There’s an old saying that goes “when it rains, can’t fix the roof; when it don’t rain, the roof don’t need fixin.’” That rather sums up most efforts at government reform. When you’re out of power, you can’t really do anything about it. When you’re in power, it turns out things don’t really need fixing. So no shocker that Joe Barton (R-TX), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, joined by Mr. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), ranking member of the Telecom Subcommittee, have decided to introduce an FCC reform bill now that (a) Democrats control Congress, and (b) Democrats control the FCC. You can find the press release here and the full bill text here.
If political expediency were a mortal sin, however, nothing would ever get done. So it is not enough to simply note that politicians of either party are more apt to want reform when they are on the outside. It is important to examine the bill in its own right. Given that a lot of folks in both parties and in the public interest community would like to see some longstanding issues corrected, and I have opined on the matter myself from time to time, it’s important to consider whether the Barton-Stearns bill makes a good start and a basis for going forward. Remember, we want functional government. If out of power Rs are now in the mood to address real issues and get substantive stuff done, the thing to do is make it easy for them to work together with Ds. Perhaps it will become a habit. OTOH, as Ds have learned over the last several month, agreement for the sake of agreement is not worth doing.
My personal feeling after a quick read is that this bill is not a bad place to start on some long-standing procedural gripes, but that there are a couple of things that worry me.
Details below . . . .
While killing time waiting for the Nov 4 meeting to start FCC Chair Kevin Martin discussed the recently opened investigation into cable pricing. To the surprise of those who conceive of Martin as simply having a “vendetta” against cable, the list of companies getting notices about the investigation included Verizon. OTOH, it did not include AT&T. Needless to say, the “Martin can do no good because he is EEEEVVVVVIIIIIIIIIIILLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!” crowd hit on this as proof that Martin is merely doing the bidding of his telco masters (Verizon having been added to the investigation merely for protective coloring).
Well, I’ve given my views on Kevin Martin repeatedly. As I have said time and again, I may disagree with him a lot, but I don’t think he is an industry shill. He does what he thinks is right and the devil with the consequences. While this has its disadvantages, notably his managing to piss off the other four Commissioners and thus secure for himself a series of policy set backs and rack up a record of number of votes actually lost by the Chairman, it does mean I tend to look for an explanation that goes beyond “Martin is a bastard 24/7 and therefore this is part of an evil plot.”
Here, I think the non-AT&T conspiracy theory answer is fairly straightforward. It has to do with the particular practice the FCC is investigating — forcing customers to migrate to digital. As AT&T does not seem to be behaving in the same way as the named cable operators that got letters from the Enforcement Bureau, they are not being investigated.
OTOH, even if the FCC does find evidence of deceptive advertising practices or anticompetitive conduct, it may lack authority to act.
Thoughts below . . . .
Well, there is nothing new under the sun. Unsurprisingly, the few folks that did pick up on the Cyren Call story focused on the denial in bold type and completely ignored the stuff in the fine print. This by Richard Koman is typical.
OTOH, given that Cyren Call has been in a bunch to the FCC, I don’t think anyone important is fooled. Moving forward, the FCC will need to give some clear guidance on what it expects for PSST and its agents. As Morgan O’Brien observed, this will be a good thing.
Jim Harper at Technology Liberation Front pinged me (sort of) to comment on reports that anyone who subscribes to Verizon’s FIOS broadband service who mistypes a domain name will now land on a Verizon search page. So, for example, trying to get to i-want-sprint-cell-phones.com will land you on a a page like this (my thanks to ace domain name practitioner John Berryhill for capturing this in a screen shot and putting it up on his web page). Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that Cox cable is also interfering with BitTorrent uploads, although at least Cox has the intelligence to admit from the start that it actively manages traffic, rather than go through several rounds of idiotic denials like Comcast (which is probably why the Cox issue is getting a lot less notice).
1) I ain’t that excited about the Verizon DNS redirection in the grand scheme of things. Yes, it breaks end-to-end, and I’m not happy about it. But unlike traffic shaping, this development was foreseen and approved of by the FCC and the Supreme Court in the Brand X case when both pegged DNS as the thing that made broadband access an “information service” and therefore free from pesky regulation. At least Verizon’s redirection doesn’t actually hurt the average user.
2) OTOH, it does raise serious privacy issues and highlights the general problems of letting the ISPs control all of this. There was, after all, a reason we regulated telcos and cable cos to keep user information private. It also starts to raise a very troubling question — what happens when network operators and application developers learn to distrust all the basic protocols under which the ‘net operates? It works fine for the first few guys. But what holds this together is everyone agreeing on a set of basic protocols. Eliminate the trust in those protocols, and things start to break down.
3) Some folks that gave a great big yawn to Comcast’s traffic shaping have gone ballistic over messing with DNS lookup. But both are natural consequences of turning this stuff over to ISPs. Folks who hate the thought of even limited government regulation of network management but also hate the thought ISPs messing with DNS and other protocols have some tough choices ahead.
Thoughts below . . . .
As I demonstrated last fall when I predicted a Kerry victory, my powers of prognostication are nothing to write home about. OTOH, I suppose this demonstrates the wisdom of the old saw that you ca’t judge an outcome by oral argument.
We lost Brand X by 6-3. Interesting split that put Scalia and Thomas on opposite sides but, as I have observed in the past, telecom issues do not fall into the neat conservative/liberal divisions everyone is so fond of making.
Grokster also went the other way, with the Court not even remanding for trial.
I will have more later when I have read the decisions. Right now I’m trying to sort things out.
Stay tuned . . .
“Battlin’ the bastards is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.” Jim Hightower, from his keynote speech at the MRC, May 14, 2005.
Sascha Meinrath has this blog posting on how Motorola’s acquisition of MeshNetworks is a prime example of corporate welfare gone wild. Of course, in D.C., we call this “the circle of life”. Taxpayers, however, may see it as the Circle of Jerk.
It is unclear to me if Motorola, one of the fiercest foes of expanding unlicensed access, is simply trying to take out a competitor or hedge a bet. I do not expect their filings to change — in fact,I expect them to leverage MeshNetworks as a means of undermining manufacturing comments from folks like Tropos. OTOH, FCC staff are not stupid, and understand how industry filings work.
Stay tuned . . .