An insider’s view of the media hegemony

Better Privacy Protections Won’t Kill Free Facebook.

Once upon a time, some people developed a new technology for freely communicating with people around the world. While initially the purview of techies and hobbyists, it didn’t take long for commercial interests to notice the insanely popular new medium and rapidly move to displace the amateur stuff with professional content. But these companies had a problem. For years, people had gotten used to the idea that if you paid for the equipment to access the content, you could receive the content for free. No one wanted to pay for this new, high quality (and expensive to make) content. How could private enterprise possibly make money (other than selling equipment) in a market where people insisted on getting new content every day — heck, every minute! — for free?

 

Finally, a young techie turned entrepreneur came up with a crazy idea. Advertising! This fellow realized that if he could attract a big enough audience, he could get people to pay him so much for advertising it would more than cover the cost of creating the content. Heck, he even seeded the business by paying people to take his content, just so he could sell more advertising. Everyone thought he was crazy. What? Give away content for free? How the heck can you make money giving it away for free? From advertising? Ha! Crazy kids with their whacky technology. But over the course of a decade, this young genius built one of the most lucrative and influential industries in the history of the world.

 

I am talking, of course, about William Paley, who invented the CBS broadcast network and figured out how to make radio broadcasting an extremely profitable business. Not only did Paley prove that you could make a very nice living giving away content supported by advertising, he also demonstrated that you didn’t need to know anything about your audience beyond the most basic raw numbers and aggregate information to do it. For the first 80 or so years of its existence, broadcast advertising depended on extrapolated guesses about total aggregate viewing audience and only the most general information about the demographics of viewership. Until the recent development of real-time information collection via set-top boxes, broadcast advertising (and cable advertising) depended on survey sampling and such broad categories as “18-25 year old males” to sell targeted advertising — and made a fortune while doing it.

 

We should remember this history when evaluating claims by Facebook and others that any changes to enhance user privacy will bring the digital world crashing down on us and force everyone to start paying for content. Setting aside that some people might actually like the option of paying for services in exchange for enhanced privacy protection (I will deal with why this doesn’t happen on its own in a separate blog post), history tells us that advertising can support free content just fine without needing to know every detail of our lives to serve us unique ads tailored to an algorithms best guess about our likes and dislikes based on multi-year, detailed surveillance of our every eye-muscle twitch. Despite the unfortunate tendency of social media to drive toward the most extreme arguments even at the best of times, “privacy regulation” is hardly an all or nothing proposition. We have a lot of room to address the truly awful problems with data collection and storage of personal information before we start significantly eating into the potential revenue of Facebook and other advertising supported media.

 

Mind you, I’m not promising that solid and effective privacy regulation would have no impact on the future revenue earning power of advertising. Sometimes, and again I recognize this will sound like heresy to a bunch of folks, we find that the overall public interest actually requires that we impose limits on profit making activities to protect people. But again, and as I find myself explaining every time we debate possible regulation in any context, we don’t face some Manichean choice between libertarian utopia and a blasted regulatory Hellscape where no business may offer a service without filling out 20 forms in triplicate. We have a lot of ways we can strike a reasonable balance that provides users with real, honest-to-God enforceable personal privacy, while keeping the advertising-supported digital economy profitable enough to thrive. My Public Knowledge colleague Allie Bohm has some concrete suggestions in this blog post here. I explore some broader possible theoretical dimensions of this balance below . . . .

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7 Reasons Why The AT&T/TW Trial Matters So Much The Future of Antitrust (+1 for Appeal).

Starting this week, AT&T and Time Warner get their day in court to prove that their proposed merger does not violate the anti-trust laws. I outlined the basic line of reasoning in the government’s case back shortly after it became clear the government intended to oppose. Since then, the parties have engaged in discovery, lined up their experts, and now filed their pre-trial briefs outlining their arguments on the relevant issues and standards. You can read the AT&T pre-trial brief here, and the DoJ pre-trial brief here.

