Susan Crawford is the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry & Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.
In an editorial for the NY Times, she shows why she should be running the FCC, fixing the legacy problems created by Michael Powell, who exempted Internet access providers from common carrier regulation, instead of treating them like phone companies. Powell is now (cough, cough) head of the cable industry’s trade association (wink,wink, nudge, nudge).
The FCC is currently led by Tom Wheeler, formerly President and CEO of the the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) who was appointed by President Obama, lamentably.
She has a prescription for the current drift toward Net Bias (non-neutrality):
Susan Crawford, Back to the Digital Drawing Board
The agency must revisit and reverse Mr. Powell’s 2002 decision, relabeling high-speed Internet access a common carriage service.
That has always been the obvious solution. But for years the commission has refused to do so, because its jury-rigged, contradictory stance worked well enough. Now it has no choice.
And it must act, soon. Otherwise, we will have an Internet in which, say, Google can pay extra to give Gmail users faster access to their email than Hotmail users. And Microsoft, which owns Hotmail, will have no choice but to pay more, too, because each Internet service provider has a monopoly, or close to one, over local networks.
In the end, the providers’ slicing, dicing and gouging is great for their shareholders, but not for the country. We’ll end up with a digital replica of pay TV, rather than the Internet that has prompted such economic growth and innovation in America.
Without the right administrative label applied to these services, every step the commission takes to address these problems will be subject to a protracted battle over whether the F.C.C. is impermissibly treating the network providers as “common carriers.” In the meantime, we will be no closer to having the reliable, ubiquitous, neutral, world-class communications infrastructure we need than we are today.
High-speed Internet access isn’t a luxury; it is basic infrastructure, like electricity, clean water and a functioning street grid, that is essential for the free market to function. The F.C.C. can show its strength by having the guts to change its mind.
And the president should take this action, immediately, and not fool around with something as core to our economy as the Internet.
The Justice Department is making moves toward unwinding the stranglehold that today cable cartel has on the US TV marketplace, especially with regard to anti-competitive practices against non-cable players, like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple.
Justice Department Is Said to Investigate Cable Companies Over Internet Video - Brian Stelter and Edward Wyatt via NYTimes.com
The Justice Department is quietly investigating the cable industry’s behavior toward nascent online video competitors as part of an inquiry into possible anticompetitive practices by cable companies.
The investigation raises the prospect that the government’s antitrust lawyers will intervene in the complex and rapidly changing business of entertainment distribution. In the meantime, it raises new questions about an industry that has no shortage of them already.
Answers are probably not immediately forthcoming. As is typical in cases like this, the Justice Department declined to comment on the investigation or to confirm that it is taking place. But people with direct knowledge of the investigation who were not authorized to speak publicly confirmed, as first reported Tuesday night by The Wall Street Journal, that the department was examining broad changes in the marketplace for online video, including the use of Internet data caps by cable companies.
One of the issues involves whether those limits to the amount of video, audio and other data that users can download are discriminatory against Netflix, YouTube and other new digital video competitors. Comcast, in particular, has come under scrutiny for its past use of data caps and other network management practices.
The US model for today’s Old TV distribution is based on a/ free broadcast TV (which a declining number of people take advantage of) and b/ for fee cable (and satellite) TV (that a dominant and growing proportion of the population rely on).
Local governments grant cable companies the right to a cable monopoly (usually a duopoly) in a geographic area, allowing them to charge a fee for TV service. Likewise, the US government allows similar models for satellite companies. The Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (MVPD’s) like Comcast and DirecTV also provide internet access to their customers, which at first they saw as simply an additional source of revenue. But now that we can stream video over the web, it’s become a huge competitive threat to their entrenched interests.
One result is the intransigence of cable companies regarding unbundling channels. Many users would like to not be forced to buy 70 channels in order to watch NBA games, or would like to just watch Game Of Thrones without the rest of HBO’s lineup.
Justice Department Is Said to Investigate Cable Companies Over Internet Video - Brian Stelter and Edward Wyatt via NYTimes.com
The department is also said to be studying the ways in which distributors bundle disparate television channels together in all-you-can-watch packages. Distributors and programmers have resisted calls to unbundle channels, but Internet distribution may give consumers more choices in that area — assuming that data caps or other network management practices do not stand in the way.
It is unclear whether the government inquiry is looking solely at cable and broadband Internet providers, or whether it is also examining other types, like satellite television providers. The two largest satellite providers, DirecTV and Dish Network, declined to comment.
The inquiry is important because precedents for the digital distribution of content are being set now, said Art Brodsky, a spokesman for Public Knowledge, a public interest group based in Washington, which welcomed news of the investigation. “This is the critical moment,” he said. “If the government doesn’t step in to protect public interest now, you’re going to lose your chance.”
