Category Archives: Monopolies

Stop Calling Government Regulation of the Internet “Net Neutrality”

fcc-net-neutrality-voteImage from the FCC by way of Ars Technica

Stop using “net neutrality” to refer to government regulation of the internet.

That’s not what net neutrality is, and it’s certainly not what the government regulations promulgated by the FCC today are, in this case “Common Carrier” Rules.

People who don’t know any better are celebrating todays faux “net neutrality” FCC action as a victory for freedom and free speech on the internet, when in fact, it’s exactly the opposite.

I’ve written extensively about net neutrality and this is very much NOT it.

All the FCC has done today, is impose common carrier regulation on every ISP (oh and by the way, lots of other organizations as well who “provide internet access”. No-one has any idea how the regulations are going to be finalized, what the language will mean, who will be impacted and how… except everyone knows it’s going to cost a lot), instead of just the telephone companies it was already imposed on. Verizon for example, who was already one of the worst violators of net neutrality, even with common carrier regulation already in place for them.

Thus it makes competition and breaking of existing monopolies even harder, while not actually doing a damn thing to secure or improve neutrality… oh and it gives the FCC more control over the internet.

Absolutely none of those are good things.

Common carrier regulation is a big part of what made the current near monopolies on Internet access happen in the first place, because small independent companies, and even large regionals, couldn’t compete with the giant telcom conglomerates under those regulations. So, they all got swallowed up.

I’ve been working with telecommunications companies, and common carrier regulations, for more than 20 years. I’m an expert in governance and regulatory compliance, and I can tell you right now, NOBODY understands these regulations, because they are not capable of being understood.

These regulations and the rulings and case law associated with them go back to 1930s… and in some particulars all the way back to the 1870s. And of course, rather than replace them with something clear when they wanted to make new regulations, congress and the FCC just amended and added on and countermanded and…

I’ve flowcharted them before to try to see what applied how and where and when… the only thing I could come up with was “nobody knows for sure, it all depends what a regulator or judge says at the time”.

This wasn’t a blow for freedom and free speech… This was a giveaway to big corporate donors in the telecommunications industry.

The big telcos have been trying to get their primary competition, non-telco ISPs, burdened with the same regulatory load they labor under, for DECADES. Now, in one stroke, the FCC at the personal direction of the president, has given it to them.

Oh and guess what else common carrier regulation includes… SURVEILLANCE.

All common carriers are required to provide the government and law enforcement “reasonable access” for surveillance, as well as to give up records, usage details, and other subscriber and user data, WITHOUT A WARRANT.

What does “reasonable access” mean? Whatever the government says it means… and if you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. I’ve dealt with the FBI on this issue, and that’s a direct quote.

Yes, this is not only a massive corporate crony handout, it’s also a huge gimme to the FBI and the NSA, who have wanted all ISPs stuck under common carrier for years as well.

Stop calling government regulation of the internet “net neutrality”. Letting the liars control the language helps them lie to you.

Net neutrality is not government regulation, and these regulations are certainly not net neutrality, nor anything like it. Don’t be taken in by fraud, cronyism, and statism, masquerading as freedom.

I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist.

Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn’t paying extra

Obama Using “Net Neutrality” to Obscure Federal Take-Over of Internet

fiber-optic-cable“The government will fuck the Internet up.”

So says Mark Cuban. Truer words were never spoken. Allowing the federal government to treat the Internet as a public utility, as President Obama is calling for, under the guise of “net neutrality,” is an abysmally bad idea.

To be clear, “net neutrality” and public utility regulation are two different but equally bad ideas. It appears Obama is using the former in a cynical bid to trick the electorate into accepting the latter. Neither is needed and both are undesirable.

“NET NEUTRALITY”

Net neutrality is the idea that, having paid for Internet service, consumers should have unfettered access to all content. It would prevent a whole host of business model experiments that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) might otherwise try:

  • Selling tiered data plans like cell phone companies do.
  • Developing their own content and then delivering that content at higher speeds than they deliver a competitor’s content.
  • Creating different “lanes” of Internet traffic and charging higher prices to content providers or users for access to the “fast lanes.”
  • Preferring certain content providers to others, likely depending on who pays.
  • Blocking users from using certain online content that takes up too much bandwidth and slows down the network for other customers.

I see none of this as frightening. We pay different rates based on the size and weight of the mail we send. We pay different rates for concert seats, cell phone plans, Netflix memberships, cable subscriptions and a whole host of other services.

The sun still rises.

