By Berin Szoka & Adam Thierer
We learned from The Wall Street Journal yesterday that "Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski gets a little peeved when people suggests that he wants to regulate the Internet." He told a group of Journal reporters and editors today that: "I don't see any circumstances where we'd take steps to regulate the Internet itself," and "I've been clear repeatedly that we're not going to regulate the Internet."
We're thankful to hear Chairman Julius Genachowski to make that promise. We'll certainly hold him to it. But you will pardon us if we remain skeptical (and, in advance, if you hear a constant stream of "I told you so" from us in the months and years to come). If the Chairman is "peeved" at the suggestion that the FCC might be angling to extend its reach to include the Internet and new media platforms and content, perhaps he should start taking a closer look at what his own agency is doing--and think about the precedents he's setting for future Chairmen who might not share his professed commitment not to regulate the 'net. Allow us to cite just a few examples:
First, Chairman Genachowski seems to believe that "the Internet" is entirely distinct from the physical infrastructure that brings "cyberspace" to our homes, offices and mobile devices. The WSJ notes, "when pressed, [Genachowski] admitted he was referring to regulating Internet content rather than regulating Internet lines." OK, so let's just make sure we have this straight: The FCC is going to enshrine in law the principle that "gatekeepers" that control the "bottleneck" of broadband service can only be checked by having the government enforce "neutrality" principles in the same basic model of "common carrier" regulation that once applied to canals, railroads, the telegraph and telephone. But when it comes to accusations of "gatekeeper" power at the content/services/applications "layers" of the Internet, the FCC is just going to step back and let markets sort things out? Sorry, we're just not buying it.
Chairman Genachowski may sincerely believe that a clear, bright line can be drawn between the "infrastructure layer" (which he's certainly going to regulate) and what he likes to think of as "the Internet" (which he promises not to regulate). But as we warned last October, the day after the FCC launched this NPRM:
The promise made yesterday by the FCC--to only apply neutrality principles to the infrastructure layer of the Net--is hollow and will ultimately prove unenforceable. The reality is that regulation always spreads. The march of regulation can sometimes be glacial, but it is, sadly, almost inevitable: Regulatory regimes grow but almost never contract... The basic premise of neutrality regulation is already being proposed for other layers of the Internet.... whatever the FCC might say today, any large online intermediary with a popular platform potentially faces the threat of "network neutrality" mandates--because every platform is essentially a "network," too. We're not just talking about "search neutrality" (Google as well as Microsoft) but also about "device neutrality" (mobile handsets), "app neutrality" (Apple's iTunes store, Facebook's developers and Google's Android mobile OS) and so on for social networking, email, instant messaging, online advertising, etc.
The promotion of network neutrality is no different than the challenge of promoting fair evolutionary competition in any privately owned environment, whether a telephone network, operating system, or even a retail store. Government regulation in such contexts invariably tries to help ensure that the short-term interests of the owner do not prevent the best products or applications becoming available to end-users.
It's no less clear why we'll wind up marching down that path, no matter what the current FCC leadership intends.
If that title sounds melodramatic, take a step back and consider that, back in 1996, Congress decided to enshrine in law the principle that the Internet is different from traditional media: Apart from an ill-considered effort to censor online indecency and obscenity (which was quickly struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional) and the enforcement of intellectual property and criminal laws, Congress decided to take a purely laissez-faire approach to the Internet. As Barbara reminded the Commission in her net neutrality filing, "Section 230(b)(2) flatly declares that it is the policy of the United States ― to preserve the vibrant competitive free market that presently exits for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation."
So Chairman Genachowski's decision to revert to the common carrier model of the railroad era marks a fundamental break with the approach Congress decided we would take to the Internet. The DC Circuit will likely soon rule that the FCC has vastly overstepped its authority in trying to set Internet policy without any clear grant of authority from Congress to do so.
As other approaches, such as cloud computing, evolve, will established standards or de facto standards become more important to the applications development process? For example, can a dominant cloud computing position raise the same competitive issues that are now being discussed in the context of network neutrality? Will it be necessary to modify the existing balance between regulatory and market forces to promote further innovation in the development and deployment of new applications and services?
When considering the portability of data, we also consider the processes through which data are moved. In this context, we seek comment on how to identify and understand cloud computing as a model for technology provisioning.... What types of cloud computing exist (e.g., public, hybrid, and internal) and what are the legal and regulatory implications of their use? ... To what extent are consumers protected by industry self-regulation (e.g., the Cloud Computing Manifesto), and to what extent might additional protections be needed? ... What specific privacy concerns are there with user data and cloud computing? What precautions should government agencies take to prevent disclosure of personal information when providing data? Is the use of cloud computing a net positive to the environment? Are there specific studies that quantify the environmental impact of cloud computing?
Open-ended inquiries about new regulations are the path to the Dark side.
Inquiries lead to agency oversight.
Agency oversight leads to regulation.
Regulation leads to suffering for innovators and consumers alike.
While there is a lot of talk about networks and emergence from the top American technologists, in truth, most of them are hoping to thrive by controlling the network that everyone else is forced to pass through. Everyone wants to be a "Lord of a Computing Cloud."
