Innovation & Entrepreneurship

From the time Tom Wheeler was nominated to become the next FCC Chairman, many have wondered, “What would Wheeler do?” Though it is still early in his chairmanship, the only ruling issued in Chairman Wheeler’s first meeting signals a pro-investment approach to communications regulation.

The declaratory ruling clarified that the FCC would evaluate foreign investment in broadcast licensees that exceeds the 25 percent statutory benchmark using its existing analytical framework. It had previously been unclear whether broadcasters were subject to the same standard as other segments of the communications industry. The ruling recognized that providing broadcasters with regulatory certainty in this respect would promote investment and that greater investment yields greater innovation.

The FCC’s decision to apply the same standards for reviewing foreign ownership of broadcasters as it applies to other segments of the communications industry is very encouraging. It affirms the watershed policy decisions in the USF/ICC Transformation Order, in which the FCC concluded that “leveling the playing field” promotes competition whereas implied subsidies deter investment and are “unfair for consumers.” Continue reading →

“Net neutrality is a dead man walking,” Marvin Ammori stated in Wired last week, citing the probable demise of the FCC’s Open Internet rules in court. I’d agree for a different reason. Net neutrality has been dead ever since the FCC released its net neutrality order in December 2010. (This is not to say the damaging rules should be upheld by the DC Circuit. For many reasons, the Order should be struck down.) I agree with Ammori because we already have the Internet “fast lane” many net neutrality proponents wanted to prevent. Since that goal is precluded, all the rules do is hang Damocles’ Sword over ISPs regarding traffic management.

The 2010 rules managed to make both sides unhappy. The ISPs face severe penalties if three FCC commissioners believe ISP network management practices “unreasonably discriminate” against certain traffic. Public interest groups, on the other hand, were dissatisfied because they wanted ISPs reclassified as common carriers to prevent deep-pocketed content creators from allying with ISPs to create an Internet “fast lane” for some companies, relegating most other websites to the so-called “winding dirt road” of the public Internet.

Proponents emphasize different goals of net neutrality (to the point–many argue–it’s hard to discern what the term means). But if preventing the creation of a fast lane is the main goal of net neutrality, it’s dead already. Consider two popularly-cited net neutrality “violations” that do not violate the Open Internet Order: Netflix’ Open Connect program and Comcast not counting its Xfinity video-on-demand (VOD) service against customers’ data limits

Both cases involve the creation of a fast lane for certain content and activists rail against them. Both cases also involve network practices expressly exempted from net neutrality regulations. The FCC exempted these sorts of services because they are important, benefit the public, and should be encouraged. With Open Connect, Netflix scatters its many servers across the country closer to households, which allows its content to stream at a higher quality than most other video sites. Comcast gives its Xfinity VOD fast-lane treatment as well, which is completely legal since VOD from a cable company is a “specialized service” exempt from the rules.

“Specialized service” needs some explanation since it’s a novel concept from the FCC order. The net neutrality rules distinguish between “broadband Internet access service” (BIAS)–to which the regulations apply–and specialized (or managed) services–to which they don’t apply. The exemption of specialized services opens up a dangerous loophole in the view of proponents.

BIAS is what most consider “the Internet.” It’s the everyday websites we access on our computers and smartphones. What are specialized services? In the sleepy month of August the FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee released its report on what criteria specialized service needs to meet to be exempt from net neutrality scrutiny (these are influential and advisory, but not binding):

1. The service doesn’t reach large parts of the Internet, and
2. The service is an “application level” service.

The Advisory Committee also thought that “capacity isolation” is a good indicator that a service should be exempt. With capacity isolation, the ISP has one broadband connection going to the home but is separating the service’s data stream from the conventional Internet stream consumers use to visit Facebook, YouTube, and the like. This is how Comcast’s streaming of Xfinity to Xboxes is exempt–it is a proprietary network going into the home. As long as carriers don’t divert BIAS capacity for the application, the FCC will likely turn a blind eye.

