Tag: Comcast

Free Speech Trumps First Amendment

If you watch HBO’s “Newsroom,” you may have seen Cato, IJ and others get a quick namedrop in relation to the Citizens United Supreme Court case. Actor Jeff Daniels misstates the holding of the case, claiming that Citizens United “allowed corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to any political candidate without anyone knowing where the money was coming from.”

But, you see, this just shows Aaron Sorkin’s unwavering commitment to realism in his shows. Reporters regularly get the holding of Citizens United wrong. After all, if reporters were crystal clear that Citizens United cleared the way for all manner of groups to use “corporate treasury funds” to fund broad and overtly political statements about candidates, they would inevitably conclude that their own right to make those kinds of statements would be jeopardized by much of the campaign finance regulation on the books prior to Citizens United. And it’s hard to demonize libertarians when they’re fighting for the rights of everyone, including reporters and entertainers who work for subsidiaries of Time Warner (CNN, HBO), Viacom (CBS), Disney (ABC), Comcast (NBC, MSNBC), General Electric (NBC, MSNBC), News Corp. (FOX, Fox News), etc.

If you’d like to know more about the facts of Citizens United, watch this:

As to the claims about secrecy in political speech, Cato Institute senior fellow Nat Hentoff has a few thoughts on disclosure and the jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas.

The Phantom Menaces in the ACLU’s Case for Net Neutrality

I’m accustomed to finding myself on the same page as the American Civil Liberties Union–and in particular with the razor sharp Jay Stanley, who heads their Technology & Liberty program. But their recent report urging the necessity of net neutrality regulation only makes me more skeptical. I’ve always pretty much shared the position of my colleague Tim Lee: The open, end-to-end nature of the Internet is an important driver of both innovation and free expression–important enough that if it were systematically threatened, there would be a decent case for regulatory intervention. But that end-to-end architecture is also pretty resilient, even if some ISPs might wish otherwise. And while it’s easy to think of deviations from neutrality that would be pernicious, it’s also not hard to imagine specific non-neutral practices that might benefit consumers without undermining that broader end-to-end structure. The real policy question ought to be how to get enough competition in broadband markets that consumer choice selects for the latter against the former. Since broadband isn’t all that competitive in many regions, the question is whether we can afford to wait and deal with problems as they arise in a narrowly tailored way, or whether there’s some urgent need for a broad architectural mandate.

The ACLU says there is, and cites ten terrifying “abuses” that supposedly show the need to legislate now. But as I read over the list, I found I couldn’t help but think of those old Saturday Night Life “Coffee Talk” sketches, where a farklempt Mike Meyers would throw out such food for thought as: “Grape Nuts contain neither grapes nor nuts, discuss.” Because ACLU’s list of abuses mostly consists of examples that either aren’t actually net neutrality violations, or for which there are obvious remedies that don’t require neutrality regulation. Let’s discuss:

  • AT&T’s “jamming” of a Pearl Jam concert, in which singer Eddie Vedder’s remarks attacking then-president George Bush were bleeped out of a webcast. Obviously, it would be pretty troubling if your ISP were filtering your datastream to remove political content of which it disapproved. But that’s not what happened here at all. AT&T, via a deal with the Lollapalooza music festival, was streaming the Pearl Jam concert on its own content hub. Now, obviously, whoever was editing the stream and decided to treat criticism of Bush as equivalent to profanity made a highly dubious judgment call, but the point is that AT&T was acting as a content provider here, not a carrier: The filtering happened before the content hit the network, and no proposed neutrality rules I’m aware of would have prohibited this.
  • BellSouth’s “censorship” of Myspace. According to BellSouth’s own account, a glitch in their system temporarily left their outraged users unable to access the popular social networking site. “Some suspected” that the company was actually testing some kind of tiered access system, and decided to do so by blocking a popular site without notice, antagonizing their paying customers. Some also suspect the moon landing was faked, but I wouldn’t make it the basis of legislation.
  • Verizon briefly denied the abortion-rights group NARAL access to a program whereby users who texted a dedicated “short code” could sign up for SMS updates; the company almost immediately reversed its decision. This is, obviously, not a case involving Internet neutrality, and while it’s certainly a case involving the ability of a network owner to discriminate between users of its network services, the issues involved are pretty different. These “short code” services often permit users to either sign up for fee-based updates or donate money to causes via charge added directly to their monthly phone bill. As indicated by their prompt reversal, the rationale for denying NARAL here–desire to avoid partnering with causes on either side of a “controversial” issue–was probably ill considered, but this is clearly a case where the company is partnering with the provider in a way that goes beyond carriage, because they’re also effectively acting as a payment processor. That means they’ll have an interest in vetting partners in a way you wouldn’t expect a mere carrier to vet every content provider on the network. Even if you think this particular type of discrimination ought to be prohibited, this is really a distinct case raising issues separate from those involved in the Internet Neutrality debate, and ought to be considered separately.
  • Proposed filtering for copyright infringement. This is indeed a terrible and, in practice, unimplementable idea–for one because there’s no easy way to distinguish illegal from legal copying (as when I stream music I’ve purchased from my desktop or server to a mobile device). There’s also a pretty good case that this would already be illegal under federal wiretap laws…which may be why the “proposals,” referenced in an article from January 2008, haven’t actually gotten anywhere.

