D.C. Circuit’s ‘Net Neutrality’ Decision

The D.C. Circuit Court’s decision, while obviously correct, will not slake the thirst of anyone looking for intellectual arguments for or against the FCC’s proposed regulation of the ISPs’ network-management practices. Because the court ruled that the FCC lacked the "ancillary" authority it asserted, the body of the decision amounts to little more than a refutation of the respondents’ argument that earlier Supreme Court decisions provided precedent for the FCC’s claims.

The "legalistic" nature of this decision aside, there is something important here. It is widely surmised (and feared) that, thus rebuffed, the FCC will attempt to get to its desired result – network neutrality, as it’s called – by attempting to regulate ISPs, like phone companies, under Title II of the Communications Act.

But look what’s happening here. On the basis of claims of abuse so slim they’re very nearly invisible, the FCC has proposed to expand and codify that agency’s "Internet principles" in a way that guarantees its regulatory oversight of the freest, most democratic, and fastest-growing communications medium in the country. And for what? Because of fears that Internet providers might look for ways to insulate everybody else from the negative consequences of the actions of a relative handful of bandwidth hogs?

One of the intervenors in this case – Free Press, whose sole reason for being is the subjugation of the commercial media and communications companies to the yoke of government – coined the phrase "Net Neutrality: The First Amendment of the Internet." The reality, as someone put it, is that codified net neutrality is more nearly "The Fairness Doctrine of the Internet."

For now, nobody knows for sure what will happen next – whether the FCC, or Congress, will push ahead in the conviction that this too is an issue of such "transformative" importance the only thing that matters is getting it done. But in this, as in so many things, the wiser course would be to rethink the matter entirely. It rarely happens that government acts more efficiently than the marketplace, and net neutrality is almost certainly no exception to that rule.

Net Neutrality in Retreat?

If you’re a “net neutrality” critic, and dabble in schadenfreude, things are looking up!  First, there was oral argument in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals (Comcast v. FCC), during which the panel clearly appeared to reject the notion that the FCC had authority to pursue its ambitions in this regard.

Then, just last week, there was the White Paper filed at the FCC on behalf of Time Warner Cable by constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, arguing that net neutrality as proposed is likely unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Last but not least is the report, debated but out there, that the Administration is cooling on net neutrality because it fears that it might depress the amount of capital the private sector invests in broadband deployment — an argument also made here — thereby defeating the goal of ubiquitous broadband access and stunting job growth as well.

One can only imagine the anguish such a turn would engender in the net neutrality crowd.  A conflict between Free Press and the Administration?  How could they reconcile it?  What manner of prose could they summon to express their innermost feelings?  The “vituperative retreat” perhaps, or maybe something more stylish, like an Olbermannesque commentary.  Perhaps they’d initiate, simultaneously, 100 diary threads on DailyKos.

Well, we don’t know for sure but we can dream.  What we do know is that Chairman Genachowski’s plan of extending and codifying the FCC’s "Internet principles,” announced with such confident fanfare not so long ago, is now coming under heavy fire from lots of quarters.

Laurence Tribe’s brief is particularly noteworthy, both for its line of argument and for the road map it lays out for a court challenge on constitutional grounds, should net neutrality be formally adopted.  To quote just one of several poignant passages therein:

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.

That Tribe was an active supporter of the candidacy of President Barack Obama, and served as a judicial adviser to Obama’s campaign, suggests that he has the Administration’s ear on such matters.  This, coupled with speculation about the reason for the departure of Susan Crawford, a strong proponent of net neutrality, lends weight to the notion that the Administration may be reconsidering its erstwhile support of net neutrality regulation.

If so it would just be another example, as H.L. Mencken put it, that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Net Neutrality: Whose First Amendment?

It shouldn’t come as any great revelation that when the government proposes regulations affecting the media, there very well might be implications for the First Amendment.  Raising such concerns, and then examining their validity, is a normal part of the regulatory process.

Kyle McSlarrow did just that last Wednesday in a speech to a Media Institute luncheon audience.  As president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association,  McSlarrow was rightly concerned that the FCC’s proposed regulatory enforcement of “net neutrality” would impair the First Amendment rights of Internet service providers, especially to the extent that they offer other types of programming services apart from Internet access.  He also noted that such rules could impair the free speech of start-up content providers who are willing to pay extra for priority distribution of their content to better compete with established entities, and for others who use the Internet.  

