I’m still digesting the Open Internet order, and intend to post my thoughts and comments later. On the surface, it is fairly bland and inoffensive. It tentatively suggests a way forward, but also seeks guidance. And with the help of the Web, much guidance is forthcoming.
There are, unfortunately, many countries which actively suppress public participation in policy matters. Lashing out against oligarchs, cronies of the Leader, Party officials, well connected businesses and the like can have dreadful consequences. Corrupt rent-seeking is accomplished through secretive discussions between businesses and officials. Citizens of these countries suffer both tangible economic and physical harms and intangibly, through sense of powerlessness and oppression.
We Americans are fortunate that the rights of free debate and petition is guaranteed by our Constitution, and that these rights are institutionalized in the fabric of our government. We are also fortunate that (with few exceptions) the machinery of government is bathed in sunlight and that public access to policy debates is enforced by law – in this case, the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946. Each of us is entitled to our opinions on matters of public importance, to express them vigorously to our government, and to see that they are properly considered. Writing this on the 70th Anniversary of the landings at Normandy, I cannot help but reflect upon the direct connection between the sacrifice and heroism of that day, and our rights, privileges and the Rule of Law.
That said, there is a difference between an opinion and an informed opinion. When I was a know-it-all kid, my parents and teachers rightly impressed upon me a duty to inform myself before spouting off. Sometimes, it must have seemed like a losing battle. More than once, I was admonished that “when you become an expert in such-and-such, you can debate with the experts; in the meantime listen more and talk less”. Or, in the words of Lady Burton:
Men are four:
He who knows not and knows not he knows not, he is a fool—shun him;
He who knows not and knows he knows not, he is simple—teach him;
He who knows and knows not he knows, he is asleep—wake him;
He who knows and knows he knows, he is wise—follow him!
Lady Burton—Life of Sir Richard Burton.
Now that I am an expert in a field that has become contentious, I fully appreciate the wisdom of that teaching.
Which leads back to Network Neutrality. Public opinion has become inflamed about a cluster of esoteric topics. There are undisputed facts, disputed facts, speculations, conclusions and opinions. Unfortunately, the policy debate has been overwhelmed by the latter.
“Net Neutrality” is not devoid of intellectual roots. It is based on reasoned analysis by legal experts, most notably Tim Wu, Susan Crawford and Larry Lessig. Their work deserves thoughtful debate on its merits. My take is that much of it is premised on misunderstanding of selected, out-of-context facts, and developed through various logical fallacies. I believe that I can rebut most of their points.
The debate also has deep roots in the technology community. For many years, there has been schism between those who see network resources (“bandwidth”) as abundant, and those who see them as scarce. In the view of the former, attempts to allocate presumed unlimited capacity is unnecessary, foolish and harmful. They see all traffic fitting into a common packet forwarding paradigm. The latter hold that at times, traffic demand at some points in the network will exceed capacity, that different traffic sources have different performance (“quality of service”) requirements, and that as a result, congestion must be controlled by traffic management regimes specific to the needs of the source. I am firmly in the latter camp, as are many other respected experts; there are many respected experts on the other side. We have reasoned, if somewhat heated, debates on the topic, all based on a set of undisputed facts.
Pecuniary interest is a motivator on both sides. It can be argued that at its root, this is a tussle between facility-based broadband providers and content providers over their respective shares of a slice of consumer discretionary income. The latter have succeeded in portraying themselves as victims, and their opponents as greedy, highly profitable monopolists. This despite the fact that the same charges can be leveled at some of them. Some even attack the broadband providers for business practices at the access/transport level, while engaging in those same practices (and worse) at the content level. Such behavior is expected, and sorting out these tussles is an important function of the FCC.
Then there is the common mob. Following the call to arms by the likes of Mr. Wu, Ms. Crawford, and Mr. Lessig, as amplified through self- appointed public interest groups like Free Press, Common Knowledge and Save the Internet, and building on other frustrations with broadband operators, the topic has generated inarticulate rage. In fact, so much that the FCC’s capability to process all the comments has been overwhelmed as if by Denial-of-Service attack. It is fitting that comedian John Oliver’s rant on Last Week Tonight, (which apparently froze the FCC’s web site), was a call to action by the Internet’s population of trolls, fanboys, haters and flame writers.
Reading a selection of the more than 2600 comments in the FCC’s EFCS database is discouraging. Many are inarticulate rants, more like toddlers’ temper tantrums than contributions to a policy debate. Many are obviously copied. Many are off-topic, devoid of basis in fact, built on fallacy and misunderstanding. Many give cause to mourn the state of public education in English grammar and composition. And most consist only of one sentence fragment.
I imagine a small army of staffers in the FCC’s headquarters, trying desperately to keep up with the flood. Their task is unenviable. I rather fear that thoughtful, original comments – on both sides of the issue – will be lost in the shouting.