The Internet's New Enforcer

The FCC chairman appoints himself top cop on the World Wide Web.

Last Monday, in his first big speech as President Barack Obama's new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Julius Genachowski began by singing the Web's praises, and portraying it as vital to the workings of society. "Today," he said, "we can’t imagine what our lives would be like without the Internet—any more than we can imagine life without running water or the light bulb." On this point, nearly everyone can agree.

Unfortunately, Genachowski drew exactly the wrong lessons from his initial insight: Rather than see the Internet's growth and integration into everyday life as evidence that government intervention isn't necessary, the Web's chief regulator took the opposite view—that the Net's size and scope make government meddling a necessity. The Internet, in other words, is Too Connected to Fail.

The theme of the speech was openness, but for Genachowski, an "open Internet" seems to mean a "government-monitored Internet." Innovators and entrepreneurs may have been responsible for making the Web great, but care, oversight, and access are now up to the government. "Congress and the President have charged the FCC with developing a National Broadband Plan to ensure that every American has access to open and robust broadband," he said.

In other words, Genachowski's starting point is that it is the job of the FCC job to provide access, not the market. But that idea hasn't produced results to be proud of so far. Government's chief contributions to broadband access have been a slew of wasteful city-run wifi networks and a criss-cross of local regulations that inhibit competition between providers. Meanwhile, the market has been successful at providing access: The FCC's own data shows that 98 percent of zip codes have at least two broadband providers and 88 percent of zip codes have four or more broadband providers. That's not to say that competition has produced a broadband utopia. I'm second to none in my annoyance with the poor customer service offered by Comcast, my ISP. But a National Broadband Plan is hardly likely to solve anyone's customer-service related gripes.

Genachowski talks a good game on Internet freedom and innovation, but then positions the FCC as a sort of Internet enforcer. "In the words of Tim Berners-Lee," he said, "the Internet is a 'blank canvas'—allowing anyone to contribute and to innovate without permission." That's how it should be. But the crucial question is permission from whom? Genachowski seems oblivious to the fact that that the regulatory regime he is promoting would implicitly require innovators to get permission for their innovations from his agency. In his words, "the FCC must be a smart cop on the beat preserving a free and open Internet."

A better analogy, however, would be to a judge and jury. Genachowski doesn't merely envision a Web bound by FCC rules, but one subject to the momentary whims of FCC commissioners. "I will propose that the FCC evaluate alleged violations of the non-discrimination principle as they arise, on a case-by-case basis." In theory, this gives the FCC more flexibility, allowing the agency to be smarter and more generous when weeding out violators. But in practice, it's likely to expand the bureaucracy's reach as it refuses to define the boundaries of its authority.

Clearly defined regulations are probably unnecessary, but at least they would provide innovators a sense of stability. But Genachowski's case-specific approach to judging violations—essentially we'll know it when we see it—doesn't even give them that. Now, whenever a telecom company wants to implement a new service or product that works by manipulating traffic flow on the Web, it will have to worry about whether or not its innovation might set off Genochowski's sense of... well, whatever it is that he and the rest of the regulators at the FCC don't like.

Nor was that the speech's only bureaucratic power grab: Genachowski also announced, as previously suspected, that the FCC would move into regulating the wireless data networks that deliver voice and data to handheld devices like iPhones and Blackberries. Genachowski didn't get into the details, but he didn't need to. The speech's message to carriers and data providers was clear enough: There's a new sheriff in town, and his name is Julius Genachowski.

Peter Suderman is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    "I will propose that the FCC evaluate alleged violations of the non-discrimination principle as they arise, on a case-by-case basis."

    I am sure this will be nothing like the way highway cops can stop any car they feel like, because almost everybody speeds.

  • ||

    If we got rid of local government blessed broadband monopolies, then we wouldn't have to worry about federal government enforcement of neutrality, as there would be plenty of serious competition preventing such shenanigans as redirecting Google requests to Bing.

