What a happy day.

                                  

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

Rationalizing Theft: The Technology Lobby’s Attack on Copyright Legislation

The technology crowd’s objections to the copyright protection bills, now moving their way through Congress, put one in mind of H.L. Mencken’s crack that criticism is prejudice made plausible.  This, because that industry’s leaders, scribes, and think tanks uniformly oppose every legislative initiative aimed at protecting copyrighted content, even as they frequently give lip service to the concept .

From the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the late ’90s – which they fought tooth and nail, but cling to in today’s debates as though it were an uncle come to jail with money for the bail bondsman – to today’s Protect IP and Stop Online Piracy acts (good summaries of which are here and here), the techies profess all sorts of high-minded concerns, but never at the expense, you understand, of their business plans.

Take, for instance, Google, the 800-pound gorilla, inside and outside the Beltway, regarding all things digital.  The company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, claims that attempts to crack down on rogue sites profiting from copyright infringement could set a “disastrous precedent” for freedom of speech, and also that they would encourage more restrictive Internet policies in countries like China.

This is serious stuff, and would be more serious still if (a) it were true, and (b) it issued from a company with any public policy credibility in this regard.  Alas, neither is the case.  Let’s start with the credibility problem first.

The best example of a U.S. policy that really would have (or might still) set a bad precedent regarding repressive regimes abroad is the FCC’s recently concluded Network Neutrality proceeding.  Indeed, in March of last year the U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy at the State Department, Philip Verveer, had this to say about the subject at a Media Institute luncheon in Washington: “The net neutrality proceeding is one that could be employed by regimes that don’t agree with our perspectives of essentially avoiding regulation of the Internet … it could be employed as a pretext or as an excuse for undertaking public policy activity that we would disagree with pretty profoundly.”

Though there are those, of whom I’m one, who think the FCC’s subsequently enacted Internet rules, though greatly watered down, still went too far, the more interesting thing to note in this regard is that Google was the leading figure among those lobbying in support of net neutrality.

In the summer of 2006, for instance, Eric Schmidt himself penned a note on Google’s Public Policy Blog that read in part:

The Internet as we know it is facing a serious threat.  There’s a debate heating up in Washington, D.C. on something called “net neutrality” – and it’s a debate that’s so important Google is asking you to get involved.  We’re asking you to take action to protect Internet freedom….

Creativity, innovation, and a free and open marketplace are all at stake in this fight. Please call your representative and let your voice be heard.  

And then there’s the argument, made by Google and lesser apologists of unfettered infringement, that the Protect IP and Stop Online Piracy acts undermine the speech guarantees of the First Amendment.  Whether it’s because they like the sound of the accusation, or because, not knowing any better, they actually believe it, there’s a lot of this nonsense going around the technocracy.

They might be more cautious about making such claims if they read the First Amendment analysis of the Protect IP Act written by the most distinguished First Amendment scholar of our age, Floyd Abrams.  In a 12-page letter sent on May 24 to Senate Judiciary Committee members Leahy, Hatch, and Grassley, Abrams lays out a compelling argument that the Act is consistent with the First Amendment, and concludes with these observations:

Among a range of objections, two core critiques stand out.  First, there is a recurring argument that the United States would be less credible in its criticisms of nations that egregiously violate the civil liberties of their citizens if Congress cracks down on rogue websites.  Second, there is the vaguer notion that stealing is somehow less offensive when carried out online….

I disagree.  Copyright violations are not protected by the First Amendment.  Entities “dedicated to infringing activities” are not engaging in speech that any civilized, let alone freedom-oriented nation protects.  That these infringing activities occur on the Internet makes them not less, but more harmful.  The notion that by combating such acts through legislation, the United States would compromise its role as the world leader in advancing a free and universal Internet seems to me insupportable.  As a matter of both constitutional law and public policy, the United States must remain committed to defending both the right to speak and the ability to protect one’s intellectual creations.  This legislation does not impair or overcome the constitutional right to engage in speech; it protects creators of speech, as Congress has since this Nation was founded, by combating its theft.

