August 25, 2008  ·  Lessig

As I said about my McCain on Technology video, the opening graph is not well defined. Others said the same thing. Neither are the data provided. If I had all the time in the world, I would correct both in the video. I don’t. So here’s a clarification:

I am using a hybrid of the ITU data (2000-2007) and OECD data (1997-1999) in my analysis, but only the latter in the chart. You can see a spreadsheet with both here. The numbers (#5, #22) refer to the U.S. ranking for broadband penetration over that period. OECD doesn’t have exactly the same analysis, but because there are relatively few countries with broadband penetration of any significance, it is easy to calculate that broadband penetration for the US goes from #2 to #22 from 1997 through 2007.

The Communication Workers of America have a new site and study to bolster the embarrassing state of US broadband quality. You can download their 50 state survey here. Far as I can tell, the simplest explanation for broadband speed is this: How close are you to DC regulators. The closer you are, the better your broadband. Not a perfect predictor, but pretty good.

April 18, 2008  ·  Lessig

I was asked to give some overview testimony at the FCC’s “Network Neutrality” hearing at Stanford yesterday. Here’s the testimony.

One panelist, George Ou, was particularly exercised about what he perceived to be a policy by Free Press and EFF to push for “metered access.” I don’t speak for the Free Press or EFF, but my view is simply that tiered access for consumers does not violate “network neutrality” principles. Obviously I’d prefer a world of flat rate, fast service. And if we actually had any meaningful ISP competition, we might get to that. But the narrow question I’ve addressed here is whether it would violate neutrality principles for ISPs to offer different bandwidth commitments for different prices. I don’t believe it does.

October 3, 2007  ·  Lessig

Five years ago Monday, Congress (I believe) for the first time heard the word “Network Neutrality.” As Tim Wu has described, in the summer of 2002, he and I talked through how the campaign to support “end-to-end” neutrality might be extended. (See, e.g., “The Policy Implications of End-to-End.”) He then ran with the reframing of “Network Neutrality,” and thanks to his great work, and others, the idea has stuck.

Lots of progress has been made on this issue in the last five years. Fantastic organizations (like Free Press‘s have mobilized real attention to this issue. No one imagined five years ago that meme would spread so fast and so well.

But I am especially happy now to have the support of AT&T and Verizon on this issue, as they’re obviously now pushing to get some real Net Neutrality legislation passed in Congress soon.

“What?” you ask? “AT&T and Verizon?!!! Are you nuts?”

Yea, I know the conventional wisdom — AT&T and Verizon, like all carriers, want no Net Neutrality regulation. But how else to explain the absurd gaffes of the last couple months? AT&T censoring Eddie Vedder. AT&T censoring NARAL. Verizon and AT&T have Terms of Service that permit them to censor criticism of them.

Sure, these companies MAY BE extraordinarily inept. They MAY BE just tripping up all over the place. They may be simply signaling their own non-neutral position in a competitive market for networks, allowing consumers to select other networks that are more neutral. (Scratch that: I forgot. No more competition. See this fantastic graphic over at Wikipedia to get a flavor of the retrenchment that is telecom policy in America today.)

So, sure. Maybe. Maybe this is just a mistake. But I don’t buy it. These guys spend millions on lobbying every year. (Actually, probably every month.) How could they possible be so inept? Isn’t a better interpretation of the events of the last few months that they just really want what would be good for the Net generally — a very clear set of neutrality regulations?

(And yes, of course I am.)

August 10, 2007  ·  Lessig

In October, 2002, I testified before the Senate Commerce Committee about “network neutrality.” (Here’s the article referenced in the testimony.) I believe it was the first time Congress heard the term “network neutrality,” but the message was just a continuation of the story many of us had been pushing since circa 1998 about preserving the “end-to-end” principle on the Internet.

After my testimony, an economist/lobbyist approached me and asked: “Do you really believe there is any threat that broadband network owners would discriminate in either the content they carry, or the applications they allow? After all, first, none will have enough market power to be able to do this without consequence, and second, even if they did have enough market power, what possible incentive would they have?”

I remember then thinking — this is the life of the theorist. They have a simple economic theory about how people will behave. When mixed with large lobbyist fees, it becomes impossible for them to imagine how anyone could behave inconsistent with the theory.

I don’t know what theory would explain the extraordinary stupidity of AT&T in censoring certain anti-Bush Pearl Jam lyrics.

But the important points to remember are these:

(1) This is precisely the behavior we e2e/NetNeutrality advocates have been warning about for almost a decade. And not just (or even most importantly) in this explicit form. Much more important are the games played more subtly, to push innovation and content in the direction that benefits AT&T.

(2) This is precisely the behavior cable companies have demonstrated from the beginning of cable. They live in a culture in which they own the lines, so they believe they have the absolute right to control the content/application on those lines. Whether or not that culture is harmful for cable deployment, it will be deadly for Internet innovation.