    As it is now however, ISPs are the ones threatening innovation (video streaming, P2P, etc.) with their lust for breaking the internet and constructing walled gardens with no escape.

  • Paul||

    Ok, I'll be the first to admit it. This is Change I can believe in...

  • ||

    Rather than see the Net's growth and integration into everyday life as evidence that government intervention isn't necessary, the Internet's chief regulator took the opposite viewM

    This is a bit of revisionist history.

    Someone correct me if I am wrong, but up until a few years ago, the FCC was applying the common-carrier provisions of the Telecom act to the internet. Which was effectively net neutrality -- which is why the internet blossomed the way it has.

    It was only when the GOP controlled FCC decided (on a party line vote) about 4 years ago that ISPs don't have to abide by common carrier provisions, that net-neutrality became an issue when ISPs decided that they wanted get paid for allowing popular services to send their bytes on their networks.

    The reason why the Internet has become so great is because up until the last few years, net neutrality was the way things were done. People who developed popular apps or protocols didn't have to pay for the privelage of having their info sent to consumers who want it. Imagine what the internet would look like if they had to. It would be dominated by large companies who can absorb those costs and it would kill the entrepenurial spirit of small players.


    A neutral intenet is how it should be. The ISPs send bytes to and fro. They shouldn't get to charge more for certain types of bytes, or to be able to discriminate based on who is sending/receiving those bytes.

    It's one thing to do QOS on your networks (where certain types of packets get lower priority than other more cricial) and quite another to allow an ISP to discriminate against a competitors packets (like if ATT decided to make Vonage's data a low priority while keeping it's own digital phone service a high priority)

  • ||

    If the FCC gets the power they want over the internet, Reason Online is screwed!

  • ||

    ChicagoTom,

    Which was effectively net neutrality -- which is why the internet blossomed the way it has.

    Given that there are like twenty different definitions of what net neutrality is you'd have to define what you meant by that term first before you could make such a claim.

    A neutral intenet is how it should be.

    You'll never have a neutral internet; indeed, the internet depends on all sorts and varieties of non-neutral sorting for it to function.

    What you seem to be largely talking about is the issue of content, but that is just one type of net neutrality. I guess I could go along with that (though it is still dumb), but other areas of neutrality - like price discrimination - well getting rid of that (and it has always been there since the infancy of the internets) is just beyond stupid and would never workable anyway (people would find ways to avoid it).

  • ||

    Which was effectively net neutrality -- which is why the internet blossomed the way it has.

    What makes you say that, CT? I have noticed any diminution in the greatness of the internet the since, according to you, teh Evul Repugs sabotaged the FCC.

  • ||

    ChicagoTom,

    BTW, one of the reasons why innovation was deadly slow in the telephone industry is directly related to common carrier rules. You had to have forces outside that government created zoo of starving animals - forces unhindered by the state - to bust open innovation.

  • ||

    R.C. Dean,

    One of the things that telecom laws at the federal and state levels do is make entry into the market difficult at best. Then again, sizeable portions of government actors believe this is the way to go; open competition is a bad idea from their POV. A couple of large market actors regulated by a large state regulatory apparatus is the way to go. Thankfully people individually and as groups find routes around these moronic efforts.

  • ||

    If it ain't broke, beat the shit out of it until it is.

  • Random Dude||

    Folks, we don't have a neutral internet today and never have.

    VOIP/SIP is actively managed across providers to reduce latency. Many other protocols are managed as well through QoS, prioritization and bandwidth shaping. The suggestion that this will somehow increase video speeds is ridiculous.

    Without that prioritization, kiss Skype goodbye. Which.... coincidentally, is why Skype is meeting with the FCC to negotiate on the rules.

    Expect a million exceptions to the FCC's framework, which will show just how "neutral" their "net neutrality" is.

  • Paul||

    This blog belongs to the people!

  • Paul||

    If it ain't broke, beat the shit out of it until it is.

    If it moves, tax it.
    If it keeps moving, regulate it.
    If it stops moving, subsidize it.