 

It’s a lot easier to outline what the parties will try to show, and their differing strategies for trying to show it, than it is to guess how Judge Leon will decide at this point. But while the outcome alone makes this pretty important, it has the potential to massively shape antitrust going forward (assuming antitrust law survives the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Ohio v. American Express). Below, I unpack what makes this case so potentially important from a law perspective.

 

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Also posted in Media Ownership | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments (Comments closed)

Interest Rates And Auction Policy –Why The FCC Should Move Quickly On A 5G Auction.

It is a measure of how much communications policy warps my brain that my thoughts about the rise in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the likelihood that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates aggressively as a result have little to do with the impact on stocks, or even my credit card debt, but go directly to the impact on any future spectrum auction. Short version — nothing good. So if we needed another reason for the FCC to move quickly to schedule the next 5G Auction, the potential rise in interest rates is a good one.

 

I explain this in more detail below . . .

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Can The States Really Pass Their Own Net Neutrality Laws? Here’s Why I Think Yes.

We are seeing lots of activity in the states on net neutrality. The Governors of MontanaNew York and New Jersey have issued Executive Orders requiring that any broadband provider doing business with the state must certify that it won’t block, throttle, or prioritize any content or applications. Several states are looking at passing legislation applying some version of the 2015 FCC Net Neutrality Rules, with California furthest along in passing something that effectively replicates the pre-2017 rules. All of which raises the question — can the states actually do that?

 

The FCC not only says “no,” but in the 2017 Net Neutrality Repeal Order, the FCC purported to explicitly preempt any state effort to recreate any net neutrality rules. However, as I pointed out back in 2011 when Republican Commissioners wanted to preempt state reporting requirements, the FCC does not have unlimited preemption power. The FCC has to actually have some source of authority to preempt localities. Indeed, Chairman Pai was so insistent that the FCC lacked the authority to preempt state regulation of intrastate communications services that — in a highly unusual move — he refused to defend the portion of the FCC’s Prison Phone Order capping intrastate rates.

 

 

The critical question is not, as some people seem to think, whether broadband involves interstate communications or not. Of course it does. So does ye olde plain old telephone service (POTS), and state regulated that up to the eyeballs back in the day (even if they have subsequently deregulated it almost entirely). The question is whether Congress has used its power over interstate commerce to preempt the states (directly or by delegating that power to the FCC), or whether Congress has so pervasively regulated the field so as to effectively preempt the states, or whether the state law — while framed as a permissible intrastate regulation — impermissibly regulates interstate commerce (aka the “dormant commerce clause” doctrine). Additionally, certain types of state action, such a the action of the state as a purchaser of services, are exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) to preempt.

 

As always with complicated legal questions, one cannot be 100% sure of how a court will decide. But for the reasons set forth below, I’m reasonably confident that the states can pass their own net neutrality laws. I’m even more confident that a state can decide to purchase services exclusively from carriers that make enforceable pledges not to prioritize or otherwise discriminate against content. Mind you, I don’t think either of these is an effective substitute for federal Title II classification and the 2015 rules. But I encourage states to do what they can and for activists to push for state action in addition to federal action where possible.

 

More below . . . .

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Solving the Rural Broadband Equation — Fund Infrastructure, Not Carriers.

A happy confluence of political circumstances has made rural broadband a hot topic and makes it possible to believe that perhaps, finally, the stars will properly align to do something more than the Connect America Fund. No offense to CAF, but everyone knows that CAF alone cannot provide quality, ubiquitous affordable broadband to all Americans. Not by a long shot.) Needless to say, Republicans and Democrats have rather different approaches to how they want to close the rural digital divide. I’ll save a comparison of what’s out there for a different post, because I want to take this opportunity to propose an entirely different approach than anything else out there at the moment.

 

It begins by recalling some wisdom I learned at my father’s knee. My father teaches tax law at Boston University. When grading student exams, he would often shake his head and sigh. “Answer the question asked,” he would say. “Don’t answer the question you want to answer because you have the answer, answer the question asked.”

