Sunday, February 28, 2010

Academic book editors and publications

Its a strained point of academic authorship - if you win the grant money and coordinate the project, do you get to put your name first on the eventual book even if you have written no more than 10% of it? Do researchers who wrote the bulk of the work get credit as editors - or even chapter authors - if they leave before the end of project, or later book, and their work is updated? In short, who gets credit, especially where academic reputations are dependent on their 'name in lights', and many researchers leave academia before their academic career has really started.
(Claim of non-virtue: I wrote a chapter with a young researcher [now increasingly eminent regulatory pro] six years ago in which the editors insisted my name was first on the authorship, presumably because I was originally commissioned individually and wrote most of the critical stuff in the chapter).
It has arisen with a bright young friend of mine who wrote huge chunks of an as-yet unpublished study on Internet censorship, much as I did in 2004 with a study that staggered into print 3 years later, Codifying Cyberspace. In my case, I was listed as an author, having written about 50% of the book (though 10-15% of that was updating and filling in the work of other researchers who left the project and pursued different research or career interests, Marcus Alexander and Christian Ahlert), but listed third not first. That was fine - particularly as alphabetical order would have given first listing to the person who wrote least of the book, and the first-named author both gave me a job, coordinated both project and book publishing/editing and wrote probably about a third of the book, and was thus first amongst unequals.
However, where a project includes a whole load of people and only the most senior are listed, no matter how much of the book they wrote, that sounds to me like academic free-riding. Not good, not good at all. Its no excuse to obliquely claim that their names will 'sell' the book, in fact that makes it worse as its virtually passing off others' work as their own, particularly where chapter co-authors are not listed in Table of Contents.
This piece of work from RAND is a fun example of how Cave and Marsden rescued a doomed project at the last minute. Note our billing....primary authors not project leaders. Troublesome business.

ACTA: EC will not compromise and 3 Strikes will not be mandated

So there - and credit to Peter Hustinx, the EU privacy supervisor, for flushing that response out from new trade commissioner Karel de Gucht's spokesman. Shame on the Americans for trying it on - yet another example of how the Obama administration is the new boss, same as the old boss, in many ways.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thank you for your kind attention

Its always gratifying to receive feedback on the blog and the book - and certainly its a much better blog for Jasper's posting from the US and Netherlands (he travels more than me). I do realize some traffic might be about a free online book (live link) you can download....but Y.A.N.A. as they say...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mobile net neutrality and roaming charges in the EU

The Commissioner might be interested in the case of a British student with mobile broadband who spent a month or so on exchange in Paris - an Orange customer in the UK so in France they were on a much cheaper network (given the absolute ubiquity of Orange's 3G network in Paris).

Its a vivid illustration of the need to tackle roaming charges - the student did as they would at home, used about 2.5GB in the month and then a little more until their bill arrived. Ironically they were mainly using Skype to avoid high international call charges.

The bill was - yes, you were ready - £8000 or about €10,000. That's for a usage which is £15/month in the UK. Yes, the student might have known better - but Single Market?
I realize this is exactly what the Commissioner was grilled in the EParliament over, but this is really a wonderful example of the problem.

Google and Italy: its not unusual...

I have blogged on my freedom of expression blog about yesterday's case, but one important point needs to be made: this is not an isolated example of a crazy judge and prosecutor, but part of a worldwide trend away from Notice and Take Down and towards raising the costs of content hosts by requiring pre-screening of illegal content. Turkey and Germany (maybe!) are amongst countries to do so recently. A worldwide catalogue is being published by the Open Net Initiative in April.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Neelie Kroes needs to update her web page

New Swedish Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom has her own blog (in Swedish) and was keen to publicise her meeting to discuss financial data exchange with the US under the SWIFT system.
By contrast, the agenda, speeches, in fact the whole of Neelie Kroes' website has not seen any activity of note in the two weeks since she started the job. Presumably she's engaged in spring cleaning internally within the DG.
I do apologise for describing her as geriatric - 68 is not ancient and she'll only be 73 at the end of her term, younger than my mum who would give me a clip round the ear for using the term - especially as a key component of the INFSO agenda is persuading the retired onto the web.
But she could do with showing a little more online activity - a blog would be a nice touch, for instance...
P.S. Good to see my old colleague Constantijn van Oranje in the Kroes cabinet - I'm surprised there are no English articles about his appointment, but then a prince in any other country...he's sharp and collegial and will be an excellent addition to the team! Maybe he can blog for her...
UPDATE 2/3/2010: the press releases are now on her personal pages.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Through's newsletter my attention was drawn towards a video on their online channel featuring an interview on net neutrality with attorney Paul Feldman (Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, PLC).

