Miscellaneous

Recent reports highlight that the telephone meta-data collection efforts of the National Security Agency are being undermined by the proliferation of flat-rate, unlimited voice calling plans.  The agency is collecting data for less than a third of domestic voice traffic, according to one estimate.

It’s been clear for the past couple months that officials want to fix this, and President Obama’s plan for leaving meta-data in the hands of telecom companies—for NSA to access with a court order—might provide a back door opportunity to expand collection to include all calling data.  There was a potential new twist last week, when Reuters seemed to imply that carriers could be forced to collect data for all voice traffic pursuant to a reinterpretation of the current rule.

While the Federal Communications Commission requires phone companies to retain for 18 months records on “toll” or long-distance calls, the rule’s application is vague (emphasis added) for subscribers of unlimited phone plans because they do not get billed for individual calls.

The current FCC rule (47 C.F.R. § 42.6) requires carriers to retain billing information for “toll telephone service,” but the FCC doesn’t define this familiar term.  There is a statutory definition, but you have to go to the Internal Revenue Code to find it.  According to 26 U.S.C. § 4252(b),

the term “toll telephone service” means—

(1) a telephonic quality communication for which

(A) there is a toll charge which varies in amount with the distance and elapsed transmission time of each individual communication… Continue reading →

Monday, TechFreedom submitted comments urging the White House to apply economic thinking to its inquiry into “Big Data,” also pointing out that the worst abuses of data come not from the private sector, but government. The comments were in response to a request by the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“On the benefits of Big Data, we urge OSTP to keep in mind two cautions. First, Big Data is merely another trend in an ongoing process of disruptive innovation that has characterized the Digital Revolution. Second, cost-benefit analyses generally, and especially in advance of evolving technologies, tend to operate in aggregates which can be useful for providing directional indications of future trade-offs, but should not be mistaken for anything more than that,” writes TF President Berin Szoka.

The comments also highlight the often-overlooked reality that data, big or small, is speech. Therefore, OSTP’s inquiry must address the First Amendment analysis. Historically, policymakers have ignored the First Amendment in regulating new technologies, from film to blogs to video games, but in 2011 the Supreme Court made clear in Sorrell v. IMS Health that data is a form of speech. Any regulation of Big Data should carefully define the government’s interest, narrowly tailor regulations to real problems, and look for less restrictive alternatives to regulation, such as user empowerment, transparency and education. Ultimately, academic debates over how to regulate Big Data are less important than how the Federal Trade Commission currently enforces existing consumer protection laws, a subject that is the focus of the ongoing FTC: Technology & Reform Project led by TechFreedom and the International Center for Law & Economics.

More important than the private sector’s use of Big Data is the government’s abuse of it, the group says, referring to the NSA’s mass surveillance programs and the Administration’s opposition to requiring warrants for searches of Americans’ emails and cloud data. Last December, TechFreedom and its allies garnered over 100,000 signatures on a WhiteHouse.gov petition for ECPA reform. While the Administration has found time to reply to frivolous petitions, such as asking for the construction of a Death Star, it has ignored this serious issue for over three months. Worse, the administration has done nothing to help promote ECPA reform and, instead, appears to be actively orchestrating opposition to it from theoretically independent regulatory agencies, which has stalled reform in the Senate.

“This stubborn opposition to sensible, bi-partisan privacy reform is outrageous and shameful, a hypocrisy outweighed only by the Administration’s defense of its blanket surveillance of ordinary Americans,” said Szoka. “It’s time for the Administration to stop dodging responsibility or trying to divert attention from the government-created problems by pointing its finger at the private sector, by demonizing private companies’ collection and use of data while the government continues to flaunt the Fourth Amendment.”

Szoka is available for comment at media@techfreedom.org. Read the full comments and see TechFreedom’s other work on ECPA reform.

This blog was made in cooperation with Michael James Horney, George Mason University master’s student, based upon our upcoming paper on broadband innovation, investment and competition.

Ezra Klein’s interview with Susan Crawford paints a glowing picture of  publicly provided broadband, particularly fiber to the home (FTTH), but the interview missed a number of important points.

The international broadband comparisons provided were selective and unstandardized.  The US is much bigger and more expensive to cover than many small, highly populated countries. South Korea is the size of Minnesota but has 9 times the population. Essentially the same amount of network can be deployed and used by 9 times as many people. This makes the business case for fiber more cost effective.  However South Korea has limited economic growth to show for its fiber investment. A recent Korean government report complained of “jobless growth”.  The country still earns the bulk of its revenue from the industries from the pre-broadband days.