The response to McSlarrow’s speech by many proponents of net neutrality regulation was nothing short of remarkable for its rancor.

The underlying assumption of this net neutrality crowd and their ilk was the tired old mantra: Big media are bad.  Corporations are bad.  Corporations don’t deserve First Amendment rights.  The bloggers from this camp (including a former Free Press lawyer) seemed at once incredulous and offended that anyone (except maybe Washington lobbyists) could assert with a straight face that media companies are speakers with First Amendment rights.  

The other underlying assumption involves the revisionist view that the First Amendment is a tool the government has an obligation to use affirmatively to promote diversity of speech, rather than what it was created to be: a protection against government censorship of speech.

It would be bad enough if the reactions to McSlarrow’s speech suffered only from flawed assumptions like these.  That wouldn’t even be so terrible, because one can always challenge another’s assumptions and hope to engage in something resembling a serious debate.

It’s possible to do that, for example, with the response offered by the ACLU, which noted that ISPs do have First Amendment rights when they’re providing their own content, but should function as common carriers (like phone companies) when they’re carrying the content of others.  Whether tiered pricing for different levels of service amounts to discrimination and implicates free speech is at least something that can be debated.    

But the level of vitriol is running so high among many in the net neutrality crowd that some writers are totally twisting what McSlarrow said, and attributing to him words he never uttered and positions he never (and I believe would never) take.  For example, blogger Marvin Ammori (with the Free Press connections) wrote: “According to the NCTA’s Kyle McSlarrow … Americans (like you) don’t have rights to access or upload content on the Internet.”  FALSE.  McSlarrow never said any such thing.  Ammori calls McSlarrow’s reasoning “silly” and “offensive.”  But if anything is silly and offensive, it is Ammori’s fabrications.  

One is reminded of the Cold War, when the Soviet propaganda machine excelled at “disinformation” – false information which, if repeated enough and eventually picked up by a credible outlet, would be regarded as true.  Ordinarily I wouldn’t bother commenting on the more egregious responses to McSlarrow’s speech, because they’re just not worthy of serious comment.  But I’m taking the time because so much of what has been written needs to be identified for what it is – disinformation – that will only stifle meaningful debate and do a disservice to the First Amendment.   

And while we’re talking about this constitutional guarantee, let’s not forget the big picture, which can easily become obscured by the details (and heat) of the moment.  Do we really want the FCC regulating a whole new realm – the Internet – which heretofore has been a safe haven for free speech?  Virtually everyone in the net neutrality camp seems to think this is a great idea.  I do not.  In fact, I think it’s a terrible idea.  For speech to be truly free, government regulators should be kept as far away as possible, whatever the medium.  Maybe this is where the real debate over net neutrality and the First Amendment should focus.       

Orts and All

FCC’s "OpenInternet"

The FCC website, now in Beta, called OpenInternet.Gov is interesting.  It’s not great, but it’s better than you might expect and sort of refreshing.

Ostensibly given over to a public discussion of the “important issues facing the Internet,” the site’s primary focus is on one issue facing the Internet: Chairman Genachowski’s plans to extend and codify the FCC’s so-called Internet principles.

Unlike the FCC’s main site, which is as unreliable as it is difficult to navigate, OpenInternet actually works pretty well.  Much more importantly, it’s attracting, in addition to fans and the usual sycophants, a fair number of people who are critical of the Commission’s plans.

The public’s views are communicated in two ways, through the posting of opinions on the “Join the Discussion” page, and by posting comments there and on the “OpenInternet Blog” page.  Check it out.

Love That AMC

Close observers of this blog will remember an earlier piece written in appreciation of the impressive AMC series “Breaking Bad.”  Yesterday’s was the penultimate show this season of the other award-winning AMC series, “Mad Men.”  And coming to AMC on Nov. 15 is a miniseries remake of the classic 1960s series, “The Prisoner.”

All of which begs the question: What’s the deal with AMC?  Are they trying to make us love them?  If so, they’re succeeding.

