April 23, 2010

Information Superhighway Crossroads (Net Neutrality and the NBP)

Filed under: Corporatism, Freedom, Internet Democracy, Neo-feudalism, Relocalization — Tags: — Russ @ 5:51 am


Earlier this year the FCC announced its National Broadband Plan. Its stated goals are to extend high-speed Internet access throughout the country, in particular to facilitate wireless connections and provide rural service.
They’re promoting this on both democratic and economic grounds.

The plan envisions a fully Web-connected world with split-second access to health care information and online classrooms, delivered through wireless devices yet to be dreamed up in Silicon Valley……..

Mr. Genachowski also argues that broadband expansion can be an economic stimulant, a crucial selling point in a time of high unemployment. “Broadband will be the indispensable platform to assure American competitiveness, ongoing job creation and innovation, and will affect nearly every aspect of Americans’ lives at home, at work, and in their communities,” he said Friday.

Here’s the basic mechanism for achieving this:

According to F.C.C. officials briefed on the plan, the commission’s recommendations will include a subsidy for Internet providers to wire rural parts of the country now without access, a controversial auction of some broadcast spectrum to free up space for wireless devices, and the development of a new universal set-top box that connects to the Internet and cable service.

The effort will influence billions of dollars in federal spending, although the F.C.C. will argue that the plan should pay for itself through the spectrum auctions.