What are some examples? Specialized service is marked by higher-quality streams that typically don’t suffer from jitter and latency. If you have “digital voice” from Comcast, for example, you are receiving a specialized service–proprietary VoIP. Specialized service can also include data streams like VOD, e-reader downloads, heart monitor data, and gaming services. The FCC exempted these because some are important enough that they shouldn’t compete with BIAS Internet. It would be obviously damaging to have digital phone service or health monitors getting disrupted because others are checking up on their fantasy football team. The FCC also wanted to spur investment in specialized services and video companies like Netflix are considering pairing up with ISPs to deliver a better experience to customers.

That is to say, the net neutrality effort has failed even worse than most realize. The FCC essentially prohibited innovative business models in BIAS, freezing that service into common-carrier-like status. Further, we have an Internet fast lane (which I consider a significant public benefit, though net neutrality proponents often do not). As business models evolve and the costs of server networks fall, our two-tier system will become more apparent.

My friend and frequent co-blogger Larry Downes has shown how lawmaking in the information age is inexorably governed by “The Law of Disruption” or the fact that “technology changes exponentially, but social, economic, and legal systems change incrementally.” This law is “a simple but unavoidable principle of modern life,” he said, and it will have profound implications for the way businesses, government, and culture evolve going forward. “As the gap between the old world and the new gets wider,” he argues, “conflicts between social, economic, political, and legal systems” will intensify and “nothing can stop the chaos that will follow.” This has profound ramifications for high-tech policymaking, or at least it should.

A powerful illustration of the Law of Disruption in action comes from this cautionary tale told by telecom attorney Jonathan Askin in his new essay, “A Remedy to Clueless Tech Lawyers.” In the early 2000s, Askin served as legal counsel to Free World Dialup (FWD), “a startup that had the potential to dramatically disrupt the telecom sector” with its peer-to-peer IP network that could provide free global voice communications. Askin notes that “FWD paved the way for another startup—Skype. But FWD was Skype before Skype was Skype. The difference was that FWD had U.S. attorneys who put the reigns on FWD to seek FCC approvals to launch free of regulatory constraints.” Here’s what happened to FWD according to Askin: Continue reading →

Deep Web Time CoverToday is a bit of a banner day for Bitcoin. It was five years ago today that Bitcoin was first described in a paper by Satoshi Nakamoto. And today the New York Times has finally run a profile of the cryptocurrency in its “paper of record” pages. In addition, TIME’s cover story this week is about the “deep web” and how Tor and Bitcoin facilitate it.

The fact is that Bitcoin is inching its way into the mainstream. Indeed, the NYT’s headline is “Bitcoin Pursues the Mainstream,” and this month’s issue of WIRED includes an article titled, “Bitcoin’s Radical Days Are Over. Here’s How to Take It Mainstream.

The radicals, however, are not taking this sitting down. Also today, Cody Wilson and Unsystem have launched a crowdfunding campaign to build an anonymizing wallet. In their explanatory video, they criticize the Bitcoin Foundation as “helping the United States” regulate Bitcon, presumably to hasten its mainstream adoption. “Their mission is a performance to both agree with, and maintain an independence from, regulatory power,” Wilson says. “But you can’t have it both ways.”

This is an internecine battle that I’ve observed in the Bitcoin community for years. That of the cypherpunks who see Bitcoin as an escape hatch from state control versus the entrepreneurs who are more interested in the network’s disruptive (and thus profitable) potential. While it might be a fool’s errand, I’d like to make the case that not only is the work of the two groups not in conflict, they actually benefit from each other.

I’ve been following Bitcoin since early 2011, and in April of that year I penned the first (yes) mainstream article about Bitcoin. It was in TIME.com, and it’s been credited with kicking off the first bubble. Since then my work has focused on the regulatory policy around Bitcoin and other crypto currencies, especially looking to educate policymakers about the workings and potential benefits of decentralized payments systems. Why am I so interested in this? My reasons are twofold and they track both the entrepreneurial and cypherpunk ideals, and yet I don’t think I’m bipolar.

