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Two weeks ago, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was getting grilled by Congress during a two-day media circus set of hearings, I wrote a counterintuitive essay about how it could end up being Facebook’s greatest moment. How could that be? As I argued in the piece, with an avalanche of new rules looming, “Facebook is potentially poised to score its greatest victory ever as it begins the transition to regulated monopoly status, solidifying its market power, and limiting threats from new rivals.”

With the exception of probably only Google, no firm other than Facebook likely has enough lawyers, lobbyists, and money to deal with layers of red tape and corresponding regulatory compliance headaches that lie ahead. That’s true both here and especially abroad in Europe, which continues to pile on new privacy and “data protection” regulations. While such rules come wrapped in the very best of intentions, there’s just no getting around the fact that regulation has costs. In this case, the unintended consequence of well-intentioned data privacy rules is that the emerging regulatory regime will likely discourage (or potentially even destroy) the chances of getting the new types of innovation and competition that we so desperately need right now.

Others now appear to be coming around to this view. On April 23, both the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal ran feature articles with remarkably similar titles and themes. The New York Times article by Daisuke Wakabayashi and Adam Satariano was titled, “How Looming Privacy Regulations May Strengthen Facebook and Google,” and The Wall Street Journal’s piece, “Google and Facebook Likely to Benefit From Europe’s Privacy Crackdown,” was penned by Sam Schechner and Nick Kostov.

“In Europe and the United States, the conventional wisdom is that regulation is needed to force Silicon Valley’s digital giants to respect people’s online privacy. But new rules may instead serve to strengthen Facebook’s and Google’s hegemony and extend their lead on the internet,” note Wakabayashi and Satariano in the NYT essay. They continue on to note how “past attempts at privacy regulation have done little to mitigate the power of tech firms.” This includes regulations like Europe’s “right to be forgotten” requirement, which has essentially put Google in a privileged position as the “chief arbiter of what information is kept online in Europe.”
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The recently enacted Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) has many problems including that it doesn’t achieve its stated purpose of stopping sex trafficking. It contains a retroactivity clause that appears facially unconstitutional, but this provision would likely be severable by courts if used as the sole basis of a legal challenge. Perhaps more concerning are the potential First Amendment violations of the law.

These concerns go far beyond the rights of websites as speakers, but to the individual users’ content generation. Promoting sex trafficking is already a crime and a lawful restraint on speech. Websites, however, have acted broadly and quickly due to concerns of their new liability under the law and as a result lawful speech has also been stifled.

Given the controversial nature of the law it seems likely that a legal challenge is forthcoming. Here are three ideas about what a First Amendment challenge to the law might look like.

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On Monday, April 16th, the Technology Policy Institute hosted an event on “Facebook & Cambridge Analytica: Regulatory & Policy Implications.” I was invited to deliver some remarks on a panel that included Howard Beales of George Washington University, Stuart Ingis of Venable LLP, Josephine Wolff of the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Thomas Lenard of TPI, who moderated. I offered some thoughts about the potential trade-offs associated with treating Facebook like a regulated public utility. I wrote an essay here last week on that topic. My remarks at the event begin at the 13:45 mark of the video.

 

Expanding rural broadband has generated significant interest in recent years. However, the current subsidy programs are often mismanaged and impose little accountability. It’s not clear what effect rural broadband subsidies have had, despite the amount of money spent on it. As economist Scott Wallsten has pointed out, the US government has spent around $100 billion on rural telecommunications and broadband since 1995 “without evidence that it has improved adoption.”

So I was pleased to hear a few months ago that the Montana Public Service Commission was making an inquiry into how to improve rural broadband subsidy programs. Montana looms large in rural broadband discussions because Montana telecommunications providers face some of the most challenging terrain the US–mountainous, vast, and lightly-populated. (In fact, “no bars on your phone” in rural Montana is a major plot element in the popular videogame Far Cry 5. HT Rob Jackson.)

