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

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

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

Continue reading “Net Neutrality: How Did We Get Here and Where Are We Going?”

Netflix, Self Interest, and Net Neutrality

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

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

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

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

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

Progressives’ Anti-Merger Mania

The proposed merger between the cable systems of Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks has brought out the usual poseurs in opposition.  I speak, of course, of such as Common Cause, Consumers Union, and Public Knowledge (all of which are wrong in their usual and tiresome way, but not certifiable), and their more extreme kin, Media Alliance and Free Press.

As it happens, there exists a bridge between these armies of progressivism in the person of former FCC commissioner Michael Copps.  Since leaving the FCC, Copps has flocked to the aid of those organizations he favored when he was a commissioner.  So it is that the gentleman is now on the board of Free Press and a “special adviser” to Common Cause.

Which, of course, is why it’s important to know the kinds of things he’s saying about the merger.  Writing in Common Dreams (“Breaking News and Views for the Progressive Community”), Copps relieves himself of opinions like these:

This merger would create a new Comcast – a national cable giant with the ability and the incentive to thwart competition, diversity, and consumer choice….  >> Read More

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  The full version of this article appeared in The Hill on Feb. 9, 2016.

Title II Places Global Internet Freedom in Jeopardy

By guest blogger ROBERT M. McDOWELL, partner at Wiley Rein LLP in Washington, D.C.  Former FCC commissioner McDowell is chairman of The Media Institute’s Global Internet Freedom Advisory Council.

In February, the Federal Communications Commission reversed decades of bipartisan consensus on America’s foreign policy for the Internet when it adopted new “open Internet” rules.  These sweeping new regulations undermine America’s ability to resist increased government control of the Internet internationally, thus placing global Internet freedom and prosperity in jeopardy.

Proponents of more Internet regulation argued that “the strongest possible” laws were needed to prevent Internet service providers, such as cable and phone companies, from acting in anticompetitive ways and harming consumers by, say, blocking selected Web destinations.  Their solution?  Imposing regulations designed for the Ma Bell phone monopoly on 21st-century technology by declaring the Internet a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.  After unprecedented pressure from the White House and net neutrality activists, the FCC abandoned a more moderate approach in favor of Title II classification.

It is important to remember that this represented a stunning reversal of the policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations.  Both presidencies rejected regulating the Internet like a public utility – domestically or internationally – instead adopting a highly successful “hands-off” approach.   The result: The Internet is the greatest global deregulation success story of all time.

Despite the long-held policy against subjecting the Internet to telephone-style regulations, the FCC’s imposition of more than 1,000 new regulations under Title II – including the power to set “rates, terms, and conditions,” will serve to legitimize international efforts to expand government control of the Internet as well.  With America’s bargaining power regarding the issue of Internet freedom weakened as a result, countries like Russia and China may encounter less resistance to increased multilateral authority over the Net.

Furthermore, the FCC’s new rules could have tangible consequences for America’s existing treaty obligations.  For example, defining the Internet as a phone network may trigger expanded jurisdiction over the Web through existing treaties of the International Telecommunication Union, a regulatory arm of the United Nations.  In reaction to similar proposals in 1998, President Clinton’s FCC chairman, William Kennard, presciently said that “classifying Internet access services as telecommunications services could have significant consequences for the global development of the Internet.”

In 2012 at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), the United States led a coalition of 55 nations that refused to sign a global treaty that would presume new authority to regulate disparate aspects of the Internet.  Now, however, with more government intrusion into this space at home, maintaining such global coalitions in the future will become increasingly more difficult.

Another potential consequence of the FCC’s rules is an unintended encouragement of intergovernmental rules to impose “sending party pays” fees for international Internet traffic that terminates on networks owned by foreign phone companies.  Such a plan was put forward in 2012 by a handful of European phone companies and ITU member states.  Fortunately, the plan was rejected, as the Unites States and others recognized it would increase costs for consumers as Internet content and app companies would have to pay fees – as a matter of international law – that would be passed on to all Internet users.

Additionally, China continues to advance a proposal to make a special committee of the U.N. General Assembly the dominant body to determine global Internet governance.  Meanwhile, Russia has joined China in sponsoring an “international code of conduct for information security” at the U.N. that would authorize Internet censorship and enshrine multilateral state control of the global network.  These countries have many client states that would support them in a one-country-one-vote treaty adoption.

