An insider’s view of the media hegemony

Title II Forbearance Is Actually So Easy It Makes Me Want To Puke.

For those following the debate around whether to classify broadband access service as a “Title II” telecommunications service under the Communications Act of 1934, you may have heard about a thing called “forbearance.” For those unfamiliar with telecom law lingo, “forbearance” refers to  a special magic power that Congress gave the FCC as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — the major edit/update Congress did almost 20 years ago. The 1996 Act added Section 10 (now codified at 47 U.S.C. 160) which gives the FCC the power to say “you know that specific provision of law that Congress passed? We decide it really doesn’t make sense for us to enforce it in some particular case, so we will “forbear” (hence the term ‘forbearance’) from enforcing it.” Or, as the D.C. Circuit explained in a case called Orloff v. Federal Communications Commission, once the FCC invokes forbearance and decides to forbear from a particular statute, the statute for all practical purposes disappears.

 

For those familiar with the argument, you will also know that the anti-Net Neutrality camp argues that getting the FCC to forbear from any rule is such a horribly complicated and detailed market-by-market analysis that the FCC couldn’t possibly grant the kind of broad, nationwide forbearance we would need to make Title II workable. As someone who actually lived through the 8 years of the Bush Administration and saw almost every single pro-competition provision of the 1996 Act stripped away by forbearance proceedings, I can only say “hah, I wish.”

Anyone who actually troubles to look up cases like Earthlink v. FCC or Ad Hoc Telecommunications Users Committee v. FCCor a bunch of other FCC and DC Circuit cases that are not that hard to find, you will discover that Forbearance is so easy it makes a consumer protection and rule of law guy like me want to puke. Srsly, the standards on this are so low, and so deferential to the FCC, that if Chairman Wheeler stands up at an open meeting and chants “Broadband is great, competition is good, be deregulated like you should. All in favor say ‘aye!’” — and then at least two other Commissioners vote yes — the DC Circuit will affirm it. Heck, according to ATT, Inc. v. FCCyou can even forbear as against potential obligations that don’t even exist yet.

Not that I expect mere facts to alter firmly held opinions that have become factesque. What Paul Krugman has termed the Very Serious People of telecom have all decided that Title II is a terrible onerous thing and that forbearance is just not going to make it work — despite the fact that the stupid cell phone you’re using couldn’t even have existed if Congress hadn’t made it Title II in 1993 by adding Section 332(c) of the Communications Act and the only non-Title II service we have other than broadband access — cable service — is widely regarded a monopolistic nightmare with all the innovating power of a fossilized brick. But the lawyer and eternal optimist in me keeps trying. So I unpack all this below — with lots of quotes because I know most of y’all not gonna actually click through to the cases.

Besides, I do a My Little Pony (MLP) mashup below because “Broadband is magic!” And that always cracks me up. . . .

 

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Two Years Later, The Supreme Court Still Doesn’t Want To Review Red Lion v. FCC.

Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a blog post called “The Supreme Court Does Not Want To Revisit Constitutionality of Broadcast or Cable Regulation. Get OVer It and Get On With Your Lives.” I bring this up because yesterday the Supreme Court rejected without comment what some commentators saw as the most likely vehicle for such a challenge, Minority Television Project v. FCC.

 

Not only did Minority Television Project provide the opportunity to overrule Red Lion and abolish all those pesky ownership limits and public interest obligations, it framed this as an opportunity to further expand Citizens United. How could the majority possibly resist, especially given the groupthink that the Supreme Court is simply lusting to overturn Red Lion and totally deregulate the broadcast industry at the first opportunity? And yet, somehow, they resisted. The FCC’s authority to impose broadcast ownership limits (and other spectrum ownership limits for that matter) remains not only intact, but subject to the lenient “rational basis” standard of scrutiny.

 

Nevertheless the groupthink that Red Lion and Turner Broadcasting are either already dead, or very sick and going to die, remains impenetrable. It has become the classic case of the self-fulfilling prophecy. except for stuff around the edges like the non-commercial set aside at issue in this case. To borrow from Stephen Colbert, the argument that Supreme Court has overruled Red Lion (and Turner Broadcasting) and therefore we should all ignore it doesn’t need facts; it has become “factesque.”