  • ||

    See this:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/28/AR2007082801990.html

  • Sean W. Malone||

    Someone actually really should sit down and define "net neutrality" for me - I have about a dozen computer programmer friends and as yet, I still don't fully understand which version people are referring to. At first I was told that it would stop ISPs from providing different classes of service - which I thought was a horrific idea; then it was to stop providers from banning specific content, which is solvable by the market as I'm not going to pay an ISP if I'm not allowed to access whatever I want; and now it seems it's all about certain services becoming sponsored or paid for by other people...


    Someone care to offer a straight-forward definition?

  • ||

    If it moves, tax it.
    If it keeps moving, regulate it.
    If it stops moving, subsidize it.


    The Three Articles of the United States Constitution, am I right?

  • ||

    Can I add that those who support this intrusion into private life raise their hands and say atta boy... Geez, can't even those liberal Democrats see the future...?

    I guess they are so engrossed in the now (possible Communist ideals) that they miss the overall picture. Wake up Independents - this is a war you don't want to lose!

  • TMLutas||

    There is the problem of fraud, which is something that government can legitimately regulate, even from a libertarian perspective. If I'm running a protocol that Comcast doesn't like and they introduce traffic to spoof my communications partner and drop connection, Comcast shouldn't get to lie about that without serious penalty. And yes, this is a real life problem (bittorrent in fact was disrupted by Comcast this way until they were caught and embarrassed). A simple requirement that every ISP posts their traffic shaping rules for their customers so that we can make informed purchase decisions is not unreasonable and would be a legitimate use of government power. Posting unreasonable rules would result in a loss of customers. Lying about the rules (which ISPs sometimes do today) would result in hefty fines.

    I fail to see how any of this would be objectionable to libertarians. Such a scheme would have the advantage of retaining the "no permissions" nature of the net while solving the real problems of deceit and fraud (selling unrestricted access but actually restricting). Of course this is unlikely to be what the FCC finally pushes but there could be reasonable regulation and we should all say so.

  • Mikey||

    In the mid-1990s I rushed out to get a computer and a dedicated modem line because I wanted to get on the Internet before the government got hold of it and fucked it all up.

    To my pleasant surprise, it has taken them about 10 years longer than I thought it would, but they've finally gotten hold of it, and the fucking-it-up is about to start.

    Make no mistake--this is not about "net neutrality" or "protecting the consumer." That stuff is mere pretext. It's about control, plain and simple.

  • ||

    The internet is the last place in society that one can speak one's mind, without worries of PC restrictions on speech.

    The gov gets a foot in the door and anything deemed "hate speech" is doomed.

    This comment might be considered "subversive" at some point in time, and may be the vehicle of my doom.

    Give up freedoms at your own peril. This administration will someday give way to a new one that may not like your opinions. If it's a law, it will be enforced.

  • GM Roper||

    I'll try to be brief:

    Genachowski, Kiss my aging fanny and keep your hands off my blog and the rest of the internet you power hungry bureaucrat!

  • Kevin Murphy||

    Here in my corner of the world, the penetration of broadband is largely stymied by the City of Los Angeles.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    The FCC chief wants to get his claws in the internet the way some other thug bureaucrats want to get theirs into cable, satellite, and radio. This isn't about maintenance issues... it's about control of content. The Dems hate it that people can go online - say, here, for instance - and deign to piddle upon their shiny shoes.

    The GOP hates it, too. Dissent isn't welcome in either Brand X Party.

    The on-again, off-again bleatings of Dems who want the Fairness Doctrine - or the local content trojan-horseshit, for that matter - showed that some of the anti-free speechers think cable TV, talk radio, and beyond, should be under the control of Big Gov. Put thugs with grand ideas and ideas of grandeur, in control of what words are said or typed or made into videos, and we'll wind up with something that would make Orwell stand up from his grave and say "dayamn, that's even worse than I envisioned".

  • ||

    With abundant bandwidth we would not require FCC to allocate scarcity and set rules.

    Can't have THAT, now, can we?

