July 2007

The rag-tag army myth has made its return — this time in a front-page story in the Washington Post. In case you don’t remember, I wrote several times last year (here, here, and here) on the persistent myth that advocates of net neutrality were an outnumbered and outgunned “‘rag-tag” army fighting against the odds. The idea of course, is preposterous — the firms supporting neutrality regulation are among the largest on Earth.

Preposterous or not, the Washington Post picked up the theme today in a piece on the FCC’s 700 Mhz auction, writing that “Google’s 12-person Washington team, based in temporary quarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, has aggressively confronted the legions of lobbyists behind the two telecom behemoths [Verizon and AT&T].

One can just imagine the poor, outnumbered Googleers fighting off endless hordes of telecom company lobbyists. Things are looking desperate, they take stock of their resources and find they are down to their last… $160 billion.

That’s right, Google’s market capitalization tops $160 billion. That’s larger than Verizon (though less than AT&T). By any meaure, Google is one of the largest corporations on earth. While perhaps new to the Washington policy world, it’s hardly outgunned in terms of resources. This is a company that pledged last week to bid $4.6 billion for spectrum if the FCC adopted the regulations it wanted. As Everett Dirksen might have said, $4.6 billion here and $4.6 million there and pretty soon you are talking about real money.

Don’t get me wrong — Google has every right to its wealth, it earned it. And I have nothing against their DC team, who all seem like nice fellows. But can we please call a halt to this game of “who’s the underdog?” These guys are big cats, and underdog’s cape would just look silly on them.

Openness–in our culture filled with feel-goodery and self congratulation openness is seen as a good thing–a trait that any liberal and modern person should hope to have. But is openness always the best policy?

Google sure thinks so. It’s advocating that the 700 Mhz spectrum–soon to be freed up by the transition to digital TV–should be auctioned with openness in mind. Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, has asked FCC Chairman Martin to limit the auction to models that would include open applications, open devices, open services, and open networks.

Sounds great doesn’t it? After all, other open things in the political world are good. Open government, open hearings–both good. But would we want open phone conversations or open email? Maybe open doors and open shades would be a good idea. What do you have to hide?

Living in a democracy we’re used to transparency, but certainly we can recognize the value of limits and closed proceedings as well. What about limited and closed models for networks? Can these be of any benefit or are they, like the technocrats claim they are, just stifling innovation?

Closed networks, or rather networks that aren’t wide-open, offer some significant advantages. Security, for one, is markedly enhanced by a closed or limit-access system. That’s why our national security system, at least those outside the Pentagon’s email servers, are often totally severed from the wide-open internet.

An open network, like the internet itself, is prone to all variety of attacks. By contrast, I’ve never gotten a cell phone virus, something I owe to my cell carrier’s closed system. My phone also seldom crashes, unlike my PC. I owe much of my PC woes to the OS I’m sure, but the various apps I have running are likely not custom made for my particular machine, unlike the apps found on many cell phones.

Let’s think different for a moment and consider Apple. Mac has always been a fairly limited–if not closed–system, yet this walled-garden isn’t seen as an evil. That’s likely because Macs works so well, but its crucial to recognize that much of this is owed to Mac’s closed architecture, something that eliminates many of the variables that plague PCs.

Google may have a business model that makes sense under their proposed restrictions, but forcing the model on others isn’t because of some overarching philosophy of “openness.” Rather, Google wants to save money on the auctions by driving out many of the bidders. This is a shame. While an open wireless network is intriguing and could create a platform for unique innovations, limited networks will still offer stability, compatibility, security, and privacy and should be allowed to compete.

Google’s Policy Blog today makes a succinct argument for why its purchase of DoubleClick should be approved. While I find their reasoning compelling and logical–in fact, I don’t think any justification should be necessary–I find it hard to be sympathetic to a plea for fairness when Google is asking DC to stack the deck in its favor on other issues.

Example: Google has issued an ultimatum to the FCC, asking it to offer up the 700 Mhz spectrum–the radio waves that will be free when TVs switch over to digital in 2009–with conditions attached. These conditions would make all potential bidders conform to Google’s business model.

What other example in history do we have of a company actually demanding strings be attached to an FCC auction such as this? If anyone can think of such an example I encourage you to comment. As far as I know, this is totally unprecedented.

And why ask the FCC to place limits on something you plan to buy? That seems a little odd. Unless you want to reduce the value of the spectrum to competitors that operate under different models.

What about these other models? More on that later when I discuss the idea of ‘openess’ in a post later today.

These types of restrictions are just political games, which Google doesn’t like when they prevent Larry and Sergey from making an aquisition or collecting different kinds of data. Yet the same political maneuvering is just fine when the men of Moutain View can use hapless regulators to make a mint at the public’s expense.

Hat Tip: John Battelle’s Searchblog

Last week, my side-project WashingtonWatch.com announced a content partnership with PR Newswire. Press release here.

PR Newswire has taken a sitewide sponsorship of WashingtonWatch.com, and it will now distribute federal legislative updates from WashingtonWatch.com, giving the site even greater visibility to media and online audiences worldwide.

