Miscellaneous

One year ago, the FCC majority passed the 2017 Restoring Internet Freedom Order, largely overturning the 2015 Open Internet Order. I consider the 2017 Order the most significant FCC action in a generation. The FCC did a rare thing for an agency—it voluntarily narrowed its authority to regulate a powerful and massive industry.

In addition to returning authority to the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general, the 2017 Order restored common-sense regulatory humility, despite the courts blessing the Obama FCC’s unconvincing, expansive interpretation of FCC authority. National policy, codified in law, is that the Internet and Internet services should be “unfettered by Federal or State regulation,” which, if it means anything, means Internet services cannot be regulated as common carriers.

Net neutrality is dead

Net neutrality advocates who want the FCC to have common carriage powers over Internet applications and networking practices were outraged by the approval of the 2017 Order. Joe Kane at R Street has a good roundup of some of the death-of-the-Internet hyperbole from the political class and advocates. Some disturbed net neutrality supporters took it too far, including threats to the lives and families of the Republican commissioners, especially Chairman Pai.

But the 2017 Order hadn’t killed net neutrality. It was already dead. A few hours after the passage of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, I was on a net neutrality panel in DC for an event about the First Amendment and the Internet. (One of my co-panelists dropped out out of caution because of the credible bomb threat at the FCC that day.) I pointed out at that event that while you wouldn’t know it from the news coverage, the Obama FCC had already killed net neutrality’s core principle—the prohibition against content blocking. The 2015 “net neutrality” Order allowed ISPs to block content. Attributing things to the 2015 Order that it simply doesn’t do is what Commissioner Carr has called the “Title II head fake.” The 2017 Order simply freed ISPs and app companies to invest and innovate without fear of plodding scrutiny and inconclusive findings from a far-off FCC bureau.

Long live net neutrality

The net neutrality movement will live on, however. The main net neutrality proponents aren’t that concerned with ISP content blocking; they want FCC regulation of the Internet companies and new media. It’s no coincidence that most of the prominent net neutrality advocates come out of the media access movement, which urged the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, equal time laws, and programming mandates for TV and radio broadcasts.

The newer net neutrality coalition, as then-FCC Chairman Wheeler conceded frankly, doesn’t know precisely what Internet regulation would look like. What they do know is that ISPs and Internet companies are operating with inadequate public supervision and government design. 

As Public Knowledge CEO Gene Kimmelman has said, the 2015 Order was about threatening the industry with vague but severe rules: “Legal risk and some ambiguity around what practices will be deemed ‘unreasonably discriminatory’ have been effective tools to instill fear for the last 20 years” for the telecom industry. Title II functions, per Kimmelman, as a “way[] to keep the shadow and the fear of ‘going too far’ hanging over the dominant ISPs.” Internet regulation advocates, he said at the time, “have to have fight after fight over every claim of discrimination, of new service or not.”

So it’s Internet regulation, not strict net neutrality, that is driving the movement. As former Obama administration and FCC adviser Kevin Werbach said last year, “It’s not just broadband providers that are fundamental public utilities, at some level Google is, at some level Facebook is, at some level Amazon is.” 

Fortunately, because of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, IP networks and apps companies have a few years of regulatory reprieve at a critical time. Net neutrality was invented in 2003 and draws on common carriage principles that cannot be applied sensibly to the various services carried on IP networks. Unlike the “single app” phone network regulated with common carriage, these networks transmit thousands of services and apps–like VoIP, gaming, conferencing, OTT video, IPTV, VoLTE, messaging, and Web–that require various technologies, changing topologies, and different quality-of-service requirements. 5G wireless will only accelerate the service differentiation that is at severe tension with net neutrality norms.

Rather than distract agency staff and the Internet industry with metaphysical debates about “reasonable network” practices, the Trump FCC has prioritized network investment, spectrum access, and rural broadband. Hopefully the next year is like the last.