It is more realistic and correct to compare the US to the European Union, which has a comparable population and geographic areas.  Data from America’s National Broadband Map and the EU Digital Agenda Scoreboard show that  the US exceeds the EU on many important broadband measures, including the deployment of fiber to the home (FTTH), which is twice the rate of EU.  Considering where fiber networks are available in the EU, the overall adoption rate is just 2%.  The EU government itself, as part of its Digital Single Market initiative, has recognized that its approach to broadband has not worked and is now looking to the American model.

The assertion that Americans are “stuck” with cable as the only provider of broadband is false.  It is more correct to say that Europeans are “stuck” with DSL, as 74% of all EU broadband connections are delivered on copper networks. Indeed broadband and cable together account for 70% of America’s broadband connections, with the growing 30% comprising FTTH, wireless, and other  broadband solutions.  In fact, the US buys and lays more fiber than all of the EU combined.

The reality is that Europeans are “stuck” with a tortured regulatory approach to broadband, which disincentivizes investment in next generation networks. As data from Infonetics show, a decade ago the EU accounted for one-third of the world’s investment in broadband; that amount has plummeted to less than one-fifth today. Meanwhile American broadband providers invest at twice the rate of European and account for a quarter of the world’s outlay in communication networks. Americans are just 4% of the world’s population, but enjoy one quarter of its broadband investment.

The following chart illustrates the intermodal competition between different types of broadband networks (cable, fiber, DSL, mobile, satellite, wifi) in the US and EU.

US (%)

EU (%)

Availability of broadband with a download speed of 100 Mbps or higher

57*

30

Availability of cable broadband

88

42

Availability of LTE

94**

26

Availability of FTTH

25

12

Percent of population that subscribes to broadband by DSL

34

74

Percent of households that subscribe to broadband by cable

36***

17

 

The interview offered some cherry picked examples, particularly Stockholm as the FTTH utopia. The story behind this city is more complex and costly than presented.  Some $800 million has been invested in FTTH in Stockholm to date with an additional $38 million each year.  Subscribers purchase the fiber broadband with a combination of monthly access fees and increases to municipal fees assessed on homes and apartments. Acreo, a state-owned consulting company charged with assessing Sweden’s fiber project concludes that the FTTH project shows at best a ”weak but statistically significant correlation between fiber and employment” and that ”it is difficult to estimate the value of FTTH for end users in dollars and some of the effects may show up later.”

Next door Denmark took a different approach.  In 2005, 14 utility companies in Denmark invested $2 billion in FTTH.  With advanced cable and fiber networks, 70% of Denmark’s households and businesses has access to ultra-fast broadband, but less than 1 percent subscribe to the 100 mbps service.  The utility companies have just 250,000 broadband customers combined, and most customers subscribe to the tiers below 100 mbps because it satisfies their needs and budget. Indeed 80% of the broadband subscriptions in Denmark are below 30 mbps.  About 20 percent of homes and businesses subscribe to 30 mbps, but more than two-thirds subscribe to 10 mbps.

Meanwhile, LTE mobile networks have been rolled out, and already 7 percent (350,000) of Danes use 3G/4G as their primary broadband connection, surpassing FTTH customers by 100,000.  This is particularly important because in many sectors of the Danish economy, including banking, health, and government, users can only access services only digitally. Services are fully functional on mobile devices and their associated speeds.  The interview claims that wireless will never be a substitute for fiber, but millions of people around the world are proving that wrong every day.

The price comparisons provided between the US and selected European countries also leave out compulsory media license fees (to cover state broadcasting) and taxes that can add some $80 per month to the cost of every broadband subscription. When these real fees are added up, the real price of broadband is not so cheap in Sweden and other European countries.  Indeed, the US frequently comes out less expensive.

The US broadband approach has a number of advantages.  Private providers bear the risks, not taxpayers. Consumers dictate the broadband they want, not the government.  Also prices are scalable and transparent. The price reflects the real cost. Furthermore, as the OECD and the ITU have recognized, the entry level costs for broadband in the US are some of the lowest in the world. The ITU recommends that people pay no more than 5% of their income for broadband; most developed countries fall within 2-3% for the highest tier of broadband, including the US.  It is only fair to pay more more for better quality. If your needs are just email and web browsing, then basic broadband will do. But if you wants high definition Netflix, you should pay more.  There is no reason why your neighbor should subsidize your entertainment choices.