 

I unpack this below for those who don’t live and breathe this stuff.

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Of CDNs, Netflix, Net Neutrality, and Cable Fu#$@!ery.

I keep seeing a steady stream of articles that basically go through the following analysis:
1. ‘Net Neutrality is about treating all bits equally.’
2. ‘The Internet has never done this. Particularly we have this thing called ‘content delivery networks’ or ‘CDNs,’ that have been a vital part of moving content around the Internet for over 15 years. CDNs are awesome and wonderful and the Internet couldn’t work without them or other means of moving content around and stuff.
3. All that fuss about Netflix and Comcast (and Verizon and other carriers) is just about CDN stuff and Netflix not wanting to pay money it really ought to pay Comcast because, well, CDNs.
4. Don’t you feel silly now about that whole silly Net Neutrality thing, silly ignorant person?
This piece from Wired by Robert McMillan called “What Everyone Gets Wrong About Network Neutrality” that a bunch of folks seem to have gone all swoony over is rather typical of the genre, but you can find other examples readily enough like this piece from Geoff Manne or this one from Brendan Sasso.
There are a bunch of problems with this analysis. Notably:
1. As demonstrated by this op ed raising similar arguments in 2010, content delivery networks (CDNs) and other ways in which the Internet does not “treat all bits equally” are not some fantastic new discovery that no one in the network neutrality movement has figured out. We all know about CDNs and other forms of prioritization imbedded in the network.
2. This does not violate network neutrality because network neutrality is not about “treating all bits the same” or other dumb ass strawman type arguments the anti-network neutrality folks would like this to be about. This takes a basic high-level description that people use to illustrate the basic concept of network neutrality, and confuses it for the more sophisticated application of the principle. It’s like claiming that we can’t possibly have laws against race or sex discrimination in the workplace because “equal pay for equal work” means “pay everyone exactly the same wage all the time for every single job everywhere” and then arguing how rigid application of “equal pay for equal work” ignores things like cost of living in your local area and would prevent merit pay raises.
3. The actual idea behind network neutrality is that last-mile ISPs, like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T or even scrappy little uncarriers like T-Mobile who are trying to give you something free rather than leverage market power should not pick winners and losers by using their unique position as the access provider to the Internet to favor one application or service over another.
Or, stated more simply, John Oliver is right. What we mean by “Network Neutrality” is “stop cable f#@!ery.” How things like the Comcast/Netflix fight and CDNs fit into this broader concept of “stop cable f#@!ery” or — for polite company — “network neutrality” has been covered fairly effectively by Tim Lee over at Vox, and Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOm. As to whether the Netflix/Comcast business fits into the existing network neutrality rules or needs to be handled as a potentially different sort of “cable f#@!ery” called “interconnection f#@!ery” (assuming we decide Comcast was wrong in the first place, a public policy question that remains unresolved at the moment pending more information), you can see conflicting views on that between myself and my friend Marvin Ammori.
Below, I demonstrate the fallacy of this “if you all just understood about CDNs and stuff you wouldn’t want this silly network neutrality’ thing” by comparing it with the two cases we’ve actually used the FCC to enforce network neutrality, Comcast/BitTorrent and AT&T/Facetime. I will then briefly touch on the ‘where does Comcast/Netflix’ fit in all this.
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The Zombie Anti-Net Neutrality Arguments The D.C. Circuit Already Rejected.

I do not expect folks to be models of consistency, or to give up on arguments and talking points they have memorized. I also readily agree that a lot of times the same set of facts or a particular statute or set of cases can lend itself to multiple interpretations. but at some point — unless you are either a religious fanatic or deliberately disingenuous — you have a responsibility to admit that the courts disagree with you (at least when talking about law stuff).

 

For example, as I wrote after the oral argument in the Net Neutrality case (aka Verizon v. FCC) I think Judge Tatel and his fellow jurist are completely and utterly wrong on their interpretation of the supposed “common carrier prohibition” that prevents the FCC from banning paid prioritization entirely (as long as it is a Title I information service). I wish the FCC had appealed this to the Surpreme Court. But they didn’t. I wish the recent 10th Circuit case affirming the FCC on Intercarrier Compensation Reform had addressed this question and created a circuit split to take up to the Supreme Court. But they didn’t. So I’m stuck saying “I think this is stupid and totally contrary to the statute and Judge Tatel just made it up, but it’s the law until the Supreme Court says otherwise.”

