After seven years and at least seven big meetings, nations looked closer than ever to a successful conclusion of the Doha trade round in Geneva this week. But the round collapsed with the finish line seemingly in sight. Not an auspicious event especially given the protectionist and populist surge running through American politics these days.
Here is The Wall Street Journal with a good editorial and news item on what the demise of the Doha free trade round means . . . and how we got here.
We'll be discussing many of these important trade and globalization topics at this year's Aspen Summit taking place August 17-19.
Should it be illegal to text or talk while walking down the road?
When I was growing up in Illinois and Indiana, my friends and family used to make fun of me for always having my nose in a book. Everywhere I went I carried a book--first comics then novels--and was constantly reading while I walked about the neighborhood. [I still do so today, except it's more like nerdy law review articles and government filings these days.] My dad used to always say that if I didn't cut it out that one day I was going fall on my face or, worse yet, get hit by a car.
Luckily that never happened. But I thought of this again today when reading about this new law from my old birth state of Illinois that would ban texting and talking on mobile devices while walking through roadways. The penalty isn't all that steep (just a $25 misdemeanor) and the law certainly is well-intentioned (trying to deter pedestrian injuries / fatalities or traffic accidents), but one wonders if such a law is really needed or if it will accomplish the goal of improving public safety.
As a general matter, I think it's unwise for governments to pass laws protecting people from their own stupidity. But proponents might respond that the measure is equally as important in protecting others from your stupidity. That is, a distracted pedestrian could cause accidents. Therefore, it should be a crime for them to text or talk while crossing a roadway.
The problem with that logic is that it could apply to almost any of the countless other activities one does while walking down the road--including reading a book or article like I often do. Or what about listening to your MP3 player? And, quite frankly, the most distracted moments for me while I am walking involve arguments with my wife and kids! So, there are many distractions in this world and we can't ban them all.
But what if we just banned just this one distraction of texting or talking while walking? Wouldn't that help public safety at least a little bit? Well, we then have to ask about the effectiveness of such a ban. Do you really think you are going to stop the masses from blabbing on their cell phones all day long? Or texting incessantly? Well, good luck with that. It's going to take fines that are a lot stiffer than $25 bucks to have a serious deterrent effect. And you're going to need cops aggressively harassing people at every other corner if you really want to crack down on it.
Which brings up one final point: Is this really a sensible use of law enforcement time? Even minute a law enforcement officer spends policing such activities is a minute they could have spent policing something that represents a more serious threat to public safety.
Thursday morning's "OPEC 2.0" Op Ed in the New York Times by Columbia
Law professor Tim Wu exhorts Americans to "face" their bandwidth
addiction and explore alternative supplies of bandwidth "before it
is too late." One may ask, too late for what? Are we really
in imminent danger? As if characterizing the everyday use of broadband
communications networks an "addiction" was not worrisome enough,
Wu then analogizes bandwidth - what he defines as "the capacity
to move information" - with oil and other finite energy sources
- and paints a dark picture of today's largest bandwidth providers
as greedy monopolists (or duopolists) controlling supply and "maintain[ing]
price levels and extract[ing] maximum profit from their investments"
similar to the OPEC oil ministers setting "production quotas to guarantee
high prices." The problems with Wu's flawed analogies are explored in greater detail by
my colleague Bret Swanson.
Having induced a degree of
fear in the reader, Wu then introduces a note of hope for a better and
alternative world in which one "future possibility is to buy your
own fiber, the way you might buy a solar panel for your home."
Perhaps. But what would this really mean? How many Americans
really want to become their own "network managers," bear the responsibility
for buying their own fiber, or install and maintain their network?
And this is one of the least objectionable suggestions in his piece.
My colleague Adam Thierer has already noted that OPEC is a group of mostly government-run oil companies whereas U.S. broadband service providers are private companies operating in an intensely competitive environment.
Wu bungles another analogy between oil and bandwidth. Wu writes, "Americans today spend almost as much on bandwidth -- the capacity to move information -- as we do on energy....If we aren't careful, we're going to repeat the history of the oil industry by creating a bandwidth cartel" -- implying that bandwidth prices, for lack of competition, are about to skyrocket.
But in the last decade, the nominal price of oil has risen by a factor of 12. In the same time period, the nominal price of U.S. residential bandwidth has dropped by a factor of five or more. Mobile phone bandwidth has dropped in price even more. Thus $10 worth of oil in 1998 now costs around $120. Ten dollars of residential bandwidth in 1998 now costs about $2 or less.
Wu could not have chosen a worse metaphor.
