FCC Meeting for November 3 . . . . It Just Keeps Getting Stranger

The FCC has issued the agenda for it’s November 3 meeting. Gone is the proposed Notice of Inquiry on Network Neutrality. And a number of non-merger related items have popped up instead. Meanwhile, the trade press report a hot and heavy debate around forcing AT&T to divest wireless spectrum to create a real competitor (you can read the comments I wrote for Media Access Project here).

My thoughts on all these doings below . . .

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You've Got Mail!

I’m sure getting a lot of junk mail lately. In the war between spammers and spam filters, the spammers are winning. I remember Paul Graham speaking five or six years ago at the AI lab about his ideas for Bayesian spam filters. I don’t think there was a single person in the room who didn’t think, “But why don’t the spammers just send their message in an image?” Well, pretty much all mail clients and many institutional filter’s have implemented Paul’s ideas anyway. It worked for a good while, but now of course the bad guys are sending pictures. I feel that I’m missing something important in not understanding why it has taken them so long.

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How to Steal an Election

There’s been a lot of talk recently about electronic voting machines and the potential for fraud. To bring home just how serious this issue is, the always excellent Ars Technica has a chilling how-to guide on how to steal an election using electronic ballot machines. So simple, even a neocon could do it!

It amazes me how we’ve suddenly gone from a system that, while it may have its faults and has been abused in the past, at least is somewhat open. People would be able to stand at the polls and watch what was going on, and perhaps catch any fraud red-handed. In going to these electronic voting machines that do not leave any sort of audit trail, we have in effect, handed over the security of our democratic institutions to a private company. If we went to the average voter and said “hey, we’d like to hire this company that will collect and tabulate the all of the ballots in our election. You won’t be able to see what goes on within their company… you won’t be able to look at the ballots yourself… you’ll just have to accept whatever they say is the result of the election” I think most people would think it’s a lousy idea.

My ranting about the entire situation after the jump.

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Keep Azeroth Tax Free!

With massive budget deficits, an ever-increasing trade deficit, and fear that our aging population will be unable to support spiraling Social Security and Medicare costs, the Republicans have finally begun to consider softening their hardline stance against imposing new taxes.

Bad news, rather than try to raise revenue from companies locating off shore or megacorps enjoying windfall taxes from manipulating oil prices, the Republicans prefer to tax “virtual places” like Azeroth and Second Life’s user constructed “the World”.

I know the current crop of Republicans tend to live in a happy fantasy world where we we are treated like liberators in Iraq, all Americans are enjoying the benefits of our booming economy, and deregulation cures cancer and whitens your teeth, but GOOD GRIEF!

I swear to God, it’s like Terry Prachet working with Neal Stephenson instead of Neil Gaiman.

What’s next, real estate taxes on Boardwalk and Park Place? Capital gains taxes on Yahoo’s “virtual portfolio” tracker? Income tax every time I fantasize about winning the lottery?

Why Congress needs to stop playing with itself and get a life below . . .

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Quasi-muni wireless for Colorado Springs?

This front page article in today’s Colorado Springs Gazette discusses a proposal for a private company to provide wireless throughout the city. There would be a user fee; it would not be a free service.

This would not be a “Muni wireless” of the kind favored by many of us Wetmechanics, but still, given my recent experiences with Adelphia, (see Wetmachine article below this one (including comments)), I might tend to favor it, on the theory that anything is better than having to rely on the local cable monopoly. Colorado Springs is generally a very conservative town, despite having liberal pockets here and there, and I don’t think a muni wireless would have much chance of passage.

Yesterday’s Gazette carried another front page article about (outrageous?) bonuses paid by the municipal utility company, and the tenor of comments on the Gazette’s website indicates a quasi-religious belief in the virtues of private companies relative to municipalities. And religion is very strong in Colorado Springs.

I would be interested in Harold Feld’s analysis of the proposal for Colorado Springs, and in your comments too-also, even if you are not Harold.

When access to the Internet is a matter of life and death, Adelphia fails it

I write this hasty note from a friend’s office in Colorado Springs. I’ve been in “the Springs” for going on two weeks, and I hope to get back to my home in Massachusetts some day. I’m staying with my brother and sister-in-law and their young children, trying to help them through a rough patch. Without going into particulars, both parents are fighting for their lives. Think, transfusions and blood counts. Think, paralysis, wheel chairs, emergency rooms. You get the picture.

Last Wednesday, the day after a storm which had knocked out the electricity for ten hours, a technician from Adelphia knocked on the door. “Tech #6” was his name. He informed me that he was going to check things out outside the house. His visit was a little mysterious, since we were having no problems with any service provided by Adelphia, but I said, “fine.” Shortly later he left, after first informing me that he had detected no problem. Ten minutes after the departure of Tech #6 I noticed that the Internet connection no longer worked. I had been working on the internet when he arrived. Everything had been working just fine until then.

