Friday, February 16, 2007


Unrepresented at FTC Broadband Workshop

The main mission of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is protecting "consumers" against anti-competitive practices. So it makes first-blush sense for the FTC to get involved in Network Neutrality, since we pro-Neutrality advocates are wary of the telco-cableco means, motive and opportunity to impair competition. The caricature is that the end user wants Google but the telco gives us Yahoo. Or we want Skype but the telco makes it easier to use telco voice.

Would the FTC be just the agency to keep Net Discrimination at bay? Where's the evidence? The Microsoft anti-trust trial was a joke. Plus the FTC has been absent since the 1996 Act let telco land line services into each others' territories, but they didn't go there, wink wink. And then there's the Rambus case where Rambus was blatantly sleazy and the FTC response was watery-bland (thanks, Andy Oram, but why'd your Rambus post disappear from the O'Reilly eTel site?).

At its FTC Workshop on Broadband Connectivity this week the FTC proved in real time that it was incapable of its mission. Its choice of speakers and the way it ran its so-called workshop made it clear. I was so infuriated I was ready to commit civil disobedience. (Not that FCC kabuki protects us better, but it does not make my blood boil the way this event did.)

The FTC chose two-handed academic speakers. The opening academics, John Peha and William Lehr, said that discrimination was bad . . . and good. Their presentation made it seem as if the Internet were simply a truck, or a series of tubes, or a basket of apples. They did not talk about a place for participation and citizenship, a place one could love. They did not represent the Internet that I understand. The FTC allowed no Yochai Benklers, no David Reeds, no Susan Crawfords, no Cory Doctorows, no academics save Tim Wu, who represented my 'net.

The FTC chosen Netheads were inside-beltway players. They were well-known, non-threatening. Gigi Sohn often holds the entire center and left at right-wing think tank events, and I am still trying to figure out why. Harold Feld projects an appearance that is anything but buttoned down, that might speak louder to some than his amazingly cogent, well-constructed arguments. The other Netheads -- Alan Davidson from Google, Chris Libertelli from Skype, Jeannine Kenney from Consumers Union, Gary Bachula from Internet 2 and Tim Wu of Columbia University -- were "faired and balanced" by a raft of industry flacks who were paid to say what their bosses told them to say regardless of how obviously false it was.

[UPDATE: I **do** know why Gigi is often chosen to represent "the public good" at so many inside-beltway events. She's good, she has a strong command of the issues and a public-spirited way of constructing them. What I **don't** understand is why she's chosen as the sole representative of the non-telco view so often. Apologies, Gigi, and to anybody else who may have read the above and inferred that I don't hold Gigi Sohn in high regard! I do.]

Only Harold Feld said anything about the Internet and democracy, only Harold Feld said anything about the Internet and freedom, only Harold Feld represented the Internet I understand.* Among the Googles and Amazons, nobody represented "the unborn," the Internet companies in their infancy, the Internet ideas that might become next year's great companies, the next big thing that might never happen if the telcos decide who gets the good service and who doesn't. (Chris Libertelli meant it when he said the 'net shouldn't become Cable TV, but not many heard it as he meant it.)

Nobody represented Teletruth, where my friend Bruce Kushnick has devoted two decades to work that the FTC should have been doing. There was not enough room on the schedule. Yet there was room on the schedule for two speakers from Bell-funded Progress and Freedom foundation, for Bell-funded Hands Off the Internet, for Bell-funded CTIA, for Cable-funded NCTA, and for the Bell-funded Phoenix Center. And Verizon. And Comcast.

One surprise. Ron Youkubaitis of Data Foundry, a seat-of-the-pants Internet entrepreneur from Texas who built a business of archiving Usenet content since before user-generated content was fashionable, ran out the clock on the under-represented issue of end-user privacy. I could have listened to him for another hour. He was a refreshing "experience break" from the overly-derivitive lawyers and lobbyists.

The format was a "workshop" in name only. It was set up so discussion was limited and nobody -- not panelist, not audience -- could challenge Industry falsehoods. (I hope Simon Wilkie's spontaneous outburst of laughter at USTA Walter McCormick, when he said the telecom market was wide open, went on the record. Probably not.) In session after session, the moderator would collect a stack of written questions, then paraphrase one or two, or ask his or her own questions. McCormick's absurd assertions and PFF Scott Wallsten's equally blatant claims, for example, that dial-up Internet customers liked dial-up better than broadband, went largely unchallenged.

I came away thinking that the FTC, as currently constituted should never, never, never, never, never get responsibility for protecting the consumer from anti-competitive broadband practices. Regulate mattress tags but keep your FTCking hands off my Internet.

Gigi Sohn's take here.

* I skipped out on the last two sessions to catch my train.

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