Lovers of free speech should feel their stomachs turn when they look at the actions of the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission these days.
Not that they took a sharp turn with the Obama administration, or with the chairmanships of Jon Leibowitz or Jules Genachowski. These are run‐of‐the‐mill bureaucracies, constantly reaching for new powers, nevermind even constitutional limits on the federal government’s authority.
Item 1: Blogger, You’re an Advertiser Now
Via the L.A. Times blog, the FTC issued a guidance document yesterday requiring bloggers who write testimonials about products to disclose large gifts or payments, or they will run afoul of the FTC’s regulations on advertising.
Is that the right thing to do? Yep. Is that an appropriate thing to require in federal law? Absolutely not.
The FTC is putting itself in the business of guaranteeing the veracity of speech and the honesty and straightforwardness of bloggers. “No” means no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.
The “protection” in this regulatory scheme encourages consumers to be supine and irresponsible. State law should deal with frauds as they occur. There should be no law barring or limiting paid endorsements — certainly not a federal law.
Item 2: An Establishment of the Press?
Via the Examiner, it probably didn’t occur to the framers of the constitution to bar the government from establishing its own press, so they didn’t do that in the First Amendment. But we’re heading down that road, and the FTC wants to take us there.
In early December, it will hold a “workshop” called ”From Town Criers to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?”
Here’s an idea for a “workshop”: Taking the Budget of the Federal Trade Commission and Giving it Back to Taxpayers.
Item 3: Just a Modest Takeover of the Communications Infrastructure
As discussed here several times before, FCC Chairman Genachowski has proposed to regulate the terms on which Internet service providers supply broadband services to the public. It’s pretty much the same thing as regulating how printing presses work, or the delivery decisions of newspapers.
The federal government is specifically disabled from regulating speech and the press in the constitution. But in various ways the regulators at the FCC and FTC have talked themselves into the role of censor.
Enough of this unconstitutional consumer coddling. It’s time to shut these agencies down and restore the funds that support them to American taxpayers. Now that would be a consumer protection!
An early version of this post collapsed the FTC and FCC together. Author Jim Harper swears he knows the difference and claims he was briefly blinded with rage at unconstitutional government. Jim thanks the Cato@Liberty reader who slapped him around, getting him focused once again on *happily* railing against unconstitutional government.
So asks the Washington Post in a cogent editorial about FCC Chairman Jules Genachowski’s speech proposing to regulate the terms on which broadband service is provided. (More from TLJ, Julian Sanchez, and me.) The WaPo piece nicely dismantles the few incidents and arguments that underlie Genachowski’s call for regulation.
As the debate about “ ‘net neutrality” regulation continues, I imagine it will move from principled arguments, such as whether the government should control communications infrastructure, to practical ones: Will limitations on ISPs’ ability to manage their networks cause Internet brown‐outs and failures? (This is what Comcast was trying to avoid when it ham‐handedly degraded the use of the BitTorrent protocol on its network.) Will regulation bar ISPs from shifting costs to heavy users, cause individual consumers to pay more, and hasten a move from all‐you‐can‐eat to metered Internet service? We’ll have much to discuss.
Julian Sanchez has already done a fine job of assessing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s speech announcing his plan for federal regulation of the Internet. There was nothing really new in it. No substantial problems justifying regulation have emerged, and — Genachowski’s claims to modest aims aside — any ‘net neutrality regulation is likely to be a substantive morass. Says Julian:
[I]t absolutely reeks of the sort of ad hoc ‘I know it when I see it’ standard that leaves telecoms wondering whether some innovative practice will bring down the Wrath of Comms only after resources have been sunk into rolling it out.”
If the FCC goes ahead with regulating the Internet, the public will get a good look at what closed systems are really like. The FCC’s retrograde “Electronic Comment Filing System” doesn’t even allow full‐text searches of submissions. This is but one failing the Internet’s engineers all over the country — and not just in big telcos — will run into dealing with the FCC. It’s laughable that this outdated telecommunications bureaucracy is trying to take over the Internet.
A complex array of network protocols and business processes make up “the Internet.” The Internet’s end‐to‐end architecture is good engineering because it is naturally open, flexible, and conducive to communications freedom. The Internet empowers consumers to fend for themselves, such as in their dealings with Internet Service Providers. When Comcast degraded the Bitorrent protocol, it took just weeks for consumer pushback to end the practice. The FCC opened an inquiry long after the matter was settled.
But some politicians and the FCC’s lawyers think their slow‐moving, technologically unsophisticated bureaucracy knows better than consumers and technologists how to run the Internet. The FCC’s “net neutrality” plans are nothing more than public utility regulation for broadband. With federal regulation, your online experience will be a little more like dealing with the water company or the electric company and a little less like … well, the Internet!
As Julian said, 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 interests than they imagine either.
Who’s the top dog in American business these days? Washington, says the Washington Post:
That’s one of the main themes of this week’s Capital Connection conference put on by the Mid‐Atlantic Venture Association.… This time, policy wonks and government insiders will also be there.
Reed E. Hundt, former Federal Communications Commission chairman, and Tommy G. Thompson, former Health and Human Services secretary, will be speaking, as will VentureBeat blog author Matt Marshall and GigaOm author Om Malik, two well‐known technology bloggers. Washington hasn’t been a frequent stop for them in the past.
It’s just one more sign of the region’s growing clout in the business and technology world. This is where stimulus dollars are doled out, where the economic recovery is taking shape, and where regulations — many of which directly affect businesses — are being crafted and rewritten. Of course, lawyers and lobbyists are getting a great deal of business helping folks find ways to tap into stimulus money.…
Companies familiar with the Beltway culture are well‐positioned to benefit from the government’s increased role in nearly every sector.…
The conference, which is open to the public for the first time, demonstrates the growing nexus between the business community and the government, said Julia Spicer, MAVA’s executive director.
“The spread between the two worlds has tightened a bit,” she said. “The economy is the real focal point” of the conference, “and the government has a definite role in that.”
Politico reports that President Obama’s nominee to head the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski, is expected to pursue “ ‘net neutrality” regulation of broadband Internet service.
In his paper, The Durable Internet: Preserving Network Neutrality without Regulation, Tim Lee shows why regulation is not needed to preserve the good engineering principle he calls “end‐to‐end.” His paper also shows how regulation intended to serve consumer‐friendly ends is often captured and used by regulated industries to suppress competition and artificially raise profits, denying consumers the benefits of free markets.