Tag: free press

A Brief Civil Liberties Quiz

See if you can spot the civil-liberties victory:

  1. The Supreme Court says the government can put your DNA in a national database, even if you were wrongly arrested.
  2. The State of Mississippi imposes mandatory collection of the DNA of babies born to teenage moms, neither of which is suspected of a crime.
  3. The Department of Justice is tracking and threatening to prosecute reporters, for the crime of reporting.
  4. The National Security Agency is collecting everyone’s phone records, even if they suspect you of nothing.
  5. The U.S. Senate kills a bill that could lead to a registry of law-abiding gun owners.

Answer: #5. 

Those crazy senators are looking less crazy all the time. 

Advocates of Regulation Are to Charlie Brown as Washington, D.C., Is to Lucy

This morning on WNYC in New York City, I debated Josh Silver of the pro-Internet-regulation group Free Press. It was a healthy exchange of views, except for a few barbs and innuendos thrown by Silver, who is obviously frustrated by his group’s lack of progress in seeking a “government takeover of the Internet.” (He wanted to debate in simple, ideological terms like that, so I indulge here.)

What was most interesting to me was how unsophisticated Silver is with respect to government and regulation. Take a look at his plea:

What we’re asking for—what we need are regulatory agencies that are not captured by industry and that actually act on behalf of the American public. And that’s what they were created to do. The FCC—1934, with the advent of radio—was created to make sure that the public interest was protected. And what we’ve seen is industry capture of regulatory agencies has made those agencies fail again and again and again.

And the only thing that’s gonna work is if the Obama administration and the FCC stand up and say, “No more business as usual. We are going to protect net neutrality. We’re going to protect competition, and make sure there’s choices for consumers. And we’re going to end the status quo in Washington that has really broken our entire political system.”

The Obama administration and the FCC did stand up and say “no more business as usual,” but that’s what politicians do to seduce voters. Then, once in power, they go about business as usual. Lucy always yanks away the football, Charlie Brown.

Silver is not alone in having these sweet, sad “good government” sentiments. Many of my interlocutors, with whom I often share outcome goals, believe strongly in achieving those goals by remaking governmental and political systems so that they finally “work.” They believe so strongly in this approach that they seem to think it’s just around the corner—if only we prohibit some speech here, some petitioning of the government there. Y’know, “take the money out of politics.”

Hopefully this fantasy will never come true, because it requires reversing fundamental rights such as free speech in all its instantiations—a handover of power from people to the government and elites that run it.

In the absence of that perfected, all-powerful government—thank heavens—we must organize the society’s resources using the best machine we’ve got for discovering consumers’ interests and delivering on them: an unhampered marketplace, now energized and enhanced by the Internet.

Net Neutrality and Unintended Consequences

Google and Verizon’s proposed framework for net neutrality regulation has provoked cries of protest from advocates of aggressive regulation at places like Free Press and Public Knowledge. Some of the loudest objections have concerned the distinction between the “public Internet,” which (at least for wireline broadband) would be subject to neutrality requirements, and vaguely defined “differentiated” or “managed” services—presumably things like IPTV or digital telephone service—which would not. This, according to the pro-regulation camp, would amount to a massive loophole that defeats the purpose of imposing neutrality rules. As Public Knowledge writes in their press release:

Thus, it is conceivable under the agreement that a network provider could devote 90% of its broadband capacity to these priority services and 10% to the best efforts Internet. If managed services are allowed to cannibalize the best efforts Internet, whatever protections are agreed to for the latter become, for all intents and purposes, meaningless.

This may be right. But if so, it sounds like a reason to be chary of the whole regulatory project. Neutrality or no neutrality, after all, there are a variety of ways to get digital content from producers to subscribers. Traditionally, the cable running to your home comprised separate dedicated channels for cable TV and broadband Internet traffic—though the trend now is toward a more efficient model where the TV content is also delivered as packet-switched data. If you’d rather watch Jersey Shore from the Jersey Shore, you can stream your video to a mobile device like a tablet or smartphone via Internet, but that’s hardly the only way to get your Snooki fix: There’s also, for instance, Digitial Video Broadcasting Satellite to Handheld (DVB-SH) or Qualcomm’s MediaFLO operating on their own dedicated frequencies.  Imposing neutrality rules on wireless broadband (as the Google/Verizon proposal would not – again, to the dismay of regulation fans) shouldn’t affect these services.

My concern, then, is that if neutrality rules foreclose the possibility of cross-subsidy from the providers of subscription-based video streaming or VoIP services, these alternatives become more attractive. Maybe Netflix or Hulu Plus want to be able to offer a deal where your subscription price includes priority delivery of their packets to your smartphone or tablet, making non-WiFi video streaming feasible even if you haven’t sprung for that kind of top-shelf bandwidth for all your wireless data. If neutrality regulation forbids that kind of deal, even with respect to these kinds of “managed services,” one possible effect is to skew investment away from building out next-gen IP networks and toward these kinds of niche services, which strikes me as inefficient. Indeed, it’s precisely the effect Public Knowledge seems to fear, and there’s no obvious reason to suppose that it’s going to be a big problem within IP-based broadband services, but not affect the choice between alternative modes of digital content delivery.