Feldman offers a relatively balanced analysis of the net neutrality debate. While he does seem to be a proponent of prioritized services, he is also clear about network operators' incentives to practice unreasonable network management. Moreover, he seems to be in favor of imposing conditions on the Comcast-NBC merger in online video sphere.

Extraordinary decline of France on gold standard in Great Depression

Did you know that France, Switz. and Benelux were absolutely caned by the Great Depression and competitive devaluations by the British Empire, Germany and Italy and (especially) Japan? No, me neither - but look at p10 graphic in Krugman's class notes. It also explains in part the European Community catch-up economic 'miracle' of 1950-75 (until the Brits arrived or more pertinently, energy got expensive) and pause thereafter - it was rapid growth from the devastation not only of war but of the Gold Standard of 1929-39.
What's the relevance to net neutrality? Almost nothing - except beware of changing course pragmatically in mid-stream and expecting the French to applaud Anglo-Saxon pragmatism.
Oh, and expect a period of continued denial of the reality that EU mobile leadership just doesn't exist...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Fiber and State Aid

Rudolf van der Berg's twitter feed referred me to an article about multinational cable company Liberty Global in what would be the Dutch equivalent of the Financial Times. Liberty, which owns Chellonet, Telenet and UPC in Europe, is apparently considering expanding into Eastern Europe. At the same time, its chairman denies rumors that Liberty would be interested to take over (parts of) the competing cable operator in the Netherlands, which allegedly is for sale.

What struck me in the article however is Liberty's stance on public/private partnerships to invest in fiber architecture. Freely translated, chairman Fries states:
I am worried about the intentions of governments investing in fiber. When it involves government subsidies, this will negatively affect the level playing field. When subsidies are conform a market economy investment standard this is less of an issue, but I have doubts whether this is feasible.
This comment echoes Liberty's official comments during the European Commission's consultation period concerning state aid for broadband. However, the eventual Commission guidelines on the application of state aid laws on investment in broadband that were published a few months ago, have in fact set the bar rather high for public investment into broadband to pass. The Commission has designated white areas (rural and under-served localities); black areas (two or more broadband providers already present) and grey areas (everything in between). Naturally, state aid to foster the roll-out of broadband is allowed in white areas, prohibited in black areas, and debatable in grey areas. This distinction is a bit looser concerning next generation access networks such as fiber, depending on the substitutability of existing broadband architecture. In short, if cable and DSL start lagging behind too much compared to fiber, this might justify state (market conform) investment into fiber.

Now, understandably Libery is upset about this, given that the city of Amsterdam has already successfully applied this exemption for fiber. In the Citynet case of 2008 before the Commision, Amsterdam's investment into fiber-to-the-home architecture was not deemed to concern state aid. Liberty's subsidiary UPC was one of the complainants in this case, and apparently is still sour over the Commission's decision.

So what does this tell about Liberty's incentives? Not upgrading its cable network to match fiber speeds might lead to public investment into fiber—and it shows Liberty is not too keen on that. At the same time, rolling out fiber itself carries great sunk costs. To solve this dilemma—as Rudolf (again) has accurately pointed out before—Liberty is very comfortable on markets with (DSL) incumbents averse to innovation into fiber. This allows Liberty to go sit above DSL and just below fiber speeds, which both increases its market share and keeps public investment into fiber at bay. The question is however how sustainable such a strategy is in the long run. The gap between fiber and 'old broadband' will widen eventually, and demand for fiber speeds will rise inevitably. Ergo, there will be public initiatives to roll-out fiber at some point, backed by European state aid laws. The living proof of this is Amsterdam's Citynet.

