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Lessig Lectures the FCC on the Need for Neutrality

Now we know why none of the major carriers showed up for Thursday’s open FCC meeting at Stanford University: Who wants to take on Larry Lessig, the lion of Net Neutrality, in his own den?

Class was in session when Stanford law prof Lessig delivered a powerful lecture on the need for neutral networks, telling the assembled FCC chairman and commissioners to their faces that they were part of a 10-year-long failure by the agency to “make a clear statement of policy” about how infractions against the open, end-to-end connectivity of the Internet would be policed or enforced.

Lessig’s key points — which included the assertion that the historic openness of the Internet has been the key to its economic boom — are important to record, since they are very likely to become key talking points for Net Neutrality proponents as the battle over potential neutrality regulation heats up during the current congressional session. But the lack of a viable opponent in the arena made for a somewhat lukewarm event, with more than half the auditorium’s reported 716 seats going empty. Those who were present cheered mightily for Lessig, while only issuing soft “boos” for Republican FCC commissioners Robert McDowell and Deborah Tate, whose brief remarks basically indicated their opposition to any Net Neutrality regulations.

Unlike the other assembled panelists, who had just a few minutes to present their specific-interest cases, Lessig was given all the time he needed to make a strong case for the need for clear network neutrality policies, either from the FCC or Congress. Two of his stronger points, which you can expect to see repeated, were one, that Net Neutrality principles have been the historic base of the Internet, and have been responsible for its unbridled competition and growth. And two, that providers should be governed by clear rules that make it more expensive for them to restrict network access than to provide broadband that doesn’t differentiate or prioritize different traffic types.

The FCC, Lessig said, should pass rules that make it more profitable for service providers to behave than to misbehave. “You have to make it so playing the games is not a good business model for them,” Lessig said. “If we really didn’t have a reason to worry that they were playing games [with network management], then what they did inside their networks would be of less concern.”

Though invited by FCC chairman Kevin Martin, all the major Internet service providers — AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, among others — declined to participate in Thursday’s open meeting. Comcast, which waded into a debacle on several levels at the last such open meeting at Harvard, was slammed by several panelists Thursday, including by Robb Topolski, who is credited as being one of the first to detect Comcast’s disputed P2P blocking activities.

Comcast’s activities, Topolski said, “are non-standard, and not accepted by the industry.” And Jon Peha, a computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon, disputed Comcast’s claims that it wasn’t “blocking” traffic, part of an seemingly unsolved question that Lessig said was at the heart of the problem.

“The most outrageous thing is that [the FCC] can’t get the facts straight,” Lessig said with regards to the Comcast controversy, expressing wonderment that a government body like the FCC was still somewhat in the dark about what Comcast was or wasn’t doing. “The least we should be able to do is get the truth about what is happening,” Lessig said.

Watch the entire session on video.

Paul Kapustka, former managing editor for GigaOM, now has his own blog at Sidecut Reports.

12 Responses to “Lessig Lectures the FCC on the Need for Neutrality”

  1. “If there is money to be made, then alternatives will appear.”

    This is the most frequently cited fallacy of the anti-regulation crowd. No, alternatives will not appear, because the cost of building out one’s own network is an almost insurmountable barrier to entry.

    Another extremely high barrier is the terms under which the incumbent may agree to share their networks. I say “may” because the incumbents are level playing field does not exist. under no legal obligation to do so, even though those incumbents did not bear the full costs of their own original network buildouts thanks to government concessions and incentives.

    The free market and its self-regulation only works if multiple potential competitors have reasonable access to the market. The incumbents have gone to extremes to ensure that reasonable access is denied to any possible competitor. If such reasonable access did in fact exist, then we would not be having a debate about outside regulation because there would be sufficient competition present in the market to give consumers an option for service, and thus the market would regulate itself. But there is no competition, very few consumers have more than one option for service and even fewer have a non-incumbent option, so there is no self-regulation.

  2. I don’t see how starting the slippery slope of government regulation of the internet is going to help. Once it starts, no one will be able to stop it – and we will all suffer. If there is money to be made, then alternatives will appear. If the government limits things, the calculus of innovation will be infested with lobbying – because the government regulators will be the one of the most important forces that determines the success or failure of an innovation. And guess who all of this helps? It helps the big guys. The very people/organizations that the idea of Net Neutrality is suppose to fix will be in the drivers seat because they have the money and resources to lobby and influence regulations. No matter how good a Net Neutrality bill is, new laws will be created to fix the new inequities. The nasty cycle of liberal legislation will be terrible. The small guys lose out as the hurdle for success will go up.

    Lessig may be a genius, but the most precise clock can be set to the wrong time. I think Lessig is wrong and Net Neutrality should be squashed and put in the ash heap.

  3. John D'Isdain

    One doesn’t have to ponder too deeply
    as to why the likes of AT&T, Verizon, et al
    desire the shield of innocence
    from those they enabled
    in the administration to spy
    on us all
    when their only smug business plan
    is to corner the market
    while being only what they can be
    the monopolists that they are.

    Three cheers for Larry Lessig and may the panderers of the FCC fall by the wayside.