Net Vitality Should Be the Cornerstone of U.S. Broadband Policy

By guest blogger PROF. STUART N. BROTMAN, faculty member at Harvard Law School and author of the study Net Vitality: Identifying the Top-Tier Global Broadband Internet Leaders published by The Media Institute.  Prof. Brotman is a member of the Institute’s Global Internet Freedom Advisory Council.  The full version of this article appeared in The Hill on April 24, 2015.

The Federal Communication Commission’s recent Open Internet Order is intended to develop an enforceable regulatory scheme to ensure that net neutrality would be achieved.  One of its rationales is that unless such government intervention is put in place, the United States is likely to slip into the category of Internet also-rans, hurting innovation and our economy as a whole as Internet “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” thwart competition and impede consumer demand.

But how accurate is this perception?  The Internet, after all, is not just a network of networks, but rather a complex ecosystem comprised of applications and content, devices, and networks.  The interdependency of these three pillars creates the rich experience of the Internet, not just in the United States, but all around the world.

And consumer usage patterns continue to be extraordinarily dynamic, as well.  More people now access the Internet through mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, than on desktops and laptops tethered in homes, for example.  And more people now rely on apps rather than browsers to get the information and help they need more readily.  Policies premised on fixed residential use of fiber-based broadband do not seem to recognize that these seismic changes already have occurred.  >> Read More

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

‘Forbearing’ the Constitution: Net Neutrality and the FCC

So the latest word is that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a branch of government that, amusingly, is still referred to as an “independent” agency, is about to enact so-called net neutrality regulations under Title II of the Communications Act.

This, because according to its fans at the Commission, such regulations are needed in order to ensure a “fair and open” Internet.  Because, however, even the most passionate among them understand the many problems this would otherwise cause, the majority Democratic commissioners are said to be poised to enact regulations that forbear the full imposition of Title ll rules.

Meantime, Congress is considering enacting a law that would itself aim to protect net neutrality, but would do so in such a way as to deprive the FCC of its ability to regulate Internet service providers as a utility under Title II.

If (you’ll forgive the expression) one googles the word “forbearance,” the first definition that comes up reads: “The action of refraining from exercising a legal right…. ” — and there’s the rub!

With every passing day it becomes clearer that the Internet is the future of the press, and the plain language of the First Amendment bars the government from abridging freedom of speech or of the press.  >>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.

 

‘Breaking Bad’ Elevated Television

If you’ve been out of the country for the past six years, you have an excuse for being unfamiliar with Breaking Bad, perhaps the best show that’s ever been on television.

The story of Walter White, a humble high school chemistry teacher who, upon learning he has lung cancer, decides to team up with a former student to make methamphetamines, BB portrays the transformation of White from “Mr. Chips into Scarface,” as the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, describes it.

Fresh off its Emmy award as best drama series, a recognition that was too long in coming, the question now is when will we see another TV series that is as astonishingly good?  And another question: Why is it so hard for truly excellent programming to get air time?

In his book Difficult Men, Brett Martin recounts the lengthy and harrowing path traversed by Gilligan on the way to securing a deal with AMC, one of the several channels that comprise AMC Networks.

Martin tells the tale of Gilligan’s meeting with executives of the TNT cable network, who liked the show but were afraid of the drug-making aspect of it: “We don’t want to be stereotypical philistine executives, but does it have to be meth?  We love this, but if we buy it, we’ll be fired.”

Nor was TNT the only cable network that turned thumbs down on Breaking Bad.  So too did Showtime, HBO, and FX, meaning, as Gilligan put it, “there was no place left in the known universe.”

Elsewhere in his book, Martin usefully recounts the words of the AMC executive (Rob Sorcher) who decided to take a chance on the show: “We had had success with Mad Men,” he said.  “And once you’ve had that cookie it tastes good.  You want another one.  The decision to go another way, believe me, it was … terrifying.  But once you did, once you chose quality over everything else … you could do anything.”

At a time when so much video programming – film as well as TV – is demographically driven, PC themed, and/or scripted for cardboard characters, Breaking Bad is something very different.

Incorporating tremendous writing, directing, acting, and visuals, BB delivered a series that was marked by ambiguity, complexity, surprise, and sophistication.

As many have noted, in recent years the Emmy’s have been dominated by cable rather than broadcast network programming.  Indeed, both pay and basic cable channels have gained a reputation as the place to find smarter, edgier original series like Mad Men, The Sopranos, and of course Breaking Bad (despite the initial drug-themed hesitation about BB).  And this raises the question of why much of the best programming has been gravitating to cable.  

One explanation is that broadcasting is much more heavily regulated.  For this reason, programming that is marked by sexual or violent content carries greater risk for broadcasters than for cable networks.  And the risks involved don’t issue from government only.

A case in point is the Showtime program Dexter, a series that, though critically acclaimed, features both sexual situations and violence.  In 2007, CBS announced that it was considering broadcasting reruns of Dexter over the air.  In response, a conservative group, the Parents Television Council, warned CBS affiliates to preempt the show, and threatened the show’s advertisers.

As it happened, CBS edited the reruns down to a TV-14 rating and aired them on its affiliates, but only for a single season.

None of this is to suggest that violence equals excellence, or that excellence can only be achieved with the inclusion of violence – only that where violence is a necessary ingredient in the excellent telling of a good story, its inclusion ought not to preempt the airing of it.

For years now, many people have bemoaned the “dumbing down” of America, a phenomenon defined by Wikipedia as “the deliberate diminishment of the intellectual level of the content of schooling and education, of literature and cinema, and of news and culture.”

The popular and critical success of Breaking Bad demonstrates that there is both the talent and the audience for something better.

                                               

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  A version of this article appeared in the online edition of USA Today on Sept. 29, 2013.

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.