Hugo Chavez and Friends

Many of the editors at a magazine I used to work for had “laws.”  One’s law was “never go west of Fifth Avenue unless you absolutely have to.”  Another’s was “the love of evil is the root of all money.”  But the one that I recall most often was “when you find a good thing run it into the ground.”  (The same person who authored that law once told me that in order to handle New York cabbies you need to have iron lungs, a nasty disposition, and a law degree, and he had all three.)

Anyhow, I’m reminded of the “good thing” law whenever I reflect on the endless joy it gives me to say something truly unkind about people who’ve earned it.  It’s in this spirit that I’m pleased to present this week’s Trousered Ape Award to Sean Penn, Danny Glover, and Oliver Stone (who also receives a Golden Homunculus), for their support of Hugo Chavez at precisely that moment when he’s cracking down on free speech, and every other human right, in Venezuela.  One can only wonder where we’d be, as a nation, without such people.

Chairman Genachowski’s Modest Proposal re Net Neutrality

FCC Chairman Genachowski’s proposal to extend and codify the FCC’s “Internet principles,” delivered in a speech just yesterday, has already attracted a substantial amount of commentary.  There is no doubt that his proposed rulemaking will be the subject of much literature issuing from The Media Institute proper, and in this space as well, in days to come.

For now, however, just a few observations, in no particular order of importance: First, for those of us who take a perverse delight in the use and abuse of language in policymaking circles, there is much that is droll in the way that industry players have responded.  Like a man about to be executed, seizing on the offer of a last cigarette as a chance to spin or delay the inevitable, many of the broadband access providers’ comments seek to glom onto some part of the chairman’s proposal as will allow them to buy time.

Thus have several of the companies, and their associations, complimented the chairman for promising an "open proceeding" or some such.  Not to be smug, if we at The Media Institute were lobbyists we too would probably say such things.  Since, however, we are not, we can speak more plainly.

The reason this proposal has come into being, and will undoubtedly be passed in some form, is not because of some new threat (or old threat, for that matter) to the “free and open” Internet.  Rather like blaming, as someone once said, the Johnstown Flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona, the record of “abuse” by broadband providers is so inconsequential it doesn’t begin to explain the need for such an intrusion into the marketplace.

No, the reason this proposal is at hand is because of something more prosaic.  It is, would you believe, because of politics.  It is because there are now three Democrats on the Commission and only two Republicans.  (Some would argue that even during Kevin Martin’s reign there were three Democrats, but that’s another matter entirely.)

The best evidence that this is the case can be seen in comments from inside the FCC itself, specifically those of the Republican commissioners, McDowell and Baker.  Not only do they express skepticism about the wisdom of the proposed rulemaking, they openly question whether “factual and legal conclusions may have been drawn before the process has begun.”

Back in the day, at the dawn of the Internet, the concern was that the FCC not become the Federal Computer Commission.  That was then and this is now, but the concern that animated that sentiment survives.  It is that the government is a poor substitute for the marketplace in allocating resources.

Because Chairman Genachowski knows that the strongest criticism of his proposal is that it will frustrate investment and innovation in the broadband space, he looks to preempt the argument by denying it.  His plan, he says, amounts only to “rules of the road” that will actually stimulate investment and innovation.

Well, time will tell but the view from here is much less rosy.  The greater likelihood is that: (1) There will be less private sector investment than would otherwise be the case; (2) that the investments that are made will come from tech firms that employ a peculiarly large number of lobbyists; and (3) that when the dust settles, the only lasting impact will be in the legal precedent established by putting the camel’s nose of government under this particular tent.

Obama and the Media, Part II

Apart from the economic effects of President Obama’s fiscal and regulatory policies, there arises the question of how “business friendly” he may prove to be.

The media and communications sector plays a large and important role in the general economy, and the new Administration’s stance on issues that matter to this sector may answer that question.

As mentioned in Part I of this piece, three such issues are consolidation, content controls, and “network neutrality.” The first two were described in the earlier post, today’s looks at the third.

Like beauty, “net neutrality” seems to exist more in the eye of the beholder than in any objective sense. This can be seen in the difficulty that attends even a simple definition of the term, and in the disparate opinions expressed for and against it.