(3) This is precisely the environment that raises the cost of application innovation for the cell phone industry. As many VCs have explained to me, innovating in the cell phone application space is deadly, because every innovation needs the approval of the network owner. Again, maybe Steve Jobs is right, and this kind of control is necessary for cell phones (though I don’t believe it). But bringing the culture of the cell phone network to the Internet is a great way to increase profits to the network owners while reducing innovation on the Net.

This censoring event, whether AT&T’s “mistake” or not, should be a rallying point for this movement. Let it be remembered a million times until we get an administration willing to do something (finally) to protect the promise of the Internet.

October 23, 2006  ·  Lessig

Former FCC Chairman William Kennard published an op-ed in the New York Times Saturday. The main point of the piece is to lament the truly awful state of broadband access for the poor in the United States. One statistic (not mentioned by Kennard) says it all: As the OECD reported, the United States has the 4th highest level of students (by 15 years old) who have never used a computer — worse than Greece, Poland, Portugal, and the Czech Republic.

What I found extraordinary about the piece, however, was its slam of “network neutrality” legislation. As he wrote:

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). In the past year, collectively they have spent $50 million on lobbying and advertising, effectively preventing Congress and the public from dealing with more pressing issues.

So let’s get this straight:

After 8 years of deregulating broadband in America (begun by Kennard, completed by Martin), both DSL and cable are free of any real obligation to protect the original neutrality of the Internet. Once some rules imposed in merger agreements expire, last-mile broadband providers will be free to pick and choose the content and applications they want the network to carry. They will use this power, as at&t Chairman Ed Whitacre explained, to tax the most successful content and application providers on the net. That tax, as I and many have argued, will effectively block the next generation greats.

Over these same 8 years, following this policy of deregulation, we’ve gone from 1st in the world to rivaling, as Kennard puts it, Slovenia. Broadband on average is slower in the US, and more expensive. In France, a triple play “Internet, Telephone, and TV” package is $32. Comcast offers less for $150.

At some point, you might think some would begin to worry about whether the US strategy makes sense. (compare: State of Denial). Forget the theory, forget the hand-waiving by academics and ideologues: Just ask one simple question — is the policy working as well as the (different) policies of our competitors?

I. and many, have concluded it is not. I take it, that is the view of the more than a million who have written to policy-makers arguing for network neutrality legislation. These people want policy that will finally push broadband providers to provide at least the quality and price of broadband in France. The online campaign to get Congress to do something here has been amazing, rivaling only the campaign to stop the FCC from passing rules that would permit even more concentration in media ownership.

But now comes Kennard to belittle this extraordinary online movement. It’s not a battle, he tells us, about whether competition in applications and content, ultimately driving penetration, will continue. It is instead a battle about whether the “extremely rich” will prevail over the “merely rich.” Nothing important in that battle, he tells us (except perhaps to these various flavors of the rich); Congress should therefore move on from this agenda for billionaires, and take up the real challenge of serving the poor.

It’s funny, I hadn’t realized I was a Google tool. I had thought we were pushing to reverse a failed policy because we wanted to enable the next Google (that was my point about YouTube). I thought we were angry because the “merely rich” had yet to provide broadband as broadly as in other comparable nations. And I thought we were fighting the efforts of the “merely rich” to further reduce competition, either by buying up spectrum that would enable real wireless competition, or by getting state laws passed to make muni-competition illegal. I had thought these were important issues for the new economy — keeping the platform as competitive as possible, to keep prices and quality moving in the direction they move in the rest of the developed world.

Now that Kennard has set us straight, however, I’m relieved to know we can finally move onto other, more important issues. Global warming is at the top of my list. Maybe you have other priorities.

But before we move on, let’s not forget:

Even if America’s broadband strategy doesn’t make sense for America, it makes lots of sense for certain companies. Kennard knows this well, because he sits on the board of many of those who benefit most from this deregulation. His op-ed acknowledges his work with the Carlyle Group. He is also on the board of Sprint Nextel Corporation, Hawaiian Telcom and Insight Communications (a cable provider). These companies will benefit directly if Kennard succeeds in getting Congress to forget Network Neutrality. They will become “merely richer” at the expense, I believe, not of Google or eBay, but of the next gang of kids with the next great idea that Google, and eBay (and Comcast and at&t) just don’t get.

I don’t know Kennard personally. People who do tell me he’s an extremely bright, ethical man. I’m sure that’s right. But 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?)

They say Washington has to be like this. You could never get great people into government if they couldn’t cash-out once they left. But I bet if the next President demanded of nominees to the FCC that they promise not to take jobs in the industries they regulated for some “limited time” (let’s say, the life of a copyright), the President would find lots of qualified nominees. Maybe then it would be easier to hear the pleas for the poor, without the echo of the interests of the “merely rich” confusing the message.