I submitted comments in the Montana PSC proceeding and received an invitation to testify at a hearing on the subject. So last week I flew to Helena to discuss rural broadband programs with the PSC and panelists. I emphasized three points.

  • Federal broadband subsidy programs are facing higher costs and fewer beneficiaries.

Using FCC data, I calculated that since 1998, USF high-cost subsidies to Montana telecom companies have risen by about 40% while the number of rural customers served by those companies have decreased by over 50%. I suspect these trends are common nationally, and that USF subsidies are increasing while fewer people are benefiting.

  • Wireless broadband is the future, especially in rural areas.

“Fiber everywhere” is not a wise use of taxpayer funds and exurban and rural households are increasingly relying on wireless–from satellite, WISPs, and mobile. In 2016, the CDC reported that more households had wireless phone than landline phone service. You’re starting to see “cord cutting” pick up for broadband as well. Census surveys indicate that in 2013, 10% of Internet-using households were mobile Internet only (no landline Internet). By 2015, that percentage had doubled, and about 20% of households were mobile-only. The percentage is likely even higher today now that unlimited data plans are common. Someday soon the FCC will have to conclude that mobile broadband is a substitute for fixed broadband, and subsidy programs should reflect that.

  • Consumer-focused “tech vouchers” would be a huge improvement over current broadband programs.

Current programs subsidize the construction of networks even where there’s no demand. The main reason the vast majority of non-Internet users don’t subscribe to broadband is that they are uninterested in subscribing, according to surveys from the NTIA (55% are uninterested), Pew (70% are uninterested), and FCC and Connected Nation experts (63% are uninterested). With rising costs and diminishing returns to rural fiber construction, the FCC needs to reevaluate USF and make subsidies more consumer-focused. The UK for a couple years has pursued another model for rural broadband: consumer broadband vouchers. Since most people who don’t subscribe to broadband don’t want it, vouchers protect taxpayers from unnecessary expense and paying for gold-plated services.

For years, economists and the GAO have criticized the structure, complexity, and inefficiency of the USF programs, and particularly the rural program. The FCC is constantly changing the programs because of real and perceived deficiencies, but this has made the USF unwieldy. Montana providers participate in at least seven different rural USF programs alone (that doesn’t include the other USF programs and subprograms or other federal help, like RUS grants).

Unfortunately, most analysis and reporting on US broadband programs can be summed up as “don’t touch the existing programs–just send more money.” (There are some exceptions and scrutiny of the programs, like Tony Romm’s 2015 Politico investigation into the mismanagement of stimulus-funded Ag Department broadband projects.)

“Journalism as advocacy” is unfortunately the norm when it comes to broadband policy. Take, for instance, this article about the digital divide that omits mention of the $100 billion spent in rural areas alone, only to conclude that “small [broadband] companies and cooperatives are going it more or less alone, without much help yet from the federal government.”

(That story and another digital divide story had other problems, namely, a reliance on an academic study using faulty data purchased from a partisan campaign firm. FiveThirtyEight deserves credit for acknowledging the data’s flaws but that should have alerted the editors on the need for still more fact-checking.) 

States can’t rewrite federal statutes and regulations but it’s to the Montana PSC’s great credit that they sensed that all is not well. Current trends will only put more stress on the programs. Hopefully other state PUCs will see that the current programs do a disservice for universal service objectives and consumers.

Last Friday, law enforcement agencies shutdown Backpage.com. The website has become infamous for its role in sex trafficking, particularly related to underage victims, and its shutdown is rightly being applaud by many as a significant win for preventing sex trafficking online. This shutdown shows, however, that prosecutors had the tools necessary to go after bad actors prior to the passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) last month. Unfortunately, this is not the first time the government has pushed for regulation of technology knowing it already had the tools and information needed to build a case against bad actors.