 

What does that have to do with rural broadband? When we think about solving the rural broadband problem, nearly everyone tries to answer the question: “How do I find a carrier to serve rural areas.” But that’s not actually the problem we’re trying to solve. The problem we’re actually trying to solve is getting people access to quality broadband so they can participate in the modern digital economy and modern society generally. On the surface, that may look like the same thing. After all, you can’t get broadband access without some kind of carrier, right?

 

But if we start by framing the question in terms of a goal (get people broadband access) rather than a solution (find people a broadband carrier), we open a whole new world of solutions and approaches. As I discuss in more detail below, the reason rural communities don’t have broadband access is fairly straightforward: the communities in question are not sufficiently profitable to serve to justify the investment by profit maximizing firms (I’ll get to the importance of the word “sufficiently” below). If we then apply the skills we all (hopefully) learned back in high school math, we then break the problem down into solvable components. So we can either (a) raise the profitability of the target area; (b) lower the cost of deployment and operation; or (c) find entities that are either not motivated by profit or that are satisfied with much smaller profits.

 

We solved this one way back in the 20th Century. But the great virtue of the modern communications market, which allows us to break up the supply chain and bring in economies of scale from other markets, provides us with a bunch of new ways to solve the problem. Ideally, used in combination, we can have a solution that doesn’t lock rural areas in to a single, permanently subsidized provider, but instead closes the digital divide and enhances competition and potentially drives down everybody’s costs.

 

Short version — fund infrastructure, not carriers. And by “fund” I don’t just mean “throw money at,” although we need to be clear there is no way to avoid throwing money at this if we want to get the job done.

 

Lets break this out below . . . .

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Also posted in Series of Tubes, Spectrum, The Stimulus Package (ARRA) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

What You Need To Know About Repealing The Repeal of Net Neutrality — How The CRA Works.

There is a great deal of excitement, but also a great deal of misunderstanding, about the effort to “repeal the repeal” of net neutrality using the Congressional Review Act (CRA). On the one hand, we have folks who are confused by the enormous progress made so far and think that we are just one vote shy of repealing the repeal. On the other extreme, we have the folks declaring the effort totally doomed and impossible from the start.

 

You can read the relevant statutory provisions here at 5 U.S.C. 801-08. Briefly, a “Resolution of Disapproval” (which we refer to as a “CRA” rather than a “CRD” just to confuse people) must pass both the Senate and the House (in either order) and then be signed by the President like any other piece of legislation. If the President vetoes Congress may override the veto with a 2/3 vote as it can with any other vetoed legislation. You might think that this makes it impossible for the minority party to get legislation passed. But the CRA was designed to allow a majority of members to pass a Resolution of Disapproval over the objections of the leadership and on a bare majority (so it circumvents the filibuster). And while yes, it must still get past the President, there are reasons to think that is not as impossible as some folks think.

 

 

Right now, the action has been in the Senate, where Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has announced that all 47 Democrats (and the 2 independents who caucus with them) will vote for the CRA. With Republican Susan Collins (R-ME) joining her fellow Senator from Maine Angus King (I-ME), that makes the total number of yes votes 50. So if Dems find one more “yes” vote in the Senate, they can clear that hurdle. But while this is extraordinary news in a very short period of time (technically, it is still too early to even introduce a CRA on the FCC’s net neutrality vote, since the item has not been published in the federal register) — we still have a long way to go to get this over the finish line.

 

But, just to provide some historic perspective. Back in 2003, the nascent (and totally unanticipated by anybody — especially anybody with any experience in media policy) media reform movement rose up against the roll back of all media ownership rules by then-FCC chair Michael Powell. Republican FCC, Republican Congress, Republican President — all supportive of the roll back and big deregulators. Nevertheless, against all odds, we managed to push through a partial roll back by freezing the national ownership limit at 39% (which, not by coincidence, was the ownership level of the largest holding companies — News Corp. and Viacom — as seen in this West Wing episode). So yeah, sometimes the universe give us some long-shot unexpected surprises.

