How Information Fuels the Power of our Democracy

[Commentary] We started this conference 10 years ago...and look where we are:
First, the internet continues to hold small “d” democratic promise like nothing else in history.
Technology continues to astonish in the ways it makes possible previously unthinkable ways of communicating.
Third, trust has evaporated. Trust in institutions and in each other. The traditional channels of intermediation have evaporated or weakened. Since the middle has shrunk and internet facilitates finding backup for any point of view, it helps confirm bias and polarizes.
Fourth, the programs we use to discover this information are not neutral. What we know or think we know is increasingly determined by algorithms controlled by a handful of tech companies whose relationship to government is evolving and whose commitment to free expression is uneven.

It is time for a new national conversation and new solutions. The pace of disruption will not slow down and is moving too quickly for a fixed model, we’ll remain agnostic, trying different ways but based always on our belief in free expression, citizen engagement and inclusive societies.

[Alberto Ibarguen is the president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation]

The Real Question Behind Zero-Rating: Who Should Pay?

[Commentary] Transmitting data through wireless networks is costly, as the agency has admitted countless times. Traditionally, costs have been recovered via consumer data plans. Content producers, on the other hand, haven’t had to bear the consequences of network upkeep. If however, edge providers were forced to bear some of these costs, then they would find themselves pressured to push for technological advances to economize on bandwidth. Economists call these costs externalities, and a long line of work suggests that they lead to inefficient markets. The report and the letters showed that the investigation rested on the belief that all content, whether it is zero-rated or not, conforms to an ideal of perfect competition. But, in the real world, there are search costs, barriers to entry exist, content has market power and there are significant transaction costs.

[Will Rinehart is Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at the American Action Forum.]

Here’s Exactly How the Internet Is Now Under Threat

[Commentary] On January 26th, I interviewed former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler at Harvard Law School, where I teach. It was the day the new administration announced his successor, who will have very different priorities. We talked about network neutrality, telecom mergers, high-speed access, and the dangers that lie ahead under the next administration. I asked, "In the Trump administration, people are talking about stripping regulatory power from the FCC, and essentially taking the agency apart (including moving jurisdiction over internet access to the Federal Trade Commission [FTC]). 'Modernizing' the FCC is the lingo being used. What’s your thought about that?"

Wheeler said, "It’s a fraud. The FTC doesn’t have rule-making authority. They’ve got enforcement authority and their enforcement authority is whether or not something is unfair or deceptive. And the FTC has to worry about everything from computer chips to bleach labeling. Of course, carriers want [telecom issues] to get lost in that morass. This was the strategy all along. So it doesn’t surprise me that the Trump transition team — who were with the American Enterprise Institute and basically longtime supporters of this concept — comes in and says, 'Oh, we oughta do away with this.' It makes no sense to get rid of an expert agency and to throw these issues to an agency with no rule-making power that has to compete with everything else that’s going on in the economy, and can only deal with unfair or deceptive practices. Because we’re talking about one sixth of the economy. More importantly, we’re dealing with the network that connects six sixths of the economy."

[Susan Crawford is the John A Reilly Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School]

Increasing Broadband Access? It All Comes Down to Poles

[Commentary] It may come as a surprise to city leaders that one of the biggest barriers to bringing high-speed fiber internet to your community and ensuring your residents can tap the power of next-generation internet is as simple as the utility pole this fiber hangs from. But it’s true. What’s more, utility poles often become a battleground between longtime companies and newer network providers, and access (or lack thereof) to those poles can determine whether a new provider is able to easily and cost effectively deploy broadband in an area. Unfortunately, right now the process is often long, difficult, and expensive in too many places, making the barrier to entry incredibly high.

That is why Next Century Cities, a non-profit membership organization that supports cities and leaders as they seek to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, reliable, and fast internet, created a comprehensive Pole Attachment Guide. This guide offers an in depth guide to pole authority by state and additional resources to support local leaders.

[Katie Watson is a Policy and Program Manager at Next Century Cities]

The Information War Has Begun

[Commentary] We’ve built an information ecosystem where information can fly through social networks (both technical and personal). Folks keep looking to the architects of technical networks to solve the problem. I’m confident that these companies can do a lot to curb some of the groups who have capitalized on what’s happening to seek financial gain. But the battles over ideology and attention are going to be far trickier.

What’s at stake isn’t “fake news.” What’s at stake is the increasing capacity of those committed to a form of isolationist and hate-driven tribalism that has been around for a very long time. They have evolved with the information landscape, becoming sophisticated in leveraging whatever tools are available to achieve power, status, and attention. And those seeking a progressive and inclusive agenda, those seeking to combat tribalism to form a more perfect union — they haven’t kept up. The information war has begun. Normative approaches to challenging the system will not work. What will it take for news media to wake up? What will it take for progressives to start developing skills to fight back?