That spectrum auction looks to be the sticking point for the broadcast rackets. Everyone expects them to fight ferociously to hang onto their public sinecure (cap and trade advocates might usefully ponder this corporate view of public property to which they now claim a “right”). This looks to be the main impetus of attack against the NBP itself.
Racketeering is also the existential threat to net neutrality. Corporations who control the transmission system for the Internet (the “pipes”) want to be able to give preferential transmission to websites who pay protection money, while relegating those who can’t pay to the slow, lower-quality transmission ghetto.
Picture how if, even though you pay for telephone service, the phone company could discriminate in the quality of the calls you make or are made to you based upon whether or not the other party also pays, and how much they pay.
Picture your calls to the bank going through loud, fast, and clear, while your calls to a loved one are full of static, or have a delay, or don’t go through at all.
This would further empower and enrich the already-rich and powerful, and disenfranchise everyone else. Just as big money has corrupted democracy in general, here it seeks to destroy online democracy.
That’s what looms on the web if net neutrality isn’t enshrined. Net neutrality is the principle that access racketeers can’t set up this toll booth. That they must treat all transmissions equally. Needless to say, the telecoms – Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, etc. – want to quash the concept and the practice. Again we see the same lies about their alleged “property” and prerogative.
But in fact, as usual public money built the Internet, both the physical and the conceptual infrastructure. The Telecommunications Act provided massive subsidies for the telecoms to perform the new wiring.
Net neutrality has largely been the practice so far, but it’s not enshrined in law. The FCC recently proposed new regulation seeking such enshrinement. But the current Hobbesian state was made clear by a recent decision by the DC Circuit Court. According to them (and it seems this wasn’t an activist decision, but reasonable given the parameters of the technical law) the FCC’s attempts to prevent Comcast from imposing different transmission tiers were an abuse of authority. So even though Comcast has temporarily suspended its plans for PR reasons, legally any access provider is currently free to discriminate among information providers. It can ration access based on ability to pay any level of extortion, and probably on any other ground as well.
Here’s what happened. Until 8/05 the FCC required companies providing high-speed access over telephone lines to give equal access. This is the century-old “common carrier” doctrine. It enabled information innovators from Google right down to the smallest online business to flourish.
But in 2005 the FCC decided that cable Internet service was a bundled “information service” and not similar to phone line service. From this they made the leap to decree that high-speed service as such (regardless of pipe type) was deregulated from the common carrier section of the Communications Act. This accomplished the Bush goal of oligopoly among access providers (many mergers ensued). Meanwhile “prices stayed high and speed slow”. So the first Bush lie here was that deregulation would increase access provider competition.
The second lie was when the FCC claimed that the AOL-model of a gated community Internet would be the main access vehicle, with information providers herded inside the gates. This putative bundling of access and information was the pretext for the deregulation. But in practice broadband has enabled the opposite. Information provision became more unbundled than ever.
So the result is that today we have innumerable information providers vying for space on a handful of pipelines. Since the Bush goal was always to choke off democratic information, this deregulation was a potential win-win. Either they’d be right about the gated information communities, which in themselves could be modes of social and political control. Or if they were wrong, they’d still have laid the groundwork for access racketeering. Either way, the corporate elites would control the information flow, enclose the Internet, destroy online democracy and impose online tyranny.
The FCC claimed at the time that if there were any problems it could continue to regulate under another provision of the act, such as in order to promote competition. But that’s precisely the approach this court decision rejected. It seems that the FCC has no authority to impose such regulation on an “information service”. This decision threatens both the NBP and the FCC’s net neutrality proposals.
The obvious solution, immediately called for by many, would be for the FCC to restore access provision to its original, correct classification as a “telecommunications” service rather than an “information” service as it’s now illegitimately being called, triggering the court’s obstruction. This would put net neutrality and the NBP back on legalistic track, and a court would have to engage in renegade activism to try to block them.
Unfortunately, in subsequent testimony before the Senate FCC chairman Julius Genachowski showed every sign of caving in. He wobbled on reclassification, saying he still thought they had the authority to do whatever they need to do in coexistence with this court decision. This is dubious. Republican Mike Johanns correctly said this sounded bogus, that it looks like the FCC cannot both abide by this decision and impose rigorous net neutrality and NBP regs. So we have to suspect that Genachowski is maneuvering to eventually make the fraudulent “reform” claims with which we’re all too familiar by now. A real NBP will become “the NBP”, and “net neutrality” will be switched in for real net neutrality.
This show of weakness logically brings us back to the conceptual fecklessness of the FCC’s net neutrality proposal in itself. There are several problems with it, indicating that even before this adverse court case the FCC was gearing up to promulgate a very weak version of net neutrality.
The centerpiece of the FCC’s proposed “fifth principle” enshrining net neutrality says: “Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service must treat lawful content, applications, and services in a nondiscriminatory manner.”
Watchdog group Free Press describes the loopholes implicit in this statement. Technically, it says you have the right of access, but says nothing about the quality of the access. So in theory, short of outright blocking anything goes. “Nondiscriminatory” should clearly outlaw all broad areas of discrimination. A new scam of the telecoms is to claim that congestion problems require them to discriminate. Historically, the response of access providers to increased bandwidth use has been to increase capacity (this infrastructure expansion being subsidized by the taxpayers). This has always worked and is what the capitalist textbooks would say should be done. So it’s also what should continue to be done (but without the subsidies). They claim the new problem is something called “exaflood”, which in some inexplicable way can’t be solved with further expansion but only through discrimination. This is a lie. They really just want to use their monopoly to lock down feudal controls and extort protection payments from the information transmitters.
Chris Riley of Free Press says “reasonable network management” can require some discriminatory exceptions, but that these must be clearly delineated. A reasonable network control has to have a real, that is a public interest purpose, and it has to be reasonably executed. Reasonable execution would discriminate only at the congested time, only in the congested geographical region, and would be deployed only as much as was needed to relieve the congestion. Needless to say, the telecoms prefer much broader, blunter powers, because their real goal is feudal monopoly extortion and not relief of congestion in the public interest. The way the FCC proposal is written, the extent of discriminatory loopholes is left vague, and enforcement depends upon the vigilance of the regulator. We know how that always turns out. The rule should clearly specify the limits of temporary access discrimination.
Riley also looks askance at the disclosure exemption written into the “reasonable network management” provision. We hold it democratically necessary that any and all discrimination be fully transparent. But the FCC would not require disclosure for what’s “reasonably required” for users to “enjoy the protections” of this “reasonable management”. Riley says this looks like a Catch-22. Only what’s illegal according to the policy would be required to be disclosed, while what’s “reasonable” (as we saw, a purposely vague concept) wouldn’t have to be.
These weaknesses of the proposed rules demonstrate how we can’t rely on the FCC (so Free press thinks the reclassification idea, relying as it would on continued FCC vigilance, is insufficient; they say we still need legislation – I’d say good luck with that). And it puts in perspective Genachowski’s weak response to the court decision. It seems that from the start the administration’s plan was once again to not only leave the status quo intact, but enshrine it. That’s our Obama.
Meanwhile the NYT recently anointed an argument from the racket flacks themselves as “news fit to print”. This piece objects to even the limited FCC proposal, making instead the same old voluntary market self-regulation lie which has been discredited a thousand times.
The piece is instructive as a clinic in the lies we’ll no doubt be hearing more of.
1. It engages in misdirection, hijacking the term “transparency” for Orwellian purposes.
2. It says the telecoms “innovate” (I bet their executives are “talented” as well), when they in fact do nothing but drag a chain across a river. In truth they stifle real innovation among the information providers.
3. Since in their lying world view it’s the telecom rackets who are the innovators, it follows that net neutrality itself stifles innovation! Did Frank Luntz ghostwrite this after he got done saying a CFPA would further empower the big banks?
4. We have the same old lie that you can trust the good will of the rackets (they “deserve confidence”, according to the piece), that you can “regulate” them minimally, that the government can let the rackets do their thing while policing “abuses”. Such lies have been so overwhelmingly disproven and are so malevolent by now that anyone who still tells them should be driven out of civilization with a whip.
5. And of course they never even glance in the direction of the obvious: Why should we do all this? Why should we run such risks of victimization when such simple, robust solutions are at hand? They’re too cowardly to admit that there’s one and only one reason, to help a parasitic racket extract rents while contributing nothing but cost and complexity. It’s a replay of the health racket bill, whose one and only purpose was to bail out the insurance rackets. We should crucify ourselves on the profit cross of a few gangsters.
Once again we see how we can count on the NYT to produce the pro-racketeering argument.
So as we can see from all this, Internet liberty and democracy is in dire peril. Trusting Obama’s FCC looks like a bad bet, on account of both the weakness and vagueness of its original proposals as well as its anemic irresolution in the face of the adverse court action. But is there any chance of good legislation? That seems even less likely. It looks like two bad options in which the people can repose their confidence. (As for the NYT-endorsed notion of trusting the rackets themselves to do the right thing, we can reject that with all the curt contempt it deserves.)
I guess the only hope is the possibility that the people have become so inured to nondiscriminatory online access that they may spontaneously fight back here in a way they haven’t fought back elsewhere. As I saw one commenter put it in a thread somewhere, “you don’t get between a grandmother and pictures of her grandchildren.” If that’s true, then maybe public backlash can prevent the worst, and public pressure can force something approaching the good. (I know that contradicts what I usually say, but I suppose it’s possible this is a qualitatively different kind of example. Or maybe I’m just in an optimistic mood.)
One thing’s for sure: No matter how many other critical issues people normally ignore, every blogger, and everyone who uses the Internet at all who isn’t rich, needs to be a net neutrality activist.
“Needs to be” – but whether they actually will be is the question.
The tenuousness of Internet freedom, in the face of questions of economic rationing and content censorship, not to mention physical energy and infrastructure issues, is why as part of a general relocalization plan we should think about maintaining and being in the habit of using physical printing presses, especially presses which aren’t hi-tech.
This is an imperative for anyone who’s thinking about a more robust, resilient, decentralized, self-reliant, democratic way of living.
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  1. Russ, soemthing you said in a previous post reminded me of Will Durant: “Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty and dies with chaos.”
    Also from Durant,(paraphrasing), “civilization exists by geographic consent…” If we could keep our geography small “decentralized”, we have a chance of working in the public interest and maintaining our local piece of civilization. It would be advantageous if the Federal Government stuck to its Constitutional directives. (I consider the Internet to be in same vein as the road system—to be expanded and protected for the public good. It is such a rich environment to be exploited, and conversely, such a threat to the looters that they will surely try to milk it with the right hand and, restrict it with the left.)
    Civilization by geographic consent means, if we don’t like the tax structure in MA, NY, NJ, we can move to FL or NH. If we think we might benefit from euthanasia, consider moving to OR. If we are right to life people, move to NE. And more importantly, it may be easier to control the looters if we move to a right to carry state. LOL

