Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai joined President Donald Trump at the White House for an announcement about action to “ensure that America wins the race to 5G.” In addition to promoting fifth generation wireless technology, Chairman Pai announced a new $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund at the FCC. That sounds like a huge step forward for expanding rural broadband -- so why was it tacked on to the 5G news? 5G is really a fiber network with antennas at the end.
In the last Weekly Digest, I presented a retrospective of a major policy story from 2018: The democratic harms of “Big Tech.” This week, a polar vortex accompanied a vortex of more privacy abuses from Big Tech, and further concerns about the very bigness of Big Tech.
From Louis Brandeis’s perspective, application of antitrust laws required both the embrace of hard-headed inquiry, spanning economics and the social sciences, and the litigator’s skill of distilling crucial facts. Brandeis’s work as a lawyer in private practice, his stint as special counsel to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), and his time on the bench demonstrate his commitment to solving social and economic problems, examining the practical reality of economic circumstances, and serving the purposes of the law with rigor and commitment.
Earlier this month we examined how partisan division at the Federal Communications Commission impedes progress towards closing the digital divide. Now, we review another big telecom policy story from 2018: the democratic harms of “Big Tech”. In 2018, we got a better, but more disturbing, understanding of the size and influence of large technology companies (Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft), and particularly how social media platforms affect our democratic discourse and elections.
The 116th Congress is underway. In the background of a partial government shutdown, lawmakers are getting their committee assignments. At Benton, we keep a close eye on two key Congressional panels because of their jurisdiction over many telecommunications issues and oversight of the Federal Communications Commission: 1) the House Commerce Committee's Communications and Technology Subcommittee, and 2) the Senate Commerce Committee. Here's a look at some key telecom policymakers -- and their priorities -- in the 116th Congress.
On Nov 27, the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection held an oversight hearing on the Federal Trade Commission. The hearing examined the FTC’s “priorities in promoting competition and consumer protection, the ongoing innovation hearings and how changes in technology impact the agency, and whether the FTC should have expanded authority with respect to privacy and data security.” In other words -- is the FTC doing a good enough job? And if not, what needs change?
On Nov 14, the New York Times detailed Facebook’s multi-pronged campaign to “delay, deny and deflect” efforts to hold the company accountable. This is far from the first time we’ve read disturbing accounts of Facebook’s unethical behavior, but this week the Times peeled back the curtain on the company’s crisis management techniques, public relations tactics, efforts to influence lawmakers, and aggressive lobbying. The peak at these practices helps explain why the social media giant has been so successful at avoiding meaningful regulation.
The purposes of antitrust law can be broad; the mechanism of antitrust is legal. This is the core of Brandeis’s approach—to find enforceable legal standards that identify harmful industrial conduct in a manner that vindicates social and democratic values through the careful delineation of institutional roles. That job was made easier because Louis Brandeis subscribed to the view that these social and democratic values were all threatened by monopoly; thus by focusing on the practicalities of competition, antitrust statutes could advance broader societal interests as well.
Rural broadband got an upgrade this week. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is investing $91 million in broadband infrastructure. As Benton readers know, broadband access in rural areas is a huge challenge: according to the Federal Communications Commission, 80 percent of the 24 million American households who lack reliable, affordable, high-speed internet access are in rural areas. The USDA has been investing in rural telecommunications infrastructure for decades.
I believe that Louis Brandeis’ progressive framework can help us navigate the future of antitrust: