The new leader of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Chairman Ajit Pai, has said he wants to roll back existing net neutrality rules that prevent big cable companies from discriminating against online companies and services. Congress is lining up behind him.
Ten zillion words have been written about Net Neutrality. In 2015, the FCC put in place light touch net neutrality rules that not only prohibit certain harmful practices, but also allow the Commission to develop and enforce rules to address new forms of discrimination. It is rumored that Chairman Pai is planning to replace this system with a set of minimum voluntary commitments, which would give a green light for Internet access providers to discriminate in unforeseen ways.
A few weeks before the FCC vote on Net Neutrality, I spent the weekend in Las Vegas with my dad. He recently wrote a beautiful post about his side of the experience.
Right after we got back I wrote a post about explaining Net Neutrality to him and referenced drawing a picture on a napkin as I explained how the Internet actually works and why Net Neutrality is important.
“Over ice cream (#3 for this trip) I drew him a detailed picture on a napkin of how the Internet actually worked. I rarely do this since I just assume everyone understands it. Bad assumption. It was fascinating to answer his questions, explain the parts he had wrong, and help him understand some nuances around data and how it gets from one place to another. At some point I mentioned John Oliver and Cable Company Fuckery to him.”
I assumed the napkin was long gone as I vaguely remember cleaning up the table after we ate our ice cream and throwing everything away. But, lo and behold, my dad sent me an email this morning titled “Net Neutrality Napkin.”
Dad, I’m always amazed at what you find in your pockets and the bottom of your desk drawers.
Tomorrow, the FCC is expected to vote on a proposal for new rules around Net Neutrality. The vote is likely to be 3-2 in favor of the rules, split along partisan lines (3 democrats, 2 republicans – shocker…). There has been an enormous amount of bombastic rhetoric in the past few months about the issue that has recently become especially politicized in the same way the debate about SOPA/PIPA unfolded.
I’ve been very public about being a supporter of net neutrality and the idea that the FCC should put down clear, legally enforceable rules around it. However, every time I write or tweet something about the topic, I get a flurry of responses telling me why I’m wrong, why this is bad, or why I’m an idiot. I find these helpful as they force me to focus on the objectionable issues, although I have to put some work in to separate the noise from the signal. And unfortunately there’s a lot of noise these days around anything our government tries to do.
I’m not a lawyer, nor do I ever plan to be one, but I spent plenty of time with them. As a result, over the past 20 years I’ve learned a lot about how the law works in the context of innovation, new products, infrastructure, and consumer protection. I’ve been involved in a number of public policy debates, especially around the Internet, innovation, and immigration. And I’ve made a bunch of friends, on all sides of the discussions, who I’ve argued with, agreed with, been frustrated by, and likely annoyed greatly with my strong opinions and continuous questions to better understand whether my opinions are valid. I learn, evolve, and change my mind based on data and compelling arguments, not on sound bites, so this can be hard work to sort through, but it’s the way my brain was trained, both through my experience at MIT and reflecting on many of the successes and failures I’ve had along with what I’ve learned from them.
A few weeks ago I wrote the post Explaining Net Neutrality to My Dad. He and I engaged in a continuous discussion about this in the past few weeks. He’s endlessly intellectually curious and deeply negative about our government as a result of their engagement with the healthcare system so he has been sending me the “anti-net neutrality” and “the government is taking over the Internet” messaging that has been floating around. I was able to directly respond to some of it, especially the real nonsense, but there were some things that I didn’t completely understand, so I talked to some of my lawyer friends about it.
A few days ago, I decided to summarize what I believe to be the truth around several of the key things I keep hearing over and over as opposition to the FCC proposal, especially around the reclassification of ISPs as Title II telecommunication services. My perspective is informed by two meetings I’ve attended with Wheeler – one a year ago where I was terrified by where he was starting from and one a month ago where I strongly endorsed where he had ended up. In the most recent meeting, I learned a lot about his own intellectual framework for what he’s proposing, which I wrote about in my post Death of Distance and the End of Time.
So – here are a few of the things that I’m regularly hearing as opposition to the new FCC proposal, along with what I’ve believe to be the facts. This comes from the premise that I have which is that strong net neutrality rules are critical to protect an Open Internet and that I’m directly aligned with companies like Twitter who recently wrote why they favor #NetNeutrality and Tim Berners Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, who recently said “YES to #NetNeutrality.”
The Government Is Taking Over The Internet: The rules will not lead to the FCC regulating the Internet. The rules around Title II only allow the FCC to regulate transmission which many refer to as the on-ramps to the Internet provided by cable and telephone companies. There used to be rules around this, but there haven’t been for over a year since the federal court struck down the prior rules.