What consumers who demand heavy content at low cost really want is to have other users overpay for light content while suffering the slow buffering speeds caused by the heavey users. As Casey Given, writing for Rare, observes:

Even if the FCC’s worst fears come to fruition and ISPs start charging cell phone-style “plans” for different levels of Internet access, online access would only become cheaper for low data users. As it is today, a grandmother who logs online once a day pays just as much as the tech-savvy teenager next door who regularly downloads gigabytes of data. As such, she is subsidizing his usage and could instead be paying a cheaper rate if her ISP offered varying plans.

In any case, ISPs own their technology and infrastructure. They invested in that property with the aim of making a profit. The idea that the public has some sort of claim against the property of ISPs reflects a sense of entitlement I cannot endorse. Rights are things we get to do—not things we get to have at others’ expense.

It is where we stand on this principle in the hard cases that defines us.

In addition to heavy content users, the other main beneficiaries of net neutrality are Internet giants like Facebook, Google and Netflix. These companies do not want to be charged by ISPs for the heavy traffic their users generate while slowing down buffering speeds for everyone else.

But is there any reason we should prefer the profit of big content providers over the profit of ISPs? Is there some principle that says Netflix should be allowed to earn whatever profit the market permits—but not the ISPs who deliver its content to consumers?

As Doug Mataconis wrote for TLP back in 2010:

It’s Comcast’s network, [it] should have the right to decide how it’s used and to take action to protect its property and its other customers.

PUBLIC UTILITY REGULATION

Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet is not the same as net neutrality. His plan is to treat it as a public utility, the “most draconian” level of regulation that could apply. It would require ISPs to provide universal service, i.e., “wire up every house.”

It would also allow them to charge the rates necessary to recoup that expenditure at a profit. In fact, public utility regulations allow the type of tiered pricing net neutrality advocates want to prevent:

What some critics of the Commission’s recent proposal may not realize is that even if the FCC agrees to impose the price, non-discrimination, and other forms of common carrier regulation on ISPs, Title II reclassification, would not necessarily ban paid prioritization. As former enforcement director at the Federal Trade Commission, David Balto, has pointed out, the title only prohibits “unjust and unreasonable” differences in services. Carriers regulated under Title II still “may offer different pricing (including volume and term discounts) … so long as they are ‘generally available to similarly situated customers.’”

In plain English, all this means that if some websites, like Netflix, want “faster lanes” on broadband networks, the providers of those networks can charge extra for that service even under Title II, so long as they stand ready to offer the same service to all similarly situated comers.

So Obama’s proposal presents a solution that does not fit the purported problem—which may not even exist.

In June 2006, there were two or more broadband providers in 92 percent of the nation’s zip codes, and four or more providers in 87 percent. A June 2014 study found at least two providers (wireline and wireless) for virtually all of the U.S., and at least two providers (cable and telephone) in nearly three quarters. Nick Gillespie reports at Time Magazine that 80% of households have at least two providers capable of delivering the Internet at 10Mbps or faster.

This access has been achieved even as prices have gone down:

President Obama’s call this week to regulate the Internet as a public utility is like pushing to replace the engine of a car that runs perfectly well. The U.S. data sector — including wired and wireless broadband — is the envy of the world, administering a powerful boost to consumer welfare, generating high-paying jobs and encouraging tens of billions of dollars in corporate investment. Indeed, the prices of data-related goods and services have dropped by almost 20 percent since 2007.

So what is really going on? Does Obama really think the future of the Internet requires the government to sort out squabbles between Netflix and Comast?

I doubt it.

Maybe it is intended to deliver to big donors. Maybe it is about the 16.1% tax on interstate revenues that would be paid by broadband consumers. Or maybe it is something more sinister. As Christopher Bowen wrote last week:

The problem with the government regulating the internet is that … when they get to determine the rules, the consequences turn sinister.

*     *     *

What about communications of interest to the government, such as anything with heavy encryption? Or Tor?

The government has a direct interest in controlling that kind of traffic—hello, Wikileaks/Edward Snowden/any other whistleblower—and if anyone thinks the federal government will look the other way on these things, they are naive.

This isn’t just a possibility, it’s the reality of current legislation on the books, as Chris Byrne pointed out in 2006. Every single packet, every communication, every image, would be captured and stored—by law—if common carrier became the letter of the law in regards to internet traffic, without a warrant, and it would take just a rubber stamp to get a warrant that would be used to punish anyone the government pleases…

REGULATION HURTS INVESTMENT IN INFRASTRUCTURE

For years, federal agencies themselves have resisted calls for regulation, on the states basis that forcing ISPs to treat content neutrally was not necessary, would impede the development of infrastructure, and would have an adverse effect on consumer welfare.