Abrams’ last point is especially noteworthy.  Not only is the current concern with copyright protection  nothing new, it is in fact as old as the country itself.  Reading the overwrought diatribes of the tech community one might get a different impression, but in fact it’s all there in black and white, among the “enumerated powers” in Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution.

For those who have forgotten, or never knew, this so-called copyright clause empowers Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Language and wisdom, that is to say, that is not the contemporary creation of the heads of the motion picture studios, but of the Founding Fathers more than 200 years ago.

                                  

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

Dodging a Bullet: The FCC’s Report on the Future of the Media

Seventeen months ago the FCC teed up what until last Thursday was known as the “Future of Media” project.  For all practical purposes the project’s report, now called “The Information Needs of Communities,” is likely to be forgotten in half that time.

On the face of it this sounds like a criticism.  Far from it!  For its thoroughness and level-headed analysis, and especially for its acknowledgment of the constitutional limits on governmental involvement in the media, this report, and its principal personnel – most notably the man brought in to oversee the effort, Steven Waldman – are owed a debt of gratitude.

Before this project began there arose a powerful network comprised of ideologically motivated activist groups like Free Press; academic institutions and their publications, like Columbia University’s CJR; and deep-pocketed grant-giving groups, most importantly the Knight Foundation; all in the vanguard of what is euphemistically called the “media reform” movement.

And as Chairman Genachowski himself acknowledged, it was the work of these players – most notably the Knight Commission (a creation of the Knight Foundation, which two years earlier released a similarly titled report) that prompted the FCC’s own project.

So with this as its provenance, who would have been surprised if the report had embraced the media reform crowd’s recommendations?  But, mirabile dictu, it did not!  Instead, the report effectively dismisses the worst aspects of the media reformers’ governmental agenda.  Missing or explicitly rejected, for instance, are increased funding of public broadcasting, a “Geek Corps” for local democracy (patterned after AmeriCorps), federal tax credits for investigative journalism, and calls for a halt to media consolidation.

In fact, one of the few “action elements” in the report was a call for less government regulation.  As remarked by media reporter John Eggerton, the report “recommended scrapping the FCC’s ascertainment rules … as well as closing the localism proceeding without taking steps like creating community advisory boards to weigh in on public interest programming.”

There are those of us who believed that it was a mistake for the FCC to engage in this project at all – first out of conviction that the FCC had no authority to venture so far afield, and second out of fear that the report might provide the impetus for intrusive and unconstitutional regulations or legislation.  But in light of what the project report says, and doesn’t say, the feeling now is that some good will come of it.

After all, the “media reformers” will never have a better setup than they had here. With a Democratic majority on the Commission, a substantial infrastructure of activists and their financial enablers, and a media industry that is in fact struggling, if ever there were a time when the reformers’ wish lists might find policy traction this was it.  And now they have their reward: an exhaustive report that almost completely ignores that part of their agenda requiring governmental action.

During the Clinton era, many of the same kind of people who today support media reform helped man a presidential commission that came to be known as the Gore Commission.  Its focus was on the “public interest obligations of broadcasters in the digital age.”  And like the agenda of today’s media reformers, it encouraged government action in ways that undermined the First Amendment.

In the end, the Gore Commission produced its own report, a document that was as dense as it was feckless, and the whole enterprise sank from public consciousness almost immediately – as well it should have, since it produced nothing of value.  The guess here is that the FCC’s Information Needs of Communities report will also sink from public consciousness – not because it lacks value (its scholarship and usefulness as a research document are undeniable, for instance), but because it wisely steered clear of recommendations advanced by the more feral elements within the media reform community – people, for instance, like Commissioner Copps, a long-time spear carrier in that army, who immediately released an impassioned denunciation of the report.

