How we long for the switchboard operator and virtual spilled tea

During the tumultuous 1960s, someone reminded DARPA that the network of connected computers it created could not be turned on its own people. The guys and gals of the agency had an “a-ha” moment in the late 1980s and decided to pass it off to private sector agents who could then, via an open source technology and a consumerist market narrative, invite the nerds from Bellvue and Arkham to create an insidious surveillance mechanism that you now call the internet.

Getting Americans, who once had a distrust of the CIA and FBI for violating their privacy rights, to spill almost all their personal beings into a computer via digital bulletin boards at first was no simple feat. The first drawing board blew up during the 2000-2001 recession. Amazon was one of the very few consumer-centric companies to survive the downturn. The internet was apparently dead ….until 11 September 2001.

The internet found its two-fold purpose. In private hands under the guise of “democratic openness”, “free speech”, “innovation”, and “market capitalism”, well-off college students would drop out of their undergrad and graduate programs and do the surveillance bidding of government by creating search portals and social media alluring enough to get unsuspecting consumers to look up information they once obtained from newspapers, the barber shop, grocery stores, and Friday night tea parties in exchange for the handing over of their personal (and typically mundane, boring) information.

The second portion of its purpose would be turned outward. Making up for the lack of human intel on the ground in the Middle East, the internet could be used to leverage messaging campaigns to spur revolt, as countries such as Egypt and Libya can attest to.

One has to wonder if the chickens have come full circle to roost as the vanguard of domestic surveillance, i.e. social media, now see its faculties leveraged by Russia as The Great Bear seeks pay back for the dent in its Middle East influence, due in part to the democracy narrative spread by the FANGs.

Yes. Life was simpler when Ruth Buzzy ran the switch board and encyclopedias, radio, television, and tea time gave you all the information you needed .

Opt-in, Opt-out policy appropriate for addressing online privacy

In May 2017, U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn introduced H.R.2520, the Browser Act, a bill designed to provide consumers with some control over the use of their personal information. Specifically, consumers that use broadband access services or websites or applications providing subscription, purchase, account, or search engine services are provided, depending on the sensitivity of personal information, the choice to opt-in or opt-out of policies used by these services to manage consumer information.

For sensitive information, opt-in approval must be expressly granted by the consumer. Sensitive information includes:

  • financial information;
  • health information;
  • information about children under the age of thirteen;
  • social security numbers information;
  • information regarding a consumer’s geo-location;
  • web browsing information: or
  • information on the history of usage of software programs or mobile applications.

Consumers must be provided the opportunity to give opt-out approval for non-sensitive information.

Mrs Blackburn’s intent with the legislation is to equalize broadband access providers and edge content providers under the eyes of the Federal Trade Commission, the federal agency responsible for consumer protection and anti-trust law enforcement. In my opinion, this is not a far off from former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s goal of openness and transparency throughout the entire internet ecosystem; from consumer to broadband access provider to websites provided by edge providers.

What Mrs Blackburn’s bill also does is address information asymmetries, where edge content providers are viewed as having more knowledge on the value of consumer information that they extract from websites than the consumer does herself. The consumer cannot answer the question, “Is the value of the information I receive from online, x, greater than the value of the information that I give up, p, where that information is private?

It is not readily apparent whether H.R.2520 was also designed to save the consumer from asking this question: ” Why should I pay for an economic good i.e. privacy that isn’t Google’s to sell in the first place?”

Professor Caleb S. Fuller of Grove City College describes privacy as an economic good, something that the consumer wants more of. Most consumers are not willing to pay to protect this good, even though they know that firms like Google are collecting this information for free. For example, according to Professor Fuller’s research, 90% of Google’s users know that their “mouse droppings” are being tracked.While 29% of Google’s users don’t mind being tracked, 71% do. Their reasoning, according to Professor Fuller includes the fear of price discrimination based on their information; the receipt of spam advertising; the risk of identity theft; and the “dis-utility in just not knowing who knows what.”

One equitable solution, in my opinion, would be for Google and other edge providers to pay their subscribers to provide private data. Google could provide an offering schedule based on the sensitivity of the information it wishes to purchase. Consumers would have to consider the value of the privacy they give up in exchange for the value obtained from accessing web content. I wouldn’t expect every consumer to sell their data. Google will wisely set limits on its offers and a significant portion of consumers unable to get a price they want will settle for the old private data for access exchange that they have been conducting for two decades.

The opt-in, opt-out policy mitigates the work that the consumer should put in to determine the value of her data, but gives her the final say over how her private data can be used. Unfortunately this is also the down side where the market won’t be used to truly determine the real value that can be sold.

The President’s 5G public works project

It is election year and President Trump is signaling that he is well aware that priming the economic pump to quench America’s thirst for growth in the economy may buy him some political capital while helping his fellow Republicans in the Congress and maybe a few Republican governors and state house members retain their seats. Today’s latest political proposal: construction of a nation-wide 5G communications network by the federal government.