Well guess what, friends, the Internet still no longer works at my brother’s house (although cable TV still does). I’ve spent about fifteen hours trying to solve the problem with Adelphia, most of that time spent on hold, and when not on hold, getting conflicting information from Adelphia customer-service people about whether or not there was an outage in the neigborhood, and when we might expect to have our service restored. I’ve been promised “call back within 24 hours” and “call back within the hour” five times. I’ve talked to supervisors and their supervisors. This has been as effective as talking to the wind and its supervisors. We have received no calls back from Adelphia. I’ve explained that there are disabled people in the house who cannot use the telephone and who rely on the Internet for daily consultation with their doctors. I’ve explained that loss of Internet connectivity was coincident with the uninvited arrival of Adelphia Tech #6. Evidently these considerations mean nothing to Adelphia. To borrow a line from Ernestine the Operator, “They don’t care. They don’t have to.” Or as Harold Feld might say, “being a monopoly means never having to say you’re sorry.” Every promise they have made has been broken.

Meanwhile, the loss of Internet connectivity has not only made caring for my brother and sister-in-law downright frightening, it’s made it virtually impossible to keep up with my day job. But, no time to lament that now. The kids will be coming home from school soon, and I better scoot to make sure everything is OK back at the house. But once things get a little bit back to normal, I’m going to investigate what this “filing a complaint with the FCC” business is all about. I hope that it provides a little catharsis, anyway.

The AT&T Merger Saga Continues . . .

No one could mistake last week’s twists and turns in the proposed AT&T/BellSouth merger for the excitement, titilation and hijinks of the Foley Follies. But by the staid standards of telecom policy, last week’s swirl of activity constituted a veritable Telanovella of intrigue and power politics. Duelling Congressional Committees! Kevin Martin pushes for a showdown, but Dems Michael Copps and Jonathon Adelstein hang tough! Martin stages a “strategic withdrawal,” but schedules a new vote for November 3 after he returns from his long-planned trip to Asia. AT&T offers new concessions, kicking off a fresh round of public comment and criticism of the merger. And what will happen to the Notice of Inquiry on network neutrality that Martin offered the Dems as an incentive to approve the merger? Is it still on the table?

I’m all aflutter, I tells ya. For my continued speculation, as well as my thoughts on the proposed AT&T conditions and how you can still make a difference, see below….

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Atkins & Weiser “Third Way” Paper, Isenberg Responds, and My Own Response

A few months back, Robert Atkins and Phil Weiser wrote this paper called a A “Third Way” on Network Neutrality. I recommend reaing the paper, but to summarize: The paper asserts that the NN debate has polarized between the telcos & cable cos, who want an unlimited right to control traffic, and the pro-net neutrality advocates, who want all packets treated equally by the network operator. Atkins & Weiser see this polarization as obscruing the fact that both sides of the debate raise legitimate concerns about market abuse and investment in networks on the one hand, and about government intrusiveness into network management on the other.

Atkins & Weiser therefore recommend an approach they believe addresses both sets of legitimate concerns. Congress should permit network operators to have considerable discretion with tiering — including favoring content based on origin as well as by nature of service. However, to protect consumers from abuses of market power, network operators must (A) fully disclose which packets are favored and why. In this way, consumers can ascertain readily if their lousy connection with mediastreamerA and great connection with mediastreamerB is a consequence of mediastreamerA having a bad service or their ISP cutting a deal with mediastreamerB; (B) Congress should affirm the FCC’s responsibility to monitor the broadband ISP market for anticompetitive abuses and permit the FCC to resolve any abusive practice that may emerge either by adjuidcation or by rule; and (C) the government should provide other incentives — such as tax credits or subsidies — to facilitate broadband deployment.

Recently Dave Isenberg wrote a a strong critique of the paper. Isenberg chastises Atkins and Weiser for falling into what I shall characterize as the attractive trap of the apparently “reasonable compromise.” Isenberg argues that, on the one hand, Atkins and Weiser lack vision. They fail to appreciation of the revolutionary aspects of the internet and the damage to the power of the internet as a disruptive technology if broadband network providers can exercise the kind of control over content and services that Atkins & Weiser would permit under traditional antitrust analysis. On the other hand, Isenberg maintains that Atkins & Weiser fail to appreciate the “Realpolitik” problems of relying on the FCC for enforcement instead of enacting a prophylactic, self-executing rule. Given the potential for agency capture and the length of time it will take the agency to act, a rule which does nothing but set up the FCC as a watch dog with discretion is worse than useless. Only by prohibitting tiering and requiring network neutrality can save the power of the internet as a disruptive technology capable of challenging the core businesses (such as video and voice) of the network providers themselves.

About a month ago, Phil Weiser and I debated this point over on the Public Knowledge policy blog. You can see our back and forth here: Phil’s first post, my response, Phil’s reply to me (with my reply in the comments), and Phil’s final summation.

As folks might imagine, I tend to side with Dave Isenberg on this one, although I recommend the Atkins & Weiser paper to folks interested in alternative views. Atkins and Weiser are no industry shills or ideological Neocons refusing to recognize the potential dangers. And, as I have always said, anyone who wants to formulate real policy rather than foster religious ideology needs to consider other views and recognize where someone else has a valid point. I don’t agree with Atkins & Weiser (for reasons I’ve covered at length in the links and elsewhere), but I’m glad to have considered what they had to say.

Stay tuned . . . .