We Believe in America, Telecommunications, and the Internet

Meeting in Tampa this week, the Republican Party adopted its 2012 platform self-proclaimed to be “both a vision of where we are headed and an invitation to join us in that journey.” Telecommunications and, specifically, the Internet are key planks in the party’s principles and policies this year.

A Vision for the Twenty-First Century: Technology, Telecommunications and the Internet
The GOP’s telecommunications proposals fit into a larger frame that sees America as home to “grand dreams and even grander realities.” The recipe for returning the US to greatness is returning government to its proper role, making it smaller and smarter; restructuring government’s most important domestic programs to avoid their fiscal collapse; keeping taxation, litigation, and regulation to a minimum; and celebrating success, entrepreneurship, and innovation.”

The platform reads:
The most vibrant sector of the American economy, indeed, one-sixth of it, is regulated by the federal government on precedents from the nineteenth century. Today’s technology and telecommunications industries are overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, established in 1934 and given the jurisdiction over telecommunications formerly assigned to the Interstate Commerce Commission, which had been created in 1887 to regulate the railroads. This is not a good fit. Indeed, the development of telecommunications advances so rapidly that even the Telecom Act of 1996 is woefully out of date. An industry that invested $66 billion in 2011 alone needs, and deserves, a more modern relationship with the federal government for the benefit of consumers here and worldwide.

The current Administration has been frozen in the past. It has conducted no auction of spectrum, has offered no incentives for investment, and, through the FCC’s net neutrality rule, is trying to micromanage telecom as if it were a railroad network. It inherited from the previous Republican Administration 95 percent coverage of the nation with broadband. It will leave office with no progress toward the goal of universal coverage – after spending $7.2 billion more. That hurts rural America, where farmers, ranchers, and small business manufacturers need connectivity to expand their customer base and operate in real time with the world’s producers. We encourage public-private partnerships to provide predictable support for connecting rural areas so that every American can fully participate in the global economy.

We call for an inventory of federal agency spectrum to determine the surplus that could be auctioned for the taxpayers’ benefit. With special recognition of the role university technology centers are playing in attracting private investment to the field, we will replace the administration’s Luddite approach to technological progress with a regulatory partnership that will keep this country the world leader in technology and telecommunications.

Improving Access to and Adoption of Broadband
According to the FCC's latest report on broadband deployment, 19 million Americans currently lack a high-speed Internet connection, meaning that about 94 percent of the country now has broadband access. But the FCC has adopted tougher standards in recent years for how fast a connection must be to qualify as broadband.Under the stricter definition, 7 million Americans gained broadband access in 2011 alone.

"We applaud Republican leaders for recognizing the importance of broadband connectivity to rural communities, and for supporting the public-private partnerships that provide a positive return to American citizens and are critical to the deployment of broadband-capable networks in hard-to-serve rural areas," National Telecommunications Cooperative Association Vice President of Government Affairs Tom Wacker said. "Our nation can only sustain and build upon this success, however, if these public-private partnerships continue and there is predictable and sufficient universal service support going forward such as this platform contemplates."

Writing in The New Republic, Lydia DePillis writes that spectrum auctions “haven’t done much to expand access in the rural areas Republicans claim to love. They have, however, enriched the big businesses who generally love Republicans.” The nation’s two largest wireless carriers – Verizon and AT&T – are the most common winners in spectrum auctions and they use those licenses to buildout out networks in urban areas “and leave less-populated areas alone, in the kind of classic market failure that Republicans find so difficult to recognize.”

DePillis points out that instead of auctioning spectrum, the resource can be shared as proposed by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Technology has advanced to the point where lots of users could operate in the same space more cheaply and efficiently, akin to building an open-access freeway instead of dedicated lanes for ambulances, police cars, and other vehicles. Already, unlicensed pieces of spectrum have been most responsible for the Wi-Fi revolution. Republicans haven’t always been opposed to the idea of sharing spectrum. George W. Bush’s Federal Communications Commission called for more of it to be made available on an unlicensed basis back in 2002, and Alaska senator Ted Stevens proposed a bill to that effect in 2006, with broad bipartisan support. It’s actually a classically conservative idea: The government shouldn’t pick winners and shut out competition, but rather deregulate and allow innovation to flourish. “The authors of the GOP platform, though,” DePillis concludes, “seem to prefer a course that puts corporate elite over conservative ideals—and their rural constituents still won’t get the kind of broadband access they deserve.”