Title II Will Make the Internet a Public Utility: Reclassifying ISPs as Title II “telecommunications services” will not make them “public utilities.” While Title II is the firmest legal ground for the net neutrality rules, the FCC is applying a light-touch version of Title II where there will be no rate regulation, no tariffs, no burdensome administrative filings, and no last-mile unbundling. Instead, there will be prohibitions on blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization.The FCC will be able to stop any practice that harms user choice or edge providers’ ability to reach users and will be able to act on complaints that ISPs are acting unreasonably when they interconnect with transit providers (e.g. Level 3) or content delivery networks (e.g. Netflix, Amazon.)
ISPs and Broadband Companies Will Invest Less In Their Networks: There is no evidence that Title II will cause ISPs to invest less in their networks. Most Wall Street analysts have said that they see no threat to investment from reclassification because there will be no rate regulation. Sprint, Google, Verizon, Charter, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and others have told Wall Street that Title II poses no threat to investment. Mobile voice is already regulated under light-touch Title II and wireless companies invested nearly $300 billion in their networks in the last 20 years.
Obama is Forcing the FCC To Do This: When I met with Wheeler about a year ago, he had a very different starting point around this issue. I had a strong negative public reaction to this during the initial public comment period and made my point of view clear on the original set of proposals along with about four million of my American friends. I’ve been told this was by far the most comments on FCC rules of any sort. The vast majority of people asked for the strongest possible net neutrality rules which align with the Title II approach. These got incorporated into the proposal as a result of this public response and Obama didn’t actually weigh in publicly until after Title II was incorporated into the proposal. When I checked on history, it turns out that it’s not unusual for the President to weigh in on FCC matters as Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush have all publicly urged the FCC to take certain actions on regulatory matters.
Everything Was Done In Secret: This is a talking point that apparently started when one of the FCC Commissions (Ajit Pai) put it out there that the upcoming final proposal (what government people call “the order”) was not made public before the FCC vote. It turns out that no FCC Chairman has ever made the full text of an order public prior to a vote. Given how the existing process works, which incorporates public comments on the draft (remember those four million comments I mentioned above), the notion around the FCC making the final proposal public before the vote seems like a cynical ploy for delay, as any comment on the proposal would have to then be considered and incorporated, leading to an endless cycle of public comment.
Ultimately, Congress can weigh in with new laws around this. Remember that the FCC can’t make new laws, they can only enforce things under current laws. There’s a clear-minded article in the New York Times this morning titled F.C.C. Net Neutrality Rules Clear Hurdle as Republicans Concede to Obama that create additional perspective on both the partisan dynamics at play along with the challenge that paralyzes Congress in general right now.
While this certainly isn’t the end of this issue, and given the dynamics around networks in general, I expect it will be one we face for the rest of time, I continue to believe strongly in the proposal the FCC is considering. And I’m proud that so many people have engaged constructively in the discussion.
I was fortunate to spend an hour with a group of about 30 people and Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC yesterday morning. It was a super interesting and stimulating conversation that preceded an excellent speech that Wheeler gave on his Net Neutrality proposal. Go read it and ponder it. It’s in English (not legalese), is blunt, direct, and at times humorous. And it hits the soundbites that are being used against “the government takeover of the Internet” and “the end of the Internet as we know it” crowd quite effectively.
But in this post I want to talk about a phrase Wheeler tossed out early in the conversation that really stuck with me. He said:
“In the 1800s, in a very short period of time, we experienced two innovations that created the death of distance and the end of time.”
I’ve been very open about my belief, which I wrote about for the first time in my book Startup Communities, that the global financial crisis was the point at which networks overtook hierarchies in importance in our society. And, while I’ve read about the history of railroads and the telegraph, I never really thought about them as the starting point for the creation of networks given the death of distance and the end of time.
It’s a powerful construct. Today we are starting to see the self-actualization of networks and the path to what many refer to as the singularity. Regardless of whether you believe this, are comfortable with it (like I am), or are afraid of it (like many others are), it is inevitable that innovation, networks, machines, and AI will continue to evolve at an extremely rapid pace. If you don’t believe me or understand this, go read William Hertling’s amazing Singularity Novels.
As a species, I do not think we can control this. Nor should we. We should enable it. We should explore ways to make us a more amazing species. A more fascinating society. We should embrace our innovations and evolve with them.