Friday, February 19, 2010

European politicians openly despise the Internet

I think the hatred that dare not speak its name needs expressing - while Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were great Internet politicians, Tony Blair never used a PC, Gordon Brown gurned on YouTube, and Nikolas Sarkozy has decided to (whisper it) bring French law into line with where the UK was before Mandelson's appalling Digital Economy Bill.
LOPPSI II is an insufficiently evil name for such a Bill - I always like RIPA as an example of a dreadful piece of legislation called out by acronym.
So with Mme Reding off to rewrite the Data Protection Directive, can geriatric Neelie Kroes demonstrate any affection for this medium? Or will it be brought down by the Ugly Sisters of copyright-broadcast and telecoms?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Net Neutrality critical in the Comcast-NBC merger

The last couple of weeks I've been traveling the US, which has proven to be a productive and enjoyable trip. While vacationing in California I visited the Annenberg School at USC, and now I'm in Chicago at Northwestern Law School for a week. It's been inspirational to meet with experts in telecoms law and economics, like Jim Speta, Peter DiCola and Shane Greenstein. Besides, yesterday I was invited by visiting professor (and my advisor) Pierre Larouche to do a guest lecture in his Comparative Antitrust Law seminar. As the students had indicated they were interested to learn about merger cases, I addressed the ongoing merger proceedings between cable giant Comcast and programming mogul NBC Universal.

Slides are up on my website.

The basic argument that I wanted to put forward, was first to lay out the motivation for this merger. It seems as if the merger was mainly driven by Comcast, in an attempt to forego the commoditization of cable. Cable is bound to be facing stiff competition from satellite, and potentially online and mobile TV platforms. With a vertically integrated TV programming family on its distribution platform, Comcast opens up new ways to generate revenue. In fact, it turns out the merger is more of an acquisition, as Comcast is mainly buying NBC from GE.

While the merger proceedings are being reviewed by both the DoJ and de FCC, a rather fierce debate erupted as well in the public sphere on whether the merger should be allowed or not. I had the students read two opposing position papers on the merger (here and here), and let them discuss the arguments put forward. From here, we proceeded to a more analytical review of the merger, stepping in the shoes of a competition authority.

The two main questions for a competition authority to ask in any (predominantly) vertical merger is whether (a) the merged firm is able to foreclose on competitors, and (b) whether it has the incentive to foreclose. Answering the first question is of course highly dependent on market definition. After all, only in a situation of market power will the merged firm be able to foreclose competitors. Given NBC's ranking in TV programming, it seems unlikely that the merged firm will be able to foreclose upstream, in the programming market. Downstream, in distribution is a different story though: given that Comcast enjoys local monopolies in certain geographic markets, its ability to foreclose may depend on the robustness of intermodal competition from satellite and online TV.

Now, as the merged firm is able to foreclose downstream, does it also have the incentive? It depends. If Comcast were to exclusively bundle NBC's content on its cable platform, this is only a viable strategy if this bundling generates more revenue that selling licenses for NBC's content to other platforms. This is the toughest nut to crack for a regulator, and a question I won't be able to answer at this point.

However, I do think that conditions should be imposed on the merger. It happens to be that NBC owns, the main outlet for free online TV in the US. Comcast owns cable architecture in a duopoly setting, so it could be possible for Comcast to prioritize Hulu's traffic over competitors (say, Netflix) and lock up the online TV market. This is where the network neutrality debate comes in. In order to allow the emergence of online video as a serious competitor to cable and satellite TV, I therefore concluded in the lecture that conditions to prevent foreclosure of the online TV market may be justified.

In the end however, the experience with the AOL-Time Warner merger seems to suggest that Comcast-NBC is not going to be a happy marriage. We'll see. In any event, GE is likely to emerge as the winner in this merger.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lies, damned lies and statistics on broadband

1. How many FTTH customers are there in the UK? 17? 170? 1700? We know its almost zero as analyzed by Fibrevolution.
2. ITU has released a preposterous series of stats claiming that Europe is the connectivity centre of the world - pur-lease...rubbish. Can anyone say 'granularity'?
3. Berkman Center's team led by Yochai Benkler have released the final version of their report to the FCC on broadband penetration and competition, with enough depth to have the economists arguing for months.
4. Verizon in the US is going to allow Skype calling on their network soon - totally unlike the Sicilians at Vodafone Europe....