That is because developing the technology to respond to demands for bandwidth requires heavy investment. In fact, in 2013, telecom and cable companies topped the list of industries investing in the U.S., to the tune of $46 billion in investment.

Regulation cuts into the profits that encourage that level of investment.

This Cato Institute podcast, for example, covers the fact that Google Fiber does not provide Title II (public utility) services precisely to avoid the onerous regulations that come along with such endeavor. Another stark reminder of this basic fact came in the wake of the President’s message. On November 12, 2014, AT&T announced it would delay installing high-speed fiber-optic Internet infrastructure in 100 U.S. cities until the rules were clarified.

Perhaps this is why the American people oppose regulation. A November 2014 survey by Rasumussen Reports found that 61% oppose federal regulation of the Internet. Only 19% want more regulation than we already have. What is more, seventy-six percent like the quality of their Internet access.

Only 5% have complaints.

At best this is a solution in search of a problem. At worst, this is a Jonathan Gruber style misinformation campaign, designed to lull the public into complacency as the federal government assumes control of the Internet.

This time, let’s not fall for it.

Image via BandwithPlace.com

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Net Neutrality… Obama… Cruz… How About Oliver?

Today, Barack Obama(D) has announced that he will pretend to support net neutrality:

 

 

In response, Ted Cruz (RPDGC*), has announced that Net Neutrality is the work of the devil:

 

 

The idea that either Democrats OR Republicans actually support net neutrality is a joke.

The Democrats have (and still do) very strongly supported big media and big communications, who are largely anti neutrality. it’s only when net neutrality obviously became a big issue among young liberals (who were largely unmotivated to turn out this midterm election) that they have pretended to support it.

The Dems could have made it a campaign issue, except then they wouldn’t have had the huge media and communications industry money for the elections, that they needed to avoid getting spanked even worse than they did.

If Obama had actually supported net neutrality, he wouldn’t have appointed an anti neutrality industry stooge as FCC chair… but again, if he did that, the Dems would have lost that sweet sweet big media money.

On the other hand, the Republicans are largely anti “big media” and anti “big communications”, and only became anti-neutrality when the Democrats decided to take it as an issue.

What is Net Neutrality?

Frankly, any libertarian should support net neutrality as a principle (government regulation is another matter).

Net neutrality as a principle, is simple. All legitimate traffic should be treated equally, no matter the source or destination. No internet service provider should filter, censor, or slow down traffic from their competitors, their critics, or because of politics or national origin; or for any reason other than technical requirements for safe, efficient, and reliable network operation.

It’s how the internet has always been run, up until recently, without any government action necessary. There’s a famous quote: “The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”. Any internet service provider that censored, filtered, or slowed down traffic from anyone (for anything other than technical reasons) was routed around, and cut out of the net, by its peers. It was a great example of independent action and peer enforcement working in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.

Why is it an issue now?

Large media and communications companies like Comcast and Verizon have been deliberately and artificially blocking or slowing down traffic to and from their critics and competitors.

Of course, getting government involved does generally make things worse. In fact, it already did in this case, since the government has been involved from the beginning, and it was largely government action that created the current problem.

In a rational and unbiased competitive environment, consumers would have a reasonable choice of internet service providers, and any ISP that chose to censor or limit access, would lose customers, and either correct themselves or go out of business.

Unfortunately, we don’t have anything like a free and competitive market in internet access. Government regulation and favoritism has created huge monopolies (or at best duopolies, and no, wireless access is not realistic and reasonable competition given the distorted market and cost structures there either) in internet access.

We’ve reached a point where the telecommunications monopolies that government created and support, are in fact deliberately applying anticompetitive, unfair (and in some cases already unlawful) restraint against their critics and competitors.

Since they are government supported monopolies, the market is not allowed to correct the undesirable private action.

This means that, unfortunately, government action IS required… and even if it were not required, it’s inevitable, because politics is politics, and this is now an “Issue”.

So what do we do about the problem?

Please note, I don’t trust either Democrats OR Republicans on the issue in general, and I don’t trust either, or the FCC to regulate neutrality at all. Cruz does have at least one valid concern, in that the history of government regulation of almost every industry, but particularly technology, is mainly a long record of suppressing innovation and other negative unintended consequences.

The ideal solution is to end the government created internet access monopolies that most Americans live under, and allow free and open market competition to correct the problem.