    So, FCC'll hobble innovation and investment in order to ensure scarcity, then claim market failure and step in to regulate and allocate the scarce good in the public interest. Just like when there were only TV channels 2-13 and you couldn't have 2 broadcasting next to each other at the same time.

    QED!

  • Enyap||

    Julius Genachowski has quite the Backpfeifengesicht.

  • Beck||

    Genachowski's speech, shorter version: "All your internets are belong to us!"

    Irony hurts sometimes.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    He's more of a schwanzlutscher, Enyap. Considering how he sucks up to his new boss, that is.

  • ||

    Hey Genachowski:

    Screw You!

  • ||

    The FCC study his horribly flawed from the outset by using zip codes as a geographic measuring stick on broadband penetration and availability. I have no broadband providers (short of satellite) at my vacation home at the Lake of the Ozarks. The FCC study shows me as well served with two broadband providers in my zip code. My zip code is not even home to the county that my house is in.

    I would love to have broadband but the economics of providing it at my house clearly don't warrant it. If the economics said build the infrastructure someone would have done it.

    The proposed rules will actually stifle any attempt to provide me with broadband as it decreases the incentive for capital investment in infrastructure.

    This will be great - now we can all get crappy internet but we will all be the same.

    ...Lee

  • ||

    Let me just say this to Genachowski.

    -jcr

  • Wicks Cherrycoke||

    "Someone actually really should sit down and define "net neutrality" for me "

    Sean-

    This weekend I read, in one of the PC magazines online that was quoting Genachowski's speech, yet another definition of net neutrality: the allegation that ISP's are supposedly slowing down certain disfavored internet communications at peak times so that their own data transmissions can make it through.

    Like you, I thought that "net neutrality" was an objection to ISP's offering faster transmission to content providers who were willing to pay extra for it, a kind of "premium" service at a higher price.

    It would seem that you would need to identify a problem before you can solve it. Unless, of course, your true motivation is to assert government control over an important area of national life that up until now has been the preserve of the free market.

  • Ted S.||

    I, for one, welcome our Minitel overlords!

  • Maria||

    Interesting article against Net Neutrality, being on a webpage.

  • ||

    Wow, for a second there I almost thought the Obama administration was going to do the right thing for the right reason...ah well, still 0 to I-lost-count.

    There seems to be no problem, no matter how esoteric or minute, no matter how tiny, that the Left can't imagine solving without growing government and shoving more government control down our throats. I wish they'd stop insulting my intelligence with it though, stop trying to tout their 'good intentions' and just label it the power-grab it is -- and they had the temerity to castigate Bush as the power-hungry villain. Even assuming (which I don't) that every accusation hurled toward Bush and Chaney were true, this current crop out-does them by orders of magnitude. Power-drunk.

    Just for once, can you guys on the Left just...fix the problem and not use it as an excuse to grow government? Just for the novelty? Trusting the FCC -- home of the (un)Fairness Doctrine (is it me or does anyone else ever wonder why the Left's package names are so damned Orwellianly opposite?) -- with this is like trusting the fox not to eat the hen.

  • ZZMike||

    "... ensure that every American has access to open and robust broadband,"

    Does that include the guy in Las Vegas living in a storm drain?

    "The Internet, in other words, is Too Connected to Fail."

    In fact, that's the way ARPA designed it.

    "..."the FCC must be a smart cop on the beat preserving a free and open Internet."

    "Free and open" doesn't need a policeman. The only thing a policeman can bring to the Web is restriction.

    ibrindle: "If it ain't broke, beat the shit out of it until it is."

    Then tax it.

    livingston: "There seems to be no problem, no matter how esoteric or minute, no matter how tiny, that the Left can't imagine solving without growing government and shoving more government control down our throats."

    Now you get it. They want control over everything. They've taken over one of the biggest car makers, they've taken over banks, they want to tell companies how much they can pay their employees, they're taking over the health care system, they're putting restrictions on garage sales, with 6-figure fines for selling the wrong things (mainly children's books from before 1980).