It’s a terrific pairing: PR Newswire will have increased access to the policymakers and engaged citizens who visit WashingtonWatch.com, and WashingtonWatch.com will grow even more prominent as a clearinghouse of legislative information for the media.

Smart comments on the death of newspapers from Ezra Klein:

The heyday of newspapers had them operating amid a scarcity of information. The average citizen in Omaha, Tallahassee, or even Los Angeles simply couldn’t collect information from DC or Nairobi, couldn’t call up yesterday’s presidential speech, couldn’t choose from thousands of content sources and millions of blogs and dozens of cable news channels. Newspapers, due to their wide array of reporters, their investment-heavy text transmission infrastructure, and their near-monopolies in individual markets, added a ton of value in getting consumers information they couldn’t otherwise access. That’s changed.

Now information is abundant, even too abundant. What readers need is interpretation, filters, guides. The media — dare I say it? — needs to mediate. That’s where they can add the value. The basic stenography that was valuable in one age isn’t worthless in this one, but it’s simplistic, and not nearly enough.

Further, we’re not merely dealing with an era in which information has become overwhelmingly abundant, we’re caught in a moment when all sides have become exquisitely sophisticated at spinning it, at publicizing what they want heard, distorting what scares them, drowning out what hurts them, discrediting what attacks them. So not only is there too much for the average consumer to deal with, it’s not even clear what they should deal with, what’s honest, who can be trusted. This is dicier territory, of course, but I think those who fret over the newspaper’s capability to serve this guiding function give insufficient thought to how odd the concept of objective news coverage has always been, and how much more potential there was for abuse when there was nearly no in-market competition.

And Matt Yglesias:

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The REAL ID Act is, of course, still the law of the land. But with 17 states objecting to, or refusing to carry out, this federal surveillance mandate, its prospects for implementation look bleak indeed. Now, for a second time, the U.S. Senate has declined to prop up the failing policy of herding law-abiding Americans into a national ID system.

Yesterday, the Senate considered an amendment that would have added $300 million to the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill for fiscal year 2008. The money would have gone to grants to states for REAL ID implementation. Though it’s a paltry amount compared to the huge cost of implementing, the idea was to lure state governments back into REAL ID using taxpayer dollars collected by the feds.

The Senate voted to table the amendment, effectively killing it. Senator Alexander (R-TN), who offered the amendment, has taken the approach that REAL ID should be funded or scrapped. If he’s a straight-shooter, he should now turn to the business of scrapping this wrongheaded law. REAL ID is dead, but it needs a stake in the heart to stop it from walking around searching for personal information to consume.

A few interesting tidbits can be found in the vote tally. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) voted against tabling the amendment, indicating once again that she supports REAL ID even though her state was the first in the nation to reject it, with both parties opposed to REAL ID.

REAL ID will continue to twitch, but we’re in the early part of the endgame for this national ID law.

TLF contributors Adam Thierer and Braden Cox traveled to North Carolina this week to testify in opposition to age verification and parental consent regulations for social networking sites. The North Carolina legislation would require parents to provide proof that they were adults in order to approve their children’s use of social networking sites.

In this week’s podcast, we discuss the many flaws in such proposals. Age verification technologies are far from reliable, and the definition of a “social networking site” is far from clear. More fundamentally, it’s not clear how this proposal would protect children at all. There’s no way to prevent a child molester from registering as an adult and then creating accounts for their fictitious children. Braden and Adam make the case that parental involvement, not more government regulation, is the best way to protect children.

There are several ways to listen to the TLF Podcast. You can press play on the player below to listen right now, or download the MP3 file. You can also subscribe to the podcast by clicking on the button for your preferred service. And do us a favor, Digg this podcast!

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I don’t know what’s worse: the fact that this guy decided to drive 1,300 miles (from Virginia to Texas) to burn down a guy’s house after the guy called him a “nerd” during an online flame war, or that along the way the moron posted photos online showing the welcome signs at several states’ borders to prove to his Internet friends that he meant business.

Did he not stop to think that those photos might be used as evidence against him later on at trial?!

With the death of the last year’s video franchising-Net neutrality bill, Democrats have now firmly taken the reins on telecommunications policy in Congress. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii., has legislation designed to map out the availability of broadband, or high-speed Internet connections, in the United States, and it passed out of committee on July 19. Now, this week, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., announced an online effort to write national broadband strategy legislation. He will joined by several telecommunications and Internet experts in open-comment blogging sessions for four nights from July 24 – 27 at OpenLeft.com. Durbin says he will be crafting legislation based on the input he gets during those sessions. He will then post drafts of that legislation online for more feedback before filing it as a bill.

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As Braden mentioned, we were both down in Raleigh, North Carolina this week testifying at a big hearing on mandatory age verification for social networking sites.

It was quite a heated battle. The legislation, SB 132, was supported at the hearing by North Carolina attorney general Roy Cooper, several of his staff attorneys, a couple of NC senate lawmakers, and some folks from Aristotle, a company that claims it has devised a workable age verification solution for social networking purposes. A vote on the proposal was delayed and we’re still awaiting the final outcome.

Down below, I have attached the outline of my remarks in which I argued that age verification mandates would actually make kids less safe online. Here’s why:

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