Without government limitations on competition in actual high speed, high quality internet access; competition will increase, prices will fall, and any provider that filters or slows legitimate traffic will lose all their customers and go out of business.

This isn’t just a prediction or libertarian idealism talking by the way. It’s been proved out in Korea, Japan… even in the UK. Everywhere that internet access competition has been allowed to flourish, everything has improved (conversely, in the U.S. where we have deliberately increased the power and scope of these monopolies, we have the worst internet access of any technologically advanced nation).

Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen.

The next best thing, is to mandate net neutrality in the least intrusive, least stupid way possible, and to react intelligently (and rapidly) to changes in technology and its uses, to avoid regulatory distortion and suppression of innovation.

Unfortunately, that isn’t likely to happen either…

That said, it’s remotely possible for us get closer to that, quicker, than we can to disassembling the thousands of federal, state, and local regulations, which have created these monopolies, and made the barriers to entry for competition impossibly high.

Of course neither Democrats nor Republicans support or plan to do that.

The whole thing is a spiraling charlie fox of disingenuous cynical idiocy.

Personally, I say forget Obama, forget Cruz, and listen to Oliver (or if you don’t care for Oliver, or can’t watch a video, there The Oatmeal):

 

 

*Reactionary Populist Disingenuous Grandstanding Cynic… not the Republican party, just Cruz

Edited to add a few paragraphs clarifying what net neutrality was, and why it’s currently an issue

I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist.

Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn’t paying extra

Tesla Whines About Protectionist Legislation for Auto Dealers While Using Government Largesse to Compete

Last week, I wrote about rent seeking auto dealers lobbying for protection from competition with manufacturers utilizing direct-to-consumer sales models. I mentioned direct-to-consumer manufacturer Tesla by name, and suggested such legislation would prevent consumers from enjoying the savings that might otherwise be realized from Tesla’s efforts to “eliminate the middle-man.”

I should have taken the opportunity to address Tesla’s own abundant receipt of government largesse.

And to be clear, “government” largesse is always paid for by the taxpayers.

In a piece entitled “If Tesla Would Stop Selling Cars, We’d All Save Some Money,” Forbes contributor Patrick Michaels details all the ways Tesla benefits from government handouts. Michaels concludes that taxpayers shell out $10,000 for every car Tesla sells.

Michaels starts with a claim that purchasers of Tesla vehicles receive a $7500 “taxback bonus that every buyer gets and every taxpayer pays.” Since the tax credit appears to be non-refundable, I would not count it as a cost to other taxpayers, as Michaels does.

But the federal tax credit is only the tip of the crony capitalist iceberg for Tesla.

There are also generous state subsidies paid by taxpayers to the wealthy people who buy Tesla’s expensive vehicles. Purchasers in Illinois, for example, can receive a $4,000 rebate from that state’s “Alternate Fuels Fund,” a $3,000 rebate to offset the cost of electric charging stations, and reduced registration fees. California likewise offers a long list of rebates and subsidies to buyers of electric vehicles.

One of the hidden costs to consumers comes in the form of the increased price tag on cars sold by manufacturers who do not qualify for California’s mandated emissions credits, which they instead have to buy from Tesla, allowing it to earn a profit despite selling cars at a massive loss. As Michaels explains:

Tesla didn’t generate a profit by selling sexy cars, but rather by selling sleazy emissions “credits,” mandated by the state of California’s electric vehicle requirements. The competition, like Honda, doesn’t have a mass market plug-in to meet the mandate and therefore must buy the credits from Tesla, the only company that does. The bill for last quarter was $68 million. Absent this shakedown of potential car buyers, Tesla would have lost $57 million, or $11,400 per car. As the company sold 5,000 cars in the quarter, though, $13,600 per car was paid by other manufacturers, who are going to pass at least some of that cost on to buyers of their products. Folks in the new car market are likely paying a bit more than simply the direct tax subsidy.

Slate’s Scott Woolley details another way in which Tesla has cost taxpayers money. In 2009, Tesla received a $465 million Department of Energy loan that allowed it to weather a financial maelstrom. Unlike Solyndra (and Abound Solar and Fisker Automotive and The Vehicle Production Group LLC), Tesla managed to repay the loan in 2013. According to Michaels, it did so by reporting its first ever quarterly profit (earned from the sale of the emissions credits), which sent its stock soaring and enabled it to borrow $150 million from Goldman Sachs, and then issuing a billion in new stock and long-term debt.