The path we are on started in the middle of the 19th century. The debate over Net Neutrality is a tiny blip on this path. If we study history, at all points along this path companies behave in their self-interest. We expect that. Human behavior and economic interest always move toward the question, “How can I maximize the position I’m in?” Think about the evolution of the railroad industry. Think about the evolution of the telegraph, and then the telecommunications industry. Think about where we would be if AT&T still prevented us from putting non-AT&T manufactured things “on their network.” Or, maybe more importantly, think about where AT&T would be, which given the passage of time would likely be still promoting Picturephones. Ok – that was gratuitous and unnecessary, but I couldn’t help myself.
In our discussion yesterday, the idea of epistemological modesty came up, reminding us that we can’t predict the path of innovation even in something we know well. I live this every moment in my business as a VC and strongly believe that we should enable, not try to control, innovation.
After listening to Wheeler, reading his speech, and thinking deeply about this over the past few years, it’s clear to me that he understands this. And for those saying “he’s using 1930s monopoly-style regulation to have the government control the Internet”, you are simply wrong. Read his words:
“We will forgo sections of Title II that pose a meaningful threat to network investment. That means no rate regulation. No unbundling. No tariffs or new taxes. I would note that when applied to mobile voice service over the past two decades, the use of such light-touch Title II – which, by the way, was sought by the industry – went hand-in-hand with massive investment.”
It’s really hard to ignore the soundbites and dig into the facts. But I encourage everyone to try.
I’m gearing up for a long series of posts about the various books I read on my month off on Bora Bora. In the mean time, I read a bunch of stuff online this morning (from Friday through today) and thought I’d give you a taste of some of it in case you feel like digging in.
I started with How Reading Transforms Us. It’s a good frame setting piece about some new research on the impact of reading – both fiction and non-fiction – on humans. There is a pleasant surprise in there about how non-fiction influences us.
As with many of you, I’m deeply intrigued by what’s going on around the movie The Interview. Fred Wilson wrote a post titled The Interview Mess in which he expresses some opinions. I’m not in opinion mode yet as each day reveals more information, including some true stupidity on the part of various participants. Instead, I’m still enjoying The Meta Interview, which is how the real world is reacting to The Interview.
Let’s start with the FBI’s Update on Sony Investigation followed by Obama Vow[ing] a Response to Cyberattack on Sony. 2600 weighs in with a deliciously ironic offer to help Sony get distribution for The Interview. Sony’s lawyers unmuffle their CEO Michael Lynton who fires back at President Obama.
Now it starts getting really interesting. North Korea says huh, what, wait, it wasn’t us and seeks a joint probe with US on Sony hack (yeah – like that is going to happen.) After everyone worrying about not being able to see The Interview (which might now be the most interesting movie of 2014 before we’ve even seen it), Sony says Nope, we didn’t chicken out – you will get to see The Interview.
Apparently, Obama isn’t finished. Instead, he’s just getting started. He’s decided that the North Korea hack on Sony Pictures was not an act of war but is now trying to decide if it’s terrorism so he can put North Korea on the terrorism sponsors list to join Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. No wait, maybe it’s to replace Cuba which Obama has decided to restore full relations with.
Thankfully, Dr. Evil weighs in on this whole thing and makes sense of it (starting at 0:40).
At the same time we are struggling over North Korean’s cyber attack terrorism censorship thing, we are struggling with our own internal efforts by some very powerful companies to figure out how the Internet should work in the US. Hmmm – irony?
Let’s start with the cable industry’s darkest fears if the Internet becomes a utility. According to the Washington Post, Congress now wants to legislate net neutrality. And Verizon tells the FCC that what they do doesn’t really matter to them.
The FCC situation is so fucked up at this point that I don’t think anyone knows which way is up. Fortunately, we have the Silicon Flatirons Digital Broadband Migration Conference happening in February which I’m speaking at to clear this all up. Well, or at least watch some entertaining, very bifurcated arguments about First Principles for a Twenty First Century Innovation Policy.
If you are a little bummed by now about how humans behave, check out this article where MIT Computer Scientists Demonstrate the Hard Way That Gender Still Matters. For a taste:
The interactions in the AMA itself showed that gender does still matter. Many of the comments and questions illustrated how women are often treated in male-dominated STEM fields. Commenters interacted with us in a way they would not have interacted with men, asking us about our bra sizes, how often we “copy male classmates’ answers,” and even demanding we show our contributions “or GTFO [Get The **** Out]”. One redditor helpfully called out the double standard, saying, “Don’t worry guys – when the male dog groomer did his AMA (where he specifically identified as male), there were also dozens of comments asking why his sex mattered. Oh no, wait, there weren’t.”
