WSJ invents fictional Net Neutrality scandal

Lessig's got a great piece up about the Wall Street Journal's non-story about a fictional shift in his position on Net Neutrality (and on Google trying to site local caching servers in some network operators' operations servers):
As I testified in 2006, in my view that minimal strategy right now marries the basic principles of “Internet Freedom” first outlined by Chairman Michael Powell, and modified more recently by the FCC, to one additional requirement – a ban on discriminatory access tiering. While broadband providers should be free, in my view, to price consumer access to the Internet differently – setting a higher price, for example, for faster or greater access – they should not be free to apply discriminatory surcharges to those who make content or applications available on the Internet. As I testified, in my view, such “access tiering” risks creating a strong incentive among Internet providers to favor some companies over others; that incentive in turn tends to support business models that exploit scarcity rather than abundance. If Google, for example, knew if could buy a kind of access for its video content that iFilm couldn’t, then it could exploit its advantage to create an even greater disadvantage for its competitors; network providers in turn could deliver on that disadvantage only if the non-privileged service was inferior to the privileged service.
The made-up dramas of the Wall Street Journal

Update: David Isenberg does a hell of a job explaining, in detail, how the WSJ majorly blew this one.

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  1. Larry’s server’s fallen over — here’s the text of the post:

    I got off the plane from Boston to find my inbox filled with anger about an article in the Wall Street Journal. To those who were angry, I hope you will direct any anger at the Wall Street Journal after you read what follows.

    The article is an indirect effort to gin up a drama about a drama about an alleged shift in Obama’s policies about network neutrality. What’s the evidence for the shift? That Google allegedly is negotiating for faster service on some network pipes. And that “prominent Internet scholars, some of whom have advised President-elect Barack Obama on technology issues, have softened their views on the subject.”

    Who are these “Internet scholars”? Me. And of course, because I have “softened” my views about network neutrality, and because I advised the Obama campaign about technology issues during the primary, it follows (and obviously so) that Obama too must be going soft on network neutrality.
    I don’t know what Google is doing, though if they are trying to negotiate exclusive deals for privileged access, that shows exactly why we need network neutrality regulation. (Though note, the article doesn’t say the deal Google was striking was exclusive).

    And I’ve not seen anything during the Obama campaign or from the transition to indicate it has shifted its view about network neutrality at all.

    But I do know something about my own views, and what the Journal has done here is really extraordinary.

    It is true, as the Journal reports, that I have stated that network providers should be free to charge different rates for different service — “so long,” the Journal quotes, “as the faster service at a higher price is available to anyone willing to pay it.”

    But the whole punch of the story comes from the suggestion that my position is something new. As the Journal states,

    Lawrence Lessig, an Internet law professor at Stanford University and an influential proponent of network neutrality, recently shifted gears by saying at a conference that content providers should be able to pay for faster service.

    And:

    Stanford’s Mr. Lessig, for one, has softened his opposition to variable service tiers.

    Missing from the article, however, is the evidence that my view is a “shift” or “soften[ing]” of earlier views. That’s because there isn’t any such evidence. My view is the view I have always had — whether or not it is the view of others in this debate.

    For example, in April, 2008, I testified before the Senate Commerce Committee. This is what I said:

    As I testified in 2006, in my view that minimal strategy right now marries the basic principles of “Internet Freedom” first outlined by Chairman Michael Powell, and modified more recently by the FCC, to one additional requirement — a ban on discriminatory access tiering. While broadband providers should be free, in my view, to price consumer access to the Internet differently — setting a higher price, for example, for faster or greater access — they should not be free to apply discriminatory surcharges to those who make content or applications available on the Internet. As I testified, in my view, such “access tiering” risks creating a strong incentive among Internet providers to favor some companies over others; that incentive in turn tends to support business models that exploit scarcity rather than abundance. If Google, for example, knew if could buy a kind of access for its video content that iFilm couldn’t, then it could exploit its advantage to create an even greater disadvantage for its competitors; network providers in turn could deliver on that disadvantage only if the non-privileged service was inferior to the privileged service.

    That’s the same thing I said to the FCC in its hearing at Stanford. You can hear what I said beginning at minute 18:20 here. There I distinguish between “zero price regulations” (such as Markey’s bill (which I say I am against)) and what I called “zero discriminatory surcharge rules” (which I say I am for). The zero discriminatory surcharge rules are just that — rules against discriminatory surcharges — charging Google something different from what a network charges iFilm. The regulation I call for is a “MFN” requirement — that everyone has the right to the rates of the most favored nation.
    This is precisely the position that the Journal breathlessly attributes to me today. It represents no change — no “softening” no “shift” in my views.

    Now no doubt my position might be wrong. Some friends in the network neutrality movement as well as some scholars believe it is wrong — that it doesn’t go far enough. But the suggestion that the position is “recent” is baseless. If I’m wrong, I’ve always been wrong.

  2. The Federal Communications Commission is preparing to auction off a portion of the airwaves for Internet use. Under the terms of the auction, the winning bidder would be FORCED to use a quarter of the auctioned spectrum to provide free wireless Internet service to all Americans.

    “If you think free Internet access under this plan would be a good thing, think again. This ‘free’ access comes at the price of giving government unprecedented control over the Internet”said Don Watkins, a writer for the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights.

    “Since no ISP can compete with free, omnipresent Internet access, this plan means that virtually all online users will be herded into the government-controlled Internet. And as the history of radio and television has shown, once the government guarantees ‘free’ access to a communications medium, it will inevitably exercise control over its content—i.e., censorship.