Had the report endorsed radical (and preposterous) things, like a federal tax credit for investigative journalism, it would have attracted more ink, and been the subject of conversation far longer.  But it’s a credit to its authors, and to Chairman Genachowski, that it did not do so, because it shows they possess both a realistic view of the scope of the FCC’s limited authority and a healthy respect for the First Amendment.

                                  

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

Michael Copps’ Excellent Adventure

Even in a town filled to the gunwales with sagacious and selfless public servants (wink, wink), FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, now in his tenth and final year as such, stands out from the crowd.  Evidence of his colorful take on policy issues has been on display right from the beginning.

In 2001, for instance, in just his first months on the job, Copps issued statements condemning allegedly indecent radio comments by Howard Stern (September); the TV broadcast of a Victoria’s Secret program (November); and the airing of liquor advertising (December).

When he wasn’t condemning indecent language, scantily clad women, or Demon Rum, Copps was laying the groundwork for what would become his signature spiel: a four-part jeremiad that excoriates the current state of journalism (not enough “localism” or investigative reporting); blames this state of affairs on media consolidation; recommends more spending on public broadcasting; and decries what he sees as insufficient “public interest” obligations on the licensed media (and perhaps the unlicensed media as well).

Copps is not alone in holding such views, but there’s something about the way he presents them – especially now when the political, legal, and economic winds are blowing in a very different direction – that’s borderline amusing.  Where once his fire and brimstone suggested a kind of Elmer Gantry, it now seems rather like Elmer Fudd. (“I hate wabbits!”)

Who could forget, just five months before the 2008 presidential election, the speech that Copps gave to the so-called National Conference on Media Reform?  Organized annually by those wonderful “progressives” at Free Press, Copps never misses one of these things; they are, he says, his favorite place to be.

Anyhow, in June of 2008, the commissioner was practically giddy at the prospect of working that old time religion on the nation’s communications policies:

On a night like tonight almost anything seems possible, doesn’t it?  To tell you the truth, I feel like that a lot these days.  I know we can get this done.  We can climb into the bright uplands of real democracy.  Because as we change media, we change everything.  We empower 300 million Americans to deal with all those issues that Big Media has dumbed-down or just plain ignored at terrible cost to our democracy.  There is no real democracy without media democracy.

Never mind the risible imagery of the Free Press crowd, backpacks and all, climbing those “bright uplands,” or the pristine gimcrackery in the real democracy/media democracy linkage – what’s notable is the contrast between those remarks and a speech Copps gave just a week ago.

Speaking again to the National Conference on Media Reform (who else?), Copps let it all hang out:

I’m here because I’m more worried than ever about the state of America’s media and what it’s doing to our country….  For the consolidated owners of radio and TV, the license to broadcast became a license to despoil….

What we’re dealing with here is a bad case of Big Media substance abuse – and they just can’t break the habit.  These folks have no intention, even as the economy improves, of reopening shuttered newsrooms or rehiring laid-off reporters.  They might even fire more, just to prove to Wall Street that the bottom line still rules….

You and I knew all along that the realization of our dreams waited on a new era of reform in Washington.  Then the new era came and we all just knew that media reform was right around the corner.  Twenty-seven months later we are still waiting.  Waiting for even a down payment on media reform, like an honest-to-goodness broadcast license renewal process to replace the utterly ridiculous, no-questions-asked regime now in place.  Or some public interest guidelines to encourage broadcast news and diversity and localism.

Really, it’s almost enough to make a grown man cry.  All those uplands unclimbed!  And Big Media moguls, firing people left and right, just to prove something to Wall Street.  Hearing such stuff, you know that Copps earnestly believes he’s put his finger on the problem.  After all, what else could it be?

Still, there’s something a little otherworldly about the gentleman’s lament, as though he’s been just a bystander looking in.  For the past 10 years Michael Copps has been one of five commissioners at the FCC, even chairman for a while, and since 2009 he has been a member of the majority there.

