GOP senators to feds: Leave the Internet alone

12217_large_neutral-bits.pngIt’s this sort of thing that really pisses me off. The intention is exactly right. The Internet should be free of interference. It should continue to be accessible by anyone, empower content and service creators, and foster innovation. Yet excluding all government regulation of the Internet is exactly contrary to achieving that goal.

In fairness, the issue of Net Neutrality is a bit complicated.  Most people don’t know how the Internet works. And this leaves open the opportunity to exploit that lack of understanding through politi-speak gems like this

“There are exceptions of course, but far too often, when you hear someone say, ‘We need regulations to protect the Internet,’ what they’re actually saying is they don’t really trust the entrepreneurs and Internet technologists to create the economic growth and to increase public welfare.”

Net Neutrality regulations don’t stifle entrepreneurs and technologists. Rather, they keep the network available for them. Net Neutrality reigns in big ISPs from exploiting their effective monopolies for increased profit and offering preferential treatment for other large companies who can afford to pay to play. It protects the consumer and the entrepreneur from big business.

In a very real way, keeping the government from regulating the Internet is simply paving the way for a few large private business to regulate it. There’s no way that ends well for small businesses and consumers.

All regulations are restricting someone else’s freedom. That doesn’t make them all bad. Net Neutrality regulations are all about preserving the freedom of the Internet. If you would rather trust AT&T, Time Warner, Verizon, and Comcast to keep your network a free and open egalitarian network… you’re more than a little naive.

Boehner says Net Neutrality is reinstating the Fairness Doctrine

Speaker John Boehner
Boehner ties Net Neutrality to a political agenda

Speaker Boehner addressed several tech points in his speech to the National Association of Religious Broadcasters on Sunday. He railed against Net Neutrality and new FCC regulations that he characterized as a government takeover of the Internet.  He went on to say:

“Now, you know the old saying: ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’ Well in Washington, it’s more like, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, tax ’em and regulate ’em,” Boehner said in his speech. “So, some members of Congress and the federal bureaucracy are still trying to reinstate – and even expand – the Fairness Doctrine. To them, it’s fair to silence ideas and voices they don’t agree with, and use the tools of government to do it. “

Opposing Net Neutrality has been pretty standard Republican boilerplate.  Much like with the healthcare debate, the GOP prefers that corporations make decisions for consumers rather than the government. The new twist here is the conflation of Net Neutrality with the Fairness Doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine was introduced in 1949 and required that broadcasters present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced.  Reagan overturned the policy by executive order in 1987.

Republicans are apparently afraid the Internet might become a place of fair and balanced treatment of controversial issues.  This is a confounding stance, not to mention that the distributed nature of content creators on the Internet would make such a rule impossible to enforce.  Yet the larger issue is that Net Neutrality has absolutely nothing to do with editorial content.

Net Neutrality simply guarantees that the ISPs who provide the backbone for and access to the Internet cannot preferentially treat one content type over another.  This assures that you have equally speedy access to Fox Nation and the Huffington Post.  It means your access to Netflix won’t be throttled by Time Warner, or that Comcast will cut a deal with Microsoft to make Bing twice as fast as Google.

There is nothing about any proposed or existing Net Neutrality rules that in any way attempts to legislate editorial content on the web.  Nothing.  Tying Net Neutrality to the Fairness Doctrine is either an act of colossal ignorance or a blatant attempt to mislead and confuse voters.

We report, you decide.

Net neutrality proponent Tim Wu named senior advisor to the FTC

Tim Wu
Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu heads to the FTC

Columbia Law School professor Wu is credited with having coined the term “Net Neutrality.”  He is an outspoken advocate for an Internet free from corporate or government censorship or content restrictions. He starts his position on February 14th where FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz says that he will be “working on issues at the nexus of consumer protection, competition, law, and technology.”

Clearly, Wu will not be focused on net neutrality per se, but as knowledgeable tech savvy advocates for consumers go, this guy is the real deal.  All of which makes his appointment as a senior advisor to the Federal Trade Commission a little surprising given the Obama administration’s tendency to opt instead for industry insiders who advocate for the agenda of big business.

The FCC continues to waffle on issues like Net Neutrality. Meanwhile. Victoria A. Espinel, as Obama’s Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (a position informally known as the copyright czar) is working with Homeland Security to seize domain names of websites without due process.  The government appears repeatedly to treat the Internet more as a threat to corporate America rather than as an asset to its citizens.

However, the FTC is flying a decidedly different flag.  In addition to Wu, the agency also appointed Ed Felton as it’s chief technologist a few months ago.  He’s probably best known for his efforts to expose problems with electronic voting machines, and for his vocal advocacy against DRM (Digital Rights Management) as a way to lock music, movies, and TV shows.

