Tag: Internet

The FTC on Steroids: Will the ‘National Nanny’ Take Over the Internet and the New Information Economy?

Writing on the TechLiberationFront blog, Berin Szoka warns of the extensive Internet regulation that could come with huge grants of authority to the Federal Trade Commission in H.R. 4173, the “Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009.”

Congress is about to reinvent the FTC as the “National Nanny” it was well on its way to becoming back in the 1970s.  Today, the FTC is not merely the general overseer of our economy, but the key regulator of the Internet.  If the Senate passes Rep. Frank’s bill with its so-called “improvements” to the FTC Act, future generations will look back and wonder why, without even taking the time to consider what it was doing, Congress radically transformed Internet governance as an afterthought to financial regulatory overhaul.

Every Time I Say “Terrorism,” the Patriot Act Gets More Awesome

Can I send Time magazine the bill for the new crack in my desk and the splinters in my forehead? Because their latest excretion on the case of Colleen “Jihad Jane” LaRose and its relation to Patriot Act surveillance powers is absolutely maddening:

The Justice Department won’t say whether provisions of the Patriot Act were used to investigate and charge Colleen LaRose. But the FBI and U.S. prosecutors who charged the 46-year-old woman from Pennsburg, Pa., on Tuesday with conspiring with terrorists and pledging to commit murder in the name of jihad could well have used the Patriot Act’s fast access to her cell-phone records, hotel bills and rental-car contracts as they tracked her movements and contacts last year. But even if the law’s provisions weren’t directly used against her, the arrest of the woman who allegedly used the moniker “Jihad Jane” is a boost for the Patriot Act, Administration officials and Capitol Hill Democrats say. That’s because revelations of her alleged plot may give credibility to calls for even greater investigative powers for the FBI and law enforcement, including Republican proposals to expand certain surveillance techniques that are currently limited to targeting foreigners.

Sadly, this is practically a genre resorted to by lazy writers whenever a domestic terror investigation is making headlines. It consists of indulging in a lot of fuzzy speculation about how the Patriot Act might have been crucial—for all we know!—to a successful  investigation, even when every shred of available public evidence suggests otherwise.  My favorite exemplar of this genre comes from a Fox News piece penned by journalist-impersonator Cristina Corbin after the capture of some Brooklyn bomb plotters last spring, with the bold headline: “Patriot Act Likely Helped Thwart NYC Terror Plot, Security Experts Say.” The actual article contains nothing to justify the headline: It quotes some lawyers saying vague positive things about the Patriot Act, then tries to explain how the law expanded surveillance powers, but mostly botches the basic facts.  From what we know thanks to the work of real reporters,  the initial tip and the key evidence in that case came from a human infiltrator who steered the plotters to locations that had been physically bugged, not new Patriot tools.

Of course, it may well be that National Security Letters or other Patriot powers were invoked at some point in this investigation—the question is whether there’s any good reason to suspect they made an important difference. And that seems highly dubious. LaRose’s indictment cites the content of private communications, which probably would have been obtained using a boring old probable cause warrant—and the standard for that is far higher than for a traditional pen/trap order, which would have enabled them to be getting much faster access to more comprehensive cell records. Maybe earlier on, then, when they were compiling the evidence for those tools?  But as several reports on the investigation have noted, “Jihad Jane” was being tracked online by a groups of anti-jihadi amateurs some three years ago. As a member of one group writes sarcastically on the site Jawa Report, the “super sekrit” surveillance tool they used to keep abreast of LaRose’s increasingly disturbing activities was… Google. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the FBI could’ve handled this one with pre-Patriot authority, and a fortiori with Patriot authority restrained by some common-sense civil liberties safeguards.

What’s a little more unusual is to see this segue into the kind of argument we usually see in the wake of an intelligence failure, where the case is then seen as self-evidently justifying still more intrusive surveillance powers, in this case the expansion of the “lone wolf” authority currently applicable only to foreigners, allowing extraordinarily broad and secretive FISA surveillance to be conducted against people with no actual ties to a terror group or other “foreign power.” Yet as Time itself notes:

In fact, Justice Department terrorism experts are privately unimpressed by LaRose. Hers was not a particularly threatening plot, they say, and she was not using any of the more challenging counter-surveillance measures that more experienced jihadis, let alone foreign intelligence agents, use.