So if now, as he’s on his way out the door, Copps feels that the FCC has foozled its play, perhaps he should consider pointing one of those accusatory fingers at himself.  Maybe the problem all along hasn’t been consolidation or avarice, maybe it’s been that what ails the media, and the way forward, are more complex than to be availing of the kind of nostrums Copps and Free Press have been peddling.

Maybe the problem is that the Internet has upset the business model of almost all of the “old media,” denying them, most importantly, the kind of ad revenue that has been their lifeblood.  Seen from this perspective, exhortations to deny the efficiencies of consolidation, or to require more stringent “public interest” obligations, or to recommend greater funding of public broadcasting are not just irrelevant, they’re appalling.

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

‘Net Neutrality’ Goes To Court (Again)

For the most part, objections to the FCC’s new “network neutrality rules” – codified in December to preserve a “free and open” Internet despite a lack of evidence that anything less was the ongoing condition already – have centered on the probable negative impact on investment in the broadband space, and on the ability of Internet service providers (ISPs) to manage their networks efficiently.

And why not?  After all, this is a time when even President Obama is recommending regulatory reform, and the net neutrality regulations impose substantial new reporting obligations, even as they fail to provide a clear understanding of what network management practices are acceptable.

Important as these concerns are, however, there is another problem with these rules, and that is the degree to which they conflict with the First Amendment.  Though this argument has been propounded by such notables as Laurence Tribe and FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell (who dissented from the FCC’s Order), it has gotten very little coverage in news or opinion stories.

But that may change if a lawsuit filed in federal court last month by Verizon survives the FCC’s motion to dismiss.  Indeed, if this case were to reach the Supreme Court, it might provide yet another example, a la Citizens United, of laws or regulations undone because of their constitutional infirmities.

So what are the First Amendment problems with the net neutrality regulations?  Broadly speaking, there are two: The regulations fail to recognize that broadband ISPs are speakers for First Amendment purposes; and they interject the government into private decisions about speech.

Commissioner McDowell elaborated on this first point in some detail in delivering his dissenting opinion.  “I question,” he said, “the Order’s breezy assertion that broadband ISPs perform no editorial function worthy of constitutional recognition.”

It is undisputed that broadband ISPs merit First Amendment protection when using their own platforms to provide multichannel video programming services and similar offerings.  The Order acknowledges as much but simply asserts that the new regulations will leave broadband ISPs sufficient room to speak in this fashion – unless, of course, hints elsewhere in the document concerning capacity usage come to pass.  So while the Order concedes, as it must, that network management regulation could well be subject to heightened First Amendment review, it disregards the most significant hurdle posed by even the intermediate scrutiny standard.  The Order devotes all its sparse discussion to the first prong of the intermediate scrutiny test, the “substantial” government interest, while wholly failing to address the second and typically most difficult prong for the government to satisfy: demonstrating that the regulatory means chosen does not “burden substantially more speech than is necessary.”

In comments submitted to the FCC by Time Warner Cable, Harvard constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, who served as a judicial adviser to President Obama’s election campaign, made a number of kindred observations about net neutrality and the Constitution.  Two paragraphs, in particular, are of special note:

Net neutrality proposals rest on the mistaken premise that the Constitution gives the government a role in ensuring that the voices of various speakers receive equivalent attention and that audiences receive equal access to all speakers.  In fact, a central purpose of the First Amendment is to prevent the government from making just such choices about private speech, including decisions about what amount of any given kind of speech is optimal.  Inconsistent with that purpose is any notion that government might properly limit private decisions, such as those by BSPs (broadband service providers) regarding the control of their networks, in order to widen the access of some to the avenues of speech or to swell the aggregate amount of speech beyond whatever would result from the decisions of private speakers enjoying “absolute freedom from First Amendment constraints.”…

Many net neutrality proponents argue that BSPs are not actually engaging in speech that implicates the First Amendment.  But they are incorrect.  The Constitution applies equally even outside traditional print or electronic media, so that, for example, the government cannot require an individual to open his doors and turn his home into a forum for protesters.  Further, like a newspaper, a BSP has a limited capacity to distribute information and accordingly enjoys the right to decide how to apportion that space.  And as noted, BSPs make decisions about the delivery of particular content as they continue to innovate in the products, services, and business models they employ.