The version of SESTA passed by Congress last month included a number of poorly thought through components including an ex post facto application and poorly articulated definitions, but it passed both houses of Congress with little opposition. In fact, because the law was seen as a must pass and linked to sex trafficking, the Senate even overwhelming rejected an amendment to provide additional funding for prosecuting such crimes. Even without being signed into law, SESTA has already resulted in Reddit and Craigslist removing communities from their platforms within days of its passage. What this most recent event shows is the government already had the tools to go after the bad actors like Backpage, but failed to use them as Congress debated and passed a law that chipped away at the protection for the rest of the Internet and gave the government even broader powers.

This is not the first time that the government has encouraged through either its action or inaction damaging regulation of disruptive technology while knowing that it had tools at its disposal that could achieve the desired results without the need for an additional regulatory burden. In 2016, the government argued following the San Bernadino shootings that it need more access to encrypted devices like the iPhone when Apple refused to comply with a writ compelling it to unlock the shooters’ phones. The Senate responded to the controversy by proposing a bill that would require business like Apple to assist authorities in gaining access to encrypted devices. Thankfully, because the FBI was able to gain the information needed without Apple through a third party vendor, such calls largely diminished and the legislation never went anywhere.  Now, a recent Office of the Inspector General report has revealed the FBI “testified inaccurately or made false statements” regarding its ability to gain data from the encrypted iPhone.

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With Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in town this week for a political flogging, you might think that this is darkest hour for the social networking giant. Facebook stands at a regulatory crossroads, to be sure. But allow me to offer a cynical take, and one based on history: Facebook is potentially poised to score its greatest victory ever as it begins the transition to regulated monopoly status, solidifying its market power, and limiting threats from new rivals.

By slowly capitulating to critics (both here and abroad) who are thirsty for massive regulation of the data-driven economy, Facebook is setting itself up as a servant of the state. In the name of satisfying some amorphous political “public interest” standard and fulfilling a variety of corporate responsibility objectives, Facebook will gradually allow itself to be converted into a sort of digital public utility or electronic essential facility.

That sounds like trouble for the firm until you realize that Facebook is one of the few companies who will be able to sacrifice a pound of flesh like that and remain alive. As layers of new regulatory obligations are applied, barriers to new innovations will become formidable obstacles to the very competitors that the public so desperately needs right now to offer us better alternatives. Gradually, Facebook will recognize this and go along with the regulatory schemes. And then eventually they will become the biggest defender of all of it.

Welcome to Facebook’s broadcast industry moment. The firm is essentially in the same position the broadcast sector was about a century ago when it started cozying up to federal lawmakers. Over time, broadcasters would warmly embrace an expansive licensing regime that would allow all parties—regulatory advocates, academics, lawmakers, bureaucrats, and even the broadcasters themselves—to play out the fairy tale that broadcasters would be good “public stewards” of the “public airwaves” to serve the “public interest.”

Alas, the actual listening and viewing public got royally shafted in this deal. Continue reading →

SESTA passed the Senate last week after having previously passed the House. President Trump is expected to sign it into law despite the opposition to this version of the bill from the Department of Justice. As I have previously written about, there are a great deal of concerns about how the bill may actually make it harder to address online sex trafficking and more generally impact innovation on the Internet.

The reality is that we are looking at a post-SESTA world without the full protection of Section 230 and that reality will likely end up far from the best case scenario, but hopefully not fully at the worst. Intermediaries, however, do not have the luxury to wait around and see how the law actually plays out, especially given its retroactive provision. As a result, Reddit has already deleted a variety of sub-reddits and Craigslist has closed its entire personals section. One can only imagine the difficult decisions facing the creators of dating apps or messaging services.

So what can we expect to happen now…

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Years ago it looked like the Obama FCC would make broadband deployment, especially wireless service and spectrum reform, a top priority. They accomplished plenty–including two of the largest spectrum auctions to date–but, under tremendous political and special interest pressure, FCC leadership diverted significant agency resources into regulatory battles that had very little upside, like regulating TV apps and unprecedented regulation of Internet services.