[boyd is a researcher of technology & society at Microsoft Research, Data & Society, NYU]

The New FCC Chairman Could End Net Neutrality

[Commentary] If Federal Communications Commission Chairman Pai does try to unwind network neutrality, which has already been upheld in court, it would be a drawn-out process, as was implementing it in the first place. However, Congress could pass laws that weaken the FCC’s enforcement power, and the agency can choose to ignore net neutrality violations.

The current rules don’t outline specific punishments for bad actors. If you’re expecting Silicon Valley giants to be the white knights fighting to save the free internet (remember their well-coordinated internet blackout in 2012?), understand that times have changed. Netflix for years positioned itself as a net neutrality advocate to help its business negotiations with ISPs. Now the company says it’s so big and successful that gutting net neutrality would no longer pose a financial threat. Facebook, meanwhile, has been mulling offering a “free” internet service that would use zero-rating to prioritize certain apps. Net neutrality would only get in the way of such a business opportunity. The nascent startups that would benefit from strong net neutrality protections the most already face a nearly impossible task in unseating the tech incumbents, and they’re unlikely to find support from their would-be rivals.

[Victor Luckerson is a writer for The Ringer]

Facebook Live Is the Right Wing’s New Fox News

Facebook Live might well be Mark Zuckerberg’s gift to right-wing-news—a medium designed to be low-key and at home in your News Feed, with a potential reach in the millions. There’s a unique opening in conservative media, one that has a slew of sites systematically turning to the live-streaming feature.

It stems from a single idea: Liberals have more choice in what they watch, and for a long time Republicans have felt limited to Fox News. In 2014, the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that unlike their liberal or moderate peers—who watched and consumed a wide variety of news—conservatives were limited to Fox for most of their political information. That seems to be changing. Facebook doesn’t release rankings of Facebook Live pages, and few analyst organizations are equipped to independently verify their traffic. But in the months just after the election, using word of mouth and sources at Facebook, I spent time with a few conservative news organizations and individuals who are using the emergence of live-streaming and the massive reach of the Facebook platform to reach legions of conservatives hungry for their kind of news.

Who Is Killing the Towns of Western Massachusetts?

[Commentary] This is the story of a dramatic failure of imagination and vision at the state level: Gov Charlie Baker’s (R-MA) apparent insistence that Massachusetts relegate small towns to second-rate, high-priced, monopoly-controlled (and unregulated) communications capacity. It’s a slow-rolling tragedy that will blight Western MA for generations. The likely outcome: Only those plucky, scrappy towns that elect to build on their own will escape the grip of unconstrained pricing for awful service. The rest will fade into irrelevance. What new American generations will stay in a place that is essentially unconnected to the world? What new businesses and ways of making a living will emerge there? None and none.

There’s an alternative vision that would allow Western MA communities to control their own destinies: subsidize towns that want to own their own infrastructure.

[Susan Crawford is the John A. Reilly Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a co-director of the Berkman Center.]

The Early History of the FCC Doesn’t Provide a Basis for Regulating Facebook and Google Now

[Commentary] In the early days of the Federal Communications Commission, monopolies were encouraged, and the public interest mandate worked alongside that market structure. But, the public interest has also been hugely important in the era of competition sparked by the AT&T antitrust case and the 1996 Telecommunication Act. Vague notions of either the market structure or the public interest aren’t especially good guides for policy. Rather, policymakers and the commitariat should focus on concrete alternatives and actionable outcomes. While Jeff Spross might want to “smash the centralized behemoths,” effective regulation of Facebook and Google should begin with an outline of the world that would be achieved.

[Will Rinehart is the director of technology and innovation policy at the American Action Forum.]

Six Cyber Diplomacy Milestones of 2016

[Commentary] Five years ago the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues was created to promote the US vision for an open, interoperable, secure, and reliable Internet where all stakeholders can experience its economic and social benefits. While it’s impossible for me to highlight all of the great work by cyber policy officers in 2016, I compiled the following list to demonstrate the range of ways they’re having an impact.
1. Negotiated Landmark Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Decision on Cyber Confidence-Building Measures
2. Established First-Ever Bilateral Framework on Cyber
3. Supported the Renewed Mandate for the Internet Governance Forum
4. Developed Programs to Strengthen Global Cybersecurity Capacity
5. Trained Cyber Policy Officers to Effectively Promote US Interests in Cyberspace
6. Coordinated the Global Effort to Raise Cybersecurity Awareness

[The Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, US Dept. of State, is led by Christopher Painter and covers the full range of cyber issues.]