August 2012

I have always found it strange that the ACLU speaks with two voices when it comes to user empowerment as a response to government regulation of the Internet. That is, when responding to government efforts to regulate the Internet for online safety or speech purposes, the ACLU stresses personal responsibility and user empowerment as the first-order response. But as soon as the conversation switches to online advertising and data collection, the ACLU suggests that people are basically sheep who can’t possibly look out for themselves and, therefore, increased Internet regulation is essential. They’re not the only ones adopting this paradoxical position. In previous essays I’ve highlighted how both EFF and CDT do the same thing. But let me focus here on ACLU.

Writing today on the ACLU “Free Future” blog, ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley cites a new paper that he says proves “the absurdity of the position that individuals who desire privacy must attempt to win a technological arms race with the multi-billion dollar internet-advertising industry.” The new study Stanley cites says that “advertisers are making it impossible to avoid online tracking” and that it isn’t paternalistic for government to intervene and regulate if the goal is to enhance user privacy choices. Stanley wholeheartedly agrees. In this and other posts, he and other ACLU analysts have endorsed greater government action to address this perceived threat on the grounds that, in essence, user empowerment cannot work when it comes to online privacy.

Again, this represents a very different position from the one that ACLU has staked out and brilliantly defended over the past 15 years when it comes to user empowerment as the proper and practical response to government regulation of objectionable online speech and pornography. For those not familiar, beginning in the mid-1990s, lawmakers started pursuing a number of new forms of Internet regulation — direct censorship and mandatory age verification were the primary methods of control — aimed at curbing objectionable online speech. In case after case, the ACLU rose up to rightly defend our online liberties against such government encroachment. (I was proud to have worked closely with many former ACLU officials in these battles.) Most notably, the ACLU pushed back against the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) and the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (COPA) and they won landmark decisions for us in the process. Continue reading →

Nicolas Christin, Associate Director of the Information Networking Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, discuses the Silk Road anonymous online marketplace. Silk Road is a site where buyers and sellers can exchange goods much like eBay and Craigslist. The difference is that the identity of both the buyers and sellers is anonymous and goods are exchanged for bitcoins rather than traditional currencies. The site has developed a reputation of being a popular online portal for buying and selling drugs because of this anonymity, which has caused some politicians to call for the site to be investigated and closed by law enforcement. Despite all of this, the Silk Road remains a very stable marketplace with a very good track record of consumer satisfaction. Christin conducted an extensive empirical study of the site, which he discusses.


To summarize, on August 22, the FCC found it was appropriate to re-impose monopoly price cap regulations developed over twenty years ago because the FCC lacked “reliable” evidence that cable operators are competing in the special access market. On August 23, the very next day, the FCC found cable companies are “well-positioned” to compete in the special access market and are “increasingly successful” competing in that market. . . . It is impossible to reconcile these inconsistent findings.

Last week, the FCC issued two significant orders. Late Wednesday evening, the FCC issued an order suspending its pricing flexibility rules for special access services (“Special Access Order”), and on Thursday afternoon, it issued an order approving multiple transactions between Verizon Wireless and several cable companies (Comcast, Time Warner, Bright House Networks, and Cox) as well as mobile providers T-Mobile and Leap (“Verizon-Cable Order”).

The FCC addressed special access competition in both orders. One would assume two FCC findings regarding special access issued within a single 24-hour period would be consistent with one another, but that would be assuming too much. The findings in these two orders relied on evidence submitted by the same companies to reach contradictory conclusions. Continue reading →

How does the FCC justify taking action without an adequate evidentiary basis? By relying on a series of fallacies to provide an aura of evidence without actually having any. That’s a problem for an agency that wants to be seen as fact-based and data driven. Fallacies are like zeros: No matter how many you have, you still have nothing.

Yesterday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), our government’s communications industry experts, issued an order that would flunk an introductory college course in logic. Despite issuing multiple data requests, in October 2011, the FCC told the DC Circuit Court of Appeals that it “lacked a sufficient evidentiary record” to document claims that its “pricing flexibility rules” governing special access were flawed. The FCC’s evidentiary record hasn’t improved, but it suspended its pricing flexibility rules on a so-called “interim” basis anyway while it tries to figure out how to obtain the data it needs to do a transparent, data based analysis. Continue reading →

A cable TV monopoly is imminent and high prices loom, at least as far as the Associated Press is concerned.