Which, of course, is a big part of the reason we have a separate system for dealing with agents of foreign powers: They are typically trained in counterintelligence tradecraft with access to resources and networks far beyond those of ordinary nuts. What possible support can LaRose’s case provide for the proposition that these industrial-strength tools should now be turned on American citizens?  They caught her—and without much trouble, by the looks of it. Sure, this domestic nut may have invoked to Islamist ideology rather than the commands of Sam the Dog or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories… but so what? She’s still one more moderately dangerous unhinged American in a country that has its fair share, and has been dealing with them pretty well under the auspices of Title III for a good while now.

Annals of Unhelpful Polling: Internet Access Edition

A new BBC poll is garnering plenty of press attention for its striking finding that 78% of global respondents believe that Internet access “should be a fundamental right of all people.” Fascinating!  Except… what exactly does that mean?

The obvious problem here is that, at least as it’s worded in English, the question is ambiguous between two equally plausible readings.  Especially when juxtaposed with another question about whether the Internet should be regulated by government, it could be understood as asking whether there’s a fundamental negative right to be free to use the Internet – to read and communicate free of government censorship or other onerous barriers.  That’s probably how we’d interpret a parallel question about whether people had a “fundamental right” to “access” information via newspapers or books.

Many folks, though, seem to be reading it as a measure of support for a fundamental positive right to be provided with (broadband?) Internet access. And that just seems a bit silly, frankly. There’s a decent case to be made that it’s desirable for governments that can afford it to make some kind of public Internet access available to citizens who can’t.  You can even imagine that, a few years down the line, some states in the developed world might have moved so heavily toward interacting with the public online that it would become more or less necessary for full political equality.  But a basic human right? Something that governments are “violating fundamental rights” if they don’t do? It’s not just that I don’t believe this; I have trouble imagining that much of anyone literally thinks so.  A few of my friends at Free Press, maybe, but 4/5 of the world’s population?  Color me dubious.

I’ll confess being startled at the response to a much less ambiguous question: A global majority agreed that “the Internet should never be regulated by any level of government anywhere.” While I find this pattern of responses congenial enough, I can’t take it much more seriously.  After all, what falls under the category of “regulation of the Internet”?  Censorship, of course, which I expect is what most people immediately thought of.  But in reality, of course, there are a whole panoply of laws and rules that at least arguably “regulate” the Internet in some sense, some of which even I would approve of. I have many, many issues with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for instance, but there’s nothing wrong with the idea that there should be a basic protocol that provides both a safe harbor for service providers hosting user content and a mechanism for complaining about copyright-infringing or libelous or otherwise tortious material.  Probably there are other “regulations” I’d approve too, but I’d have to sit and think about it for an hour to even enumerate all the different kinds of rules that might be considered to “regulate the Internet” in one way or another.

Because it’s at least not susceptible to such dramatically divergent readings, this response might be more useful as a kind of big-picture attitude check. But the reality is that almost none of the respondents can really mean it because even someone steeped in tech policy would have to sit and think about the question for a half hour to really get a grip on what it entails. Or might entail. If the BBC were engaged in some kind of serious social science, they probably would have worked up better questions.  But of course, that’s not the business they’re in.  They’re in the business of asking the sort of question that will let them run exciting headlines that get re-tweeted and drive page views. And 100% of respondents in my poll of myself agree they’ve succeeded.

Hijacking Neutrality

Perhaps he’s too demure to say “I told you so” himself, but events are bearing out the concerns about net neutrality and regulatory capture that  Tim Lee expressed in his excellent Cato paper “The Durable Internet.” The content industry is lobbying not just to ensure that neutrality rules permit filtering of Internet traffic by ISPs to block copyrighted material, but wants the FCC to positively encourage it.  As a brief from the Motion Picture Association of America suggests:

In fact, if the Commission wants to see a meaningful and long-term reduction in the amount of bandwidth consumed by illegal content, it should foster an environment in which innovation itself is able to flourish and new tools are not only permitted, but encouraged, to develop. The government should create incentives for this investment by clarifying that industry efforts will be rewarded with open and flexible regulations.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been out of step with some of their usual allies on this front, arguing that however desirable the open Internet might be, the broad assertion by the FCC of authority to control network architecture sets a dangerous precedent. The implicit threat to ISPs here is: “Go along with our wish list for intrusive filtering or we’ll find a way to use the rules to make trouble for you.”