Reuters reported earlier today that among the Trump administration’s initiatives to address potential Chinese hacks of America’s communications systems is the construction of a 5G network by the U.S. government. According to the report, the idea is still being considered among lower ranking staff within the Administration and proposals may not get to the President for another six to eight months.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai was quick to respond this morning to the 5G proposal. Mr Pai argued in his brief statement that construction of this latest generation of high-speed communications network was best left to the market. Rather than going down a costly and eventually unproductive path, the chairman recommended that federal policy stay the course and focus on getting more spectrum, that portion of electromagnetic waves necessary for making calls and moving mobile data, into the commercial space.

Again, Mr Pai demonstrated that he is one Republican that attempts to be practical.

Progressives haven’t come out one way or the other …. yet. Progressives have thrown support in the past behind the idea that initiatives on the part of municipalities to build their own broadband networks, premised on the need for access to affordable broadband in the face of a lack of supply by large carriers such as AT&T and Comcast. On first blush, Mr Trump’s idea seems to be nothing but municipal broadband on steroids, just on a national level.

I doubt, however, that advocacy groups like Public Knowledge or Free Press are going to jump on the opportunity to provide Mr Trump with any favorable optics on this issue. The last thing progressives want to risk is giving the Administration any type of lifeline that would help pull Mr Trump’s popularity into the respectable zone.

Mr Trump could have used the opportunity to make a political play based on economic stimulus a nation-wide project like this could provide. He could have sold it like his version of the Hoover dam, especially in rural or mountainous areas where broadband companies have dared not tread because of sparser populations and rough topography. The Deplorables in flyover states and the Forgotten that inhabit the insular territories of the Caribbean and the Pacific would have warmed up to Mr Trump’s goody bag of 5G services by 2021,especially if the idea is sold as another job creator.

Mr Trump will have to sell broadband access providers on the idea of falling on their swords and taking one in the national interest. According to NCTA, broadband providers have invested $1.4 trillion in constructing and deployong broadband networks. The cable industry alone claims to have made a $275 billion investment in broadband infrastructure.  They are not about to tell investors that future returns on this investment are about to be pushed aside by a public works communications project designed to keep China from eavesdropping on two ex-college room mates talking recipes for peach cobbler and the latest #MeToo campaign.

When the #internet was just for #academics….#broadband

Democrats are wary of Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Hillary Clinton’s loss in the November 2016 elections allegedly compounded by a misinformation game played by the Russians via social media has the Democrats in Congress asking themselves if a little more transparency i.e. regulation of social media practices is necessary in order to prevent any more shenanigans from Russia.

In the net neutrality debates, Democrats and grass roots progressives have taken the position that due to their gatekeeper position, internet access providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are in a position to negatively impact the innovative internet portal and social media services that Facebook and Google provide. Democrats argue that we don’t want to discourage the creation of the next Facebook by allowing Comcast to throttle speeds from potential upstarts or block a consumer’s access to the new Twitter. Now these members of Congress appear a bit wary of the cat that they have been snuggling up to; being scraped by the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) is not fun.

What I find ironic is that these congressmen were no where to be found as the FANGs were busy building a business model on acquiring consumer data from the droppings that consumers leave all over the internet. This data collection didn’t impact the politicians, who thrive on political intelligence so having a master information collector or two on their donor page didn’t hurt. It wasn’t until the FANGs messed with the source of a politician’s livelihood i.e. the vote, that the FANGs fell under deeper scrutiny.

It is up to the individual to choose whether to use FANG services. I have little to no use for Facebook myself. Amazon, Google, and Netflix deliver pretty much what they promise: logistics and content. What’s amusing is that highly educated, professionals in the Congress have yet to figure out the business model that social media relies on for its survival.

I think it is best that the internet go back to what it was meant to be: a way to connect information seekers with data. The irony is that internet service providers have been providing their networks as a part of the larger data transmission scheme for over two decades but seem to be catching the most heat from congressmen that support the companies providing the most abuse.

Listening to the whiny left on net neutrality can leave you jaded about “edge” technology

Over the past week, a number of progressive grass roots groups and some 21 state attorneys general have filed suit in federal appellate courts seeking to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules that were promulgated in December 2015. This early in the process the petitions have laid out general assertions that the Commission’s decision to repeal was arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of agency discretion.

In other words, the Commission, dominated by three Republicans to two lone Democrats, was given to sudden and unaccountable mood swings as it went from determining in 2015 that broadband access providers should be viewed as old style telephone companies to last year’s decision where the Commission now views broadband access providers as information service providers.

I don’t see how the left’s position, that the Commission should use rules for regulating a point to point communications service, is to increase broadband access for insular communities like the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. According to Commission data, 66% of population in U.S. territories lacks access to 25 megabit per second download, 3 megabit per second upload broadband access services.  The flexibility required for deploying more advanced broadband access services in U.S. territories like the USVI and Puerto Rico cannot manifest itself in a regulatory framework that requires a body of regulators give approval or delay proceedings necessary for approving the introduction of new services.

