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Why Platform Regulation Is Both Necessary and Hard.

This is the first blog in a series on regulating digital platforms.

 

As digital platforms have become increasingly important in our everyday lives, we’ve recognized that the need for some sort of regulatory oversight increases. In the past, we’ve talked about this in the context of privacy and what general sorts of due process rights dominant platforms owe their customers. Today, we make it clear that we have reached the point where we need sector-specific regulation focused on online digital platforms, not just application of existing antitrust or existing consumer protection laws. When platforms have become so central to our lives that a change in algorithm can dramatically crash third-party businesses, when social media plays such an important role in our lives that entire businesses exist to pump up your follower numbers, and when a multi-billion dollar industry exists for the sole purpose of helping businesses game search engine rankings, lawmakers need to stop talking hopefully about self-regulation and start putting in place enforceable rights to protect the public interest.

 

That said, we need to recognize at the outset that a lot of things make it rather challenging to  figure out what kind of regulation actually makes sense in this space. Although Ecclesiastes assures us “there is nothing new under the sun,” digital platforms combine issues we’ve dealt with in electronic media (and elsewhere) in novel ways that make applying traditional solutions tricky. Before diving into the solution, therefore, we need to (a) define the problem, and (b) decide what kind of outcome we want to see.

 

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Also posted in Digital Platforms, Life In The Sausage Factory, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Comments closed

FCC Tells You About Your Phone Transition — Y’all Might Want To Pay Attention.

I’ve been writing about the “shut down of the phone system” (and the shift to a new one) since 2012. The FCC adopted a final set of rules to govern how this process will work last July. Because this is a big deal, and because the telecoms are likely to try to move ahead on this quickly, the FCC is having an educational event on Monday, September 26. You can find the agenda here.

 

For communities, this may seem a long way off. But I feel I really need to evangelize to people here the difference between a process that is done right and a royal unholy screw up that brings down critical communication services. This is not something ILECs can just do by themselves without working with the community — even where they want to just roll in and get the work done. Doing this right, and without triggering a massive local dust-up and push-back a la Fire Island, is going to take serious coordinated effort and consultation between the phone companies and the local communities.

 

Yes, astoundingly, this is one of those times when everyone (at least at the beginning), has incentive to come to the table and at least try to work together. No, it’s not going to be all happy dances and unicorns and rainbows. Companies still want to avoid spending money, local residents like their current system that they understand just fine, and local governments are going to be wondering how the heck they pay for replacement equipment and services. But the FCC has put together a reasonable framework to push parties to resolve these issues with enough oversight to keep any player that participates in good faith from getting squashed or stalled indefinitely.

 

So, all you folks who might want to get in on this — show up. You can either be there in person or watch the livestream. Monday, September 26, between 1-2 p.m. For the agenda, click here.

 

Stay tuned . . .

Also posted in PSTN Transition, Series of Tubes, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Comments closed

The Summer Blockbuster Return/Reboot You Are All Waiting For Teaser Trailer Release!!!

Some of you may recall that many years ago I would occasionally show up on a video from my employer called “5 Minutes With Harold Feld.” I would use my clever wit and style to produce informative videos on pressing telecom issues with amazing low budget special effects. Like Troy McClure, you may remember me from such classics as “ACTA Recommendation: Ditch the Crazy Stuff” and “Special Access — Too Special To Be Competitive?

For those who have missed a low-budget YouTube show about incredibly mindnumbingly boring things that I try to make slightly less boring because THIS STUFF IS IMPORTANT, I have great news! We are rebooting 5 Minutes With Harold Feld! And, I will now wear a bow-tie, because bow-ties are cool.

Why? Because it is summer time, and time for the remakes and the reboots to roll! Also, we got a cool new camera at PK. Which bring me too —

THE MOST AWESOME AMAZING TEASER TRAILER FOR A 5 MINUTE POLICY YOUTUBE SHOW EVAR!!!

Wasn’t that totally awesome? I could totally hear the folks doing the Star Wars trailer gnashing their teeth in jealousy.

The Mandatory Social Media Tie In To Make This Feel All Interactive and Stuff! #ASKFELD

Like all manufactured marketing campaigns attempting to go viral, we have a hashtag for you so you can ask your own telecom and tech policy questions which I will answer at the end of the episode. And yes, my faithful Trolls, I will try to answer some of your ridiculous troll questions too, in the spirit they are given. Because y’all know I love my little catnip troll toys. So go to the Public Knowledge Facebook page, or Tweet your question with the #ASKFELD hashtag, and I just might actually answer it.

Remember #ASKFELD

Stay tuned . . .