Eric, Vittorio, Barcelona: mixed messages on mobile net neutrality

I have no idea what type of net neutrality lite is proposed by either mobiles, Vodafone or Verizon. I think Eric Schmidt was applying balm to recent Android-induced wounds:

"I feel very, very strongly that we depend on successful businesses for the operators globally and I disagree that we are trying to turn the operators into dumb pipes," he said. "We need advanced sophisticated networks, we are not going to be investing in broad scale infrastructure, we are going to have the operators do it."
"Almost all of the interesting growth in operators now is coming from mobile data, so both Google and the operators are growing because of this explosion in usage," he said. "From our perspective we recognise that the operators have large fixed costs and they have also purchased bandwidth, which is limited in its nature, and so we are not trying to run roughshod over that principle. On the other hand, most of the operators are telling us that we, Google, should build applications that will help them sell their new higher speed services they are spending so much money on."
"Google defines net neutrality in the following way: if you have a content category like video we want to make sure that the operator does not favour one video [provider] over another because that would then allow the operator to pick winners in the category," he said. "Imagine a situation where the operator also owned a TV network and discriminated in favour of that TV programming against the other choices, that would not be seen as fair."
Hmm, then Vittorio for Vodafone tried to tattle to DG Competition and other antitrust authorities:
"The Google thing, the point there is a tricky point because it is not a technology point, the solution is to be able to freely deal up and down the value chain," he said after his speech. "So network operators, content owners, application owners should be able to freely deal and we should try and have competition in all segments. The fact that 80% of advertising online goes through one funnel, there's nothing wrong [with that]: to be clear, we use Google, we like Google … it is more of a structural point. You cannot develop a healthy data environment if you do not have competition at all levels. It is more of a point about the future debate about net neutrality than anything specific."
So get your Google tanks off our lawn, he says...
"Some of the FCC interpretations that I read seem to indicate rules on how to manage the thing and I do not think we should have those rules, I think we should have a free system. It is important that the new [European] commission in Europe, and to some extent the Federal Communications Commission in the US, take a holistic view of the whole value chain and ensure that the rules they put in place, whatever they are, are rules that really enable competition at all levels."
Do you really think mobiles want more competition and market entry? No, thought not. He describes how you pay more in Sicily to get your newspapers distributed earlier. Hmm, mobile phone market as competitive as Sicilian newsagents. Make Google an offer they can't refuse?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pubs: an apology for neo-classical economics

In the final chapter of the book, I compare pubs to the open Internet:
"Just like Speaker’s Corner, the open Internet is by no means the only, or – some might say – the most important place for public opinion to be formed (see darknets - ed.), but it has so far been more or less guaranteed free and open to those with a computer and ISP. In physical space, there are private members’ clubs and working men’s clubs, Methodist chapels and Friendly Societies, professional associations, country and golf clubs, Freemasons and Opus Dei all have their place, but it is the open public space that gives legitimacy to all these private or semi-private spaces: it is the guarantor of free speech for the others. That all sounds rather grand and pompous, so let us bring it down to Earth for this conclusion. Let us compare this populist but technologically enabled space, the Internet, to one of its forerunners. Lets go to the pub.
"British public houses are – as we saw in the common carriage discussion in Chapter 2 – granted special rights and given special duties, primarily that to accommodate all-comers who so request. How does the Internet currently resemble a pub? It has its share of gaming and gambling, of queuing and noise, of public lounge and saloon, of the snug (in certain areas), of spam, of video, of music, of piracy (those smuggled CDs), and of course many people of a religious persuasion are convinced it’s a den of vice – it certainly is a place to meet romantically (or otherwise). It has its private privileged alternatives – the members’ club, the nightclub with its VIP room, the other more private spaces with their reserved tables and guest lists. It is related to the coffee houses which provided the first insurance (Lloyds) and stock market speculation in London. It is a place for all people and all seasons. It is also the place for debate and conflict, even violence and police response. More libel is committed in an evening’s ‘character assassination’ in a local pub than in a year of a newspaper, hence the popularity of the widest viewed English language soap opera, ‘Coronation Street’ and its ubiquitous gossiping in the ‘Rovers Return’ pub. The pub is monitored in several ways: first the police license its hours and services; second, police make (somewhat) random visits to check on activities; third, publicans in the United Kingdom often install video cameras to film the entrance. Furthermore, popular pubs have security guards on busy evenings. You might say that the surveillance is as methodical here as on the Internet. We accept these measures of surveillance – though both cameras and security guards (who are now licensed by a regulator to ensure they are fit and proper persons) as well as some licensing authority decisions continue to grate. 