The real arbitrary behavior took place when the Commission, led by Democrat Tom Wheeler, actually persuaded two other Democratic members of the board and some four million naive voters and taxpayers, that the Commission was actually in a position to ensure traffic neutrality throughout the entire internet; from the voter and taxpayer’s laptop to her favorite porn site hosted on a server located in the Azores. For Mr Wheeler to premise a ridiculous expansion of the Communications Act on the assertion that the Commission, via regulation, could ensure that all traffic be treated equally on the internet only resulted in creating false expectations regarding service among a public that couldn’t tell you exactly what net neutrality is in the first place.

The Commission, now led by Ajit Pai, has, if anything, reintroduced some reality into communications regulation. The first reality is that Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 is not necessary for regulating advanced, broadband internet access services in the 21st century. Second, the repeal of the 2015 Wheeler order recognizes that providing American consumers with the best access to a global, interconnected computer network means being able to leverage the openness of the internet to provide new services in a permission-less environment.

It is ironic that the edge providers that want their subscribers to access their content on the highest quality communications networks are willing to endure delays that will certainly arise under a Title II regime that requires permission to innovate at every turn.

Trump uses broadband to shore up and keep his rural base

During a speech in Nashville, Tennessee, President Donald Trump announced that he had signed an executive order designed to increase broadband access to 23 million underserved residents of rural America. The initiative involves recommitting to prior attempts to use federal facilities as sites for commercial wireless broadband facilities. Streamlining siting policy for broadband infrastructure by using federal property is seen as a way to “reduce barriers to capital investment, remove obstacles to broadband services, and more efficiently employ government resources.”

Mr Trump’s announcement was made at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention just prior to the President heading further south to attend the national football championship game in the undisputed capital of the south, Atlanta. The southern flavor of the event is further flavored by the two southern teams that are playing, the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama. In my view, the convention, announcement, and attendance at the game is a great kickoff for the 2018 midterms, where getting out Mr Trump’s base will be crucial not only for the elections this November, but for the 2020 elections as well.

This may be the first of many salvos during the 2018 campaign. The connectivity and inclusion of rural America has also been the concern of Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.  Mr Pai is from the Midwest and has placed closing the digital divide high on his priority list arguably being a close second in priority to overturning the Commission’s net neutrality rules, which were repealed last month. He fervently believes that high-speed broadband access to the internet can level the economic playing field for rural residents.

The connectivity issue goes beyond technology and economics. According to an article in The Washington Post, rural Americans feel deeply estranged from their fellow Americans that live in urban areas.  Almost seven out of ten Americans living in rural areas find their values out of sync with the values of big city dwellers. The federal government is perceived by rural America as favoring urban dwellers over them.

And it doesn’t appear that rural Americans want to connect with urban Americans, broadband connectivity or not. They appear satisfied by their own social fabric, comfortable in their culture, one that sees each of them looking out for the other.

Broadband connectivity may improve their ability to move goods to markets, but it may also further enhance internal rural bonds. And given Mr Trumps penchant for social media, especially Twitter, rural America will be able to maintain a connection with the only urban dweller that matters to them.

State regulators probably can’t wait for the return of net neutrality rules

Sovereign individuals are seeking refuge in cyberspace. Minimizing state intervention in the goings on in cyberspace should be a legal priority for those that want to engage and prosper in a decentralized internet. Imposing old telephone rules on broadband access providers under the guise of ensuring the democratization of the internet will have the opposite effect. The rules won’t create more freedom. It will squelch it.

What net neutrality rule proponents take for granted is the actual logistics of Title II regulation and the slippery slope that will emerge from old style telephone regulation of the prime conduit to the digital economy.

First, let’s look at regulation of the access piece from consumer to their internet service provider. Consumers will want this connectivity regulated, especially consumers that use cable modem services for their access. State regulators, who have long abdicated their participation in regulating access services, will find themselves struggling to get back into the oversight game. One argument for validating participation in regulation will be the regulators expert status as a protector of consumer interests. Most consumers know nothing about networks and will need the guiding hand of state commissions on issues of network management and transparency.

I will not be surprised if state commissions start requiring some type of price schedule that is made available for public viewing. Also, state commissions will find reasons for opening investigations into how network management may be impacting pricing. Lawyers and external affairs specialists will be in great demand.

The Federal Communications Commission and state public service commissions will take a more active role in rate design. In jurisdictions where they were abandoned, tiered rates be reintroduced. To make up for the dearth of broadband deployment in rural areas, states will now see an opportunity to authorize higher rates per broadband access line in urban areas in order to keep rates lower in rural areas. As more Americans move to urban centers, they will have to contend not only with higher housing prices but higher communications prices as well.

And I don’t see why wireless communications being spared the onslaught either. Dumping your landline may not be enough to escape increases in mobile phone rates designed not only to fund additional broadband deployment but to maintain universal service access to wire-line services by low income folks.

America was moving in the right direction by innovating access to the internet and in turn getting rid of a layer of onerous communications regulation in then form of state regulators. Net neutrality invites them back in.