But the fun doesn’t end with cyberterrorism, censorship, incumbent control, or gender bias. Our good friends at Google are expanding their presence in our lovely little town of Boulder from 300 employees to over 1,500 employees. I think this is awesome, but not everyone in Boulder agrees that more Googlers are a good thing. I wonder if they still use Lycos or Ask Jeeves as their search engine. And for those in Boulder hoping we municipalize our Internet net, consider FERC’s smackdown of the City of Boulder’s Municipalization position.
Oh, and did you realize the US government actually made a $15 billion profit on TARP?
This effectively creates “fast” and “slow” lanes for the Internet which means that website owners and entrepreneurs may be forced to pay an arbitrary fee to ISPs like Comcast and Time Warner if they want their visitors to be able to access their website at regular speeds – or at all.
Last week I wrote a post titled Dear Internet: Let’s Demo The Slow Lane. What you are seeing on my site for the rest of this week is the demo. Don’t worry, you’ll only have to endure that popup and slow down once, unless the FCC does something like what they are proposing with these new rules.
The call to action, js code, and WordPress plug in for #stoptheslowlane is available for you to put on your site if you want to demo this for your users. The GitHub repo fightforthefuture/stoptheslowlane has the full source code in case you want to modify / add to it.
Help us send a message that a slow lane on the Internet isn’t acceptable.
Just now Fred Wilson posted an Open Internet Letter to the FCC that my partners and I at Foundry Group signed on to. It came together in the last 24 hours and was driven by our friends at Union Square Ventures.
If you are a VC and are interested in signing on before we file this formally with the FCC, please send me or nick [at] usv [dot] com an email.
Help us avoid the fast lane / slow lane / no lane problem on the Internet that the new FCC proposed regulations may create, which we strongly believe will stifle innovation, inhibit competition, and limit interest in new startup activity.
Yesterday when we were having Comcast issues in downtown Boulder, I thought about how slow the Internet speed at my office was. For several hours, it was 0 Mbps down and 0 Mbps up (0/0) until I gave up and tethered my iPhone to my computer and used Verizon LTE for the rest of the afternoon.
When I got home, Pandora had trouble starting up on my CenturyLink connection, which Speedtest showed was 2/0.5. So I switched over to my other ISP at home, Skybeam, and got 9.5/2.5. This morning CenturyLink is showing up as 8.5/0.75. Recognize that this is my actual speed, not what I’m paying for and could theoretically get. For example, on Skybeam I’m paying for “up to 15/3.”
At my office, on Comcast, I usually get 75/25. But even that feels slow after hanging out at my Google fiberhouse in Kansas City and getting 800/? (I don’t remember what the upload speed was.)
And yes – as a consumer, I’m spending a ton of money for all of this Internet connectivity.
Fred’s post from yesterday – The Fast Lane, The Slow Lane, and The No Lane – got me thinking. When the SOPA/PIPA issue came to a head, the most effective way to help people understand the potential implications was to blackout the Internet for a day.
What if we did the same by Demoing the Slow Lane for a day. Algorithmically, all sites could slow themselves down dramatically, demonstrating what performance might look like over a 1/1 pipe. Or even a 0.5/0.5 pipe. I’m no server expert, but it looks like Apache has a setting called mod_ratelimit that does bandwidth throttling for client connections. And I’m sure some intrepid readers could quickly come up with elegant solutions to this.
Let the world see “Waiting for”, “Connecting”, and “Buffering” show up in their browser continuously throughout the day. Explain what is going on. Then click a button to bypass the Slow Lane and get normal connectivity.
Instead of everyone getting tangled up in the legal question of what “net neutrality” means, consumers can see what could happen if / when ISPs can decide which companies get to use their fast lanes by paying extra and who is relegated to the slow lane.
I spent all day Sunday at Silicon Flatirons’ Digital Broadband Migration Conference. This is a key national conference held in Boulder at the intersection of technology and public policy with a particular focus on the Internet. This year’s conference subtitle was “The Challenges of Internet Law and Governance.”
I was pondering something all morning that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. My close friend Phil Weiser (who is now the Dean of the CU Law School and hosts the conference) kicked it off and then handed things over to Vint Cerf (now at Google and one of the original architects of the Internet). A great panel full of engineers titled Tech Tutorial Backdrop: An All IP Network and Its Policy Implications came next, followed by a talk from Colorado Senator Michael Bennet.
I’m a supporter of Michael’s and even though he originally co-sponsored PIPA, he eventually understood that it was flawed legislation and got behind the effort to oppose it. As a co-sponsor he had plenty of influence in the background on the process and I’m glad that he spent the time to listen to the tech community, understand why it was bad legislation, and take action. It was great to see him at this particular conference given its national perpective on a key intersection of technology and policy.