    “In fact, this plan already comes with censorship strings attached; the FCC has declared that this ‘free’ Internet must filter out pornography and other material deemed unsuitable for children. Not only will this prevent vast numbers of Americans from accessing content the government regards as inappropriate, but it will unavoidably lead to massive self-censorship by websites struggling to avoid government sanitization.

    “The FCC should auction off these airwaves without preconditions–not use the prospect of ‘free’ wireless access to lure us into accepting an online censorship regime.”

    For the original article:
    http://tinyurl.com/6kt6rn

  3. “Since no ISP can compete with free, omnipresent Internet access, this plan means that virtually all online users will be herded into the government-controlled Internet.”

    We’ve had free internet access in this city, available anywhere there was a phone line in the local dialing area, for 20 years (possibly longer).

    This plan offers wireless service, but radio-supported internet access is pretty terrible anywhere except a very flat plain with no interesting weather (and a lack of tall buildings!).

    If we’re moving in the direction of streaming media killing cable TV and broadcast TV, as everyone seems to think, the public are going to be demanding reliable, fast internet access so they can stream their content or download their huge torrents without their connection dropping regularly.

    I could have missed something, but I don’t think the radio-broadcast internet is up to that.

    It’s used extensively in rural areas around my city, because with our weather you really have to bury lines to keep them safe; running new high-quality cable (fiber, I assume) is prohibitively expensive due to all the digging. The service is better than dial up… but it’s terrible compared to any land-line based highspeed.

  4. The proposal is by a company called M2Z, it has been around for a while. Rural areas really are at a disadvantage when it comes to internet access. It’s either dial-up or expensive and unreliable satellite access. The telecoms aren’t feeling up to wiring it because it is expensive so that pretty much leaves something along the lines of wireless access and the poorest least populated areas will be left out if you rely completely on large corporations profit motive to further deployment.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/14/AR2008121401282.html is a link to a article about what’s happening with M2Z’s proposal.

    I think that it sounds like it would suck in some regards, the filtering/censorship aspect and I doubt a nationwide radio network would be much faster/reliable than dial-up, but with whitespace devices and more spectrum becoming available it could at least provide something akin to a marginal wifi signal to people in the boondocks.

    Beyond that many topographical areas such as mountain valleys require specific technical intervention such as repeaters on ridges and directional antennas to be able to get hit.

    I would much rather favor a decentralized method of covering rural areas. I know the USDA provided some grants for cooperatives to form around this idea and there have been a few. There is also a lot of dark fiber running around that it’s cost prohibitive to tap into, at least here in Ohio.

    I think it would make sense to provide incentives, or make cheap pipe available to rural small businesses to set-up WISP vs. trying to blanket the whole of US with a massive slow censored internet. Of course I don’t know all of the technical details of the proposal but I do agree that it won’t completely destroy the market for real high-speed broadband, if anything it might drive competition in the sense that they’d have to offer something better than the free service such as not creating artificial bandwidth caps (ala Comcast’s 250gig a month) in order to price differentiate themselves.

  5. They don’t care.

    Make all the arguments you want, write all the articles you will, they don’t give a fuck. They’re going to do for the internet what they did for cable. Remember all the promises we heard about cable? Just like the copyright situation in the UK with Burnham, they are going to do whatever the fuck they want to do. What ‘cha gonna do ’bout it huh punk?

    This is about money and power and you ain’t got either.

  6. This story in the Register from last week is related…how tangentially is probably a matter for debate: “Google cranks up the Consensus Engine.”

    The gist of Orlowski’s complaint: the impartiality of Google’s search results seems to be on the verge of becoming subject to editorial, rather than algorithmic, control. Because many old-style media outlets are becoming increasingly reliant on Google to determine What People Are Talking About, this could potentially give Google an opportunity to shape the public discourse in a subtle yet fundamental way.

    Now, Orlowski may or may not be indulging in some paranoia here. But what really interests me is the degree to which Google’s ever-increasing power in the realm of information gathering and dispersal is becoming an issue of concern across the entirety of the political spectrum. The WSJ raising alarms with the story that Lessig is exposing; folks were up in arms over Street View and the caching and retention of search results; there’s been concern about the mysterious workings of Google Adwords and the banishment of users from their Google Accounts for unspecified violation of the ever-muky Google TOS…the list of complaints and concerns gets longer all the time.

    It seems to me that Google has transitioned from plucky upstart and is well on its way to assuming the perceived role of monolithic, all-seeing corporate entity. A new Boogeyman for the 21st century, where wealth and the power and influence that accompany it are not accrued by industrial manufacturing might, but by the collection and control of vast quantities of intangible information.

    These will not be strange concepts to people in the technology and information management business, or to fans of the past three decades’ worth of science fiction. But I find this tectonic shift of power and culture fascinating to watch. How long before the “military industrial complex” is replaced by the “military information complex” as the oppressive corporate structure of choice?

  7. Elmas @2, that “Ayn Rand Center” piece you linked to is scare-mongering propaganda.

    First, as Robbt pointed out, this plan hasn’t been put forward by the FCC. A company called M2Z approached the FCC and asked for it. M2Z, if the plan goes forward, won’t be “forced” to offer free access — the free access is part of their business plan. The idea is they offer low-speed access for free, and higher speeds for money, and give 5% of the money to the FCC instead of paying for the spectrum upfront.

    Second, this plan, if implemented, won’t out-compete commercial broadband, because it’s much slower.

    There are still plenty of sensible reasons to oppose this plan. My friend Harold Feld (Senior Vice President at the Media Access Project) wrote a blog post discussing the pluses and minuses. But that Ayn Rand Center blog post gets crucial facts wrong for the purpose of scaring the reader. A group that claims to respect reason and objectivity ought to do a better job.

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