    Comment by Jessica — April 23, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    • I forgot to mention that Durant was an anarchist in his younger days. Now if one is a Jeffersonian republican (with a small ‘r’), one is tagged as an anarchist. Evidently, it was not uncommon to be in academia and espouse anarchy in the early part of the 20th century.

      Comment by Jessica — April 23, 2010 @ 11:56 am

  2. I didn’t know Durant was ever an anarchist. I love his Story of Civilization (I own three volumes and might get more one of these days), but his politics aren’t evident from it.

    “Civilization by geographic consent” sure is an evocative phrase, and very true. I basically consider terms like “mass civilization”, “mass politics”, “mass democracy” to be oxymorons.

    It may be true that something like the Internet couldn’t exist without broader political coordination, but that’s where strictly defined levels of federalism should come in. The right level for policy is the lowest practicable one, and in the vast majority of cases that’s the regional or local level.

    Higher-level coordination should only exist in clearly defined contexts. (It’s reminiscent of how incorporation used to exist only for special, publicly important projects that required massive capitalization, and where the charters were limited in time and approved activity.)

    It’s mostly a moot point for now, while the zombie system staggers toward its destiny, but people should be thinking about what can be relocalized in the meantime.

    Comment by Russ — April 23, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

    • I don’t really understand the ideas in your comment here. I’d say the internet *is* what ‘mass democracy’ looks like – where local and global no longer matter. It’s wildly successful because there has been nothing political about it. It is simply infrastructure (a purely technical artifact) where the policy *is* at the lowest possible level – in the hardware and software protocols which allow for the exchange of any information between any parties for any purpose. What ‘broader political coordination’ are you talking about in regards to the formation of the network?