Quite apart from net neutrality’s First Amendment problems in the United States, there is an international aspect that is also troubling to those who recognize the importance of free speech around the world.
 
In remarks delivered in Washington last year to The Media Institute, the State Department’s Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, Ambassador Philip Verveer, said the following: “The net neutrality proceeding is one that could be employed by regimes that don’t agree with our perspectives of essentially avoiding regulation of the Internet … it could be employed as a pretext or as an excuse for undertaking public policy activity that we would disagree with pretty profoundly….”

For his candor, Ambassador Verveer received criticism from net neutrality proponents inside and outside the administration, but his point survives. It’s really not such a difficult concept to apprehend: When governments acquire regulatory authority over media and communications they are that much closer to being able to control the content and distribution of those media and communications, however benign the rationale for their regulatory authority may seem.

As mentioned at the outset, the First Amendment aspects of net neutrality have gone largely unreported, and there is little doubt that most of the briefs filed in support of Verizon’s case will accentuate other problems with the regulations.  But for those of us who follow free speech issues closely, the constitutional baggage is a thing of great interest and possibly great consequence.

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

Funding Net Neutrality … And Worse

There are so many things wrong with the FCC’s codified “net neutrality” rules, the kindest thing one can say about those responsible is that they were all born yesterday.  But criticism of this monstrosity abounds already, and given the potential for it to be wholly or partly undone by the courts or Congress, no further discussion of its many flaws is either timely or necessary.

Just before Christmas, however, John Fund wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal that ought to be required reading for every media and communications mogul in America.  Titled “The Net Neutrality Coup,” Fund recounts the role played by a handful of large grant-giving foundations, and the beneficiaries of their largesse (“paid clappers,” in Ted Turner’s immortal phrase) in the promotion of this cynical creation of the “media reform” movement.

Perhaps the greatest value in Fund’s piece is his finding that most of those foundations that provided the lion’s share of funding for net neutrality were also among the biggest sources of funding for the earlier (and even worse) mischief, “campaign finance reform.”

Fund identifies by name a total of six grant-giving foundations and four operating organizations.  They are, among the former: the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, the Joyce Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the John and Catherine MacArthur Foundation.

The four operating groups are Free Press, Public Knowledge, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the New America Foundation.  What all of these groups – funders and recipients alike – share in common is that, to varying degrees, they are all liberal-leaning, or “progressive,” as they yearn to be called nowadays.

Missing from this list is another billion-dollar grant-giving group – the Knight Foundation – which, through the Knight Commission, has itself peddled  net neutrality, along with such pap as the need for greater funding of public broadcasting, and tax credits for investigative journalism.  Though we won’t know for sure until its report is issued, the FCC appears to have adopted the Knight Commission’s recommendations as a kind of blueprint in its approach to the commission’s so-called Future of Media initiative.

The reason all of this should be of the greatest importance to everyone, but particularly to titans of media and communications, is simple: The communications policy views of grant-making groups like the Open Society Institute and the Ford Foundation (not to mention Free Press) are inimical to the well being of media and communications companies.

It’s not entirely clear why the “progressive” moneybags’ lavish spending has not incited individuals with different political views, many of whom have amassed great wealth in the media and communications business, to fund non-profit organizations with more pro-business communications policy views.  Perhaps it’s because some of them, having gotten theirs and now in retirement, no longer care much what happens to the industry of which they were once a part.  Or maybe it’s because many don’t think of themselves, or want others to think of them, as “conservatives,” whatever that means in the context of communications policymaking.

