Why regulation of ISP's is justified, and why the GOP needs to crack a book

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, March 28, 2017, 11:00 PM | comments: 0

Today, Congress made it OK for ISP's to sniff your browsing history and sell that data as they please. The Twitterer-in-chief will likely sign the bill because he barely understands how the Internet works. It's clear that the GOP doesn't understand how the Internet works, and so they compare this to the kinds of things that Facebook and Google do (more on that in a moment). More importantly though, they don't understand why regulating ISP's is a justifiable thing in light of their absolute ideology of free markets.

Facebook and Google are able to track what you do by way of having ads and widgets ("like" buttons, analytics tracking, etc.) and things on the sites you visit. If you don't have accounts with either of those companies, then whatever they're doing is essentially an anonymous number associated with you visiting CoasterBuzz or where ever you waste time. If you do have an account with them, then they can put together a more composite profile associated with the real you, and they use that to serve you better advertising. Here's the thing though, they're reasonably transparent about this and allow you to opt-out. Facebook has instructions, and Google goes very deep and shows you the specific data points it has collected. Of course, you don't have to use their services at all, and at the end of the day, you can block any data going to them from your browser.

The tech-illiterate GOP thinks this is unfair, that the FCC had previously adopted rules that would prevent ISP's from doing similar tracking without you opting in. They argue that Google and Facebook shouldn't have all the fun. However, there are two problems with the legislation they just pushed through: There is no transparency or required opt-out mechanism, and ISP's are not something that you can simply switch. In fact, the vast majority of Americans don't have a choice at all in wired broadband providers.

The FCC has served in a somewhat unglamorous if important role in American history. Its regulation has been justified in decades of case law rooted in scarcity, which is the concept that a scarce resource like a broadcast license or a natural monopoly like a cable company should be regulated because of a matter-of-fact condition that prevents competition. The use of broadcast licenses were heavily regulated to serve the public trust, via the Fairness Doctrine and other rules, because over-the-air bandwidth is an extremely limited resource, and therefore considered "owned" by the people. You had to prove that you were serving the public when you had a broadcast license. Similarly, cable franchises were subjected to many restrictions and rate regulation, because the capital expense required to build a new system was extreme, causing a natural monopoly.

Deregulation, in the spirit of deregulating everything, has proven time and time again to be a toxic decision rooted in an ideological platform that doesn't allow for logical exceptions. In the case of broadcasting, it meant lifting ownership limits and relaxing local content expectations. That's why local radio is no longer local, and most of it is owned by iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel). Admittedly, this matters less now with the Internet, but the shit show of deregulation and consolidation started 15 years before this change came about. The industry I trained to work in became a disgrace.

Regulating ISP's, however, is more justified than ever. The natural monopoly is still a problem in most places, as I mentioned, while the wireless ISP (that's what the mobile companies really are), are still somewhat constrained by radio spectrum allotments, technology and the extraordinary capital investment required to build a network. If that weren't bad enough, these companies have merged with media companies (Comcast with NBCUniversal, Verizon with AOL and Yahoo). When there is little to no competition, logically it's valid that the government should have a place in regulating these services.

This is another reason why adhering to a strict ideology, devoid of any deeper understanding or thought, is bad for politics, and bad for consumers. Deregulating the banks clearly wasn't good for us, and the result made it worse with fewer, bigger banks. You'd think we would learn.


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