Articles by Steven Titch

Steven Titch (@stevetitch) is an independent telecom and IT policy analyst. His policy analysis has been published by the Reason Foundation and the Heartland Institute and covers topics such as municipal broadband, network neutrality, universal service, telecom taxes and online gambling. Titch holds a dual Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism and English from Syracuse University. He lives in Sugar Land, Texas. He burns off energy running 5K races, is an avid poker player, and likes to mellow out in cellar jazz bars.

With great fanfare, FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler is calling for sweeping changes to the way cable TV set-top boxes work.

In an essay published Jan. 27 by Re/Code, Wheeler began by citing the high prices consumers pay for set-top box rentals, and bemoans the fact that alternatives are not easily available. Yet for all the talk and tweets about pricing and consumer lock-in, Wheeler did not propose an inquiry into set-top box profit margins, nor whether the supply chain is unduly controlled by the cable companies. Neither did Wheeler propose an investigation into the complaints consumers have made about cable companies’ hassles around CableCards, which under FCC mandate cable companies must provide to customers who buy their own set-top boxes.

In fact, he dropped the pricing issue halfway through and began discussing access to streaming content:

To receive streaming Internet video, it is necessary to have a smart TV, or to watch it on a tablet or laptop computer that, similarly, do not have access to the channels and content that pay-TV subscribers pay for. The result is multiple devices and controllers, constrained program choice and higher costs.

This statement seems intentionally misleading. Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire sell boxes that connect to TVs and allow a huge amount of streaming content to play. True, the devices are still independent of the set-top cable box but there is no evidence that this lack of integration is a competitive barrier.

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For tech policy progressives, 2015 was a great year. After a decade of campaigning, network neutrality advocates finally got the Federal Communications Commission to codify regulations that require Internet service providers to treat all traffic the same as it crosses the network and is delivered to customers.

Yet the rapid way broadband business models, always tenuous to begin with, are being overhauled, may throw some damp linens on their party. More powerful smart phones, the huge uptick in Internet streaming and improved WiFi technology are just three factors driving this shift.

As regulatory mechanisms lag market trends in general, they can’t help but be upended along with the industry they aim to govern. Looking ahead to the coming year, the consequences of 2015’s regulatory activism will create some difficult situations for the FCC.

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After some ten years, gallons of ink and thousands of megabytes of bandwidth, the debate over network neutrality is reaching a climactic moment.

Bills are expected to be introduced in both the Senate and House this week that would allow the Federal Communications Commission to regulate paid prioritization, the stated goal of network neutrality advocates from the start. Led by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the legislation represents a major compromise on the part of congressional Republicans, who until now have held fast against any additional Internet regulation. Their willingness to soften on paid prioritization has gotten the attention of a number of leading Democrats, including Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). The only question that remains is if FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler and President Barack Obama are willing to buy into this emerging spirit of partisanship.

Obama wants a more radical course—outright reclassification of Internet services under Title II of the Communications Act, a policy Wheeler appears to have embraced in spite of reservations he expressed last year. Title II, however, would give the FCC the same type of sweeping regulatory authority over the Internet as it does monopoly phone service—a situation that stands to create a “Mother, may I” regime over what, to date, has been an wildly successful environment of permissionless innovation.

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Today the Heartland Institute is publishing my policy brief, U.S. Cybersecurity Policy: Problems and Principles, which examines the proper role of government in defending U.S. citizens, organizations and infrastructure from cyberattacks, that is, criminal theft, vandalism or outright death and destruction through the use of global interconnected computer networks.

The hype around the idea of cyberterrorism and cybercrime is fast reaching a point where any skepticism risks being shouted down as willful ignorance of the scope of the problem. So let’s begin by admitting that cybersecurity is a genuine existential challenge. Last year, in what is believed to be the most damaging cyberattack against U.S. interests to date, a large-scale hack of some 30,000 Saudi Arabia-based ARAMCO personal computers erased all data on their hard drives. A militant Islamic group called the Sword of Justice took credit, although U.S. Defense Department analysts believe the government of Iran provided support.

This year, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have had computer systems hacked, allegedly by agents of the Chinese government looking for information on the newspapers’ China sources. In February, the loose-knit hacker group Anonymous claimed credit for a series of hacks of the Federal Reserve Bank, Bank of America, and American Express, targeting documents about salaries and corporate financial policies in an effort to embarrass the institutions. Meanwhile, organized crime rings are testing cybersecurity at banks, universities, government organizations and any other enterprise that maintains databases containing names, addresses, social security and credit card numbers of millions of Americans.

These and other reports, aided by popular entertainment that often depicts social breakdown in the face of massive cyberattack, have the White House and Congress scrambling to “do something.” This year alone has seen Congressional proposals such as Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), the Cybersecurity Act and a Presidential Executive Order all aimed at cybersecurity. Common to all three is a drastic increase the authority and control the federal government would have over the Internet and the information that resides in it should there be any vaguely defined attack on any vaguely defined critical U.S. information assets.

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My new policy brief urges the Federal Communications Commission to get on with the business of allocating the necessary spectrum to meet the burgeoning demand for wireless services.