Fortunately, the Trump FCC so far has made broadband deployment the agency’s top priority, which Chairman Pai signaled last year with the creation of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee. As part of those deployment efforts, Commissioner Carr has led an effort to streamline some legacy regulatory obstacles, like historic preservation and environmental reviews and the FCC will vote this week on an order to expedite wireless infrastructure construction.

According to the FCC, somewhere around 96% of the US population has LTE coverage from three or more wireless operators, like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. The operators’ job isn’t done in rural areas, but much of the future investment into broadband networks will be to “densify” their existing coverage maps with “small cells” in order to provide wireless customers more bandwidth.

Since telecom companies build infrastructure, many current projects require review under the federal National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. However, unlike for the 100-foot cellphone towers in the past, the environmental checklists currently required for small cells are largely perfunctory since small cells typically use existing infrastructure, like utility poles. For Sprint’s tens of thousands of small cell site applications, for instance, the proposed order says “every single review resulted in a finding of no significant impact.”

The order under consideration will bring some structure to regulatory timelines and procedures. This should save carriers on unnecessary regulatory overhead and, more importantly, save time.

The order comes at a crucial time, which is why the prior FCC’s net neutrality distractions are so regrettable. Mobile broadband has huge demands and inadequate infrastructure and spectrum. According to studies, millions of Americans are going “mobile only,” and bypassing landline Internet service. Census Bureau surveys estimated that in 2015, about 20% of Internet-using households were mobile-only. (HT to Michael Horney.) That number is likely even higher today.

The construction of higher-capacity and 5G wireless, combined with repeal of the 2015 Internet regulations, will give consumers more options and better prices for Internet services, and will support new mobile applications like remote-control of driverless cars and AR “smart glasses” for blind people. Hopefully, after this order, the agency will continue with spectrum liberalization and other reforms that will expedite broadband projects.

By Adam Thierer and Jennifer Huddleston Skees

There was horrible news from Tempe, Arizona this week as a pedestrian was struck and killed by a driverless car owned by Uber. This is the first fatality of its type and is drawing widespread media attention as a result. According to both police statements and Uber itself, the investigation into the accident is ongoing and Uber is assisting in the investigation. While this certainly is a tragic event, we cannot let it cost us the life-saving potential of autonomous vehicles.

While any fatal traffic accident involving a driverless car is certainly sad, we can’t ignore the fact that each and every day in the United States letting human beings drive on public roads is proving far more dangerous. This single event has led some critics to wonder why we were allowing driverless cars to be tested on public roads at all before they have been proven to be 100% safe. Driverless cars can help reverse a public health disaster decades in the making, but only if policymakers allow real-world experimentation to continue.

Let’s be more concrete about this: Each day, Americans take 1.1 billion trips driving 11 billion miles in vehicles that weigh on average between 1.5 and 2 tons. Sadly, about 100 people die  and over 6,000 are injured each day in car accidents. 94% of these accidents have been shown to be attributable to human error and this deadly trend has been increasing as we become more distracted while driving. Moreover, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 6000 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents in 2016, which means there was roughly one crash-related pedestrian death every 1.6 hours. In Arizona, the issue is even more pronounced with the state ranked 6th worst for pedestrians and the Phoenix area ranked the 16th worst metro for such accidents nationally. Continue reading →

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) proposed to mandate a government-designed “talking cars” technology–so-called DSRC devices–on all new cars. Fortunately, in part because of opposition from free-market advocates, the Trump administration paused the proposed mandate. The FCC had set aside spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for DSRC technologies in 1999 but it’s been largely unused since then and these new developments raise the question: What to do with that 75 MHz of fairly “clean” spectrum? Hopefully the FCC will take the opportunity to liberalize the use of the DSRC band so it can be put to better uses.