That was the angle of a widely syndicated AP story last week reporting that in the second quarter of this year, landline phone companies lost broadband subscribers while cable companies gained market share.

Beneath the lead, Peter Svensson, AP technology reporter, wrote:

The flow of subscribers from phone companies to cable providers could lead to a de facto monopoly on broadband in many areas of the U.S., say industry watchers. That could mean a lack of choice and higher prices.

In the news business, the second graph is usually referred to as the “nut” graph. It encapsulates the significance of the story, that is, why it’s news.

It’s interesting that Svensson, with either support or input from his editors, jumped on the “de facto” monopoly angle. There could be any number of reasons why cable broadband is outpacing telco DSL, beginning with superior speed (to be fair, an aspect noted in the lead).

However, AP defaulted to the clichéd narrative that the telecom, Internet and media technology markets inevitably bend toward monopoly (see here, herehere and here for just as a sample). Moreover, that the money quote came from Susan Crawford, President Obama’s former special assistant for science, technology and innovation policy, and a vocal advocate of broad industry regulation, was all the more reason it should have been countered with some acknowledgement of the growing data on how consumer behavior is changing when it comes to TV viewing. Arguably, at least, the cable companies, far from heading toward monopoly, are sailing into competitive headwinds stirred up by video on demand services such as Netflix, Hulu and iTunes.

Continue reading →

Fred Campbell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Communications Liberty and Innovation Project and adjunct professor of Law at the University of Nebraska, discusses the deployment of broadband in the United States. ISPs such as Verizon and AT&T; have had difficulty rolling out their fiber networks due to regulatory barriers that are legacies from past technological eras, says Campbell. The natural contrast to the difficulties of these companies is the recent entrance of Google into the broadband market with its own fiber network service in Kansas City. Rather than going to municipalities and asking for the right to install their network, Google turned the tables by holding a contest for their service and selecting the most accommodating city. Campbell talks about pros and cons to these and various other strategies to deploy broadband, including as open access.

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Related Links

Yesterday POLITICO Pro said both political parties are on the verge of declaring support for some version of Internet freedom in their 2012 platforms. The Democratic platform contained a lengthy statement in 2008, but according to Politico, its 2012 platform will consist of a simple sentence about protecting the open Internet. Politico also noted that, though Republicans hardly mentioned the Internet in 2008, they are expected to consider several Internet proposals during their platform meeting early next week. Will the new Republican platform address Internet freedom? If so, what is the platform likely to say? Continue reading →

President Obama seems to be poised once again to use executive powers to get what Congress won’t give him.

In this case, it’s the imposition of a sweeping set of cybersecurity mandates and regulations on the private sector. My latest commentary at addresses the problems of the original Cybersecurity Act, which did not muster enough support in the Senate to get to a vote, and why a White House decision to implement it by executive order simply expands the government’s surveillance and datagathering power while doing little to secure the nation’s information infrastrucuture.

Find the commentary here.

Donald P. Harris, associate professor of law at Temple University discusses the regulation of file sharing. Harris explains that Alcohol Prohibition of the 1920s and 1930s as an historical example of laws that were inconsistent with the vast majority of society’s morals and norms. Looking back, one can see many similarities between the Alcohol and Filesharing Prohibitions. Harris suggests, then, that lessons learned from the failed “noble experiment” of Alcohol Prohibition should be applied to the current filesharing controversy. Doing so, he advocates legalizing certain noncommercial filesharing. A scheme along those lines would better comport with societal norms, he argues, and would force new business models to replace outdated and ineffective business models.


Related Links

An ad campaign urged residents of Butler, GA to “Stop AT&T From Raising Your Rates” by planning to attend a public hearing earlier this month at the Taylor County Courthouse to provide testimony in Docket #35068, Rate Cases on the Track 2 Companies.

The Georgia Public Service Commission sets the phone rates in Butler, but politics are politics, and AT&T is a better scapegoat for an ad campaign. AT&T doesn’t even provide the town’s phone service, although the telecom giant does help finance it. That’s because Georgia consumers pay a hidden tax on their phone bills that subsidizes the phone service provided by Public Service Telephone Co. in Butler. You guessed it, PST paid for the ads. Continue reading →