"Pubs, like ISPs and Internet content providers, have complex economic value chains which constantly threaten the independence of the local public house. Parliament has continually intervened in the past twenty years to ensure that the ideal of the public house, the common carrier, as a public space, is maintained with at least some defence against the tyranny of the economics of scale and scope that tend towards the concentration of pubs with brewers in vertically integrated national or even multinational conglomerates." 
Sadly, I was right in intent but wrong in fact - Parliament through its Select Committee has tried to save pubs from the big pubcos, but as every edition of Private Eye reveals, with less and less success. The competition regulator, the Office of Fair Trading, just treats pubs with neo-classical indifference and maintains it has no compelling evidence of market failure. It does not care about their heritage and common carrier past, it cannot not account for that.
Is the subjugation of local pubs to multinational enterprise to be the fate of the open Internet with the network economic regulators so in intellectual vogue?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Googlebit network: playing the game

The blogosphere is of course abuzz with Google's announced gigabit network - is it a big deal? It seems a nice idea, to shame by example the big boys, and it represents a 'put up or shut up' move, as with municipal WiFi and bidding for the 700MHz spectrum. But as Rob Frieden states:
I believe incumbent carriers, such as Verizon and AT&T, do not yet consider it necessary and cost effective to enhance the value proposition in broadband. The margins are quite generous, but these carriers have more to gain and lose in wireless. Absent far greater competitive necessity --not something any Google project will generate—incumbent broadband providers can make do just fine with often duopolistic markets offering on a global comparative basis mediocre bitrates at relatively high cost.
P.S. InternetThought posts on how to get it done, thanks Rudolf!
P.P.S. Mr Enck came up with the pun 4 days before me - didn't plagiarise, guv, honest. Check this quote: 
"the big G weighs in with a helpful bit of ammo to throw at the asymmetric services Taliban"!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Talking, talking, talking, neutrality talk....

Talk about things you expect to co-regulate...
I will be talking about the book on a panel at Oxford on 17 March, and in an Authors@Google talk in Brussels on 18 March. I'm particularly pleased by the latter, as its a great chance to talk to EC officials, NRA reps in Brussels and lobbyists, and its the first Authors@Google talk in Brussels - so many thanks to Simon and Alain for organizing it.
Obviously neither Oxford nor Google have any connection with the book or its conclusions.
Its good to talk.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

FacelessBook and Safer Internet Day

Yesterday was Safer Internet Day, apparently - and the head of the UK Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (coppers, since you ask, devoted to stranger danger', instead of stepdads, priests, Scout leaders and the usual suspects) suggested you'll be safer with...Internet Explorer 8.
Ok, pick yourself up off the floor, it wasn't meant to be THAT funny.
More pertinently, co-regulation of social networking raised its European head, and one of Mme Reding's last acts as INFSO Commissioner featured the Safer Social Networking Principles with a signing ceremony in Luxembourg. 
Now co-regulation normally means legislation, which she is threatening to inflict on Facebook: “If it’s not done by self-regulation, then regulation has to come in,” Reding said in an interview in her office in Brussels. “I wouldn’t like to do it; I will do it if necessary.”
In the case of the Principles - which are mainly about stopping cyberbullying and the proliferation of kids on Facebook, the Commission did not introduce legislation but softer measures - a Taskforce and its position as broker.
Which brings me to my beef about Facelessbook - which I shall reproduce in the vain hope that they actually employ customer services people:
'Dear sirs
Last Thursday my Facebook account was disabled for breaking terms of use 
- particularly ironic as I was sending a message to a friend who has 
just joined Facebook, when I realized his 9-year-old son had an account 
with 70 friends. Pasting your terms of use into the message resulted in 
it being flagged for abuse - I suspect a child had rather cleverly 
flagged your exact warnings about under-age users as abuse!

I am interested to see whether any of these email addresses produces an 
answer as the email I first used resulted in no response over this 5-day 
period, no matter which account I emailed from.