There are a handful of other cases that either may or definitely do count as potentially troubling neutrality violations–the most famous being Comcast’s throttling of BitTorrent traffic. At least two involve ISPs in Canada, which I wouldn’t have thought is the FCC’s problem. In some of these cases, I’d even agree that regulatory action is justified–but by the FTC, not the FCC. If you are advertising access to “the Internet,” then choking off access to whole classes of popular services or degrading throughput well below advertised speeds, well, that’s what we call a deceptive business practice. (In a more libertarian world, this might be handled by another mechanism; in the world we’ve got, it’s the FTC’s lookout.) Maybe there’s a case to be made for more specific transparency rules to establish when and how consumers have to be informed about non-neutral routing policies–certainly no ISP should be allowed to block access to a website and conceal the policy by making it look like a technical glitch–but I have no idea why you’d make the leap to a sweeping architectural mandate before trying something along those lines.

More generally, I’m a little puzzled about why the ACLU is weighing in on this at all. It’s true that ISP routing practices, like the practices of many private firms, could have implications for “free expression” broadly conceived. But not everything that might promote or hinder expression is part of the civil liberties portfolio, which has traditionally been limited to restraints on freedom imposed by government. To the extent federal policies inhibit broadband competition, one might say the government is in some sense complicit in whatever private policies restrict expression, but here again, the obvious remedy is to look for more pro-competitive policies. In any event, this is far enough outside their usual wheelhouse that you’d think it would make more sense for them to remain, well… neutral on this one.

Consumers in the Driver’s Seat—-Oh, the Humanity!

Yesterday the D.C. Circuit ruled that Congress hadn’t given the Federal Communications Commission power to regulate the Internet and the FCC couldn’t bootstrap that power from other authority. It was a rare but welcome affirmation that the rule of law might actually pertain in the regulatory area.

But the Open Internet Coalition put out a release containing threat exaggeration to make Dick Cheney blush:

“Today’s DC Circuit decision … creates a dangerous situation, one where the health and openness of broadband Internet is being held hostage by the behavior of the major telco and cable providers.”

That’s right. It’s a hostage-taking when consumers and businesses—and not government—hammer out the terms and conditions of Internet access. Inferentially, the organization representing Google, Facebook, eBay, and Twitter believes that Internet users are too stupid and supine to choose the Internet service they want.

What these content companies are really after, of course, is government support in their tug-of-war with the companies that transport Internet content. It’s hard to know which produces the value of the Internet and which should gain the lion’s share of the rewards. Let the market—not lobbying—decide what reward content and transport deserve for their roles in the Internet ecosystem.

As I said of the Open Internet Coalition’s membership on a saltier, but still relentlessly charming, day: “[T]hese companies are losing their way. The leadership of these companies should fire their government relations staffs, disband their contrived advocacy organization, and get back to innovating and competing.”

On Net Neutrality Regulation: Suppose Free Press Called a Crisis and Nobody Noticed?…

In the wake of today’s ruling in the D.C. Circuit that the FCC had exceeded its authority in attempting to regulate access to the Internet, I did a number of radio interviews and a radio debate with Derek Turner of Free Press, a leading advocate of Internet regulation.

The debate was a brief, fair exchange of views. I was struck, though, to hear Turner refer to the situation as a “crisis.” Sure enough, in a Free Press release, Turner says three times that the ruling creates a “crisis.” 