The paper was finished before Chairman Julius Genachowski announced his resignation last month. At the risk of sounding harsh, that might be addition by subtraction. One of the big disappointments of Genachowski’s tenure was the lack of significant movement to get spectrum freed up and auctioned. In fairness, there were the interests a number of powerful constituencies to be balanced: the wireless companies, the broadcasters, and the federal government itself, which is sitting on chunks of prime spectrum and refuses to budge.

But that’s the job Congress specifically delegated to the FCC. We’d be closer to a resolution–and the public would have been better served–had the FCC put its energies into crafting a viable plan for spectrum trading and re-assignment instead of hand-wringing over how to handicap bidders with neutrality conditions and giving regulatory favors to developers of unproven technologies such as Super WiFi. Instead of managing the spectrum process, the FCC got sidetracked trying to to pick winners and losers.

A new chairman brings an opportunity for a new direction. Spectrum relief should go to the top of the agenda. And as I say in the policy brief, just do it.

Today Reason has published my policy paper addressing privacy concerns created by search, social networking and Web-based e-commerce in general.

These web sites have been in regulatory crosshairs for some time, although Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have been hesitant to push forward with restrictive legislation such as “Do Not Track” and mandatory opt-in or top-down mandates such as the White House drafted “Privacy Bill of Rights.” An the U.S. seems unwilling to go to the lengths Europe is, contemplating such unworkable rules like demanding an “Internet eraser button”—a sort of online memory hole that would scrub any information about you that is accessible on the Web, even if it is part of the public record.

In my paper, It’s Not Personal: The Dangers of Misapplied Policies to Search, Social Media and Other Web Content, I discuss the difficulty of regulating personal disclosure because different people have different thresholds for privacy. We all know people who refuse to go on Facebook because they are wary of allowing too much information about themselves to circulate. Where it gets dicey is when authority figures take a paternalistic attitude and start deciding what information I will not be allowed to share, for what they claim is my own good.

Top down mandates really don’t work, mainly because popular attitudes are always in flux. Offer me 50 percent off on a hotel room, and I may be willing to tell you where I’m vacationing. Find me interesting books and movies, and I may be happy to let you know my favorite titles.

Instead, ground-up guidelines that arise as users become more comfortable with the medium, and sites work to establish trust, work better. True, Google and Facebook often push the envelope in trying to determine where user boundaries are, but pull back when run into user protest. And when the FTC took up Google’s and Facebook’s practices, while the agency shook a metaphorical finger at both companies’ aggressiveness, it assessed no fines or penalties, essentially finding that no consumer harm was done.

This course has been wise. The willingness of users to exchange information about themselves in return for value is an important element of e-commerce. It is worth considering some likely consequences if the government pushes too hard to prevent sites from gathering information about users.

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Today the Reason Foundation publishes my policy brief on keys to successful state regulation of Internet gambling.

Thanks to a Department of Justice’s December 2011 memo on the parameters of the Wire Act, states can now license real-money intrastate online casino games. Earlier this year, Nevada became the first state to permit online wagering, and in August granted the first online operating license to South Point Poker LLC, which was to have launched trials last month. Since the Reason report went to press, South Point disclosed that its software is still undergoing independent testing but  hopes to have its site up by the end of the year.

Elsewhere, Delaware has enacted legislation to authorize online gambling under the auspcies of the state lottery commission and Illinois has begun selling lottery tickets online.

It goes without saying that U.S. citizens should be free to gamble online, just as they legally can in casinos throughout the country. The degree of regulation is subject to debate, but unfortunately remains a necessary element in policy. Yet lessons about taxation and regulation can be learned from experiences in Europe, as well as from regulation of brick-and-mortar casinos in the U.S. With a better understanding of usage trends, consumer game choices and operator cost models, legislators who want to offer constituents the freedom to play online can craft an environment that supports a robust online gaming climate, as opposed to one that drives legitimate operators away.

Regulation should derive from an enlightened approach that respects the responsibility and intelligence of its citizens. Internet gambling can be a safe, secure pastime.  Overall, the government’s only goal should be to protect users from theft or fraud. Gambling should not approached as an activity that needs to be controlled or discouraged under the rationale that it is a “sin” (to moralists) or “destructive behavior” (to social utilitarians), and then, hypocritically,  politically tolerated so it can be excessively taxed on those rationales.

Although it is likely states will differ in the particulars of how they structure the license and tax arrangements, a successful climate for legalized Internet gambling is likely to derive from the following fundamental principles. Lawmakers should heed the following guidelines:

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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.

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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.

Facebook has quietly launched a real-money online gambling application in the U.K., marking a major thrust of the social networking site into online gambling.

The Financial Times is reporting that starting today, Facebook will offer users in the U.K. ages 18 and over online bingo and slots for cash prizes.  picked up the story this afternoon.

“Gambling is very popular and well regulated in the U.K. For millions of bingo users it’s already a social experience [so] it makes sense [for us] to offer that as well,” Julien Codorniou, Facebook’s head of gaming for Europe, Middle East and Africa, told the Financial Times.

It’s telling in and of itself that Facebook has a gaming chief for the EMEA region. The synergies of social media and gambling has been seriously discussed for several years, mostly in foreign venues,  as the U.S. government until recently, has been hostile toward Internet gambling.

However, the recent thaw on the part of the Department of Justice, seen most recently in its settlement (don’t-call-it-an-exoneration) with PokerStars, plus state action toward legalization in in states such as Nevada and Delaware, point to eventual legalization of Internet gambling in the U.S.

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