Addendum: The net neutrality reprieve has not only freed up FCC staff to work on more pressing matters, it’s freed  up my time to write about tech policy areas that the public will benefit from. In November I published a Mercatus working paper and a Wall Street Journal op-ed about flying car policy.

Contemporary tech criticism displays an anti-nostalgia. Instead of being reverent for the past, anxiety about the future abounds. In these visions, the future is imagined as a strange, foreign land, beset with problems. And yet, to quote that old adage, tomorrow is the visitor that is always coming but never arrives. The future never arrives because we are assembling it today.  

The distance between the now and the future finds its hook in tech policy in the pacing problem, a term describing the mismatch between advancing technologies and society’s efforts to cope with them. Vivek Wadhwa explained that, “We haven’t come to grips with what is ethical, let alone with what the laws should be, in relation to technologies such as social media.” In The Laws of Disruption, Larry Downes explained the pacing problem like this: “technology changes exponentially, but social, economic, and legal systems change incrementally.” Or, as Adam Thierer wondered, “What happens when technological innovation outpaces the ability of laws and regulations to keep up?”

Here are three short responses. Continue reading →

Last month, it was my great honor to be invited to be a keynote speaker at Lincoln Network’s Reboot 2018 “Innovation Under Threat” conference. Zach Graves interviewed me for 30 minutes about a wide range of topics, including: innovation arbitrage, evasive entrepreneurialism, technopanics, the pacing problem, permissionless innovation, technological civil disobedience, existential risk, soft law and more. They’ve now posted the full event video and you can watch it down below.

National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health just published a new report on “Life in Rural America.” This survey of 1,300 adults living in the rural United States has a lot to say about health issues, population change, the strengths and challenges for rural communities, as well as discrimination and drug use. But I wanted to highlight two questions related to rural broadband development that might make you update your beliefs about massive rural investment. Continue reading →

[first published at The Bridge on August 9, 2018]

What happens when technological innovation outpaces the ability of laws and regulations to keep up?

This phenomenon is known as “the pacing problem,” and it has profound ramifications for the governance of emerging technologies. Indeed, the pacing problem is becoming the great equalizer in debates over technological governance because it forces governments to rethink their approach to the regulation of many sectors and technologies.

The Innovation Cornucopia

Had Rip Van Winkle woken up his famous nap today, he’d be shocked by all the changes around him. At-home genetics tests, personal drones, driverless cars, lab-grown meats, and 3D-printed prosthetic limbs are just some of the amazing innovations that would boggle his mind. New devices and services are flying at us so rapidly that we sometimes forget that most did not even exist a short time ago. Continue reading →

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently delivered an excellent speech at the Resurgent Conference, Austin, TX. In it, he stressed the importance of adopting a permissionless innovation policy vision to ensure a bright future for technology, economic growth, and consumer welfare. The whole thing is worth your time, but the last two paragraphs make two essential points worth highlighting.

Pai correctly notes that we should reject the sort of knee-jerk hysteria or technopanic mentality that sometimes accompanies new technologies. Instead, we should have some patience and humility in the face of uncertainty and be open to new ideas and technologies creations.

“Here’s the bottom line,” Pai concludes:

Whenever a technological innovation creates uncertainty, some will always have the knee-jerk reaction to presume it’s bad. They’ll demand that we do whatever’s necessary to maintain the status quo. Strangle it with a study. Call for a commission. Bemoan those supposedly left behind. Stipulate absolute certainty. Regulate new services with the paradigms of old.

But we should resist that temptation. “Guilty until proven innocent” is not a recipe for innovation, and it doesn’t make consumers better off. History tells us that it is not preemptive regulation, but permissionless innovation made possible by competitive free markets that best guarantees consumer welfare. A future enabled by the next generation of technology can be bright, if only we choose to let the light in.

Read the whole thing here. Good stuff. I also appreciate him citing my work on the topic, which you can find in my last book and other publications.