After Michael came a panel I was on titled The Digital Broadband Migration in Perspective. David Cohen (EVP of Comcast), Larissa Herda (CEO of tw telecom inc.), and I were the loud mouths on this one. David and I had very different perspectives on many things which reached a head when he asked what my reaction to all of the major TV and cable channels blacking out for three hours and putting up messages that said “this is what TV would be like without SOPA/PIPA” (basically – the opposite of the Internet blackout that occurred on January 18th). While he asserted this would be an abuse of corporate power and responsibility, implying that the Internet companies participating in the Internet blackout where behaving inappropriately, my response was that “it would be fucking awesome – they should do whatever they want – and better yet no college kid in the world would notice.” There was plenty more in that vein, but this was tame compared to what came next.
The panel after lunch was a debrief on what just happened with SOPA/PIPA. Mark Lemley (Stanford Law Professor) and Gigi Sohn (President of Public Knowledge) explained things from an anti-SOPA/PIPA perspective; Jonathan Taplin (Annenberg Innovation Lab, University of Southern California) and Michael Fricklas (General Counsel of Viacom) took a pro-SOPA/PIPA perspective, and Michael Gallagher (CEO of Entertainment Software Association) and Judge Stephen Williams (U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit) took a third perspective that I couldn’t quite parse. After everyone got a chance to give a 7 – 13 minute presentation, the conversation degenerated quickly into a very polarized argument where, in my opinion, facts were left at the doorstep by several of the participants. As the fact vs. fiction dynamic escalated, emotions ran hot and the discourse degenerated to a point of near uselessness. With every moment, the conversation became even more polarized, even though the anti-SOPA/PIPA folks would say things like I’m not going to defend SOPA/PIPA as it was bad legislation, we need to solve the problem of … in reaction to the pro-SOPA/PIPA folks saying If you assert that there are only 50 bad sites that represent 80% of the illegal content in the world, and we already have tools too take those sites down, what exactly are you talking about. While there were hugs and handshakes after the panel ended, it definitely felt like there was plenty of grinfucking going around.
After this panel I ducked out for an hour to go meet Julius Genachowski (chairman of the FCC). We’ve crossed paths a few times but never spent any thoughtful time together. We had a nice 30 minute meeting where we talked about the dynamics going on at the conference and in Washington DC. He gave me one phrase which caused me to stop, ponder it for a minute, and respond with “that’s exactly right.” He said:
“What you are observing is the difference between compromise and problem solving.”
My brain is an engineers brain. I’m focused on learning and solving problems. Over the past few years I’ve been completely baffled by my experience interacting with politicians and their staffers. When I present a solution to a problem (e.g. the Startup Visa) I immediately watch a negotiation begin to ensue. Three years later, even non-controversial, obviously beneficial things like Startup Visa are still stuck in a discussion.
When I talked to folks about how bad the SOPA/PIPA legislation was, they would respond “what’s the counter proposal?” My first response was usually “What do you mean? It’s horrifyingly bad legislation that shouldn’t even be considered.” The response to this was “Yes, but if I am going reject it, I need to come with a counter-proposal.”
Julius explained to me that Washington runs on a compromise mentality. You propose something and then begin negotiating from there. Innovative companies, where I spent almost all of my time, run on a problem solving mentality. You have a problem – you solve it. When I reflected on the panels during the day, the engineers and engineering heavy panels were problem solving and the policy / lawyer heavy panels were fighting over polarized positions which, if they converged, would be a convergence based on compromise rather than problem solving.
This generated a breakthrough insight for me. I’ve been increasing frustrated with politics and public policy discussions that I’ve been part of. It’s because I’m in a problem solving mode. While some of the folks I’m interacting with are also in this mode (which causes me to stay engaged), many are in a compromise mode. They don’t care whether or not we actually solve the root cause problem – they just have an agenda that they want to get into the mix legislatively and are negotiating for it with the goal of reaching a compromise.
We ended the day with a wonderful talk from Senator Mark Udall. I’m a huge fan of Mark’s – he’s one of the most thoughtful people in government I’ve gotten to interact with. Colorado is lucky to have him as he listens to his constituents here and acts on their behalf, rather than some other agenda. He discussed his views on innovation and PIPA (which he opposed early) and then made a strong appeal for the Startup Visa, increased STEM education, and a long term focus on innovation as the base for job creation. He then took another 90 minutes to meet with a smaller set of entrepreneurs and public policy folks from the conference to hear what was on their mind. Mark definitely was listening and trying to understand what issues he should be looking out for that had similar negative impacts like PIPA.
We need a lot more problem solvers like Mark in the mix, especially in positions of power in government. And, the problem solvers should insist that the path is problem solving, not compromise.