Protecting the Family
To put this year’s document in some context, recall that in 2008 the GOP platform mentioned the Internet just a handful of times. The party was against online gambling and advocated for more funding to track down and jail online predators. The Internet was seen as a tool to improve government transparency – and an industry, along with cellular telephone service – that needed to be protected from taxation.

In 2012, Republicans still seek to making the Internet family-friendly. The party renewed its support for the prohibition of gambling over the Internet and called for a reversal of the Justice Department’s decision distorting the formerly accepted meaning of the Wire Act that could open the door to Internet betting. The party again says the Internet must be made safe for children, calling on Internet service providers to exercise due care to ensure that the Internet cannot become a safe haven for predators while respecting First Amendment rights. It also urges active prosecution against child pornography, “which is closely linked to the horrors of human trafficking.”

As The Hollywood Reporter notes, the platform also includes, “Current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.” Morality in Media CEO Patrick Trueman says this means that prosecutors should be targeting obscene material distributed on the Internet, on hotel TV, on cable and satellite TV and in retail shops. Trueman identifies 18 USC Sections 1465 and 1468 as two examples of laws on the books that have been ignored for too long. The latter carries penalties of up to two years in jail for anyone who "utters any obscene language or distributes any obscene matter by means of cable television or subscription services on television," and Trueman believes that cable companies should hand over their profits if found guilty of distributing obscenity. "The [TV] companies are certainly aware of the laws, but without action by the Department of Justice, they appear willing to abuse them because of the massive profits that the porn channels generate" says Trueman, who formerly worked at the Justice Department under President Ronald Reagan.

Protecting Internet Freedom
On August 14, Demand Progress, a progressive advocacy group, launched a campaign to urge the Republican and Democratic parties to include a commitment to protecting Internet freedom in their party platforms. Numerous other advocacy groups recently unveiled declarations of Internet freedom and urged lawmakers to sign them. The aim is to protect the “right of Americans to share information and communicate with each other free from censorship and surveillance."

The GOP platform includes the following:
The Internet has unleashed innovation, enabled growth, and inspired freedom more rapidly and extensively than any other technological advance in human history. Its independence is its power. The Internet offers a communications system uniquely free from government intervention. We will remove regulatory barriers that protect outdated technologies and business plans from innovation and competition, while preventing legacy regulation from interfering with new and disruptive technologies such as mobile delivery of voice video data as they become crucial components of the Internet ecosystem. We will resist any effort to shift control away from the successful multi-stakeholder approach of Internet governance and toward governance by international or other intergovernmental organizations. We will ensure that personal data receives full constitutional protection from government overreach and that individuals retain the right to control the use of their data by third parties; the only way to safeguard or improve these systems is through the private sector.

Writing for The Verge, Jeff Blagdon says the language – specifically “legacy regulation from interfering with new and disruptive technologies such as mobile delivery of voice video data as they become crucial components of the internet ecosystem” is clearly a reference to the FCC’s rules preserving net neutrality and how they are being challenged by the likes of AT&T; hardly a surprise given the party’s track record on the issue.

As we noted last month, everyone seems to be for Internet freedom – it just comes down to how you define it. The definition of Internet freedom, of course, is not something that everyone agrees on—generally Democrats argue for network neutrality, while Republicans say it impedes business interests. Network neutrality, as defined by the American Library Association http://www.ala.org/advocacy/telecom/netneutrality, is the principle that consumers should be free to get access to -- or to provide -- the Internet content and services they wish, and that consumer access should not be regulated based on the nature or source of that content or service. Information providers -- which may be websites, online services, etc., and who may be affiliated with traditional commercial enterprises but who also may be individual citizens, libraries, schools, or nonprofit entities -- should have essentially the same quality of access to distribute their offerings. "Pipe" owners (carriers) should not be allowed to charge some information providers more money for the same pipes, or establish exclusive deals that relegate everyone else (including small noncommercial or startup entities) to an Internet "slow lane." This principle should hold true even when a broadband provider is providing Internet carriage to a competitor.

Protecting Online Privacy?
Some may see a disconnect between the GOP’s commitment to “individuals retain[ing] the right to control the use of their data by third parties” and Mitt Romney’s campaign. On August 27, the Associated Press reported that Romney's campaign began a secretive data-mining project this summer to sift through Americans' personal information — including their purchasing history and church attendance — to identify new and likely wealthy donors.

The project employs strategies similar to those the business world uses to influence the way Americans shop and think. Now they're being used to sway presidential elections. The same personal data consumers give away — often unwittingly when they swipe their credit cards or log into Facebook — is now being used by the people who might one day occupy the White House.