The interview asserted that government investment in FTTH is needed to increase competitiveness, but there was no evidence given.  It’s not just a broadband network that creates economic growth. Broadband is just one input in a complex economic equation.  To put things into perspective, consider that the US has transformed its economy through broadband in the last two decades.   Just the internet portion alone of America’s economy is larger than the entire GDP of Sweden.

The assertion that the US is #26 in broadband speed is simply wrong. This is an outdated statistic from 2009 used in Crawford’s book. The Akamai report references is released quarterly, so there should have been no reason not to include a more recent figure in time for publication in December 2012. Today the US ranks #8 in the world for the same measure. Clearly the US is not falling behind if its ranking on average measured speed steadily increased from #26 to #8. In any case, according to Akamai, many US cities and states have some of the fastest download speeds in the world and would rank in the top ten in the world.

There is no doubt that fiber is an important technology and the foundation of all modern broadband networks, but the economic question is to what extent should fiber be brought to every household, given the cost of deployment (many thousands of dollars per household), the low level of adoption (it is difficult to get a critical mass of a community to subscribe given diverse needs), and that other broadband technologies continue to improve speed and price.

The interview didn’t mention the many failed federal and municipal broadband projects.  Chattanooga is just one example of a federally funded fiber projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars with too few users  A number of municipal projects that have failed to meet expectations include Chicago, Burlington, VT; Monticello, MN; Oregon’s MINET, and Utah’s UTOPIA.

Before deploying costly FTTH networks, the feasibility to improve existing DSL and cable networks as well as to deploy wireless broadband markets should be considered. As case in point is Canada.  The OECD reports that both Canada and South Korea have essentially the same advertised speeds, 68.33 and 66.83 Mbps respectively.  Canada’s fixed broadband subscriptions are shared almost equally between DSL and cable, with very little FTTH.   This shows that fast speeds are possible on different kinds of networks.

The future demands a multitude of broadband technologies. There is no one technology that is right for everyone. Consumers should have the ability to choose based upon their needs and budget, not be saddled with yet more taxes from misguided politicians and policymakers.

Consider that mobile broadband is growing at four times the rate of fixed broadband according to the OECD, and there are some 300 million mobile broadband subscriptions in the US, three times as many fixed broadband subscriptions.  In Africa mobile broadband is growing at 50 times the rate of fixed broadband.  Many Americans have selected mobile as their only broadband connection and love its speed and flexibility. Vectoring on copper wires enables speeds of 100 mbps. Cable DOCSIS3 enables speeds of 300 mbps, and cable companies are deploying neighborhood wifi solutions.  With all the innovation and competition, it is mindless to create a new government monopoly.  We should let the golden age of broadband flourish.


Source for US and EU Broadband Comparisons: US data from National Broadband Map, “Access to Broadband Technology by Speed,” Broadband Statistics Report, July 2013, http://www.broadbandmap.gov/download/Technology%20by%20Speed.pdf and http://www.broadbandmap.gov/summarize/nationwide. EU data from European Commission, “Chapter 2: Broadband Markets,” Digital Agenda Scoreboard 2013 (working document, December 6, 2013), http://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/sites/digital-agenda/files/DAE%20SCOREBOARD%202013%20-%202-BROADBAND%20MARKETS%20_0.pdf.

*The National Cable Telecommunications Association suggests speeds of 100 Mbps are available to 85% of Americans.  See “America’s Internet Leadership,” 2013, www.ncta.com/positions/americas-internet-leadership.

**Verizon’s most recent report notes that it reaches 97 percent of America’s population with 4G/LTE networks. See Verizon, News Center: LTE Information Center, “Overview,” www.verizonwireless.com/news/LTE/Overview.html.

***This figure is based on 49,310,131 cable subscribers at the end of 2013, noted by Leichtman Research http://www.leichtmanresearch.com/press/031714release.html compared to 138,505,691 households noted by the National Broadband Map.

Shane Greenstein, Kellogg Chair in Information Technology at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, discusses his recent paper, Collective Intelligence and Neutral Point of View: The Case of Wikipedia , coauthored by Harvard assistant professor Feng Zhu. Greenstein and Zhu’s paper takes a look at whether Linus’ Law applies to Wikipedia articles. Do Wikipedia articles have a slant or bias? If so, how can we measure it? And, do articles become less biased over time, as more contributors become involved? Greenstein explains his findings.