 

I bring this up because, as John Oliver recently told everyone, the FCC has (to use Chairman Wheeler’s words) decided to “accept” the “invitation” of the D.C. Circuit to write new network neutrality rules based on the Court’s opinion in Verizon v. FCC.  That means we will play this case as the ground rules. So any arguments the D.C. Circuit already resolved are now decided as a matter of law. But whereas I — dumb lawyer that I am — accept that I am stuck with whatever ignorant, idiotic or just plain wrong thing the two-judge majority voted for, a lot of other people don’t. They go on spouting the same arguments that the D.C. Circuit already rejected AS IF NOTHING HAD HAPPENED while simultaneously arguing that since the D.C. Circuit struck down the network neutrality rules (which is not, in fact, what the court did), the FCC has no authority to make network neutrality rules (which is the complete opposite of what the court actually said.

I go through my list of “Zombie Anti-Net Neutrality Arguments The D.C. Circuit Already Killed Deaded Than A Dead Man On Dead Day In Deadville” below . . .

 

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Policy, Anecdotes and The Problem of The Black Swan. Why Events Like Comcast/Netflix and Fire Island Matter.

Often in policy debates I find myself facing a broad general statement, such as “Wireless is just as good for everyone as wireline, just look at how the market has adopted it.” Or “ISPs would never block or degrade service because they would lose customers.” Point to a counter example, e.g., “Verizon’s effort to replace wireline with Voicelink on Fire Island was a total flop” or “But Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and other ISPs have deliberately allowed Netflix quality to degrade as a negotiating strategy” and the response is invariably “Oh, that’s just an anecdote and you can’t base rules on anecdotal evidence.”

 

Oddly, this throws most people into a tizzy of confusion because (a) they vaguely remember learning something about anecdotes not being proof or something; (b) everyone always says anecdotes aren’t proof; but (c) the general statement is clearly false based on real world experience. People know that “it’s only an anecdote, therefore it doesn’t count” is a bull$#@! answer, but they can’t explain why. Hence confusion and much bull$#@! going unchallenged in policy.

 

In logic, we refer to this as “The Problem of the Black Swan.” No, this has nothing to do with the somewhat racy but very artsy so that makes it OK movie starring Natalie Portman. And, while it is the inspiration for the book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it actually means something different. “The Problem of the Black Swan” is a demonstration of the problem of reasoning by induction and falsifiabilty. You cannot prove all swans are white just by finding a white swan, but you can disprove all swans are white by finding a single black swan.

 

While I don’t normally use this blog to teach Logic 101 type stuff, application (and misapplication) of the “Problem of the Black Swan” comes up so often that I will delve into this below. By the time we’re done, you will be able to explain to people who pull that “oh, an anecdote isn’t evidence” crap exactly why they are wrong. You’ll also be able to apply the “anecdote rule” properly so that you don’t get caught in any embarrassing errors.

Elucidation below . . .

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Also posted in General, Life In The Sausage Factory | 3 Comments (Comments closed)

Net Neutrality Videos Much More Interesting Than I Could Ever Make.

It’s impossible to keep up all the videos about net neutrality. Heck, I have been delinquent in flogging my own. For example, I have two new “5 Minutes With Harold Feld” videos out: one on what I call “virtual redlining” (about how permitting prioritized content invariably leads to targeting and segmenting audiences in ways that recreate all the usual stereotypes and re-marginalizing traditionally marginalized communities) and this on “rural virtual redlining” (how allowing prioritization further isolates rural and exacerbates the digital divide).

As you can see from the pathetic hit counts if you click through, my personal contributions are a total flop. Why? Because, in my own words, 5 Minutes with Harold Feld takes “insanely complicated and incredibly boring stuff and make it slightly less boring because THIS STUFF IS IMPORTANT.” So even at my most wildly successful, I am only slightly less boring. This apparently does not help much.

However, lots of much more interesting and entertaining people have used the power of online video — and even traditional media — to provide a much less boring perspective. I’m listing my top 5 Internet videos below the break. Please feel free to add links to your favorites in the comment section, assuming you did not fall asleep trying to watch my videos.