But a likelier explanation is that many fail to understand what a threat to their own and their industry’s welfare some of these groups actually pose.  Perhaps because businessmen are very good at lobbying, and understand the ins and outs of PACs, they don’t see the need to engage their critics in the worlds of academia or think tankery.

It’s a mistake, that, because in truth it’s the people who deal in ideas – intellectuals and artists, activists and policy wonks – who are often the engines in the development of policy issues in which legislators and regulators are but the last people to board the train.  Witness, for instance, net neutrality.

As John Fund puts it, in the conclusion of his WSJ piece, “So the ‘media reform’ movement paid for research that backed its views, paid activists to promote the research, saw its allies installed in the FCC and other key agencies, and paid for the FCC research that evaluated the research they had already paid for.  Now they have their policy.  That’s quite a coup.”

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

Net Neutrality: Solving Nonexistent Problems the Old-Fashioned Way

For all the reaction it elicited, Chairman Genachowski’s plan for codification of the so-called net neutrality rules, as suggested in a speech he gave Dec. 1, amounts to too little revealed, much less resolved, to allow for fully confident assessment.

This said, it’s not too early to observe that any public policy that is roundly condemned by Free Press, the Media Access Project, and the Nation magazine can’t be all bad.  And condemn it they have.  Under headlines like “Is FCC Peddling Fake Net Neutrality?” and “FCC Chair Genachowski’s ‘Fake Net Neutrality’ Scheme Threatens Internet Freedom, Digital Democracy,” the left’s unhappiness is as loud as it is music to the ears.

On the other hand, the chairman’s proposal has also attracted heavy fire from members of Congress, many but not all of them Republicans, and from the two Republican commissioners at the FCC.  In Congress, the general animus centers on the feeling that the FCC should at least consult with, if not defer to, the members about such things, while Republicans are especially angry that the chairman’s plan anticipates action before the newly elected members of the House and Senate are even seated.

Meanwhile, the service providers are somewhat divided, with some of them content to wrap things up in a way that falls far short of what they had feared, while others are troubled by the apparent lack of a sunset provision, and by the unsettled nature of many important details.

So philosophy on parade it is not.  It is, instead, equal parts partisan politics, an acknowledgment of the way the world works, and 100-proof deal making.  As such, it’s unsatisfying – like taking a shower with your socks on – but it’s not a complete surprise.  As reported here, it’s always been clear that Genachowski had the inclination, and the votes, to proceed with some kind of “net neutrality” scheme, even as it also has looked ever more problematical for him to go the whole nine yards, as in Title II “reclassification.”

More than this, there are aspects of the apparent plan – like its embrace of consumption-based billing – that are deeply satisfying.  It wasn’t all that long ago that Time Warner Cable had to abandon plans, in consequence of noisy opposition from the usual troglodytes, to do some trials of this kind of thing.  Charging more of those who use more is the way we price most things, of course, but that didn’t prevent groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge from piling on in opposition to TWC’s plans, nor from gloating when the company withdrew its proposed trials.

For now, the whole of this matter can be reduced to some questions, not all of them answerable.  Is Title I regulation better than Title II?  Yes.  Is this the best result one could reasonably expect from this FCC?  Probably.  Is it wise public policy?  No.  Will the FCC’s action, whatever it is, be the end of the matter?  Depends.  If, sometime in the future, a party with standing decides to sue the agency on the claim that it lacks authority to regulate the Internet in this way, it will have a viable argument with some case law to back it up. And if that lawsuit were to be resolved in a way that (once again) ordered the FCC out of the Internet regulation business, well, so much the better.

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

Net Neutrality’s Poison Petition

For those in the communications policy business, perhaps the most jaw-dropping datum to issue from Tuesday’s elections is this: Of the 95 candidates for the House and Senate who signed a petition encouraging “net neutrality” regulation, all of them lost.  Not some of them.  Not most of them.  All of them.