 

I discuss the details of a CRA, and why I think we can win this (and even if we don’t, why it still works in our favor overall), below. In the meantime, you can go to this Public Knowledge resource page to contact your Senators and Representative directly and push them to vote for the Net Neutrality CRA.

 

UPDATE: Matt Schettenhelm pointed out to me that while 30 Senators bypases the Committee and gets on the calendar, you still need to win a motion to proceed before debate and final up down vote. See this article here. I’ve corrected this below.

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Also posted in How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, Life In The Sausage Factory, Series of Tubes | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

The History of Net Neutrality In 13 Years of Tales of the Sausage Factory (with a few additions). Part I

I keep being asked by people “Harold, can you please summarize the last 20 years of net neutrality for me while I stand on one foot?” Usually I answer: “do not do unto other packets what you find hateful for your favorite bitstream. The rest is commentary — located at 47 C.F.R. Part 8.” Alternatively, I send them to John Oliver’s 2017 piece on net neutrality. Or, if you want the longer story going back to the 1960s/70s, you can read this excellent piece by Tim Wu (who invented the term “net neutrality” in the first place).

 

But, as I’ve mentioned more than a few times in recent weeks, I’ve been doing this issue for a very, very long time. In fact, pretty much since the first time the question of how to classify cable modem service came up in 1998. So, in the spirit of “end of year montages,” I will now take you on a brief tour of the history of net neutrality at Tales of the Sausage Factory (with a few outside link additions) from my first post on the Brand X case back in 2004 to June 2016, when the D.C. Circuit affirmed the FCC’s 2015 Reclassification and Net Neutrality Order.

 

Although I suppose you could read the version I wrote about this in December 2015 to bring everyone up to date before the last court fight. Have I mentioned I’ve been doing this for a long, long time now and am repeating myself an awful lot? That’s why I spend more than 5000 words here and only get up to the beginning of 2009.

 

Prepare you favorite montage music and see more below . . .

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Also posted in "A Republic, if you can keep it", How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, Life In The Sausage Factory, Series of Tubes | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

The 5 Weirdest Things About That Ajit Pai Video.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai has made one of those “break the ‘net” videos — but not in the usual way. In an apparent effort to either pump up his base or win over undecideds, Pai made a video called “Seven Things You Can Still Do On the Internet After Net Neutrality.

 

If the intent was to win over critics by showing how opponents are needlessly “fear mongering” (a favorite term thrown around by defenders of Pai’s net neutrality repeal), it backfired badly. But whatever its intent, I can say unequivocally as someone doing this for 20 years, this video is truly bizarre in the annals of FCC history for a number of reasons. While most of the attention has gone to the copyright issues or the Twitter fight between Mark Hamill and Ted Cruz, the genuinely weirdest thing about this video is that it ever got made in the first place.

 

So here are my picks for the Top 5 Weirdest Things About Ajit Pai’s ‘Seven Things’ Video.

 

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Also posted in Life In The Sausage Factory, Series of Tubes | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

No, the Draft Net Neutrality Repeal Does Not “Restore Us To 2014” — And 2014 Wasn’t Exactly Awesome Anyway.

In my ongoing series debunking the nonsense from Pai & Friends on what the draft net neutrality repeal/reclassification Order does and doesn’t do, I will now take on yet another cherished talking point that gets repeated ad naseum. “We are just winding back the clock to before 2015, when the Internet flourished and — to paraphrase  a popular song of the time from a different Lord Business — everything was awesome! Everything was cool when you were part of the team (cable)! ”

 

Like “the FTC, antitrust law and state law can handle net neutrality” and “the FTC can stop ISPs from blocking content/services,” this talking point is intended to be a “technically true but totally not the way you think/we imply” statement that lawyers, politicians and demons selling you wishes in exchange for your soul love to tell you to get you to sign on the dotted line. In this case, however, this statement turns out to be literally false to fact as well as false by implication. Below, I compare the regulatory regime in place on January 17, 2014 (the day after Verizon v. FCC) and the anticipated regulatory regime as it will exist on January 17, 2018, and explain the Top 3 Ways They Are Totally And Completely Different In Ways That Make Consumers Worse Off.