Oil prices are mostly governed by the Fed's monetary policy (not OPEC, yet another Wu blunder), and we don't know which way oil prices are headed. But we know for sure bandwidth prices measured in dollars-per-bit-per-second will continue falling dramatically. The imperial forces of Moore's Law and the equally powerful innovations of fiber-optic, memory, and hard-disk storage technology assure it.
This isn't to say broadband networks are cheap. No, they are very expensive. They will cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next five to 10 years. It is to say silicon and optical technologies are massively productive and will deliver ever greater services at ever lower prices. As Wu states, Americans may actually spend more and more dollars on monthly communications services overall. But per bit, they will be spending dramatically less. All this means is communications is becoming a vastly more important part of our lives.
By all means, let us explore and develop "alternative sources of bandwidth" as Wu desires. Unlike natural resources such as oil, which, while abundant, are at some point finite, bandwidth is potentially infinite. The miraculous microcosmic spectrum reuse capabilities of optical fiber and even wireless radiation improve at a rate far faster than any of our macrocosmic machines and minerals. It is far more efficient to move electrons than atoms, and yet more efficient to move photons. Left unfettered, these technologies will continue delivering bandwidth abundance.
But Wu fools no one with his slight of hand -- attacking a phantom bandwidth "OPEC" -- when his real goal is to establish and further empower his own cartel of scarcity-rationing bandwidth bureaucrats.
Last month I posted a tongue-and-cheek piece thanking policymakers for taking steps to save us from loud TV ads and product placements. The whole thing just strikes me as the height of absurdity; it's a stupid way for regulators to spend their time and it's a complete waste of taxpayer dollars. Backers of such regulations assume that we in the public are little more than ignorant sheep whose minds will be subliminally programmed to want to drink certain colas or drive certain cars just because they saw them in a TV show. Absurd.
The other thing that kills me about this debate is how some people seem to imagine that product placement has somehow come out of nowhere recently and taken over broadcast TV and radio to an unprecedented extent. That's either revisionist history or ignorance of it. The fact is, broadcasting has been filled with product placement for years. Media guru Jack Myers points this out in a good piece on the issue this week:
Those old enough to recall the early days of television news recall that Camel cigarettes and Timex sponsored the NBC News with John Cameron Swayze. On-set signage was prominent. Local radio personalities have always used their relationships with consumers to advance their sponsors' interests.
But it goes way beyond that. For God's sake, has everyone forgotten about the "Texaco Star Theater"? It was the top-rated show of the 1950s, pulling in a stunning 61.6 rating in 1950-51 alone. How did the show begin? Here's how the Wikipedia entry describes it:
On television, continuing a practice long established in radio, Texaco included its brand name in the show title. When the television version launched, Texaco also made sure its employees were featured prominently throughout the hour, usually appearing as smiling "guardian angels" performing good deeds of one or another kind, and a quartet of Texaco singers opened each week's show with the following theme song:
Tim Wu's "Mother-May-I" World of Net Neutrality Regulation
Tim Wu has an absurd piece in today's New York Times comparing America's broadband marketplace to OPEC. This really is quite outrageous, beginning with the fact that OPEC is a GOVERNMENT-RUN cartel. Wu also had a comment in the Washington Post today saying that he didn't think broadband metering was an outrage. Well, that's nice. I'm happy that we have Tim's permission to experiment with new business models for financing broadband networks going forward!
This is indicative of what we can expect in the future once Net neutrality laws get on the books: A world of incessant "Mother may I?" permission-based forms of preemptive Internet regulation. Tim and his radical band of regulatory advocates over at Free Press will incessantly petition the FCC to review each and every business model decision and encourage the unelected bureaucrats at the agency to manage the Internet to their heart's content.
And what does Tim offer for an alternative vision of the way the world should work since he doesn't believe private markets can handle the job? Well, it's back to the Big Government drawing board for more tax-spend-and-subsidize solutions! "Amsterdam and some cities in Utah have deployed their own fiber to carry bandwidth as a public utility," he says. Yeah, that's the promised land. After all, it's working out soooooo well at the municipal level. Please.
NPR spot on Third Circuit decision in Janet Jackson case
I was on NPR's "On the Media" program this weekend discussing the recent Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision striking down the FCC's fines in the "Janet Jackson case." As I noted in this lengthy analysis of the decision, the court said that the agency's recent efforts to expand the parameters of "indecency" enforcement for broadcast programming went too far, too fast. "[T]he FCC's new policy sanctioning 'fleeting expletives' is arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act for failing to articulate a reasoned basis for its change in policy," the Court held.