But what can’t be disputed is that passage of any kind of net neutrality legislation would mean that government had acquired a new role in regulating the Net, with consequences certain to be both intended and unintended.

This expansion of the role of government, and concomitant reduction of the private sector, is of course no concern to groups like Free Press who, true to the “class struggle” mindset of their founder and president, worship everything governmental.

But it is a considerable concern to those corporations and investors whose labor and capital are indispensable elements in the further buildout and efficient functioning of the Net.

And this isn’t even to mention the problem, identified by the late Ithiel de Sola Pool, of the risks to free speech when a heretofore unlicensed and unregulated medium (his example was print), evolves into one that is licensed and regulated.

Given the paucity of evidence that broadband service providers have abused their roles in re  censorship or quality of service issues, and that in fact all of them have taken steps publicly and privately to allay such concerns, the wise and business-friendly thing would be for Obama and his people to declare victory in the campaign for net neutrality, disclaim any need for legislation, and move on.
 

The Problem With Google

For a company whose corporate motto is “Don’t be evil,” Google has an unfortunate capacity to look past the most obvious things.

Take, for instance, its stance in favor of “net neutrality.” Insofar as this concept is more than a slogan it’s a bad idea, and especially so as a matter of policy.  Legislation like the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, for example, invites real government regulation of the Internet as a solution to an imaginary problem.

As seen in the title of the congressional legislation, the language of net neutrality proponents, always over the top, has lately taken on a kind of goofy grandeur, with some — like Save the Internet, a coalition coordinated by Free Press — trafficking in such pap as “Net neutrality, the First Amendment of the Internet.”  (Of course it is.)

But what’s the attraction in all of this for Google?

The critics’ answer is that Google wants to ensure, whatever the cost to the future development and independence of the Internet, its own dominant, and free riding, position.

Google’s approach to the problem of copyright infringement also calls into question the company’s high-mindedness.

As charged in the case of Viacom v. YouTube,  Google is accused of flagrant violation of copyrighted material on the website of its YouTube subsidiary.  Google’s defense is that it takes down offending posts after being notified, and that this is sufficient under the safe-harbor provisions of the DMCA.

But in its complaint Viacom makes a compelling case that the takedown process is an endless loop of notifications and re-postings, and that, in fact, copyright infringement is at the heart of YouTube’s business plan.

A number of observers have suggested that Viacom’s lawsuit is just an attempt to win a favorable licensing agreement, and that in the end the parties will work out some satisfactory arrangement between themselves.

Perhaps, but copyright infringement is not a crime against humanity, it’s a crime against copyright holders, and if a negotiated settlement is the result, so be it.  This said, much might be usefully clarified if the dispute goes all the way through trial.

In any case, the point is that, as with net neutrality, Google’s posture regarding copyright infringement seems to be driven more by its own interests than by any sense of a community of interests.

By the standards of those of us at The Media Institute, which is primarily a First Amendment organization, Google’s lack of any meaningful concern or action regarding freedom of speech and of the press is the most troubling aspect of the company.

We would not have this concern if Google were just a small affair, or if the legacy media were fat and sassy.  But neither is the case.  Google is a giant while newspapers, for instance, are in a fight for their very survival.

Just to establish a frame of reference, as this post is being written (midday, July 10), here are the market capitalizations of some leading media companies: Time Warner, $50B; Disney, $56B; Washington Post, $6B; Gannett, $4B; New York Times, $2B; and McClatchy, $427M. And Google’s market cap?  It is just in excess of $172B!

In other words, the market values Google more than it values Time Warner, Disney, Washington Post, New York Times, Gannett, and McClatchy put together!  In fact a lot more — 45 per cent more.

And the rub in this is that, as an historical matter, the most important players in promoting and defending the First Amendment have been Hollywood and newspapers.  Yet these are two industries much beleaguered by the Internet, of which Google is the leader.

Against this background one might expect a company determined not to be evil to mount a major effort, if not in assistance to the old media, then in lending a hand in promotion of the First Amendment. Sorry to say, Google’s record in this regard is a blank slate.

It’s in the nature of the way the world works that one can “be evil” in more than one way.  One can do it by acts of commission, and one can do it by acts of omission.  Judging by the examples above, Google does it both ways.