Sunday, October 22, 2006


Bill Kennard misses the cluetrain

UPDATE: Tim Karr, in the savetheinternet blog, writes that if Kennard had acted more forcefully from the FCC chair, we might not be here now. Karr writes:

Kennard’s argument conveniently ignores the past eight years — under a regulatory regime created in part by Kennard’s decisions . . . Had [the Kennard FCC] explicitly defined broadband as a common carrier (and hence formally subject to nondiscrimination requirements) and had the FCC produce an iron clad record to support that position, it is quite probable that we would never have opened the opportunity for the network operators use Kennard’s loopholes . . .

UPDATE: Lessig replies to Kennard's Op-Ed. A snippet:
. . . there’s something unseemly to me when an FCC Chairman moves to the boards of the companies he used to regulate, and then uses the op-ed page of a paper on whose board he now sits, to argue for the poor by pushing the agenda of the “merely rich.” (How can a paper that obsesses to pretend its most brilliant writers have no opinion of their own not wonder about the weirdness here?)
Back when Bill Kennard chaired the FCC, I asked him whether he was a dynamist or a stasist. (These were Virginia Postrel's terms, from her book, The Future and its Enemies. He and I had just heard Postrel speak at Vortex.) It was hip to be a dynamist, it was square to be a stuck-in-the-mud lover of the status quo. But Kennard, unflappable, said, "I'm a regulator so I guess I am a stasist." Fair enough.

Now Kennard is many Internet-years gone from the FCC. Today he's a telecom financier at The Carlyle Group. You'd think he'd spend a little time on the dynamic side of the street. But no. He looks at the Internet-of-the-future and sees television.

Nobody's going to punch his cluetrain ticket for his Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times. Check out this paragraph:
Unfortunately, the current debate in Washington is over “net neutrality” — that is, should network providers be able to charge some companies special fees for faster bandwidth. This is essentially a battle between the extremely wealthy (Google, Amazon and other high-tech giants, which oppose such a move) and the merely rich (the telephone and cable industries).
The fight is not between, "the extremely wealthy . . . and the merely rich," it is between us, who want to choose how we use our Internet connection and Internet providers like Verizon, Comcast and at&t, who want to choose for us.

Let me explain where Kennard fails to. Without Network Neutrality, Internet access providers intend to use these special fees to discriminate -- to charge Yahoo for a fast connection but not Google, for example -- so an Internet access provider like Verizon or Comcast can effectively choose their customers' search engine. Without Net Neutrality, Verizon or Comcast can influence where we get our news, who we choose as our financial institution, what entertainment we listen to and watch, and what on-line communities we belong to.
By painting the Network Neutrality debate as between "the extremely wealthy . . . and the merely rich," he disses the distinction between the rising superstars of today, the fruit of the Internet's fertility, and the dying telco dinosaurs of yesterday, between new companies whose financial star is rising and old ones in their twilight years. More importantly, he fails to acknowledge the link between the Internet's, "vast interactive world of limitless content," and the hundreds of millions of users who post photos and video clips, participate in MySpace and Facebook, inhabit online virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft and otherwise generate the Internet's limitless content.

If I got a bill (for " . . . delivered . . ." ) from every Internet access provider with one or more customers that read my blog, would I think twice about having a blog? Would you?

Kennard juxtaposes this limitless content against TV's "vast wasteland," but he completely misses the root cause of the waste. We now see that TV content is no better with 500 channels than it was with twelve. The thing that is different about the Internet is not "more channels," it is the locus of control. The fight against network neutrality is a fight to keep the choice of how to use the network at the edges, where it belongs. The new vast wasteland begins when our choices dwindle.

Kennard treats network neutrality as a mere botheration on the way to franchise reform. He says,
Policymakers should rise above the net neutrality debate and focus on what America truly requires from the Internet: getting affordable broadband access to those who need it.
The problem is that "access" is not simply one-way like it was in the telephone era that ended about when the Kennard FCC did. Today "access" is a two way street. But Kennard still thinks that "access" is TV-with-a-buy-button. He fails to understand that Network Neutrality is about access too -- your access to this writing is jeopardized if your telco might charge me to deliver it to you.

Unfortunately, I don't think Kennard is standing on the platform where the train I'm talking about stops.

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