Chairman Genachowski's flurry of open-ended inquiries about new regulation are clearly intended to give a bully pulpit to regulatory advocates to demand that the FCC issue the very sort of Internet regulations the Chairman purports to abhor (or that Congress give the agency authority to do so). But most of these notices at least appear to be objective requests for comments written independently of the groups the Commission seems so eager to hear beg for Internet regulation. But in this case, the Commission dispensed with that tedious formality and just outsourced the writing of the inquiry itself to one of the outside groups clamoring the loudest for data regulation in the name of "privacy": our friends at the Center for Democracy & Technology, with whom PFF has worked closely on many free speech issues in the past.
CDT is on to something when they write that "Consumers will not embrace broadband if they have a sense that everything they do online will be watched by government officials." We'll join with them in the fight to protect consumers' privacy from the Real Big Brother--government!--but once again, as with net neutrality, advocates of regulation see government as the protector of our digital liberties (if only we can forever make sure noble civil-libertarians are in charge of the regulatory apparatus of the state!). So CDT has it exactly backwards when they say: "Consumer privacy concerns encompass not only what companies do with their data, but also the extent to which the government accesses it." And instead of just suggesting that the FCC's National Broadband Plan include a recommendation that Congress clean up the antiquated laws intended to limit government surveillance, CDT pushes for sweeping regulations that would affect the ability of most online services and sites to collect and use the data they need to improve their services, innovate, and maybe even try to make some money on advertising to support all the free content and services they give away.
Thus, instead of focusing on the clear harm from government, the FCC's outsourced inquiry goes after online operators as "privacy proxies" for concerns about government action. At least Congress actually asked for the FCC's recommendations in this case, unlike all the other inquiries the agency has launched sua sponte. But as Berin noted in his comments on this inquiry, the Recovery Act allowed the FCC to "recommend only those policies that it concludes will, on net, help achieve "affordability" and 'maximum utilization' of broadband." That means the Commission would actually have to consider the many trade-offs inherent in the private sector use of data before recommending regulation: If the Internet ecosystem is impoverished by government intervention, however well-intentioned it may be, users will have that much less reason to adopt and "utilize broadband." So the FCC would have a lot of cost-benefit analysis to do before it could actually make the kinds of regulatory recommendations CDT wants. And we suspect that, on the whole, that analysis wouldn't turn out the way CDT thinks it would.
The proceeding raises the prospect of what Adam has called "convergence era content regulation" since it opens the doors to FCC meddling on a number of new fronts in the name of "protecting children." Although the Commission's final report to Congress stopped short of calling for an substantive expansion of the agency's content regulatory regime, it teed up another proceeding, discussed next. (And if Congress hasn't moved more quickly to grant the FCC new power in this area, it's probably because they're busy trying to figure out how to get around a line of First Amendment cases that consistently require government regulation to yield to "less restrictive" alternatives like parental control tools and education.)
The Commission mentions only in passing at the very end of the Inquiry that it "has varying degrees of statutory authority with respect to different media. We ask commenters, in proposing any action, to discuss the source and extent of the Commission's authority to take the action, or whether new legislation would be needed to authorize such action" (¶ 58). Translation: "Uh, yeah... so... we know we don't have a statutory leg to stand on here, but we think it'd be really cool if we did, so let's just all, you know, kinda brainstorm about what kind of regulation we could be imposing here and what kind of law we'd need get Congress to pass to make it all legal. Or if you have any creative ideas on how we could get away with just making up the jurisdiction thing on our own, that'd be even better!"
YouTube, you're first on the list of targets for the kind of online video regulation the FCC is hinting at here--and none too subtly. But why stop there? The FCC's laundry list of complaints aren't limited just to video, but could apply to essentially all online media. But this is all in the name of "protecting the children," and Chairman Genachowski doesn't want to regulate the Internet, so we really don't need to worry--right?
In particular, the Commission comes right out with a "trial balloon" about imposing public interest obligations on online operators--the very thing it hinted at slightly more delicately in the "Empowering Parents" inquiry mentioned above:
Broadcasters have certain public interest obligations, including that they provide programming responsive to the needs and issues of their communities and comply with the Commission's children's programming requirements. Cable and satellite operators have their own responsibilities... Should such obligations be applied to a broader range of media or technology companies, or be limited in scope?
Of course, we don't mean to suggest that even the "Federal Cloud Commission" would ever be so unsubtle as to create a formal licensing system when they can probably achieve the same ends with far less obvious regulation. But how is this all going to work, exactly? Again, this is exactly the kind of hopelessly vague regulatory morass Congress had in mind when it declared that the federal government would avoid "fettering" the "vibrant competitive free market ... for the Internet and other interactive computer services" with regulation.
The FCC goes on to revive the kinds of broad net neutrality ideas discussed above in asking:
How would policies related to "open Internet" or "universal broadband" or other FCC policies about communications infrastructure affect the likelihood that the Internet will meet the information needs of communities? Are there search engine practices that might positively or negatively affect web-based efforts to provide news or information?
Finally, the Commission opens the door to the noxious proposal for a "public option" for media, which Adam has lambasted. Here's what the Commission says:
In general, what categories of journalism are most in jeopardy in the digital era? What categories are likely to flourish? While much is still to be determined as media companies test various business models and payment approaches in the coming years, based on what is known now, are there news and information needs that commercial market mechanisms alone are unlikely to serve adequately?
We'd all do well to remember that subsidies always come with strings attached--namely, regulation. That's the Golden Rule: "He who has the gold, makes the rules!"
What will future Chairmen do with these precedents? What will emerge from every "Pandora's Box" you've opened with each new sweeping inquiry? The answer, we fear, is an endless parade of new Internet regulations--and the death by a thousand cuts of real Internet freedom.