The review was also welcome news to those who have argued that concerns about control over digital distribution should be addressed through antitrust law enforcement, rather than through pre-emptive regulation.
There are several factors that could be motivating the government to investigate cable company practices now. For one, it is reviewing a $3.8 billion proposal by Comcast, Time Warner Cable and other companies to transfer some spectrum to Verizon Wireless. The Justice Department’s scrutiny of that arrangement is certain to include an examination of video content delivered over wired and wireless networks.
Separately, the government is also monitoring Comcast’s takeover of NBCUniversal, which took place last year after a lengthy review by regulators.
In a consent decree with the Justice Department when the acquisition took place, Comcast committed to not “unreasonably discriminate” in relation to the Web traffic of its users. As part of a follow-up, the government is studying whether Comcast is living up to its commitments, according to one of the people with knowledge of the investigation.
For years, Comcast has enforced a cap of 250 gigabytes a month for its customers as part of what it calls reasonable network management. But Comcast has exempted the use of Xfinity, Comcast’s own online video Web site, saying that use would not count against that cap. Comcast says Xfinity videos are delivered over the company’s own network, not over the public Internet, but Netflix has cried foul.
Last month, Comcast raised the data cap and said it would no longer enforce the limit as it explores new pricing plans based on usage.
The situation is clear, in some ways.
First, it is certainly in the public interest for cable companies to not throttle data going through their pipes. Since the companies are providing the now-essential Internet connection to the great majority of the connected population, they should not be able to step in and decide what sort of content gets what proportion of the bandwidth.
Second, it is difficult to see what public interest is served by a coercive bundling of channels, forcing the public to buy more than they want in order to get access to TV programming they want. And there is no recourse, in most cases, to much of this programming, other than piracy, which the media world holds up as a boogieman.
For these reasons, the Justice Department should require MVPD’s to drop any throttling of bandwidth based on content (also called Net Neutrality), which is the current policy of the FCC. And they should break the monopolistic practice of coercively bundling channels, so that any channel can be accessed through a fair price, and that individual shows — like a specific basketball game, or a specific movie on HBO — can be purchased in a pay-per-view style.
Whether the Justice Department will go that far — which would make the public happy, but not the TV magnates — remains to be seen.
Craif Aaron, a long-time advocate for net neutrality, bitchslaps the supporters that worry about the debate getting too heated, and upset that other, more vocal supporters are cussing and castigating the opposition.
These sentinels of the sacred center aren’t that concerned about the substance of any given debate, as long as the debaters don’t offend their delicate sensibilities. They specialize in a brand of lazy conventional wisdom that’s long been a staple of inside-the-Beltway political pontificating (see Broder, David). They are the school librarians of our political discourse: No matter the stakes or the truth, they’re just more comfortable if everyone — especially you riff-raff out there called the public — would just keep it down.
Now they’re turning their attention to net neutrality. Like the coverage of any hot-button political issue, their formula is simple and doesn’t require much research: The answer to just about any policy question can be found by simply striking a balance between two “extremes.” The middle is inherently good and always right. If you disagree, then you’re probably an extremist. And then who cares what you think.
Take the example of Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein. When he weighed in on the net neutrality hullabaloo two weeks ago, he did criticize the industry. But he reserved his most biting disdain for net neutrality supporters, dismissing them as “ayatollahs” and “crusaders” engaged in “religious warfare.” After all, they were thwarting the FCC chairman’s effort to “broker a consensus” — a consensus being the Holy Grail for mushy middlers, even better than a compromise.
Since then, “extreme” has become the pejorative of choice for critics of the net neutrality debate, though it’s almost always reserved for public interest advocates and not the big corporations that actually are trying to defang the FCC and trash the foundations of U.S. communications policy.
Shhh … Moderates at Work
That’s another hallmark of the middlers: being far more concerned with the tone of the debate than its outcome.
For example, Lauren Weinstein, who moderates a listserv about net neutrality and fashions himself a moderate in the debate, got much more worked up about the “rude” and “over the top” reactions to the Google-Verizon pact (especially that protest in Mountain View) than the ramifications of the disingenuous deal. “I am disappointed,” he wrote on his blog, “no, that’s not a strong enough word — I’m mortified — by the level of vitriol, obnoxiousness, obscenity, and emotionally-laden, hyperbole-saturated rhetoric that is characterizing many of the negative responses to the proposal.”
Weinstein, of course, ignores that the overwhelming public outcry against the Google-Verizon pact is what put net neutrality back on the front pages and - perhaps more importantly - The Daily Show for the first time since the late Ted Stevens started ranting back in the day about “a series of tubes.” People are paying attention, and it’s not because of an outbreak of civility.