I think I'll have to contact Richard Allan, formerly MP for Sheffield Hallam, then at Cisco, now Facebook Europe - who is definitely one of the good guys in public policy for the Internet. Richard also spent time at the Oxford Internet Institute when I was there in 2004. Richard reported on Facebook's policies to the EC recently.
P.S. It gets worse - 6 weeks and no answer from a human (1 automated email asking if I had solved the problem!), and Facebook's delightful founder's ethics come fully into the spotlight.

Reuters coverage of Turkish web blocking law of May 2009

The blocking of Richard Dawkins, extremely eminent British scientist, for mocking a Turkish creationist, has increased international scrutiny of Turkish regulation, particularly in view of Turkey's attempt to harmonize its media laws with those of the European Union.

Monday, February 08, 2010

A tale of two Easter week conferences: EuroCPR v. BILETA

I will be in Vienna on 28-30 March for the 25th BILETA (British and Irish Law Education and Technology Association, but quite Euro for the first time) conference - speaking about mobile net neutrality. The conference reflects its lawyerly base and legendary social programme.
Meanwhile, in Brussels, a more tightly focussed discussion of broadband policy takes place at EuroCPR. It has Milton Mueller, Nico van Eijk and Yochai Benkler speaking - really impressive line-up, and I wish I could be in two places at once.
That said, its quite an economics-dominated event, but nowhere near as much as the even more regulator-heavy WIK conference in Berlin 27 April - at which Neelie Kroes is invited to make one of her first big speeches as Commissioner. Sharon Gillett will be there as well as several Caves - which means it will be more than just a regulator love-in.
Maybe a shout-out is also needed early for McGill's Prof. Becky Lentz hosting the 3rd annual GIGANET workshop. I will most definitely be there.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

In praise of mobile broadband and tethered phones

I've been accused (frequently but only from one source;-) of being hard on wireless broadband - which isn't true, I'm very hard on European incumbent mobile phone companies, which isn't quite the same thing. I'm not convinced that Vodafone, Telefonica, TIM, T-Mobile (though they have moments) and Orange are the freedom-to-tinker loving closet hippies that some might like us to believe.
However, I will praise both handset manufacturers and my own mobile company, Hutchison 3 (by the people who originally brought you Orange when it was cool).
First my funky Samsung i8510 is proving as nice a phone as when I ordered it on a £20/month contract (that's pretty amazing value for a mini-computer with 300 national/3003-to-3 and 100 video minutes per month on a one year contract). Most importantly it has great speakers and 8GB internal memory, plus an 8Megapixel camera - so I just got an MP3 player, personal video player with its cool screen (not quite an iPhone but...), camera and phone rolled into one, for next to nothing. Its also a really good personal organizer.
Second, 3 continues to ramp up their coverage - I used to complain bitterly about indoor reception on their USB  'dongles' but now I get reasonably broadband-ish coverage except in the evening peak hours, and even then it still works at dial-up type speeds. Top speed received this morning is 1.8Mbps which is quite typical, though averages are way lower. I can actually watch YouTube most of the day if I wish, and its OKish for Skype to Canadian cell calls. Plus its £7.50/month for a 3GB cap. If as an early-mover I didn't get coverage, now it seems a real bargain. Note I have no fixed connection at home, saving squillions in line rentals etc.
But the really impressive piece of this is 3 championing the removal of 2G termination subsidies which fixed operators have paid hand-over-fist to mobiles across Europe forever - its only a really big deal in the UK because BT divested its mobile arm in the dot-com credit crunch of its own, and that means almost all Uk landlines for several years were cashpoints for mobile companies (obviously elsewhere in Europe if you own a mobile company, and the largest one in your own country, you're less exercised by rate distortion).
So 28,000 cheers for  more power to them!
Which makes me wonder whether Jonathan Zittrain's article in the FT about the iPad wasn't over-egging the pudding somewhat? The US DoJ gave up on the Microsoft case after Dubya took office, but the European Commission kept jabbing for almost 10 years. Nevertheless, Windows had to be opened up and was. But that was a monopoly. Apple? Well, isn't that the company where status-craving graphics designers waste their money? As long as we have PCs that competition authorities keep open platforms, I don't care what an obscure brushed-aluminium company does to its gullible customers - although it better be careful in Europe with iTunes.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Reasonable People Achieving Consensus?