But Tesla paid the U.S. taxpayers back at a rate far below what venture capitalists would have earned on the same loan. As an example, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk also made a loan to Tesla. Musk got a 10% interest rate and options to convert the debt to stock, which he did, resulting in a 3,500% rate of return on his investment.

In contrast, the U.S. taxpayer received a 2.6% rate of return.

In other words, in our crony capitalist system, taxpayers take the loss on bad loans like the one to Solyndra, but do not enjoy commensurate reward on good loans like the one to Tesla.

But there is still more. Tesla cannot keep earning emissions credits, which allow it to earn a profit despite selling its cars at a loss, unless it can keep selling those cars. Josh Harkinson, writing for Mother Jones, writes that:

Its first-quarter profit, a modest $11 million, hinged on the $68 million it earned selling clean-air credits under a California program that requires automakers to either produce a given number of zero-emission vehicles or satisfy the mandate in some other way. For the second quarter, Tesla announced a $26 million profit (based on one method of accounting), but again the profit hinged on $51 million in ZEV credits; by year’s end, these credit sales could net Tesla a whopping $250 million.

Tesla’s ability to continue selling the cars that earn the credits is in question. The market for $80,000 cars has a limited number of buyers. Tesla must expand its customer base with a more affordable product.

One way to achieve that would be to cut the vehicle’s range. But subsidies, credits and fuel savings notwithstanding, consumers have little taste for lower ranges—even at a much lower price. Another way for Tesla to lower the cost of its vehicles is to cut the cost of its batteries without sacrificing the range. As Harkinson observes:

That, however, may again depend on massive subsidies—in this case funding to battery researchers and manufacturers by the governments of Japan and China. Over the past five years, Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, a public-private partnership founded in 1980, has pumped roughly $400 million into developing advanced battery technologies. Tesla’s Panasonic cells also might be pricier if not for subsidies the company received to expand its battery plants in Kasai and Osaka.

When Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill reaffirming Michigan’s protectionist legislation for traditional automobile franchise dealers, auto blog Jalopnik reported GM’s position as follows:

“Competition is always healthy,” GM spokeswoman Heather Rosenker tells Jalopnik. “But it needs to be on a level playing field.”

In the context of the substantial aid Tesla receives from federal, state and foreign governments, it is easier to have some sympathy for the plight of traditional manufacturers—and their dealers.

Ultimately, that sympathy shines a spotlight on the problems created when government starts “tinkering” in the market. Inevitably, that initial, well-intentioned tinkering necessitates ever more intrusive secondary tinkering aimed at remediating the unintended side effects of its initial foray into the market.

Consider health care. Inflation in the cost of U.S. health care began to outpace the general rate of inflation when the government began subsidizing health care costs. Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman has estimated that real per capita health spending is twice what it would be in the absence of third party payments, and that Medicare and Medicaid are responsible for 43% of that increase. The remaining portion can be blamed in large part on the third party payments from mandated employer health care coverage, further separating patients from the cost of their care and eliminating the market forces that would otherwise keep costs down. Add to the foregoing the government-enforced monopolies on health care education, leading to 22% fewer medical schools in the United States now than one hundred years ago, despite a 300% increase in population, and attendant provider shortage. All that well-intentioned tinkering created a whole host of ugly, unintended side effects, necessitating more tinkering. The federal government responded with the Affordable Care Act and its accompanying thousands of pages of new regulations.

Everywhere the pattern repeats. The cost of higher education outpaces general inflation precisely because the government wants to help people pay for it. The unintended side effect is increasing numbers of graduates with useless degrees and few job prospects, necessitating further tinkering in the form of loan relief, jobs programs and minimum wage hikes. The Federal Reserve suppresses interest rates to artificial lows in the well-intended effort to speed recovery from the bust of the dot-com bubble. The unintended (in this case, it may actually have been intended, at least by Paul Krugman) side effect is a new bubble in housing. When that bubble bursts, the government must step in to bail people and banks out of their bad investments, create new bureaucracies and new regulations making it harder for people to qualify for loans (in contrast to previous tinkering designed to make it easier).

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I am not a radical free-marketer because I dislike poor people or have a special love for corporations. I am a radical free marketer because I know no amount of tinkering ever produces results as beneficial as what the market produces, naturally and efficiently, all on its own.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Atlas Shrugged Part II in Theaters This Weekend

Atlas Shrugged Part II is opening this weekend. Want to check it out? Follow this link to find a theater near you.

And now, the official Atlas Shrugged Part II trailer:

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