"On the Media" host Bob Garfield interviewed me for 5 minutes about the decision and its ramifications. The show can be heard here or you can just read the transcript there. Or you can just listen to it by clicking the button below...
Joint FCC Filing on Internet Filtering Plan for AWS-3 Spectrum
This week I was pleased to join a diverse collection of think tanks and public interest groups in submitting joint comments to the FCC opposing the proposed content filtering mandate that would be part of a future AWS-3 auction. That's the proposed auction that would create a "free" nationwide wireless broadband service. As part of the deal, the company would need to need to take steps to provide a "clean" Internet connection by filtering content. This joint filing points out why that is a bad idea:
* the reach of the filtering mandate is extraordinarily broad, and would attempt to censor content far beyond any content regulation regime that has been previously upheld in the face of constitutional challenge.
* even if the scope of the filtering mandate were more narrowly focused, it would conflict with the First Amendment analysis that the Supreme Court applied to Internet access in the seminal Reno v. ACLU decision.
* even if the Commission were to require filtering on an "opt out" or "opt in" basis, the Constitutional problems would not be avoided. Opt-out filtering would impose an unconstitutional burden on listeners and recipients of Internet communications, and both opt-out and opt-in filtering would violate the First Amendment rights of speakers and other content providers on the Internet. Simply put, the First Amendment does not allow a government mandated "blacklist" of websites to be blocked.
* would also violate the terms and intent of two federal statutes - 47 U.S.C. Â§ 326 (which prohibits the Commission from "interfer[ing] with the right of free speech") and 47 U.S.C. Â§ 230 (which promotes user control over content and limits burdens on service providers).
* would also limit what people could do online using the free AWS-3 service so dramatically that the usefulness of the service would be radically reduced.
* would also certainly lead to legal challenges that would delay the implementation of the proposed access service.
Australian ISP-Level Content Filtering Report Released
The Australian government has been running a trial of ISP-level filtering products to determine whether network-based filtering could be implemented by the government to censor certain forms of online content without a major degradation of overall network performance. The government's report on the issue was released today: Closed-Environment Testing of ISP-Level Internet Content Filtering. It was produced by the Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA), which is the rough equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission here in the U.S., but with somewhat broader authority.
What makes ISP-level (network-based) filtering an attractive approach for many policymakers is that, at least in theory, it could solve the problem the Australian government faced with PC-based (client-side) filters: ISP-level filters are more difficult, if not impossible, to circumvent. That is, if you can somehow filter content and communications at the source--or within the network--then you have a much greater probability of stopping that content from getting through. Here's a chart from the ACMA's new report that illustrates what they see as the advantage of ISP-level filters:
Our First Net Neutrality Law: Congrats to our Big Gov't Opponents
It is a difficult thing for me to say, but I am man enough to do it: I must congratulate our intellectual opponents on their amazing victory in the battle to impose Net neutrality regulations on the Internet. With the Wall Street Journalreporting last night that the FCC is on the verge of acting against Comcast based on the agency's amorphous Net neutrality principles, it is now clear that the folks at the Free Press, Public Knowledge, and the many other advocates of comprehensive Internet regulation have succeeded in convincing a Republican-led FCC to get on the books what is, in essence, the nation's first Net Neutrality law. It is quite an accomplishment when you think about it.
Even though, as Jerry Brito has noted, "the FCC has no authority to enforce a non-binding policy statement," it is clear that is not about to stop the activist-minded FCC Chairman Kevin Martin or his allies on the Left from advancing the cause of arbitrary, bureaucratic governance of the Internet. And that means the "Hands Off the Net" era will gradually start giving way to the "Hands All Over the Net" era. As I told Bob Fernandez of the Philadelphia Inquirer when he called to interview me for a story about these developments:
"This is the foot in the door for big government to regulate the Internet," [...] "This is the beginning of a serious regulatory regime. For the first time, the FCC is making law around net neutrality."
And now that they have that foot in the door, I fully expect that it will be exploited for everything it's worth to grow the scope of the FCC's coercive bureaucratic authority over all things digital. The Left is salivating at the prospect of imposing their top-down vision of forced egalitarianism on the the Net, while the Right is figuring out how quickly they can exploit this to impose speech controls on anything they don't want the public to see or hear.
It is a historic moment in the history of communications and media regulation, and freedom has lost---miserably. The tentacles of the regulatory Leviathan have grown infinitely longer and a little bit more of the Net's freedom died today. And, again, what's most amazing about this is that we have a Republican FCC to thank for that. So much for the GOP being for smaller government.