There have been some extremely constructive developments in the net neutrality debate in the US (notwithstanding the 'beliefs' argument).
Verizon, one of the two biggest DSL and now fibre providers, and Google, owner of YouTube, submitted a joint response to the FCC NPRM. I hadn't blogged about it last week because the book launch was a pretty busy time. There was also a response by eminently wise men: Dave Clark, Bill Lehr and Steve Bauer.
Both submissions make very similar points, and I will summarize them crudely. But the main point emerging is that it is essential to design a system that does not let lawyers spend years screwing with the Internet. Therefore, both submissions propose what in Europe we would call a net neutrality lite co-regulatory solution - based largely around allowing standards and alternative dispute resolution to replace traditional adversarial rule making.
So here is the basic message:
[1] The Internet has largely been unregulated except by standards, and that has contributed to its dramatic growth and vigorous developer community, along with private investment.
[2] There is relatively little evidence of anti-net neutrality behaviour but an acknowledged need for traffic management on networks to cope with congestion.
[3] A light touch response is therefore appropriate. In particular, traditional knock-down drag-out mortal combat before the FCC and then courts does not seem timely or appropriate in most cases.
[4] The FCC - or whichever agency deals with the issue, possibly in cases of consumer harm the FTC - should rule on reasonable management practices where it receives complaints of abuse, but otherwise should leave the players to decide, and take what in Europe we might call 'utmost account' of technical advice.
[5] Technical Advisory Groups should be established to help flesh out what 'reasonable' should mean. That should include application development as well as network development - P2P apps should help solve not worsen the problem.
[5] These 'TAG's should then offer a possibility of arbitration for more toothy problems.
[6] The regulator thus acts as backstop in especially difficult cases.
And the three clinchers:
[7] Discrimination should be permitted - 'special access' is a normal development that will help attract investment to build faster lanes alongside the open Internet.
[8] The overall regime may not be appropriate for wireless carriers given their especially constrained bandwidth and overall network ecology.
[9] Government should ensure that the basic Internet access option must be offered alongside any future filtered version, and take steps to define it such that it not become a 'dirt road' alongside the more commercially partitioned versions. I would describe this as a 'Parliamentary train' failure of universal service.
All of this could be applied to the European debate too, and there's where the tenth take-away becomes so important:
[10] It is not the proper role for ISPs to act as copyright police or proto-government censors.
There seems to have been an outbreak of sanity in Washington?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Believing in net neutrality is like believing in Christmas

Obama has declared again his belief in an open Internet, which is how he appears to interpret the net neutrality debate.
But what does it mean to 'believe' in net neutrality? To agnostic Englishmen, any political expression of belief is worryingly reminiscent of Tony Blair's deism and discussions of good and evil, which doesn't seem appropriate to a technical/economic policy problem.
However, lets unwrap the Christmas present. I believe in the festival - I don't believe in Father Christmas any more, I certainly don't believe in virgin births and sky-gods, but I do believe in the powerful redemptive power of the story of the saviour-child (have you seen Children of Men? Then you see the point).
I also believe in a festival to bring family together, to sing beautiful old songs, to celebrate with food and wine, to give gifts, to provide some charity, to condemn Scrooge. I do worry that its over-commercialized and can be ruined by bad TV, bad turkey as much as bad company.
Net neutrality has gained some of these associations - its not the Messiah, its over-commercialized on both sides, video may threaten its future even while it redefines the medium, but at centre, net neutrality at a minimum (the 'lite' version) expresses the view that there should be some room for freedom of expression alongside more obvious commercial freedoms to over-eat, over-view and over-charge.
Christmas comes but once a year - and net neutrality may be restricted to helping those who otherwise would be without Internet access, making sure your ISP has some kind of open pipe to the Internet if they sell you 'Internet service' - not that you have to buy it. But lets have something to believe - even if its not 'I wish it could be Christmas every day'. In many countries  (frankly those that don't celebrate Christmas so this analogy falls as short as the BandAid single) and on some mobile services, they simply never see an open Internet. In this allegory, its only crumbs off the table...