Recall that in 2007 Comcast degraded the service it provided to a tiny group of customers using a bandwidth-hogging protocol called BitTorrent. Recall also that before the FCC acted, Comcast had stopped doing this, relenting to customer complaints, negative attention in news stories, and such. 

In the wake of the D.C. Circuit ruling and the crisis it has created, Internet users can expect the following changes to their Internet service: None.

Wow. With crises like these, who needs tranquility?

“As a result of this decision, the FCC has virtually no power to stop Comcast from blocking Web sites,” the release intones.

That would be worrisome, though still not quite a crisis—except that Comcast would be undercutting its own business by doing that. Did you know also that no federal regulation bars people from burning their furniture in the backyard? That’s the same kind of problem.

As Tim Lee points out in his paper, “The Durable Internet,” consumer pressures are likely in almost all cases to rein in undesirable ISP practices. Computer scientist Lee presents examples of how ownership of communications platforms does not imply control. If an ISP persists in maintaining a harmful practice contrary to consumer demand—and consumers can’t express their desires by switching to another service—we can talk then. The focus should be on increasing competition by freeing up spectrum and removing regulatory barriers.

In the meantime, this “crisis” has me slightly drowsy and eager to go outside and enjoy the spring sunshine.

The FCC Doesn’t Have Authority to Regulate the Internet—and Shouldn’t

In the fall of 2007, word emerged that Comcast had degraded the Internet traffic of some customers, whose use of a protocol called BitTorrent interfered with other Comcast customers’ Internet access.

Comcast handled it badly, and sites like TechLiberationFront covered the “Comcast Kerfuffle” extensively. Consumers prefer unfiltered access to the Internet.

By springtime, Comcast had sorted things out and made a deal with BitTorrent to develop a neutral traffic-management protocol.

Four months later, the FCC weighed in, finding that Comcast had acted badly and telling Comcast not to do that again. Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit concluded that the FCC exceeded its authority and reversed the FCC’s order against Comcast.

The court’s decision marks another turning point in the debate over whether the federal government should regulate Internet access services. What’s entertaining about it is that the problem was solved two years ago by market processes—sophisticated Internet users, a watchdog press, advocacy groups, and interested consumers communicating with one another over the Internet.

The next step will be for advocates to run to Congress, asking it to give the FCC authority to fix the problems of two years ago.  But slow-moving, technologically unsophisticated bureaucrats do not know better than consumers and technologists how to run the Internet. The FCC’s “net neutrality” hopes are nothing more than public utility regulation for broadband. If they get that authority, your online experience will be a little more like dealing with the water company or the electric company and a little less like using the Internet.

As I’ve noted before, Tim Lee’s is the definitive paper. The Internet is far more durable than regulators and advocates imagine. And regulators are far less capable of neutrally arbitrating what’s in the public interest than most people realize.

The FCC doesn’t have authority to regulate the Internet. Congress and the president shouldn’t give it that authority.

Comcast-NBC Universal: Everybody Loves a Fight!

If you haven’t been paying attention to the Comcast-NBC Universal merger, here’s a reason to: A good fight has broken out!

It starts with Mark Cooper, Director of Research at the Consumer Federation of America, who testified against the merger to the House Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet on behalf of CFA, Free Press, and Consumers Union.

The merger has so many anti-competitive, anti-consumer, and anti-social effects that it cannot be fixed,” says Cooper.

Cato Adjunct Scholar Richard Epstein lays into Cooper’s testimony with aplomb: ”Dr. Cooper has achieved a rare feat. The evidence that he presents against this proposed merger suffices to explain emphatically why it ought to be approved.”

And in a second commentary, Epstein ladles out another helping of humble pie to Cooper, concluding:

The cumbersome Soviet-style review process that Mr. Cooper advocates does no good for the consumers who he purports to represent. It only shows how far out of touch he is with the basics of antitrust theory as they relate to the particulars of the telecommunication market.

Maybe Cooper will have a rejoinder. But until then, I’ll just note that the best fights are the ones that your guy wins.

Thursday Links

  • Why Copenhagen is all pain and no gain. Meanwhile, Brookings finds that  “meeting the Waxman-Markey emissions targets would result in a loss of personal consumption from $1 trillion to $2 trillion; GDP would be lower by 2.5 percent by 2050; and there would be 1.7 million fewer jobs.”