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Google’s announcement this week of plans to expand to dozens of more cities got me thinking about the broadband market and some parallels to transportation markets. Taxi cab and broadband companies are seeing business plans undermined with the emergence of nimble Silicon Valley firms–Uber and Google Fiber, respectively.

The incumbent operators in both cases were subject to costly regulatory obligations in the past but in return they were given some protection from competitors. The taxi medallion system and local cable franchise requirements made new entry difficult. Uber and Google have managed to break into the market through popular innovations, the persistence to work with local regulators, and motivated supporters. Now, in both industries, localities are considering forbearing from regulations and welcoming a competitor that poses an economic threat to the existing operators.

Notably, Google Fiber will not be subject to the extensive build-out requirements imposed on cable companies who typically built their networks according to local franchise agreements in the 1970s and 1980s. Google, in contrast, generally does substantial market research to see if there is an adequate uptake rate among households in particular areas. Neighborhoods that have sufficient interest in Google Fiber become Fiberhoods.

Similarly, companies like Uber and Lyft are exempted from many of the regulations governing taxis. Taxi rates are regulated and drivers have little discretion in deciding who to transport, for instance. Uber and Lyft drivers, in contrast, are not price-regulated and can allow rates to rise and fall with demand. Further, Uber and Lyft have a two-way rating system: drivers rate passengers and passengers rate drivers via smartphone apps. This innovation lowers costs and improves safety: the rider who throws up in cars after bar-hopping, who verbally or physically abuses drivers (one Chicago cab driver told me he was held up at gunpoint several times per year), or who is constantly late will eventually have a hard time hailing an Uber or Lyft. The ratings system naturally forces out expensive riders (and ill-tempered drivers).

Interestingly, support and opposition for Uber and Google Fiber cuts across partisan lines (and across households–my wife, after hearing my argument, is not as sanguine about these upstarts). Because these companies upset long-held expectations, express or implied, strong opposition remains. Nevertheless, states and localities should welcome the rapid expansion of both Uber and Google Fiber.

The taxi registration systems and the cable franchise agreements were major regulatory mistakes. Local regulators should reduce regulations for all similarly-situated competitors and resist the temptation to remedy past errors with more distortions. Of course, there is a decades-long debate about when deregulation turns into subsidies, and this conversation applies to Uber and Google Fiber.

That debate is important, but regulators and policymakers should take every chance to roll back the rules of the past–not layer on more mandates in an ill-conceived attempt to “level the playing field.” Transportation and broadband markets are changing for the better with more competition and localities should generally stand aside.

Ladar Levison on Lavabit

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by on February 4, 2014 · 0 comments

Ladar Levison, founder of encrypted email service Lavabit, discusses recent government action that led him to shut down his firm. When it was suspected that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden used Lavabit’s email service, the FBI issued a National Security Letter ordering Levison to hand over SSL keys, jeopardizing the privacy of Lavabit’s 410,000 users. Levison discusses his inspiration for founding Lavabit and why he chose to suspend the service; how Lavabit was different from email services like Gmail; developments in his case and how the Fourth Amendment has come into play; and his involvement with the recently-formed Dark Mail Technical Alliance.

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On Saturday, C-SPAN aired a segment of The Communicators featuring me and Free Press’ Chance Williams. In the 30-minute segment, Chance and I discussed the future of net neutrality now that the FCC’s Open Internet rules are vacated. You can see the taping here or below.

In December, Reps. Upton and Walden announced that they intend to update the Communications Act, which saw its last major revision in 1996. Today marks the deadline to submit initial comments regarding updating the Act. Below is my submission, which includes reference to a Mercatus paper by Raymond Gifford analyzing the Digital Age Communications (DACA) reports. These bipartisan reports would largely replace and reform our deficient communications laws.

Dear Chairman Upton,

As you and Rep. Walden recently acknowledged, U.S. communications law needs updating to remove accumulated regulatory excess and to strengthen market forces. When the 1934 Communications Act was passed, there was a national monopoly telephone provider and Congress’s understanding of radio spectrum physics was rudimentary. Chief among the Communication Act’s many flaws was giving the Federal Communication Commission authority to regulate wired and wireless communications according to “public interest, convenience, and necessity,” an amorphous standard that has been frequently abused. If delegating this expansive grant of discretion to the FCC was ever sensible, it clearly no longer is. Today, eight decades later, with competition between video, telephone, and Internet providers taking place over wired and wireless networks, the public interest standard simply invites costly rent-seeking and stifles technologies and business opportunities.