Also posted in Tales of the Sausage Factory | 2 Comments (Comments closed)

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 Life In The Sausage Factory, Tales of the Sausage Factory | 3 Comments (Comments closed)

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 International, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Comments closed

Our RSS Feed Is Back!

A number of folks have asked me for awhile what happened to our RSS feed. I recognize that because we post infrequently here (damn you, life, for getting in the way of my blogging!) having an RSS feed really helps people to know when we’ve added something.

The answer is that Wetmachine is kept going on the technical side by the voluntary efforts of Gary Gray and John Sundman. Because of various problems, we needed to migrate Wetmachine awhile ago from one hosting company to another and make various other changes. As a result, the RSS plug in we were using broke. Making sure the site actually worked and stayed up and running took priority over finding a new RSS plug in, and it took Gary awhile to find a plug in that would work with the new site.

In any event, thanks to Gary’s hard work, you can now once again ensure that you will never miss another article by following the side bar on the right down to the RSS button. Please do. Also, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter, because Lord knows you can now follow individual air molecules on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Stay tuned . . . .

 

 

 

 

Also posted in Tales of the Sausage Factory | Comments closed

Ten Years Of Tales of the Sausage Factory — What Snarky Trip It’s Been

December 2013 brings two important anniversaries for the world of telecom policy. First, December 19 marks the 100th anniversary of the Kingsbury Commitment, the letter from American Telephone and Telegraph Vice President Nathan Kingsbury to to the U.S. Attorney General offering to settle the antitrust action against AT&T by allowing interconnection for all surviving rival phone companies (which by that time mostly meant companies in rural areas AT&T did not want to buy) and supporting the concept of universal service. (text here)

 

Second, December 10 marks the tenth anniversary of when I started doing this blog, Tales of the Sausage Factory.

 

Stipulated the first has had much greater impact on telecom policy, but I like to think we here at Wetmachine have done our bit as best we can.   For those curious, here is a link to my first ever post, although I actually think this over here (which quickly follows) remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever written about telecom policy (mind you, this is not a hard bar to meet).

 

A few nostalgic reflections and links to my favorite posts below, as well as seeking reader advice on what to do going forward . . .

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Also posted in Tales of the Sausage Factory | 4 Comments (Comments closed)

Free Event on IP Transition In Boston Next Tuesday. Come Hear Me Preach.

Next Tuesday, December 3, the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable will hold a free event open to the public about the whole “transition of the telephone system thing” I keep going on about. As you can see from this flyer here, the event will run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Suffolk University Law School. I’ll be speaking on the last panel — which is generally where the “consumer stuff” gets stuck.

 

As you can also note from the flyer, the list of speakers is practically indistinguishable from a similar event here in D.C., except the moderators are local. So if you have attended any of the various events on this subject here in D.C. in the last 6 months, you are unlikely to miss anything. On the flip side, if you are local to Boston, then you bloody well ought to show upWe’re talking about the future of your phone service.

 

Stay tuned . . .

Also posted in Series of Tubes, Tales of the Sausage Factory | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

Chairwoman Clyburn Shows How It’s Done — Doing The Job On Prison Phone Rate Reform

Today was an extremely emotional meeting at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). After ten years of fighting, the FCC resolved the Petition filed by Martha Wright and concluded that the rates charged for prisoners to make and receive phone calls are “unjust and unreasonable” and therefore violate Section 201 of the Communications Act. The FCC imposed interim rates and issued a further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to ensure that rates going forward are based on actual cost to provide service, not jacked up outrageously because prisoners and their families have no choice. Importantly, the FCC ruled that the “commissions” (aka kickbacks) paid to jails for the right to exploit the helpless and profit from the misery of their families are not a “cost” that can be recovered. (FCC press release here.)

 

As you can tell from the above, I feel rather strongly about this. I have written before that I regard this as a case where the words of Isaiah 1:17 and Zachariah 7:10 apply. I also find it of great significance that this is Shabbas Shoftim, the Sabbath on which we read the portion of the book of Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 (called “Shoftim,’ judges, because it begins with “Judges and officers shall you give yourselves in all your gates that the Lord shall give unto to dwell in, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgement.”) Specifically, Verse 16:20 enjoins the people “Justice, Justice shalt though pursue! ”

 

It has been a privilege to support the efforts and advocacy of so many of my friends. I dare not begin to list, because I would invariably leave someone out. The level of organization work in the field, meshing with advocacy efforts at the FCC and on the Hill, has been astounding.  For years, this proceeding went in fits and starts, constantly delayed, because who cares about the incarcerated and their families? Out of sight, ignored, and generally regarded with suspicion. So their cause was neglected and ignored — until then-Commissioner Clyburn became a champion for it in the FCC and breathed new life into our efforts.