Actually interesting Net Neutrality videos below . . .

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Also posted in Censorship Public and Private, How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, International, Series of Tubes | Tagged , | Comments closed

My Handy Guide To The May 15 FCC Meeting: What The Heck Is An Open FCC Mtg And How Does It Work?

Even before Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on possible new net neutrality rules to replace the ones vacated by the D.C. Cir. the May 15 Open Meeting of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) promised to be one of the more important meetings in recent memory.  As a result, it has become one of the more contentious in recent memory as well.

 

In addition to the net neutrality NPRM, we have an Order deciding key issues for the upcoming incentive auction (aka the 600 MHz auction, aka that really complicated thing where we pay broadcasters to get off spectrum they got for free by simultaneously selling it to wireless companies for mobile broadband). This mega item has two fairly important side pieces from my perspective: the future of unlicensed use in the TV broadcast bands (aka the TV white spaces (TVWS) aka “super wifi” aka “engineers will never be allowed to name anything ever again”) and possible limits on how much spectrum any one company can acquire (aka the “no piggies rule” aka spectrum aggregation policies aka “lawyers are not allowed to name anything ever again either”). The TVWS item has its own satellite proceeding about wireless microphones and coexistence between wireless mics and unlicensed use in an ever shrinking broadcast band.

 

So for those of you first timers, and those of you who have gone so long without a contentious FCC meeting you’ve forgotten how it’s done, I’ve prepared this helpful guide on “what is an open FCC meeting and how does it work.”

 

Mechanics of the meeting below . . .

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Tom Wheeler and the Defining Question of Network Neutrality

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler caused quite a stir last week when he circulated a new Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on network neutrality. As reported by the press, the proposed rule moves away from generally prohibiting wireline broadband providers from offering “paid prioritization” (aka Internet “fast lanes”) to explicitly permitting wireline providers to offer paid prioritization subject to conditions designed to guard against anti-competitive and anti-consumer conduct.

 

Needless to say, this pleased just about nobody. Supporters of network neutrality regard paid prioritization as intrinsically anti-competitive and anti-consumer by making the Internet experience dependent on the ‘commercially reasonable’ deals of the network provider rather than the choice of the subscriber. By contrast, opponents of net neutrality oppose any limitations on what ISPs can do as “regulating the internet.” To employ a crude analogy, network neutrality supporters see Wheeler’s proposal as roughly the equivalent of teaching the rhythm method in sex ed, while opponents are outraged that Wheeler would teach anything other than pure abstinence.

 

What Wheeler has done here is to frame the defining question of network neutrality. The upcoming Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) gives those of us who believe that paid prioritization is the opposite of net neutrality and an Open Internet the opportunity to make the case. Even more importantly, Wheeler has now confirmed that the May 15 NPRM will ask whether the FCC needs to reclassify broadband as a Title II “telecommunications service” so that the FCC will have sufficient authority to create real and effective network neutrality rules. (You can see Wheeler’s blog post setting out his proposed approach here, and his aggressive speech in the veritable heart of enemy territory — the 2104 Cable Show in Los Angeles) here.)

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Appreciation: Professor Robert B. Seidman RIP: 1920-2014

On April 3, 2014, the world lost a true giant of the public interest. Professor Robert B. Seidman, of Boston University law school died of heart attack in his home in Milton, MA at age 94. With him was his wife of more than 65 years, co-author, co-professor, and all around partner in every sense of the word, Professor Ann Seidman. You can read a far too abbreviated obituary here, see his CV here, and a list of publications here.  None of these, of course, come even vaguely close to capturing Bob’s importance in the world generally, or in my life personally.

I’ll insert this video here where Bob and Ann explain their work. I try to put some of what Bob did and what he taught me below  . . .


http://youtu.be/iTc5f8Qv-o8

 

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Also posted in General, International | Comments closed

Transcript of Wheeler’s full Statement At FCC Meeting

Because no one else has posted it anywhere, I have transcribed below the relevant portion of Wheeler’s responses to questions at the March 31 FCC Press Conference following the meeting.

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Also posted in Life In The Sausage Factory, Series of Tubes | Comments closed
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