Internet

The Federal Election Commission Is Bad Enough

Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook, has proposed Congress create a new agency to “create guidelines for acceptable speech on social media.”

As Hughes notes, this proposal “may seem un-American.” That’s because it is. At the very least, Hughes’ plan contravenes the past fifty years of American constitutional jurisprudence, and the deeply held values that undergird it. Let’s examine his case for such a momentous change.

Why ‘Net Neutrality’ Is a Problem

Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to reverse Obama administration “net neutrality” rules governing the internet that were put in place in 2015. Some commentators are criticizing the announcement as a give-away to large telecom companies and an attack on consumers. But the Obama rules create some serious problems for consumers—problems that Pai says he wants to correct.

Under the Obama rules, internet service providers (ISPs) are subject to “rate-of-return” regulations, which the federal government previously applied to AT&T’s long-distance telephone service back when it was a monopoly more than 50 years ago. Ostensibly, rate-of-return regulation gives government officials the power to review and approve or reject ISP rates. In reality it basically guarantees ISPs government-enforced market protection and profitability, in exchange for regulators ensuring that ISPs won’t be too profitable.

As explained in this 2014 post, rate-of-return regulation involves more than just telecom. It is an attempt to settle fights between “producers” and “shippers”—whether those are farms, mines, and factories on one side and railroads and shipping lines on the other, or Netflix and Hulu on one side and ISPs on the other. In all those cases, the producers and shippers need each other to satisfy consumers, but they fight each other to capture the larger share of consumers’ payments. If shippers charge more, then farmers, factories, and Netflix must charge less in order to maintain the same level of sales.

The political resolution of the producer–shipper fights was the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and its rate-of-return regulations, which were initially written with railroads in mind. Similar efforts were later extended to trucking, air transportation, energy, and telecom. It took about 100 years for policymakers to accept that those efforts hurt consumers much more than it helped them, forcing on consumers too many bad providers with high prices and poor quality.

European Criticism of American Internet Platforms

The Guardian reports on calls by German chancellor Angela Merkel for internet platforms to “divulge the secrets of their algorithms”:

Angela Merkel has called on major internet platforms to divulge the secrets of their algorithms, arguing that their lack of transparency endangers debating culture.

The German chancellor said internet users had a right to know how and on what basis the information they received via search engines was channelled to them.

Speaking to a media conference in Munich, Merkel said: “I’m of the opinion that algorithms must be made more transparent, so that one can inform oneself as an interested citizen about questions like ‘what influences my behaviour on the internet and that of others?’.

“Algorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to a distortion of our perception, they can shrink our expanse of information.”

An algorithm is the formula used by a search engine to steer a request for information. They are different for every search engine, highly secret and determine the significance or ranking of a web page.

Merkel has joined a growing number of critics who have highlighted the dangers of receiving information that confirms an existing opinion or is recommended by people with similar ideas.

“This is a development that we need to pay careful attention to,” she told the conference, adding that a healthy democracy was dependent on people being confronted by opposing ideas.

“The big internet platforms, through their algorithms, have become an eye of a needle which diverse media must pass through [to access their users],” she said.

My sense is that some Europeans are frustrated at how American companies dominate many aspects of the Internet. However, instead of trying to compete with the American companies in the marketplace (which would be a welcome development, as more competition is good), they have decided that regulating these companies (e.g., through antitrust scrutiny) is their best strategy for reducing American dominance.

Free Trade on the Internet

This is from a recent speech by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR):

Today, the Internet represents the shipping lane of 21st Century goods and services. It is reshaping global commerce just like social media is reshaping societies. But right now the trade rules don’t neatly apply to the digital economy, despite the growing number of protectionist barriers popping up. The most recent WTO rules were written before the Internet.

It’s time for the digital economy to be within the Winners Circle by keeping data flows open and ensuring that foreign markets aren’t more legally hazardous than the U.S.

This is an important point. With regard to international trade in goods, the impact of the Internet has been significant, but only within certain limits. With the exception of goods for which electronic versions have been developed, you still need to make the goods at a factory and ship them around the world.  

With services, by contrast, the Internet revolution has been greater. A number of services that used to be difficult to trade internationally at all are now tradable with the click of a mouse. To use an example I’ve written about recently, online higher education services are taking off. Someday soon it may be just as convenient for a Washingtonian to get a degree from Melbourne University in Australia as it is to do so from Georgetown.

One problem, though, as Senator Wyden points out, is that many of our international trade rules were written in the pre-Internet era. This became apparent during the WTO dispute over online gambling. The rules could barely fit with this new industry.

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