This week, many of these same countries will be advocating their vision of the Internet’s future at a major international conference at U.N. headquarters in New York.  Global multilateral oversight and regulation of the Internet is their goal.  Included in the written submissions preceding the conference is a proposal by China, and members of the G-77 group of developing countries, calling on member states to reject use of the Internet for “subversive” or “political” purposes.

Also this week, China hosts the Second World Internet Conference.  With government leaders from Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan – among others – in attendance, the purported goal of the conference is to promote “an interconnected world shared and governed by all.”  At the conference, China will continue to push for “Internet sovereignty,” a vision for Internet governance that threatens to fundamentally transform the Internet from a truly international information sharing platform, to a compartmentalized series of intranets heavily regulated by governments.

By reversing decades of bipartisan agreement to limit Internet regulation, the FCC has created an irreconcilable contradiction between America’s domestic and foreign policies.  Unfortunately, the cause of an open and freedom-enhancing global Internet will suffer as a result.

The First Amendment and Free Speech Under Assault

If you’re not alarmed by the assault on the First Amendment and free speech generally, you’re not paying attention.

Consider the list of offenses committed by the government.  They range, in recent times, from the Department of Justice’s spying on the phone records of reporters at the Associated Press, to the National Security Administration’s domestic call tracking, and from the IRS’s targeting of conservative nonprofit organizations, to the suggestion by the ranking Democrat on the Federal Elections Commission that political speech on the Internet should be regulated.

Other examples include the Obama Administration’s resistance to Freedom of Information Act requests, as documented in a study by the AP, and the issuance, by the CIA, of a subpoena to James Risen of the New York Times, demanding the identity of one of his confidential sources.

The party-line passage, by the Federal Communications Commission, of its so-called “Net Neutrality” regulations is another example.  In addition to inaugurating the regulation of the formerly unregulated Internet, the Title II approach adopted is certain, as FCC Commissioner Pai has warned, to open the door to attempts to use this regulation for purposes that, both intended and unintended, undermine free speech.

The most recent example of governmental speech suppression is the subpoena served on the online version of Reason magazine by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.  The subpoena, which for a time came with a gag order, demanded to know the identity of a handful of commenters that, angry about the life sentence handed down to the founder of the drug trading site, Silk Road, wrote denunciations of the judge who presided over the trial.

An example of one of the comments that occasioned the U.S. Attorney’s subpoena for the identification of that commenter: “I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.”

So there it is.  Your taxpayer dollars at work!  And not just by a few bureaucrats, but by a veritable army of them: DOJ, NSA, CIA, IRS, FEC, FCC.  As Everett Dirksen might have put it, an agency here and an agency there, and pretty soon you’re talking about some real government.

Making matters worse and infinitely more depressing is the assault on free speech being committed by people wielding the bludgeon of political correctness, a concept that from the beginning symbolized the very opposite of free speech.

The venues of choice for the PC speech police are mainly the media (social media especially) and college campuses, and 2014 was a banner year for such stuff.

Take, for instance, the petition generated by two “climate change” groups in February of last year.  Having collected 110,000 names, the groups demanded that the Washington Post stop publishing “editorial content denying climate change.”  The Post refused, but the Los Angeles Times happily adopted a policy that was similar to what the groups were demanding.

And then, of course, there are the campuses.  Last year’s examples of campus “disinvitation” campaigns against speakers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Condoleeza Rice, and Christine Lagarde have been widely chronicled, but the beat goes on.

In its 2015 Spotlight on Speech Codes, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that 54 percent of some 400 public colleges and universities it sampled maintain speech codes that violate the First Amendment.

FIRE’s response to this state of affairs has been to create a free speech litigation program that threatens offending colleges and universities with legal action, and the organization has had some notable successes.  But it’s doubtful that legal action alone will put the brakes on a concept that’s never depended on the law for its foundational principles or propagation.

Incubated on campus by activists and ideologues, and disseminated through the media, half-baked theories like “white privilege” and “microaggressions” and practices like “trigger warnings” and “speech codes” need to be challenged in those same venues by arguments based on logic, history, and science.

Absent this, and without congressional action to rein in the out-of-control federal agencies, free speech in the United States is at risk of becoming a dead letter; extant in the Constitution but without force or meaning.

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

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

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.