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Also posted in Series of Tubes | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

No, the FTC CANNOT Have A Ban On All ISP Blocking.

In my last post, took the 4 most famous net neutrality violations to see how they would come out under the current rules adopted in 2015 v. how they would come out under the regulatory framework following the FCC vote to repeal net neutrality rules, based on the draft Order. To condense the approximately 5500 word analysis — all 4 incidents are addressable under the 2015 rules. None of the incidents are addressable under the combined Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and antitrust regime that remains after the vote to repeal the rules, with the exception of Comcast’s deliberate deception about their blocking peer-2-peer protocols in 2007-08.

 

Since most folks won’t plow through 5500 words of legal analysis, I’ve gotten some requests to specifically address the claims by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and others that the FTC can address blocking as easily as the FCC and prevent any ISP from blocking any content or application. My short answer is: “No. The FTC CANNOT have a “no blocking” rule like the FCC has today. The FTC may stop an ISP from blocking content or services when it can prove that the blocking violates the antitrust laws, or that the blocking violates the ISP’s published terms of service, or if the ISP blocking causes (or is likely to cause) substantial harm to consumers and is not outweighed by countervailing benefits. And, as I covered extensively in my previous post, proving these things can be hard.

 

My somewhat longer answer, laid out in more detail below, is that Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 USC 45, simply cannot do what Section 201(b) and Section 202(a) of the Communications Act (47 U.S.C. 201(b) & 202(a)) can do. The two statutes are designed and interpreted very differently. The FTC has very broad jurisdiction but fairly limited authority because it is a very generalist agency. More importantly, it is purely an enforcement agency — designed to prosecute companies from doing what I will refer to here as “bad stuff.” Note, it is not even designed to prevent companies from doing the bad stuff in the first place. It is designed purely to enforce a fairly general consumer protection statute. In particular, the FTC Act Amendments of 1994 severely limited the FTC’s enforcement authority by adding Section 5(n), which requires the FTC to overcome certain obstacles before it can find conduct “unfair” and thus unlawful under Section 5(a).

 

By contrast, Congress designed the FCC to ensure that our critical communications infrastructure functions in a consistent and stable manner and to explicitly promote all kinds of industrial policy like innovation, universal service, affordability, and to ensure that telecommunications services operate in a manner that serves “the public convenience and necessity.” This is critical because we don’t generally require businesses to serve the public interest, we limit this requirement to a fairly small number of specific industries that are absolutely critical to the functioning of our economy and important in our daily lives. As a result, in contrast to the FTC, the FCC has very broad authority over telecommunications services but virtually no authority over other stuff — like information services.

 

As I explain below, this makes it literally impossible for the FTC to simply prohibit blocking (let alone prohibit “fast lanes” or “slow lanes”) as the FCC does. To the contrary, under the FTCA, the FTC cannot prevent a broadband carrier from blocking any website, application or service it chooses unless it can prove that this blocking (a) causes (or is likely to cause) “substantial injury” to consumers, (b) there is no other way the consumer could reasonably avoid the harm, and (c) there are no countervailing consumer benefits. While Section 5(n) does allow the FTC to consider “established public policies as evidence to be considered with all other evidence. Such policy considerations may not serve as the primary basis” for a finding of unfairness. So even if we assume that there is an “established public policy” against blocking, that alone does not allow the FTC to stop a broadband provider from blocking content or applications.

 

And all this, of course, assumes the FTC even has authority to deal with broadband carriers reclassified as information services, which remains up in the air at the moment pending the Ninth Circuit resolution of the en banc rehearing of FTC v. AT&T Mobility.

 

I explain all this in more detail below . . .

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