 

Today, Chairwoman Clyburn gave justice. Justice to the Wright Petitioners, and to every family trying desperately to maintain basic contact with incarcerated loved ones. The promise of the Rule of Law is that the benefit of law applies to ALL. The promise of Section 201 of the Communications Act for 75 years has been that everyone is entitled to just and reasonable rates, no matter who you are or where you are. Section 1 of the Act promises to secure the benefit of the Act to “all Americans.

Today the FCC affirmed that all Americans means ALL Americans. Even the most powerless, even those being punished for crimes, are still people protected by the rule of law. Their families are still people, entitled to depend upon the rule of law to protect them from the cruel choice of talking to their father, son, granddaughter or paying for basic necessities because a phone call that normally costs pennies costs the families of prisoners more than $15 for a few minutes.

Today, the FCC, under the leadership of Chairwoman Clyburn, stood up and did its job. it found exhorbitant prison phone rates unjust and unreasonable, mandated an interim cap, and issued a notice of further rulemaking to ensure that future rates are cost-based.

To quote from scripture one last time. “It is from the Lord, and it is wondrous in our eyes. Behold the Day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and make merry!” (Psalms 118)

Finally, this is a reminder of what can happen when people in power have the courage to do their job. Govornment and regulation CAN protect the helpless. People demanding justice CAN make a difference. A “government bureaucrat” like Chairwoman Clyburn CAN be a champion for justice for the oppressed and it DOES matter.

How much greater the shame, then, to those in government who refuse to act when needed? Or those who cynically refuse to believe anything we common folk do can make a difference?

To you handwringers, and you shruggers of shoulders, I tell you this: the problem is not with “the system.” The problem is YOU.

Stay tuned . . . .

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

Is Sauce for the .Halal Goose Sauce for the .Kosher Gander At The ICANN Meeting In Durban?

A rather peculiar circumstance has come to my attention over the new generic top level domain (gTLD) process currently chugging along at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). As is so often the case with such things, it is at the same time both trivial and highly illustrative of the problem of dealing with a global medium where symbols have semantic meaning as well as functionality.

 

It also highlights the bind for the U.S. Government. Other governments are free to weigh in on behalf of various orgs and groups that petition them for help, if those governments so choose. The U.S., because if its relationship with ICANN, faces serious political problems if it weighs in with regard to TLD policy. This does not preclude the U.S. from acting if it wants (as folks who remember the .XXX controversy will recall). Nevertheless, for the U.S. to preserve the integrity of the process and avoid accusations of meddling, it needs to tread very cautiously before wading in on behalf of any specific TLD or objection.

 

All of which brings us to the current case. It involves the treatment of two proposed gTLDs, “.kosher” and “.halal.” They have similar meanings to their respective communities, and similar concerns arise from allowing their use. We can certainly say to both communities “sorry, but nothing requires you to respect the designation of the gTLD manager, so just learn to live with it.” Alternatively, we might say “these TLDs raise some questions that impact these communities disproportionately, lets deal with them differently than from regular applications.” But it would be hard to justify treating the terms differently from a principled standpoint. the objections to one apply equally to the other — or not.

 

There is, however, a rather important political difference: there are about ten to twenty times more people in the world who (potentially)  care about .halal than care about .kosher.  in fact, there are probably more people in the city of Cairo who would care if .halal were held by a Shia rather than a Sunni than there are people in the world who care if .kosher is held by someone who holds by chalav yisroel or not. (The vast majority of the world, of course, does not even know what the last sentence even means.)

 

Also, as discussed below, while certain governments have voiced objections in the ICANN Government Advisory Committee (GAC) have voiced objections to the .halal TLD, no one has for .kosher. (Israel does not participate in the GAC, for those who jumped to the next logical question.) This has prompted the kosher organizations objecting to the .kosher TLD application to send letters to Commerce Secretary Pritzker, as well as ICANN Chair Fadi Chehade asking for reassurance that .kosher and .halal will be treated the same. While there is no indication that they won’t, we Jews do not take equal treatment for granted (it’s a history thing, got an hour for me to explain it? No? So trust me on this . . .) As noted above, this potentially puts the U.S. in something of a bind.

 

Which brings me to the peculiar story of .kosher and the question of whether it will or will not be treated like .halal. Because whatever the actual outcome, it would be nice to think that the two communities will be treated with equal fairness regardless of size or political clout. I mean, no one really expects it, but it would be nice.

 

More below . . . .

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Also posted in Series of Tubes, Tales of the Sausage Factory | 2 Comments (Comments closed)
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