It’s really quite remarkable.  Not even the Black Death killed everybody.  But there it is, a new world record for political toxicity.  The humorous aspects of this debacle aside, there is a serious lesson here: There is no appetite in this country for regulatory schemes whose effect is to promote government (and a few companies) at the expense of private-sector investment generally.

Yet this is precisely what net neutrality regulations, whether Lite or industrial strength, would do.  Intended or not, codified regulations would inevitably lead to government meddling in this freest part of the communications industry, and frustrate the kind of investment in the broadband infrastructure without which there can be no growth in this vital sector of the economy.

And for what?  As mentioned here, net neutrality is the condition that obtains today!  Nobody is being deprived or disadvantaged of anything worth talking about.  Indeed, a quick look at the kinds of organizations that have been promoting net neutrality pretty much says it all.

On the one hand we have groups like Free Press, whose interest in the subject is precisely because of the potential in governmental oversight to yoke communications companies to the agenda of the nation’s “progressives.”  While on the other you have a company like Google that, in the best tradition of crony capitalism, wants to tilt public policy in a direction that benefits its private interests.

It is widely believed that FCC Chairman Genachowski  would like the FCC to be relieved of the responsibility of taking on the task of codification of the net neutrality rules.  He is to be commended for his reservations, especially since he is under great pressure from the net neutrality lobbies to act.

The wise course now would be to let the clock run out on any kind of FCC action.  If the Republican gains in Tuesday’s elections don’t speak clearly enough about the matter, surely the fate of the hapless signers of the net neutrality petition does.

[Updated 11-4-10, 1:50 p.m. EDT, to reflect latest election results.]

                                                   

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

Shedding Light on Title II and the First Amendment

Now that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has proposed what Broadcasting & Cable’s John Eggerton artfully calls a “Title II Lite” approach to broadband regulation, it’s a good time to take a second look (or maybe your first) at a recent paper by Robert Corn-Revere.

Bob wrote a Perspectives policy paper for The Media Institute titled “Defining Away the First Amendment,” which we released May 4.

This noted First Amendment attorney makes a crucial point – but a point that has not received adequate attention: “The FCC’s current ability to change the level of First Amendment protection for a medium simply by changing its regulatory definition is quite limited, if not nonexistent.”

Whoa, you mean there’s a First Amendment dimension to this reclassification debate?  You’d never know it by listening to the FCC, or to “net neutrality” supporters like Free Press.  Maybe that’s not surprising, since the First Amendment could very well prove an unwelcome stumbling block for Chairman Genachowski and his net-neutrality ilk.  Easier for them just to ignore it.

But, I would suggest to you, the First Amendment is far too important to ignore here.  In his issue paper, Bob Corn-Revere has shed some much-needed light on a pivotal concern that the FCC has tried to keep in the shadows.  Taking a “lite” approach to Title II reclassification doesn’t absolve the FCC of its constitutional obligations.  If anything, we need more “light” from Bob and others who are willing to hold the FCC accountable for the First Amendment ramifications of its regulatory agenda.

Cute as a Button: The Schemes and ‘Confessions’ of Reed Hundt

Sorry to say, there are people in public life who, were hubris a lubricant, could forego ambulation and just glide on down the road.  Reed Hundt, the former chairman of the FCC, is one such person.

Hundt is back in the news these days because policies he clandestinely pursued while chairman are now thought by some (including Hundt himself) to be coming to fruition at the hands of his former FCC aides and confidantes, one of whom, Julius Genachowski, is now chairman.

This, and more, was revealed in a speech Hundt gave last month at Columbia University.  The subject of his address was the national broadband plan, then set to be released by the FCC just a week later, and what he characterized as a “confession or admission” of the role he played, years earlier, in using his office as chairman to systematically elevate broadband, at the expense of broadcasting, as the “common medium.”

To quote the great man himself: “The choice to favor the Internet over broadcasting was initially made in first-draft form by some of the people who are now running the FCC.”

