Form of Internet Access Task Force: FTC Group to Examine Net Neutrality

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According to ComputerWorld the FTC has created an Internet Access Task Force to examine whether broadband providers are behaving anti-competitively. Chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras has framed the issue this way:

I have to say, thus far, proponents of Net neutrality regulation have not come to us to explain where the market is failing or what anticompetitive conduct we should challenge.

First, the quote seems like an invitation for those who support net neutrality to approach the FTC with their arguments. Second, it seems that the question might be put differently so that it asks what anti-competitive behavior we face without net neutrality legislation. The problem may be that proving the undesired behavior now is not possible because it has yet to occur. (Those who have examples speak up and let the FTC know). Even for those who see the NN problem as huge (here’s a link Larry Lessig and Robert W. McChesney’s piece on the topic), the arguments seem quite general and assert that not maintaining net neutrality would lead to X, Y, or Z result but don’t provide the evidence that Majoras appears to want.

I am not saying that these folks (Lessig, Berners-Lee, Google, eBay etc.) are wrong in their support of NN or that their predictions are the equivalent of crying wolf. Rather it seems that more concrete examples or perhaps in this case more robust theoretical explanations and models are needed to make the case.

For those seeking more reading I suggest Brett Frischmann’s piece An Economic Theory of Infrastructure and Commons Management as it may provide some of the work that may be needed. Jonathan Zittrain’s The Generative Internet also sheds light on the problem and Mark Lemley and Larry Lessig’s The End of End-to-End: Preserving the Architecture of the Internet in the Broadband Era provides some foundational arguments as well.

As Lessig put it in his article, Re-Marking the Progress In Frischmann, 89 Minn. L. Rev. 1031 (2005):

It is not my aim here to resolve this choice between open access as a means to the end-to-end infrastructure … and network neutrality as the means to securing an end-to-end infrastructure. My aim instead is to insist that there is more to be done to resolve it. Even after we recognize the kinds of infrastructure that need support, and even if we were convinced that a commons was the best way to support those infrastructures, we would be left with the very difficult question of how we actually construct the commons. That critical question remains unanswered.

Thus if the FTC is asking for feedback, I suggest those who know this area well pipe up and offer the FTC their insights.

HT: Slashdot


The FTC announced that it will host a conference from Nov. 6 to 8 focusing on protecting consumers in an era of converging technologies. It is part of a program named, in what is an unending need to coin odd words, Protecting Consumers in the Next Tech-ade. The agenda for the meeting is available here.

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5 Responses

  1. KipEsquire says:

    “Rather it seems that more concrete examples or perhaps in this case more robust theoretical explanations and models are needed to make the case.”

    Okay: Wireless telephony follows the pricing equivalent of Net Neutrality. Cable television does not and charges both subscribers and content providers for access.

    Which has been the better “competitive and innovative” success story over the past twenty or so years?

  2. Deven Desai says:

    First, I am not sure that wireless really is neutral but if I understand you correctly you are pointing to a pricing matter which may be neutral. Can you explain a little more on that one?

    It seems to me that different wireless standards are in play and wireless carriers now do charge for differenet data use. They just have not discriminated on content costs, yet. As I do not claim to know the ins and outs of the wireless industry I’d love to know more about how they are neutral or not.

    Next, assuming that wireless is neutral as you describe, it seems you are suggesting that wireless is less competetive and innovative but you may be offering the question in general. If it is a general offering, what do you think?

  3. Jim Harper says:

    It’s good of you, Deven, to invite careful arguments in favor of net neutrality regulation. It may be telling that the first response is, roughly, “Duh! Isn’t it obvious?!”

  4. Jack S. says:

    Perhaps a big difference in the wireless market is both consumer and provider choice. If I don’t like the services/price offered by a network provider I can switch relatively easily. If a data provider doesn’t like a network they may also switch and if their content is popular they can take consumers with them.

    In the provision of wired lines, there is little if any competition. There are 2 choices if you discount satellite for it’s high prices and poor upload rates. Cable or DSL. That’s the consumer side. Speeds have remained relatively stagnate over the last few years and price has budged little. Moreover, as the government is phasing out surcharges that help finance POTS for people who cannot afford to pay regular rates, providers like Verizon are inventing new surcharges. There is also little if any transparency in their pricing and why should they be? They have no competition.

    From the content providers side, their problem is similar. Their packets must flow via the existing networks which does not have an infinite set of paths. Packets must still pass through the monopolized pipes and these packets under a non NN system will have to pay the troll at each bridge.

    Perhaps the FTC should look at highly deregulated markets with large amounts of competition to figure out what’s going wrong in the US. Speeds have increased dramatically in Europe (try 25Mbs) and prices have followed. Voice, TV and ultra high speed access go for less than 30 euros/month. The pricing is also transparent. 30 euros does not mean 30 euros + 20 euros in hidden surcharges. Network providers are given access to the various infrastructures of the formerly nationalized telcos (the PTT’s). This is something that has been non existent in the US..even though the telco’s have been pseudo nationalized through territorial carving of markets and government subsidies.

    The questions being asked seem very fishy when those who currently control the networks are asking for what? More control.

    While the Google’s and MS’s will have to ‘suck it up’ and pay the toll, small content providers may never have the chance to hit the big times because they won’t be able to afford the rates that the network providers will provide. Would YouTube have made it big so fast if the net was not neutral? Maybe not, since there would have been a lot of irritated users who felt like the bits were being sucked through a very tiny straw since YouTube didn’t have the cash to pay for a higher packet speed.

    Have the proponents of regulation stated how this will benefit the consumers and competition in general? That is what the policy of the Sherman and Clayton Acts are? no?