It’s not clear what’s in the water over at the FTC, but let’s hope it finds its way into drinking fountains across Washington D.C.

Internet Kill-Switch Bill is ill-timed, ill-named, just ill

Easy Button
The kill-switch that doesn't exist (Photo by Craig Dugas on Flickr)

Sen. Lieberman reintroduced his ‘Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010’ this week. The bill has been widely dubbed the Internet Kill-Switch Bill, and its reemergence unintentionally coincided with Egypt shutting off its own Internet connection.  Egypt is back online today, but debate rages anew over whether or not the President should have the power to shutdown the web. What’s being widely ignored is that Lieberman’s bill doesn’t really provide the President with that power. Rather it broadens the power he already has to make the Internet go dark.

Under the Communications Act of 1934 the President has very broad power to shut off any or all wired or radio communications networks in the event of war or even the threat of war. This would include throttling the Internet.  Lieberman’s bill would broaden the definition of threats to explicitly include cyber-threats, But it’s not at all clear this power doesn’t already exist.

Over the last decade the threat of terrorist acts have widely been accepted politically as existential threats to America.  Clearly, a major attack on our communications networks would be considered an act of terror, and the threat of such an attack would allow the President a great deal of latitude to prevent such an attack, including shutting down parts or all of the network.  Lieberman’s proposal does little to change the scope of executive power in such a situation.

However, the bill’s primary purpose is to create a plan that would force the private providers of critical digital networks to come up with ways of managing their traffic in the event that something bad happens.  Is that a good thing?  Yes, in the sense that any competent network should have plans in place to deal with cyber-attacks.  Yet there are already ample incentives for any private provider to have such plans in place. Lieberman’s proposal would legislate what is already considered standard practice.  While the bill doesn’t obviously do much harm, it doesn’t do any obvious good either.  And it does create additional federal bureaucracy, which would seem ill-advised at a time when both sides are looking for ways to cut administrative expenses.

While Lieberman’s bill doesn’t create an Internet Kill-Switch, the specter of Obama having a big red button on his desk that would sever the web looms large in the minds of conservatives and liberals alike.  Yet this nervousness is ill-founded.  Such a button does not exist.  The mechanisms by which the government would shut off the Internet would be that it would have to coerce or demand the cooperation of private telecommunications providers to cut off their external network connections. The sheer number of companies managing such extra-national networks makes such a prospect considerably larger than Mubarak’s turn down of the three Egyptian ISPs.  It would take days to weeks for the government to effectively kill the American Internet, if it was possible at all—and more than enough time for any particular cyber-attack to do its damage.  Further, the prospect of a President getting widespread ISP cooperation to execute an Egypt-style quelling of popular dissent is even more remote.   The “kill-switch” as a defensive measure is neither practical or effective.

If people are truly concerned about the Internet remaining a free and open means of communication for everyone, they should be supporting true Net Neutrality legislation, not fretting about mythical kill-switches.

TWC demands broadband customers subsidize TV business

Time-Warner-logoTime Warner Cable announced that its rates in the Rochester area will increase between 6% and 10% on Jan. 15th.  The rate increases will happen across the board so the increased costs will be borne by digital phone and broadband subscribers in additions to cable television watchers.

Unfortunately, the price increases are not reflective of changes in TWC’s cost to deliver each of those respective services.  Cable TV profits are clearly down.  Subscribers rates are not continuing to increase year on year as in the past.  There’s debate if this is because people are watching more TV online or if the customers are belt tightening because of the economy.  Margins are being further eroded by TV content suppliers demanding higher rates from TWC, such as their most recent spat with Sinclair Broadcast Group.  Meanwhile, costs to deliver broadband service are falling and profits for that business are continuing to rise.  In addition, America ranks 28th in global speed of Internet connections while having comparatively more expensive ISP service.

The only reasonable explanation is that broadband customers are being forced to subsidize cable TV service.  For customers who subscribe to both this may be a financial wash, but it still hides the true cost of TV service.   And while there are other TV options in the market, there is nowhere else to go for true broadband ISP connections.  This is yet further reason why we need unbundled service options and more competition in this space.

TWC has an effective monopoly in Rochester on broadband service.  While their speed is paltry by international standards, it blazes with respect to other ISP options in the area.   It is completely unfair of TWC to now demand that the broadband customers it is holding hostage prop up its faltering cable TV profits.

Competition would solve this problem as would regulation.  At present we have neither, and broadband consumers are left at the mercy of TWC.  Ouch.