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Ajit Pai's distortion field

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Ajit Pai, Chairman of the FCC, is sowing as much confusion as he can in regard to his plan to eliminate Title II regulation of Internet carriers. His appeal to the conservative base is that the freedom of the Internet is threatened when the carriers through which we pass to reach the Internet are effectively regulated.

The first confusion is to conflate the Internet, a decentralized set of networks under no common, superior management, with the carriers by which we reach the Internet. There were, as of 2016,  54,000 autonomous systems comprising the Internet. By contrast, at any given time there are one, two, maybe three ways of reaching the Internet through local carriers. One set of actors exercizes no market power, the other set does. And Title II regulation under the Communications Act of 1934 acts to countervail this market power, to the extent it is used by the regulator.

The second confusion lies in associating concerns for net neutrality, or common carriage as it used to be known, with socialism and the suppression of free speech. To that end Chairman Pai cites the support of some socialist (there are still a few of them) for net neutrality as the reason why regulation for net neutrality is bad. Among the tens of thousands of people and groups supporting net neutrality regulation, Mr. Pai finds the one wicked commie, and hence the whole project is tainted. (Notice the picture above where goons are protesting Drudge Report and Breitbart as if net neutrality would stifle them. Pai is not the only one sowing confusion).

A group of important Republican senators welcomed Mr. Pai's announcement that the application of Title II legislation was to be reviewed by the FCC.

 

“We have long said that imposing a Depression-era, utility-style regulatory structure onto the internet was the wrong approach, and we applaud Chairman Pai’s efforts to roll back these misguided regulations. Consumers want an open internet that doesn’t discriminate on content and protects free speech and consumer privacy,” said Walden, Thune, Blackburn, and Wicker. “It’s now time for Republicans and Democrats, internet service providers, edge providers, and the internet community as a whole to come together and work toward a legislative solution that benefits consumers and the future of the internet.”

As I have long maintained, freedom of speech is constantly threatened, and from many directions: private economic power, social justice warriors, human rights commissions, political correctness, global warming catastrophists, well-meaning people who think 'something ought to be done'. There is never any lack of people and interests who favour the suppression of speech.

But the question of common carrier status bears only partly on free speech; it also has to do with permissionless innovation, protecting the politically and economically great from the competition coming from the small, with the economic as well as political interests of consumers and citizens.

If the US Congress is serious about maintaining net neutrality, let us see the legislation. At the moment I think it is a sham. I will be happy to be proven wrong. So far it looks like the usual Republican catering to former telephone cable TV companies.

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Afterthought

Over the course of several administrations I have had occasion to wonder why the Republicans seem to have this bias towards carriers versus applications providers, content delivery networks, and the rest of the Internet ecosystem. Is the explanation really just as simple as campaign contributions?

One day years ago I was talking to a US citizen working in Canada in the ISP business. We were discussing why US state legislatures sought to prohibit municipal communications systems. She said the answer was simple: "suitcases full of cash". "How do you know that? - I asked. "Simple" she said. "My husband worked for a large carrier then and he delivered them".

If you think that is extreme and unlikely, you have not been acquainted long enough with how US legislatures work. In the case of net neutrality,  I figure the interested parties can just write a cheque for a legal campaign contribution. Suitcases of cash are just too vulgar, and unnecessary at the federal level.

 

 

 

 

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Timothy Denton is a lawyer by training who practices principally in telecommunications and Internet policy and domain name issues, with a strong concentration on explaining what the technology is and what it means.

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Guest Wednesday, 23 August 2017
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