Background

Since the mid-1990s, the USDOT and auto device suppliers have needed the FCC’s assistance–via free spectrum–to jumpstart the USDOT’s vehicle-to-vehicle technology plans. The DSRC disappointment provides an illustration of what the FCC (and other agencies) should not do. DSRC was one of the FCC’s last major “beauty contests,” which is where the agency dispenses valuable spectrum for free on the condition it be used for certain, narrow uses–in this case, only USDOT-approved wireless systems for transportation. The grand plans for DSRC haven’t lived up to its expectations (USDOT officials in 2004 were predicting commercialization as early as 2005) and the device mandate in 2016–now paused–was a Hail Mary attempt to compel widespread adoption of the technology.

Last year, I submitted public interest comments to the USDOT opposing the proposed DSRC mandate as premature, anticompetitive, and unsafe (researchers found, for instance, that “the system will be able to reliably predict collisions only about 35% of the time”). I noted that, after nearly 20 years of work on DSRC, the USDOT and their hand-selected vendors had made little progress and were being leapfrogged by competing systems, like automatic emergency brakes, to say nothing of self-driving cars. The FCC has noticed the fallow DSRC spectrum and Commissioners O’Rielly and Rosenworcel proposed in 2015 to allow other, non-DSRC wireless technologies, like WiFi, into the band.

The FCC’s Role

These DSRC devices use spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band. The FCC set aside radio spectrum in the band for DSRC applications in 1999 based on a scant 19 comments and reply comments from outside parties. 

Despite the typical flowery language in the 1999 Order, FCC commissioners and Wireless Bureau staff must have had an inkling this was not a good idea. After decades of beauty contests, it was clear the spectrum set-asides were inefficient and anticonsumer, and in 1993 Congress gave the FCC authority to auction spectrum to the highest bidder. The FCC also moved towards “flexible-use” licenses in the 1990s, thus replacing top-down technology choices with market-driven ones. The DSRC set-aside broke from those practices, likely because DSRC in 1999 had powerful backers that the FCC simply couldn’t ignore: the USDOT, device vendors, automakers, and some members of Congress.

The FCC then codified the first DSRC standards in 2003. However, innovation at the speed of government, it turns out, isn’t very speedy at all. The fast-moving connected car industry simply moved ahead without waiting for DSRC technology to catch up. (Government-selected vendors making devices according to 15-year old government-prescribed technical standards on spectrum allocated by the government in 1999. Gee, what could go wrong?)

A Second Chance

So if the DSRC plans didn’t pan out, what should be done with that spectrum? Hopefully the FCC will liberalize the band and, possibly, combine it with the adjacent bands.

The gold standard for maximizing the use of spectrum is flexible-use, licensed spectrum, so the best option is probably liberalizing the DSRC spectrum, combining it with the adjacent higher band (5.925 GHz to 6.425 GHz) and auctioning it. In November 2017, the FCC asked about freeing this latter band for flexible, licensed use.  

The other (probably more popular) option is liberalizing the DSRC band and making it available for free, that is, unlicensed use. Giving away spectrum for free often leads to misallocation but this option is better than keeping it dedicated for DSRC technology. Unlicensed is for flexible uses and allows for many consumer technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth, and unlicensed LTE devices.

Further, because of global technical standards, unlicensed devices in the DSRC band make far more sense, it seems to me, in 5.9 GHz than in the CBRS band* (3.6 GHz), which many countries are using for licensed services like LTE. The FCC is currently trying to simplify the rules in the CBRS band to encourage investment in licensed services, and perhaps that’s a compromise the FCC will reach with those who want more unlicensed spectrum: make 3.6 GHz more accommodating for licensed, flexible uses but in return open the DSRC band to unlicensed devices.

Either way, the FCC has an opportunity to liberalize the use of the DSRC band. Grand plans for DSRC didn’t work out and hopefully the FCC can repurpose that spectrum for flexible uses, either licensed or unlicensed.

 

 

*Technically, the GAA devices in the CBRS band are non-exclusive licenses, but the rules intentionally resemble an unlicensed framework.