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Wheeler, Franken, and Wyden show a naivete about today’s internet

In an opinion piece published yesterday in The Washington Post, Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, and former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler made the argument that planned attempts by current FCC chair Ajit Pai to remove Title II net neutrality rules would have a negative impact on consumers. The three argue that deep pocketed broadband access providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon want to take away the consumer protections that Title II of the Communications Act provides. Since broadband was reclassified as a telecommunications service by a Democratic weighted FCC under Mr Wheeler’s tenure, the privacy protections afforded to customer proprietary information connected to telecommunications customers would be lost to broadband consumers. The three go as far as to argue that net neutrality has created jobs because smaller retailers and other consumer services providers are able to get their products and services in front of the eyeballs of the everyday consumer because their traffic is now being treated fairly.

Given that there are two lawmakers authoring this piece I figured that they would at least offer an amendment to the Communications Act that defines net neutrality thus giving policy makers some firm platform from which to proceed and make good policy. The piece conveniently lacked that. Instead, Messrs Wheeler, Franken, and Wyden stuck with the lofty, airy definition of net neutrality that gives the impression that democracy is under attack. This is how the Democrats were able to scare four million consumers into putting their concerns onto postcards while blocking Mr Wheeler’s driveway.

What the opinion piece fails to explain is that net neutrality has to be defined in the context of commercialism, not as an assault on democracy. The internet has been commercialized for a quarter of a century. It provides the platform for gathering, processing, and selling information. Broadband companies are seeking out other revenue streams including processing and leveraging data for the purpose of generating advertisement revenues. Internet portals such as Google, Yahoo, and Facebook have been using customer information to attract advertisers. I sometimes refer to these sights as “legal hackers.” They get consumers to give up personal information for free and craft advertisements based on the personal information they garner. Ironically, Messrs Wheeler, Wyden and Franklin don’t discuss this disparity in treatment; that broadband providers who collect less personal information than these portals should find themselves under more statutory scrutiny than Facebook.

So dismissive of the market aspect of the internet that Messrs Wyden, Franken, and Wheeler could not even offer up a market solution for protecting consumer privacy. One solution I recommend is allowing consumers to sell their proprietary information, allowing them to trade on their info for cash or some other in-kind offering. Instead, Messrs Wheeler, Wyden, and Franken prefer stick with the “Government is a benevolent God” business model of consumer protection, usurping the individual’s power to use the markets to satisfy their own self interests.

Democracy is about the freedom of residents to choose leaders. That term has been tossed about too much by the net neutrality posse to the point where it is near meaningless. Net neutrality is not about democracy. Ron Wyden, Al Franken, and Tom Wheeler should do better than just stirring up the pot.

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Pai challenges the notion of government providing a free, open internet

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai today laid out his vision for removing broadband access from under Title II regulations imposed in 2015 by a 3-2 Democratic majority on the Commission.  Two decades prior to the Commission’s net neutrality order that imposed Title II regulations, the internet was already free and open. Companies such as Google, Facebook, and Netflix came into being under a non-Title II regime. Title II was an archaic regulation designed in the 1930s for plain old telephone services.

Title II boiled down to a solution in search of a problem, Mr Pai further argued. Rather than energizing a demoralized Democratic Party base licking its wounds from the butt hurt of the 2014 mid term elections, Former president Barack Obama and the rest of his Title II proponents wound up disincentiving $5.1 billion in capital investment and dissuaded companies to not hire or lay off 75,000 to 100,000 laborers.

What particularly caught my attention in Mr Pai’s remarks was his highlighting the belief that Title II proponents have about government and freedom, namely that government was going to guarantee freedom on the internet. A close read of the American Constitution tells you that its framers were concerned about the natural propensity of government to squash freedom. This is why the document put in place checks and balances against attempts to usurp power over individuals. Net neutrality opponents and members in Congress who support continued imposition of the rules confuse “rights” with “freedom.” The rights issued by government are permission slips that say “a person can be, but only up to the limits we allow them to be” versus freedom which is innate.

This is not to say that freedom doesn’t have its limits. You can’t just violate another person’s spectrum without facing the consequences that result from moving into another person’s space. But how those consequences are managed should be left up to the individuals or in the case of broadband, the broadband access providers and their customers. Allow customers and access providers to define the limits, terms, and consequences of their relationship, including price and type of service. In the 21st century, this type of strategic partnership between customer and access provider is very possible.

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Minorities should seek a bigger slice of new media pie

The digital divide argument, that there is a disparity between non-whites and whites when it comes to broadband access, is losing its mojo for me. While broadband access for minority households via hard line may fall behind that of white households, since the mid 2000s, access via mobile wireless devices by minorities has been on par or exceeded that of whites. Stroll into the Starbucks near I-285 and Cascade Road and see every Black American patron connecting their lap tops to WiFi while checking messages on their smart phones. Even our kids have at least two wireless devices and we parents brace ourselves annually for our teenager’s request for the latest phone even when the one they currently own is still pristine.

Plenty of politicians and civil rights groups have been pushing for greater access to high speed broadband, making the argument that more broadband facilities should be deployed in communities of color especially since Black Americans and Latinos have been spearheading the “cut the cord” movement and going 100% wireless over the past 15 years or so. Minority leadership is demonstrating, however, that it has not been paying attention to changes in business models that would provide entrepreneurs in communities of color exposure to more lucrative opportunities versus following the same consumption of end-use product model that has been plaguing communities of color for decades.