    They're control freaks - like most socialists.

  • dorkafork||

    The FCC chief wants to get his claws in the internet the way some other thug bureaucrats want to get theirs into cable, satellite, and radio. This isn't about maintenance issues... it's about control of content.

    This about a speech that specifically says: "This means they cannot block or degrade lawful traffic over their networks, or pick winners by favoring some content or applications over others in the connection to subscribers' homes. Nor can they disfavor an Internet service just because it competes with a similar service offered by that broadband provider. The Internet must continue to allow users to decide what content and applications succeed."

    It's about preventing control of content. I get the feeling a lot of people here didn't bother to read his speech, and are just having a knee-jerk anti-government reaction. This is probably the only thing Obama's doing right.

  • dorkafork||

    I also agree with Lawrence Lessig that Republicans created the internet, in part because of actions taken during the breakup of AT&T.

  • ||

    The FCC shouldn't need to assert jurisdiction. If the courts would just do their job they would recognize two types of telcom contracts, Fixed bandwidth unlimited transfer, or per packet pricing. This should simply become common commercial law. Bits are bits, your interpretation of them has no impact on the cost to transport.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    dorkafork, the FCC has a "czar" that approves of what Chavez did to the media down in Venezuela.

    I wouldn't trust anyone at the FCC to give one shit about freedom of speech, over any broadcast medium.

    You can say this speech in particular wasn't about that, but it's all part of the same pie - government hates the internet, and wants to control not only its operation, but its content. ESPECIALLY its content.

  • dorkafork||

    You can say this speech in particular wasn't about that, but it's all part of the same pie - government hates the internet, and wants to control not only its operation, but its content. ESPECIALLY its content.

    I don't trust them either, but this speech is a breath of fresh air. To tie net neutrality to fears of excessive government control of the internet is a major mistake.

    Hell, why even bother mentioning his speech? Reason could just put up a "Don't trust the FCC" article whenever the mood strikes. The FCC chair just made a speech that should make libertarians happy, and he's getting lambasted here. Are people here taking crazy pills?

  • ||

    I'd definitely like to hear some suggestions to fix the problem mixed into the gripe. I was elated to hear about the FCC position on Net Neutrality. I'm interested to note that there may be a dark cloud to the silver lining.

    I believe that the internet needs some protection from the money grubbing of the ISPs. It seems to me that they think that because they put up the wires that they should get the pink slip. But I'm willing and interested to hear how that could be subverted by government power grabs.

    I don't always have the time I'd like to research everything the government proposes. Help point us toward the relevant bits, show us some ideas we might have missed at first glance and turn us loose so that we can make our voices heard to those who represent us.

    While this article may have shed some enlightenment, it's just too much rant and not enough real information to be helpful.

    At least that's what I get at first glance.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Sorry, dorkafork, but I can't place that kind of trust in an FCC toady. Bureaucrats can belch forth the syrupy, soothing tones, but that doesn't mean they aren't lying or scheming in the process.

    And most of them do just that.

    What you're missing is the mission creep that has made the FCC far more powerful and broad-reaching than it SHOULD be. Why are we libertarians - or anyone else, save for the kinds of people who love government swaggering around like it owns everything - supposed to be happy when some grunt from an Alphabet Division spews out a feel-good spiel to soothe the masses? The only thing the FCC should be doing is maintaining the broadcast spectra - not micromanaging it.

    I swear, some people think America can't survive without multiple dozens of Departments Of _____ populating the political landscape.

  • monkeys||

    If it moves, tax it.
    If it keeps moving, regulate it.
    If it stops moving, subsidize it.



    Thank you Sir.

  • abercrombie milano||

    If it moves, tax it.
    If it keeps moving, regulate it.
    If it stops moving, subsidize it.

  • bigbooty.ws||

    oh yeah??? self appointment? this dont sound really cool..

    i dont know whats gonna happen to this world.. i hope everything gets fine..

  • nike shox||

    is good

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