The telecoms, meanwhile, are pressing for the applicability of neutrality rules to all sorts of other application-level service providers, such as Google. An AT&T filing argued that “the commission cannot rationally impose rules on one set of providers based on hypothetical concerns while exempting other providers that act as Internet gatekeepers and have engaged in actual misconduct.” They specifically called out Google, which they assert “shapes how consumers actually experience the Internet more than any given broadband provider possibly could.”

It would, to be sure, be perverse if industry players managed to use regulations designed to promote openness and innovation as a cudgel with which to whack innovative competitors. But in the world of regulation, no less than in the domains studied by Alfred Kinsey, it turns out that the perverse is perfectly normal.

A Free Press Only Counts if It’s on Dead Trees

newspapersThe Associated Press reports:

The federal government is wading into deliberations over the future of journalism as printed newspapers, television stations and other traditional media outlets suffer from Americans’ growing reliance on the Internet.

With the media business in a state of economic distress as audiences and advertisers migrate online, the Federal Trade Commission began a two-day workshop Tuesday to examine the profound challenges facing media companies and explore ways the government can help them survive.

Media executives taking part are looking for a new business model for an industry that is watching traditional advertising revenue dry up, without online revenue growing quickly enough to replace it. Government officials want to protect a critical pillar of democracy—a free press.

“News is a public good,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. “We should be willing to take action if necessary to preserve the news that is vital to democracy.”

Language mavens, observe the lede: The federal government is “wading into deliberations.” I infer that in Newspeak, this may mean something like “trying to spend more money.” Perhaps I should look forward to the federal government wading into deliberations over my salary? (On second thought, maybe not.)

Some of the proposals aimed at saving traditional journalism are relatively innocuous, like letting newspapers become tax-exempt nonprofits. At least this wouldn’t do too much harm, and, given recent performance in the industry, it approaches being fiscally neutral.

Other ideas, like forcing search engines to pay royalties to copyright holders, would have far more serious consequences. It’s hard to see whom this proposal would hurt worse, the search engines, socked with massive fees, or the copyright holders themselves – if search engines don’t index you, you don’t exist anymore.

The surest loser, though, would be the rest of us. Restricting the flow of news for the financial benefit of Rupert Murdoch seems a far cry from our Constitution, which allows Congress “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Burdening search engines seems only to inhibit the progress of science and the useful arts, while enriching a small number of people. It might pass the letter of the law, but I doubt that this is what the founders had in mind.

But anyway…. shame on Americans for our “growing reliance on the Internet”! Don’t we realize that, as the article notes, “a free press is a critical pillar of democracy” – and that a free press only counts, apparently, if it’s on dead trees?

I’m all in favor of the good the press can do, but it strikes me as shortsighted to think that this good can only be done in the traditional media. It also seems foolish to me to think that tying the press more closely to the government will make it more critical and independent. Often, the very best journalism comes from complete outsiders. I’m reminded of Radley Balko’s recent (and excellent) takedown of the claim that Internet journalists are basically parasites:

In 20 years, the Gannett-owned Jackson Clarion-Ledger never got around to investigating Steven Hayne, despite the fact that all the problems associated with him and Mississippi’s autopsy system are and have been fairly common knowledge around the state for decades. It wasn’t until the Innocence Project, spurred by my reporting, called for Hayne’s medical license that the paper had no choice but to begin to cover a huge story that had been going on right under its nose for two decades.

… That’s when the paper starting stealing my scoops. Me, a web-based reporter working on a relatively limited budget. Like this story (covered by the paper a week later). And this one (covered by the paper weeks later here). Oh, and that well-funded traditional media giant CNN did the same thing.

Tell me again, who’s the parasite here? And why should taxpayers bail out yet another industry that isn’t delivering what we want?

How Did the FCC Come to Acquire This Power?

Jeff Eisenach and Adam Thierer have a great essay in The American honoring the 50th anniversary of Ronald Coase’s article “The Federal Communications Commission.” It’s timely given the FCC’s proposal to establish public utility-style regulation of the Internet under the banner “net neutrality,” and it’s a good general warning to Neo-Progressives who “see market failure as the source of most problems, and government as the centerpiece of most solutions.”