I love parsing the nuances of “paid prioritization” more than the next guy. But we’d have lost the open Internet long ago if activists hadn’t sounded the alarm and taken to the streets. Without them, there would be no public debate about Net Neutrality. And if you want to get things done in Washington, you have to come ready for a bare-knuckle brawl — not a pillow fight.
Weinstein did get up off his fainting couch long enough to praise Google and Verizon for the “willingness of both firms to put forth their public proposal,” as if they were just spit-balling some ideas for the public to ponder rather than lobbing a grenade in a heated political battle. But pretending you’re above politics is yet another staple of the mushy middle.
The fundamental problem with the mythical middle ground is that it doesn’t exist; the search is futile. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go on searching for it forever.
Unfortunately, Internet users don’t have forever; they’re left unprotected right now. And the more deals the big companies can lock in now, the harder it will be to hold on to the free and open Internet as we know it.
This is just another example of the media looking for a safe, moderate mid-ground between two opposing camps, and pretending it exists when it doesn’t. One trick is to attack the ‘extremists’ as extreme without actually parsing their arguments, and then branding them as too far out to be listened to.
Of course, in this case (as with energy policy, ecology, global warming, and a host of other immensely important issues) the opponents of net neutrality are granted legitimacy as a given since they are enormous companies, with enormous lobbying budgets. Their side of the argument must be heard, and they are never cast as extremists. And its always in their benefit to divert attention from the real issues to etiquette and an obsession with politesse.
Barbara Van Schewick, Professor of Law at Stanford
via Fred Wilson
In a post on the Google official blog, the search giant’s Richard Witt takes exactly the wrong tack in trying to clarify what Google is up to with Verizon on net neutrality. First of all, using the rhetorical device of contrasting ‘myths’ (what others are saying) with ‘facts’ (what Google is saying) is condescending.
And when you dig into it, the truth is that Google and Verizon have worked together to propose a sweeping policy that is a giant step away from net neutrality. They have proposed treating mobile access to the Internet as separate from the immobile web, and allowing the mobile marketplace to be largely unfettered from regulation.
This lines up neatly with how players like Google and Verizon want to run their businesses, but does not obviously accord with the interests of users, or smaller innovative competitors to Google and Verizon, like Facebook, who has taken a stance opposing the Google/Verizon proposal.
I hope the the FCC gets approval to mandate net neutrality before all the oligarchs pay off enough of our elected officials to let this slimy maneuver become the law of the land. I hope that our congress remembers that the Internet does not belong to the corporations who want to milk it for all its worth: it belongs to us, like the air and the oceans. David Weinberger once said that the opposite of open is not closed; the opposite of open is theirs.
Reads like the Spain and Portugal dividing up the world at the Treaty of Tordesillas. So much for Net Neutrality.
Weinberger beautifully nails the true value of an open web (or Net): it remains ours.
The Net as a medium is not for anything in particular — not for making calls, sending videos, etc. It also works at every scale, from one to one to many to many. This makes it highly unusual as a medium. In fact, we generally don’t treat it as a medium but as a world, rich with connections, persistent, and social. Because everything we encounter in this world is something that we as humans made (albeit sometimes indirectly), it feels like it’s ours. Obviously it’s not ours in the property sense. Rather, it’s ours in the way that our government is ours and our culture is ours. There aren’t too many other things that are ours in that way.
If we allow others to make decisions about what the Net is for — preferring some content and services to others — the Net won’t feel like it’s ours, and we’ll lose some of the enthusiasm (= love) that drives our participation, innovation, and collaborative efforts.
So, if we’re going to talk about the value of the open Internet, we have to ask what the opposite of “open” is. No one is proposing a closed Internet. When it comes to the Internet, the opposite of “open” is “theirs.”
This reminds me of piece I wrote last year, Web Culture: Individuality, Belonging, And Scalar Freedom:
[…] people are discovering all over again, that connection to other
people around issues that matter can become the defining source of
happiness and purpose, in a way totally different from mass affiliation
— being a citizen of large and unresponsive country, where ‘culture’
has become a product of multinational corporations, churned out from
music, movie, publishing, and television factories.
Our old dreams are manufactured. Our new dreams must be
bottom-up, like connection on the web, or in wiring within our heads.
If we are to make sense of the post-everything future before us, it
will have to come from our conversations among ourselves, on a social scale in which we feel that we matter.
Post-everything will mean embracing something we know will involve
us, leaving behind our second-class status as members of the mass
audience, and become living, active participants in a new culture.