A government appeal of a court decision approving AT&T’s acquisition of Tim Warner is a joke.  But maybe it is not surprising when you consider what AT&T management has been up to.

AT&T used to be a power house in Washington.  It now can’t seem to lobby it’s way out of a brown paper bag.

AT&T’s longtime chief representative in Washington—Jim Ciccone—was brilliant.  AT&T’s managers and investors have no idea how much Ciccone accomplished on their behalf. His successor—Pat Quinn—was a brilliant regulatory lawyer.  Quinn was absolutely the best person that could possibly represent you before the Federal Communications Commission.  Unfortunately, Quinn couldn’t see the big picture, and he flamed out as Ciccone’s succesor.

I have no idea who represents AT&T in Washington at this time.  As a shareholder, I believe AT&T management is negligent.

It is no surprise to me that the Department of Justice is appealing the court decision approving the AT&T/Time Warner merger—because AT&T is AWOL in Washington.

P.S. I want to credit my former boss, former Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon–chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee in the early 80’s–for the brown paper bag metaphor.  He didn’t apply it to AT&T, but I think it fits now.

A group of lawmakers is asking the Federal Communications Commission to maintain the agency’s 27 year old “Kid Vid” rules in their “current form,” rather than open a proceeding to evaluate whether the rules can be improved or are even still necessary.

The rules were enacted by the FCC pursuant to the Children’s’ Television Act of 1990—in the analog era, when digital technologies were just starting to be deployed, and the same year that initial steps were being taken to privatize the Internet and open it for commercial use.  A lot has changed since the Act was passed. Continue reading →

On March 19th, I had the chance to debate Franklin Foer at a Patrick Henry College event focused on the question, “Is Big Tech Big Brother?” It was billed as a debate over the role of technology in American society and whether government should be regulating media and technology platforms more generally.  [The full event video is here.] Foer is the author of the new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, in which he advocates a fairly expansive regulatory regime for modern information technology platforms. He is open to building on regulatory ideas from the past, including broadcast-esque licensing regimes, “Fairness Doctrine”-like mandates for digital intermediaries, “fiduciary” responsibilities, beefed-up antitrust intervention, and other types of controls. In a review of the book for Reason, and then again during the debate at Patrick Henry University, I offered some reflections on what we can learn from history about how well ideas like those worked out in practice.

My closing statement of the debate, which lasted just a little over three minutes, offers a concise summation of what that history teaches us and why it would be so dangerous to repeat the mistakes of the past by wandering down that disastrous path again. That 3-minute clip is posted below. (The audience was polled before and after the event and asked the same question each time: “Do large tech companies wield too much power in our economy, media and personal lives and if so, should government(s) intervene?” Apparently at the beginning, the poll was roughly Yes – 70% and No – 30%, but after the debated ended it has reversed, with only 30% in favor of intervention and 70% against. Glad to turn around some minds on this one!)

via ytCropper

“You don’t gank the noobs” my friend’s brother explained to me, growing angrier as he watched a high-level player repeatedly stalk and then cut down my feeble, low-level night elf cleric in the massively multiplayer online roleplaying game World of Warcraft. He logged on to the server to his “main,” a high-level gnome mage and went in search of my killer, carrying out two-dimensional justice. What he meant by his exclamation was that players have developed a social norm banning the “ganking” or killing of low-level “noobs” just starting out in the game. He reinforced that norm by punishing the overzealous player with premature annihilation.

Ganking noobs is an example of undesirable social behavior in a virtual space on par with cutting people off in traffic or budging people in line. Punishments for these behaviors take a variety of forms, from honking, to verbal confrontation, to virtual manslaughter. Virtual reality social spaces, defined as fully artificial digital environments, are the newest medium for social interaction. Increased agency and a sense of physical presence within a VR social world like VRChat allows users to more intensely experience both positive and negative situations, thus reopening the discussion for how best to govern these spaces.

Continue reading →