I should close with the caveat that I haven’t looked very closely at the economics here, so while I think the effect I’ve just sketched is theoretically plausible enough, I couldn’t say with any confidence how significant it’s going to be in practice. That said, given that the case for neutrality regulation seems to rest on a smattering of genuine cases of bad behavior by providers and a whole lot of dire speculation about consumer-unfriendly practices that might emerge, I’ll permit myself a little extra latitude to deal in hypotheticals.

Remember, the FCC Is Our National Censor II

Last week, I referred obscurely to “folks wanting to install the FCC as the Internet’s regulator,” cautioning that this same Federal Communications Commission is our national censor.

A friendly correspondent points me to an article in Ars Technica about the demand for speech controls coming from the same groups that want the FCC to control the Internet’s infrastructure, groups such as Free Press, the Media Access Project, and Common Cause.

Is there a parry to the charge that this is a demand for censorship? The signatories to the regulatory filing “respectfully request[] that the FCC … inquire into the extent and effects of hate speech in media, and explore possible non-regulatory ways to counteract its negative impacts.”

The filing does not contain the words “First Amendment” or “free speech.” It means “non-regulatory” the way a cop eyeballing someone and slapping his palm with a billy club is “non-regulatory.”

The FCC is experienced with “non-regulatory” coercion. Hearings in Congress have explored how the agency uses arm-twisting to get what it wants outside of formal regulatory processes. As law professor Lars Noah testified in 1999:

Arm twisting refers to an agency’s use of threats either to impose a sanction or withhold a benefit in hopes of encouraging nominally voluntary compliance with a request that the agency could not impose directly on a regulated entity. This informal method of regulation often saddles parties with more onerous regulatory burdens than Congress had authorized, accompanied by a diminished opportunity to pursue judicial challenges.

An FCC with the power to regulate Internet access services would use it to control Internet content.  There’s no place for the FCC in monitoring or administering speech controls, nor in controlling our communications infrastructure, the Internet.

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.

Journalists Condemn Attack on the Free Press in Ecuador

On Monday I wrote about an Ecuadorian court’s sentencing of Emilio Palacio, editor of the opinion section of El Universo, to three years in jail. Since then, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has expressed “profound concern” about the prison sentence for Palacio, and the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have strongly condemned it.

Op-ed writers from leading national newspapers have signed a statement condemning the court’s decision. This statement was published in El Comercio, El Universo, Diario HOY and La Hora. So far 47 columnists have signed on. See an updated list here of those of us who express our solidarity with the accused journalist.

A Columnist Sentenced to Three Years in Prison in Ecuador

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has long labeled the free press as his “main enemy.” His attitude has unfortunately resulted in official intolerance of individuals critical of the government.

The latest example is that of Emilio Palacio, the editor of the op-ed page of El Universo – the newspaper with the highest circulation in the country – who was sentenced on Friday to three years in jail for an op-ed he wrote in August 2009. Palacio accused Camilo Samán, director of a state-owned bank, of having sent protesters to El Universo’s offices after the newspaper reported on possible acts of corruption at the bank. The President has repeatedly stated that Palacio should be punished for what he wrote. In a country where everybody knows that the courts are not independent of political power, it’s not surprising that the ruling went against the editor.

I have known Palacio since I began writing op-eds for El Universo in late 2006. Although we hardly ever agree on policy issues, I certainly don’t believe he (or anyone else) deserves to go to jail (and possibly pay a fine of $3 million) for expressing an opinion. (The court actually found Palacio guilty of libel, but even if we were to agree with that finding, the punishment surely does not fit the crime.)

Correa’s government has accused at least 31 people of offending “the majesty of the presidency,” jailing many of them for short periods of time. To do so, the President revived a law that the first military dictatorship of the 1970s put into place that made such an offense a crime and that was never taken off the books.

The government regularly vilifies its critics including journalists, university students, businessmen, and indigenous leaders. For example, during his weekly national radio shows, the President has attacked Carlos Vera and Jorge Ortiz, the two most popular news anchors in the country. The government’s frequent nationally televised messages (that every TV station on public airwaves is forced to broadcast) usually have the sole purpose of attacking a person or group that opposes official policy. Sometimes these messages were broadcast during Vera’s and Ortiz’s programs, thereby keeping their viewers from watching them. In 2008 Correa took over several privately owned TV and radio stations. Last year, he apparently had his eyes set on Teleamazonas, another TV station on public airwaves. In December, the government shut down Teleamazonas for three days and now has a frivolous legal case pending against it.

Sadly, Correa is following the pattern of his fellow populist Hugo Chávez in curtailing freedom of speech, though receiving virtually no international scrutiny.