Like an old cottage receiving several massive additions spanning decades by different clumsy architects, communications law is a disorganized and dilapidated structure that should be razed and reconstituted. As new technologies emerged since the 1930s—broadcast television, cable, satellite, mobile phones, the Internet—and upended existing regulated businesses, the FCC and Congress layered on new rules attempting to mitigate the distortions.

Congressional attempts at reforming communications laws have appeared regularly ever since the 1996 amendments. During the last such attempt, in 2011, the Mercatus Center released a study discussing and summarizing a model for communications law reform known as the Digital Age Communications Act (DACA). That model legislation—consisting of five reports released in 2005 and 2006—came from the bipartisan DACA Working Group. The reports addressed five areas:

1. Regulatory framework;
2. Universal service;
3. Spectrum reform;
4. Federal-state jurisdiction; and
5. Institutional reform.

The DACA reports represent a flexible, market-oriented agenda from dozens of experts that, if implemented, would spur innovation, encourage competition, and benefit consumers. The regulatory framework report is the centerpiece recommendation and adopts a proposal largely based on the Federal Trade Commission Act, which provides a reformed FCC with nearly a century of common law for guidance. Significantly, the reports replace the FCC’s misused “public interest” standard with the general “unfair competition standard” from the FTC Act.

Despite the passage of time, those reports have held up remarkably well. The 2011 Mercatus paper describing the DACA reports is attached for submission in the record. The scholars at Mercatus are happy to discuss this paper and the cited materials below—including the DACA reports—further with Energy & Commerce Committee staff as they draft white papers and reform proposals.

Thank you for initiating discussion about updating the Communications Act. Reform can give America’s innovative technology and telecommunications sector a predictable and technology-neutral legal framework. When Congress replaces command-and-control rules with market forces, consumers will be the primary beneficiaries.

Sincerely,

Brent Skorup
Research Fellow, Technology Policy Program
Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Resources

Digital Age Communications Act (DACA) Working Groups Reports.

JEFFREY A. EISENACH ET AL., THE TELECOM REVOLUTION: AN AMERICAN OPPORTUNITY (1995).

Raymond L. Gifford, The Continuing Case for Serious Communications Law Reform, Mercatus Center Working Paper No. 11-44 (2011).

PETER HUBER, LAW AND DISORDER IN CYBERSPACE: ABOLISH THE FCC AND LET COMMON LAW RULE THE TELECOSM (1997).

If you’re looking to pursue an econ graduate degree, you should know that the Mercatus Center offers several amazing fellowships for both masters and PhD students. And while they’re mostly for econ students, the Adam Smith fellowship is open to students in other fields as well. In addition to money and a great education, you could get the chance to work with me, Adam, Eli, and Brent. Application deadlines are in March, so get going…

The PhD Fellowship is a three-year, competitive, full-time fellowship program for students who are pursuing a doctoral degree in economics at George Mason University. It includes full tuition support, a stipend, and experience as a research assistant working closely with Mercatus-affiliated Mason faculty. It is a total award of up to $120,000 over three years. The application deadline is February 1, 2014.

The MA Fellowship is a two-year, competitive, full-time fellowship program for students pursuing a master’s degree in economics at George Mason University who are interested in gaining advanced training in applied economics in preparation for a career in public policy. It includes full tuition support, a stipend, and practical experience as a research assistant working with Mercatus scholars. It is a total award of up to $80,000 over two years. The application deadline is March 1, 2014.

The Adam Smith Fellowship is a one-year, competitive fellowship for graduate students attending PhD programs at any university, in a variety of fields, including economics, philosophy, political science, and sociology. Smith Fellows receive a stipend and attend workshops and seminars on the Austrian, Virginia, and Bloomington schools of political economy. It is a total award of up to $10,000 for the year. The application deadline is March 15, 2014.

Robert Scoble, Startup Liaison Officer at Rackspace discusses his recent book, Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy, co-authored by Shel Israel. Scoble believes that over the next five years we’ll see a tremendous rise in wearable computers, building on interest we’ve already seen in devices like Google Glass. Much like the desktop, laptop, and smartphone before it, Scoble predicts wearable computers represent the next wave in groundbreaking innovation. Scoble answers questions such as: How will wearable computers help us live our lives? Will they become as common as the cellphone is today? Will we have to sacrifice privacy for these devices to better understand our preferences? How will sensors in everyday products help companies improve the customer experience?

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