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How do DC and SF think about the future? Are their visions of how to promote, and adapt to, technological change compatible? Or are America’s policymakers fundamentally in conflict with its innovators? Can technology ultimately trump politics?

In the near-term, are traditional left/right divides breaking down? What are the real fault lines in technology policy? Where might a divided Congress reach consensus on tech policy issues like privacy, immigration, copyright, censorship, Internet freedom and biotech?

For answers and more questions, join moderator Declan McCullagh (Chief Political Correspondent for CNET), and a panel of technology policy experts: Berin Szoka (President, TechFreedom), Larry Downes (author, Laws of Disruption), and Mike McGeary (Co-Founder and Chief Political Strategist, Engine Advocacy). This event will include a complimentary lunch and is co-sponsored by TechFreedom, Reason Foundation, and the Charles Koch Institute.

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Randall Stross discusses his recent book: The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s Most Exclusive School for Startups. Stross’s behind-the-scenes look at Y Combinator details how the seed fund has been able to produce young entrepreneurs and successful startups such as Dropbox and Airbnb. Stross also discusses Y Combinator’s early history, the typical Y Combinator participant, the fund’s rate of return, the gender gap in the program, and the reason Silicon Valley has become the epicenter for startups.

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It’s been over five years since Congress passed major legislation addressing copyright protection, but this hasn’t stopped copyright owners from achieving real progress in securing their expressive works. In cooperation with private-sector stakeholders, rights holders have made several deals aimed at combating copyright infringement and channeling consumer demand for original content toward legitimate outlets. These voluntary agreements will be the subject of a hearing this afternoon (9/18) before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet. This panel marks the latest in a series of hearings the committee launched earlier this year to review the Copyright Act, much of which dates back to 1976 or earlier.

Copyright consensus may sound like an oxymoron, especially in the wake of last year’s bruising legislative battle over SOPA and PIPA. But in reality, there’s no shortage of common ground when it comes to copyright protection. Despite all the controversy that surrounds the issue, copyright isn’t so much a “conflict of visions”, to borrow from Thomas Sowell, but a conflict of tactics, as I argued earlier this year on Cato Unbound.

Indeed, with some notable exceptions, most scholars, business leaders, and policymakers accept that government has a legitimate and important role in securing to inventors and creators the fruits of their labors“. Unsurprisingly, the devil is in the details, where genuinely tough questions arise regarding the government’s proper role in policing the Internet for copyright violations. Should the law hold online intermediaries accountable for their users’ infringing acts? What remedies should the law afford rights holders whose works are unlawfully distributed all over the Internet, often by profit-generating foreign actors?

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Last week, the Mercatus Center released “Bitcoin: A Primer for Policymakers” by yours truly and Andrea Castillo. In it we describe how the digital currency works and address many of the common misconceptions about it. We also analyze current laws and regulations that may already cover digital currencies and warn against preemptively placing regulatory restrictions on Bitcoin that could stifle the new technology before it has a chance to evolve. In addition, we give several recommendations about how to treat Bitcoin in future.

As I say in the video that accompanies the paper, Bitcoin is still very experimental and it might yet fail for any number of reasons. But, one of those reasons should not be that policymakers failed to understand it. Unfortunately, signs of misunderstanding abound, and that is why we wrote the primer.

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Timothy B. Lee, founder of The Washington Post’s blog The Switch discusses his approach to reporting at the intersection of technology and policy. He covers how to make tech concepts more accessible; the difference between blogs and the news; the importance of investigative journalism in the tech space; whether paywalls are here to stay; Jeff Bezos’ recent purchase of The Washington Post; and the future of print news.

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Last week on The Diane Rehm Show, Susan Crawford, former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology, and innovation policy, claimed that China “makes us look like a backwater when it comes to [broadband] connectivity.” When she was asked how this could be, Ms. Crawford responded:

It happened because of [Chinese industrial] policy. You can call that overregulation. It’s the way we make innovation happen in America.

Ms. Crawford is wrong on the facts and the philosophy. Continue reading →