Broadband access providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are leveraging their customer data in order to attract advertising dollars. Verizon’s recent disclosure that it lost 307,000 subscribers in the first quarter of 2017 in part due to competition from Sprint and T-Mobile has some analysts on Wall Street wondering if Verizon is up for merger. Bloomberg has reported that the wireless company has considered Comcast, Walt Disney, or CBS for corporate marriage.  Ironically the aforementioned companies are content providers who could probably do well leveraging Verizon’s wireless infrastructure to get content out including use of the company’s spectrum.

While Black Americans and Latinos are, unfortunately, known primarily for providing entertainment content, both communities should consider exploring creating and investing in content storage and content delivery systems. Constructing these facilities in neighborhoods with large numbers of Blacks or Latinos means access to short term and long term employment. High tech labor will be needed to design, construct, and operate server farms and other facilities that result from the decision to do more than buy another cell phone or activate some unlit fiber from the old MCI days.

This is an opportunity for a young Black or Latino entrepreneur or engineer to break from the herd mentality and not wait for permission from the Jesse Jackson posse on whether or not it should be done. One would think that the old heads from the civil rights movement would have the capital or access to capital that would assist outside-the-box minority entrepreneurs in getting capital, but since these leaders have not demonstrated that they even understand the emerging business models in communications, this may be a closed avenue.

In the end, the minority entrepreneur should be prepared to abandon the collective mindset that has communities of color thinking only about the next smartphone and form new, smaller, leaner, profit seeking collectives that generate ideas of value and use these ideas to create their own data and media companies.

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FCC overlooks the word proprietary

The Federal Communications Commission refers to customer data as “proprietary” in its privacy order set for vote this coming Thursday. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines proprietary as something belonging to an owner like a patent, trademark, or copyright. By placing the qualifier “proprietary” on customer data, the Commission gives the impression that the data is compiled by the consumer for possible placement into the stream of commerce and by transferring this data can receive something in return. Is the consumer doing this; getting something in return for putting her data out there?

The relationship between a consumer and her broadband internet access service is one where she provides certain personal information along with a network access fee to her broadband provider and in exchange receives access to the internet. An informed consumer is aware that sharing some personal data is part of her total cost for receiving access to the internet via her broadband provider. The best way to ensure privacy of her data is to not buy access service to begin with but public and social policy currently promotes universal deployment of and access to broadband so discouraging her purchase is not a policy option.

In my view, the consumer has created a negative externality by providing property, in this case her personal information, for free. The rate the consumer pays for broadband access overcompensates the service provider given the value the broadband service provider receives. What the Commission should encourage is a pricing regime where consumers can charge for the use of their proprietary information. This way, the prices paid for access provide a better reflection of what is actually being exchanged.

The Commission may find that with this market solution concerns of privacy will be abated as the consumer exercises more control over her market relationship with the broadband service provider. Allowing for consumers compensation for providing data may create a ripple effect in the internet eco-system. Go onto Facebook and you see consumers sharing a lot of personal information for free. Advocates for consumer empowerment should like this approach but these so called advocates would lose too much control of the consumer protection debate if consumers were to enjoy this type of market freedom over compensation for their data.

Bottom line, if the Commission is truly concerned about protecting proprietary consumer information, it should give the consumer the front line tools to protect her data and in a market system, that front line tool is the ability to be compensated for one’s property.

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Telling a media company to not buy content is like telling a car company to not buy tires

Earlier today The Wall Street Journal reported that AT&T may close on a deal to buy Time Warner. Time Warner (not to be confused with Time Warner Cable) is a content play with popular properties HBO, CNN, and Warner Bros. in its inventory. AT&T has seen the light flowing from convergence and is rapidly becoming a media company, an exciting move away from being just a broadband access provider.

The boo birds are out, providing the usual “this is bad juju” arguments against a merger should merger talks go just beyond speculation over the weekend. Michael Copps, former member of the Federal Communications Commission, reportedly refers to talks of merger as an action that would result in monopoly power, a power that is “incompatible with democracy.”

Last time I checked, democracy was simply about the masses having the ability to enter a ballot box and choose the lesser of two political evils.  Mr. Copps is conflating a supposed monopoly on content with freedom of expression. If there is a merger, freedom of expression and democracy would not be harmed. To use such arguments is like saying that a car company shouldn’t be allowed to buy a certain tire for its SUVs and refrain from marketing its SUVs as using such tires. AT&T is a media company and should be able to establish an inventory or library of content that reflects its brand. I would argue that it would be undemocratic to stop it from choosing the content that best expresses what type of media company AT&T wants to be,

Besides, there is no monopoly harm here. AT&T won’t get the most out of its content if it does not make it available to as many outlets as possible. Also, the merger doesn’t stop any other content producer or media company from producing and distributing their own branded content.

Content is near infinitesimal in its creation and distribution. This makes the argument of favoritism toward one’s own content ridiculous. What the favoritism argument really indicates that protesters don’t have the talent to compete on quality of content and could do us all a favor by sitting down and taking a chill.