For Romney's data-mining project, which began as early as June, the Republican candidate quietly turned to a little-known but successful analytics firm that previously performed marketing work for a colleague tied to Bain & Co., the management-consulting firm that Romney once led. The effort by Romney appears to be the first example of a political campaign using such extensive data analysis. President Barack Obama's re-election campaign has long been known as data-savvy, but Romney's project appears to take a page from the Fortune 500 business world and dig deeper into available consumer data.

Privacy experts looking at the platform say the data protection plank leaves more questions than answers. Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, says it’s unclear exactly what this statement in the platform is referring to. "Individuals do not own their personal information in the traditional sense. The First Amendment also protects against many attempts to restrict the publication of personal information. Instead, a loose patchwork of laws, regulations, and contracts provide limited rights to control one’s personal information in the United States. These rights certainly protect individuals in some contexts but often leave them vulnerable to harm in many others."

"In context, I think it's pretty clear the ‘right of control’ they're talking about is a right against government access," said Berin Szoka, the president of tech policy think tank TechFreedom. "But it's bound to be misinterpreted by privacy regulatory advocates as a general right to control information held by third parties about us -- which is essentially the approach of groups like EPIC. In particular, what exactly does the term ‘their data’ mean, anyway? The authors probably meant data that users upload or create to services -- e.g., tweets, e-mails, Google Docs. But this term will likely be interpreted to mean much more than that: data merely about them -- which is more properly referred to as ‘personally identifiable information.’ At best, this is poor draftsmanship."

The First Amendment: Speech that is Protected
The GOP frames, in part, the party’s platform in the Constitution. “We possess an owner’s manual: the Constitution of the United States, the greatest political document ever written. That sacred document shows us the path forward. Trust the people. Limit government. Respect federalism. Guarantee opportunity, not outcomes. Adhere to the rule of law. Reaffirm that our rights come from God, are protected by government, and that the only just government is one that truly governs with the consent of the governed.”

Concerning the First Amendment, the GOP adopted the following:
We insist that there should be no regulation of political speech on the Internet. By the same token, we oppose governmental censorship of speech through the so-called Fairness Doctrine or by government enforcement of speech codes, free speech zones, or other forms of ‘political correctness’ on campus.

The opposition to the Fairness Doctrine, at this point, is akin to beating a dead horse. The Federal Communications Commission repealed the policy in 1987 -- and officially removed the regulations from its books over one year ago.

A Twenty-First Century Threat: The Cybersecurity Danger
Earlier this month, the Senate considered, but failed to muster enough support to actually vote on legislation aimed at beefing up the nation’s protection of cyber-infrastructure. The bill would have increased cyber protections for the nation's electrical grid, financial networks, transportation system and other critical infrastructure. Republicans also objected to the bill because they thought it would require too much from businesses. The Chamber of Commerce lobbied heavily against the legislation, despite a compromise that would have made all of the cybersecurity standards voluntary for businesses. The New York Times and Washington Post were critical of the legislation’s opponents at the time.

The GOP platform reads:
The current Administration’s cyber security policies have failed to curb malicious actions by our adversaries, and no wonder, for there is no active deterrence protocol. The current deterrence framework is overly reliant on the development of defensive capabilities and has been unsuccessful in dissuading cyber-related aggression. The current Administration’s laws and policies undermine what should be a collaborative relationship and put both the government and private entities at a severe disadvantage in proactively identifying potential cyberthreats. The costly and heavy-handed regulatory approach by the current Administration will increase the size and cost of the federal bureaucracy and harm innovation in cybersecurity. The government collects valuable information about potential threats that can and should be shared with private entities without compromising national security.

The GOP proposes:
The government and private sector must work together to address the cyberthreats posed to the United States, help the free flow of information between network managers, and encourage innovation and investment in cybersecurity. The government must do a better job of protecting its own systems, which contain some of the most sensitive data and control some of our most important facilities. As such, we encourage an immediate update of the law that was drafted a decade ago to improve the security of government information systems. Additionally, we must invest in continuing research to develop cutting-edge cybersecurity technologies to protect the U.S. However, we acknowledge that the most effective way of combating potential cybersecurity threats is sharing cyberthreat information between the government and industry, as well as protecting the free flow of information within the private sector. We believe that companies should be free from legal and regulatory barriers that prevent or deter them from voluntarily sharing cyberthreat information with their government partners.

A GOP-backed cybersecurity bill introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) this year took a similar approach.

We’ll be back next week with a look at the 2012 platform for the Democratic Party. ‘Til then, we’ll see you in the Headlines.