      Now that it does exist, yes, politics will be used to control it. The internet should be a public utility. It’s pathetic how broadband providers behave when people organize to make it so (see http://savencbb.wordpress.com/ & http://www.muninetworks.org/tags-103 for some examples).

      Also note that any re-localization efforts can be accelerated (to a very high degree IMO) by using the global network to share knowledge freely. Be sure to check out Open Source Ecology (http://openfarmtech.org/weblog/) for an example of people working the problem this way.

      Comment by Karl — April 24, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

      • By broader coordination I meant that, for example, if we lived in syndicalist communes, they’d have to get together on something like the Internet. Since the issue was federalism, I was just using that as an example of where a specialized higher level of coordination would be necessary.

        I was using the term mass democracy in a more substantive, less formal, sense than you seem to mean. As much as you and I and others like us participate in the blogosphere, which is a rich participatory democracy, we remain a small minority amid the general corporate wash. If most people go online to become further enmeshed in top-down corporatized centralization (e.g. “participating” in a corporate-sponsored online user-submissions contest is not real participatory democracy, but the astroturfed sham of it), I’d say that’s still heading in the opposite direction of that of true democracy.

        But I agree completely that in principle the Internet can become a great tool on behalf of the public interest and relocalization, if it can be successfully defended against full corporatization. We have a wondrous opportunity to use it to accelerate such efforts.

        A public utility is precisely what it should be.

        Thanks for the links. The Open Source Ecology site looks really interesting.

        Comment by Russ — April 25, 2010 @ 6:01 am

  3. This is OT, but someone has, more or less, the same view that “we” do regarding the essence of Dodd’s financial non reform reform. “Gangster government”, or what Jim Willie refers to as the “Mussolino Fascist Business Model”, that now dominates in the U.S., is exactly right.


    In the meantime the fate of the internet is probably going to most closely resemble the fate of the airwaves. The FCC is about as venal as the SEC.

    Comment by Edwardo — April 25, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

  4. Yeah, it doesn’t look good. Neither the regulatory nor the legislative routes are ever reliable.

    But it seems like here we do need one of those, and can’t just relocalize on our own.

    Can there be such a thing as “ham internet” or “pirate internet”?

    Comment by Russ — April 26, 2010 @ 4:40 am

    • Not an answer to your question, but many months ago I read that Google was developing a second internet.

      In some ways, Google “scares” me more than Comcast. Google knows as much about me as I do. But, on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like if the geeks ran it. Virtual wars, perhaps. Simpler—forget the standard convoluted, patchworked, “complex”— solutions to problems.

      Comment by Jessica — April 26, 2010 @ 8:43 am

  5. (Sorry that my spam filter caught your comments, Jessica. I’m not sure why it sometimes does that with real comments.)

    From what I’ve read and heard, technocrats engage in plenty of patchwork. They call it using “kludges”. (But I’m sure they blame having to do that on stupid managers.)

    Comment by Russ — April 26, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    • Looking at my duplication, I can see the height of arrogance…didn’t say anything very important and said it twice…my bad…maybe I should run for Congress and say the same nothings over and over again until even I believe them. hehe
      I see that your very cogent post on net neutrality didn’t attract many comments, but if connectivity should ever slow like it did in “the good old days” or disappear for even a day, there would be an uproar—“protect our RIGHT to the Internet.” The Internet is so free and unfettered, but I would hate to see any change. You can take my driver’s license, but for heaven’s sake don’t cut off my Internet. It is not that I can’t use a library—I love libraries. I worked as a reference librarian in college. When I lived in Pittsburgh we had a treasure, the Carnegie Library. I could have set up cots in the stacks and moved in. My kids would spend one day every week or so, even as young children, selecting books about everything from ancient Japanese history to knot tying. The library had 40,000 children’s books. The Internet is free, wild and untamed, unlike the library, but so be it. That is why I fear the state will try to control it. First, of course, they will tax it.

      Comment by Jessica — April 26, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

      • That’s what a lot of people predict, and I mentioned that prediction in the post, that if they start screwing around with the Internet Americans will react with less docility than they’ve reacted to everything else.

        Who knows. Surely there has to be a tipping point somewhere.

        I don’t think your comments were arrogant. :) But if you want I can delete one of them.

        Comment by Russ — April 26, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

  6. I posted and the screen went blank. When I refreshed, I noticed my post wasn’t there, so I posted again. Deleting one will make me look less like I have short-term memory impairment. Thanks.

    Comment by Jessica — April 26, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

  7. […] Neutrality/NBP Front Filed under: Internet Democracy,corporatism — Russ @ 9:14 am   A few weeks ago I wrote on the current policy battle over Internet transmission regulation, specifically net neutrality […]

    Pingback by Dispatch From the Net Neutrality/NBP Front « Volatility — May 26, 2010 @ 9:14 am

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