Tag: net neutrality

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.”

‘Net Neutrality’ Regs: Corporate Interests Do Battle

Some people have labored under the impression that “net neutrality” regulation was about the government stepping in to ensure that large corporations would not control the Internet. Now that the issue is truly joined, it is clear (as exhibited in this Wall Street Journal story) that the debate is about one set of corporate interests battling another set of corporate interests about the Internet, each seeking to protect or strengthen its business model. The FCC is surfing the debate pursuing a greater role for itself, meaning more budget and power.

Tim Lee’s paper, The Durable Internet, dispels the idea that owners of Internet infrastructure can actually control the Internet. The preferred approach to “net neutrality” is to let Internet users decide what they want from their ISPs and let ISPs and content companies do unmediated battle with one another to create and capture the greatest value from the Internet ecosystem.

If the FCC were to reduce its power by freeing up more wireless spectrum—either selling it as property or dedicating it to commons treatment—competition to provide Internet service would strengthen consumers’ hands.

Understanding the Consequences of Internet Regulation

In an effort to achieve “network neutrality” online, the FCC is starting to write new regulations for Internet providers.  Reuters reports:

U.S. communications regulators voted unanimously Thursday to support an open Internet rule that would prevent telecom network operators from barring or blocking content based on the revenue it generates.

The proposed rule now goes to the public for comment until Jan. 14, after which the Federal Communications Commissions will review the feedback and possibly seek more comment. A final rule is not expected until the spring of next year.

Cato Director of Information Policy Studies Jim Harper appeared on Fox News this week to discuss the FCC decision. “This is governmental tinkering with a market place that is working really well and growing right now,” said Harper. “The last thing we need is to cut that off.”

Watch:

There are ways to achieve net neutrality without regulation, says Timothy B. Lee:

An important reason for the Internet’s remarkable growth over the last quarter century is the “end-to-end” principle that networks should confine themselves to transmitting generic packets without worrying about their contents. Not only has this made deployment of internet infrastructure cheap and efficient, but it has created fertile ground for entrepreneurship. On a network that respects the end-to-end principle, prior approval from network owners is not needed to launch new applications, services, or content.

…Like these older regulatory regimes, network neutrality regulations are likely not to achieve their intended aims. Given the need for more competition in the broadband marketplace, policymakers should be especially wary of enacting regulations that could become a barrier to entry for new broadband firms.

Read the whole thing.

Internet Companies’ Bogus Plea for Regulation

Some of the most prominent Internet companies sent a letter yesterday asking for protection from market forces. Among them: Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter.

A Washington Post story summarizes their concerns: “[W]ithout a strong anti-discrimination policy, companies like theirs may not get a fair shot on the Internet because carriers could decide to block them from ever reaching consumers.”

No ISP could block access to these popular services and survive, of course. What they could do is try to charge the most popular services a higher tariff to get their services through. Thus, weep the helpless, multi-billion-dollar Internet behemoths, we need a “fair shot”!

Plain and simple, these companies want regulation to ensure that ISPs can’t capture a larger share of the profits that the Internet generates. They want it all for themselves. Phrased another way, the goal is to create a subsidy for content creators by blocking ISPs from getting a piece of the action.

It’s all very reminiscent of disputes between coal mines and railroads. The coal mines “produced the coal” and believed that the profitability of the coal-energy ecosystem should accrue only to themselves, with railroads earning the barest minimum. But where is it written that digging coal out of the ground is what creates the value, and getting it where it’s used creates none? Transport may be as valuable as “production” of both commodities and content. The market should decide, not the industry with the best lobbyists.

What happens if ISPs can’t capture the value of providing transport? Of course, less investment flows to transport and we have less of it. Consumers will have to pay more of their dollars out of pocket for broadband, while Facebook’s boy CEO draws an excessive salary from atop a pile of overpriced stock holdings. The irony is thick when opponents of high executive compensation support “net neutrality” regulation.

Another reason why these Internet companies’ concerns are bogus is their size and popularity. They have a direct line to consumers and more than enough capability to convince consumers that any given ISP is wrongly degrading access to their services. As Tim Lee pointed out in his excellent paper, “The Durable Internet,” ownership of a network service does not equate to control. ISPs can be quickly reined in by the public, as has already happened.

A “net neutrality” subsidy for small start-up services is also unnecessary: They have no profits to share with ISPs. What about mid-size services—heading to profitability, but not there yet? Can ISPs choke them off? Absolutely not.

Large, established companies are not known for being ahead of trends, for one thing, and the anti-authoritarian culture of the Internet is the perfect place to play “beleaguered upstart” against the giant, evil ISP. There could be no greater PR gift than for a small service to have access to it degraded by an ISP.

The Internet companies’ plea for regulation is bogus, and these 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.

Technology: Debating the Pace of Progress

Last night, thanks to Craigslist and a Web-enabled cell phone, I unloaded two extra tickets to tonight’s World Cup qualifying game between the U.S. and Costa Rica in under an hour. (8:00, ESPN2 “USA! USA! USA!”)

Wanting to avoid the hassle of selling the tickets at RFK, I placed an ad on Craigslist offering them at cost, figuring I might find a taker and arrange to hand them off downtown today or at the stadium tonight. Checking email as I walked to the gym, I found an inquiry about the tickets and phoned the guy, who happened to live 100 feet from where I was walking. A few minutes later, he had the tickets and I had the cash.

This quaint story is a single data point in a trend line—the high-tech version of It’s Getting Better All the Time. Everyone living a connected life enjoys hundreds, or even thousands, of conveniences every day because of information technology. Through billions of transactions across the society, technology improves our lives in ways unimaginable two decades ago.

Before 1995, nobody ever traded spare soccer tickets in under an hour, on a Tuesday night, without even changing his evening routine. If soccer tickets are too trivial (you must not understand the game), the same dynamics deliver incremental, but massive improvements in material wealth, awareness, education, and social and political empowerment to everyone—even those who don’t live “online.”

Sometimes debates about technology regulation are cast in doom and gloom terms like the Malthusian arguments about material wealth. But the benefits we already enjoy thanks to technology are not going away, and they will continue to accrue. We are arguing about the pace of progress, not its existence.

This is no reason to let up in our quest to give technologists and investors the freedom to produce more innovations that enhance everyone’s well-being even more. But it does counsel us to be optimistic and to teach this optimism to our ideological opponents, many of whom seem to look ahead and see only calamity.

From the Oxymoron File: The Neutral Subsidy

Peter Van Doren points me to some revealing passages in a new article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. In “Subsidizing Creativity through Network Design: Zero-Pricing and Net Neutrality,” Robin S. Lee and Tim Wu caution against tiered pricing for Internet access services, writing:

[U]nless sufficient bandwidth and quality of service can be guaranteed for the “free” Internet, there is a risk that … tiering will serve to sidestep de facto prohibition on termination fees… . [A] priced-priority system could simply become a de facto fee charged for all content providers if the “free” Internet was of sufficiently poor quality and consumers shifted their usage behavior accordingly… . [T]his might dampen the introduction of new content and services and eliminate the subsidy for content innovation currently provided by net neutrality.

Locking in net neutrality by regulation would lock in a subsidy to content providers. Lee and Wu prefer it, and many of us may like the results, but it’s hard to call a subsidy regime “neutral.”

Is This Intervention Necessary?

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.