One can only imagine how happy this revelation must have made the current FCC chairman since, if we’re to believe Hundt, not only was Genachowski a co-conspirator, so to speak, he was just a tagalong – the horse to Hundt’s Lady Godiva.

Lest you think for even a minute that the gentleman feels remorse about any of this, be advised: He doesn’t.  Quite the contrary, Hundt is pleased as punch with the way he handled things, amused even, and he wants you to see it the same way.  Rather like a school boy pulling a prank on the headmaster, Hundt sees his scheming not only as smart and justifiable but as positively cute in the way it confounded all but those few in the know.

How else to explain his characterization of his efforts to suppress broadcasting – by delaying, for instance, its transition to HDTV – as “a little naughty?”  Or his boast, re the ability of people to use the telephone network, for free, to connect to the Internet, as a case of the government “stealing the value from the telephone network and giving it to society?”

Not everyone sees the humor.  One who is particularly unamused is Gordon Smith, formerly Senator Smith, and now head of the National Association of Broadcasters. As reported in Broadcasting & Cable, Smith had this to say when asked what he thought of Hundt’s speech: “Frankly, I was rather offended, as a former member of the Senate Commerce Committee, that his secret musings were never shared with the elected representatives of the American people.”

Actually, Hundt’s Columbia performance isn’t the first time he’s spoken (what shall we call it?) “candidly.”  Years earlier there was the book, You Say You Want a Revolution, that he wrote not long after leaving the FCC.

Sandwiched between characterizations of some of his fellow commissioners as the “Gang of Three,” and innumerable accounts of the commercial rabble with whom he was obliged to spend time, Hundt wrote some things that are of a piece with his Columbia speech.

One of these describes a meeting he had in 1995 with Bill Gates. Hundt writes:

We had come to appeal to Gates’ self-interest.  As everyone on the West Coast knew, computing was heading directly toward communications….  With Gates as commander-in-chief, the entrepreneurs could win a lobbying war even against the powerful broadcasters….

I wanted Gates to go after the spectrum, because the auction was such a pure and sensible goal.  Later, depending on how the meeting went, we would ask for his help in connecting every classroom to the information highway….

If those who bought the spectrum at an open auction could ignore the networks’ deal with Congress and abandon high-definition television, they could transmit digital information to PCs….

Gates rocked in his chair.  His eyes magnified by his glasses, he stared at me, and asked urgently, "Does anyone else know about this?"

Elsewhere in the book, Hundt describes his attendance at a meeting hosted by the Gores (Tipper and Al), also in 1995, on the topic of Families and the Media:  

Then the President and Vice President each said they would support the children’s television initiative.  I had become part of the Administration’s political agenda – perhaps the first time in history that FCC issues were in the center ring of the political circus.  Al singled me out in the crowd.  I stood up.  The auditorium applauded.  The event made the national news.  It was intoxicating; it was much more important to be there in Nashville than at, say, an NAB convention.

Many people would agree that the Internet already is, or will become, the “common medium.”  And in an age when Saul Alinsky is held up as a role model, and the ends justify the means, views and acts like Hundt’s will almost certainly escape widespread censure.  But there’s this one small problem with the government picking the industrial winners and losers: What happens if they’re wrong?

Of course we know that governmental estimates and projections are never wrong.  But imagine that sometime in the future it happens.  Wouldn’t that be something?  Because, you know, in that case the government would not only have distorted the marketplace, it might have created problems it hadn’t even considered.

As it happens, there’s a claim in Hundt’s book that hints of this very problem.  In the same chapter in which he wrote of his meeting with Bill Gates, Hundt claimed that “big-screen televisions would cost so much that less than one percent of Americans would buy them.”

Imagine our surprise, then, when we check now with people at the Consumer Electronics Association, and are told that, in 2010, almost half (about 47 percent) of all TV sets sold are big screen.  Could this mean, Hundt’s furtive schemes notwithstanding, that the Internet won’t be the only common medium?  Go figure.

Cross posted at Huffington Post, April 21, 2010.