Why Media and Journalism Scholars Support Network Neutrality

[This is a draft blog post as submitted to SaveTheInternet.]

Academic associations tend to be politically conservative.

I don’t mean they revere Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman, though plenty of scholars do. Rather, each group–representing a field’s professors and graduate students–tends to evade controversy, rarely taking a public stance on an issue that might divide the membership.

Thus, it is remarkable that the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) has declared its support for network neutrality.

The issue is too important to stay on the sideline any longer.

AEJMC represents a diverse group of scholars who research and teach nearly everything related to mass media. Based on our research–and, in some cases, years of industry experience–we know the media business, and letting ISPs pick online winners and losers is bad policy.

Nearly all revolutionary internet ideas–from Amazon and Google to Skype and Twitter–came from cash-strapped outsiders. Somewhere in the world right now, another tinkerer is developing what might become the next big idea. Before it catches on, though, ISP demands for a broadband toll might strangle this idea in its crib.

Also, some of the best stuff online never turns a profit. Imagine if, in 2001, Wikipedia had to pay through the nose just to compete on a level playing field with Encarta. It may have stalled, and even today, forcing Wikipedia into the slow lane would harm and might kill the project.

AEJMC is also concerned about the slow death of the daily newspaper’s business model. We embrace the internet age, but we also hope to ensure financial viability for “print” journalism. ISP tolls would make this much harder.

MSNBC and FoxNews could afford to pay extra for the rapid delivery of rich, interactive media. Most newspapers could not, forcing them to choose between deeper debts and worse user experience. Citizen journalists and exciting nonprofit experiments would also be muted by ISPs.

In addition to concern about the media system in general, we also have a selfish motivation to support network neutrality: Our roles as scholars and teachers. Academics in all disciplines depend heavily on the internet, and most of the educationally valuable content is not backed by big corporations.

If ISPs choose winners and losers online, the online content we professors assign would not often win. Would ISPs bend over backward to ensure my students’ access to the PDF of James Boyle’s Creative Commons-licensed book? Or the Internet Archive audio of WWII-era radio broadcasts?

Boyle and Archive.org are great, but I don’t expect them to pay off Verizon just to make my students’ downloads faster. This means my students have less access to educationally valuable content, they learn less, and the educational value of the internet drops. The same will be true of my research productivity.

As students of the media system and as researchers and educators, we have deep value and respect for the neutral internet. It is a privilege to have contributed to the drafting of the AEJMC statement, and I thank AEJMC President Carol Pardun for having the courage to lead this charge.

P.S. As if ISP profiteering weren’t enough, other interested parties are muddying the issue. The copyright industries, for instance, are desperately trying to force and cajole ISPs into serving as the copyright cops.

P.P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I am the co-author (along with Minjeong Kim of Colorado State) of a research project examining the online framing of network neutrality. This project won a competitive research grant from AEJMC, though this is in no way related to my long-established opinions on this issue.

AEJMC Supports Net Neutrality

I was excited when Carol Pardun, President of the Association for Education and Journalism and Mass Communication, told me that the group would be issuing a statement supporting network neutrality. I was ecstatic when she asked for my input on the statement.

Now, the statement is out, and I’m listed as a contact. Later today, thanks to the good eye of Josh Stearns at Free Press, I’ll be writing a post for the SaveTheInternet blog.

Here’s the text of AEJMC’s statement on net neutrality:

AEJMC Supports Net Neutrality

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

January 26, 2010

Contacts:
Carol Pardun, AEJMC President (803) 777-3244, pardunc@mailbox.sc.edu
Bill Herman, AEJMC Member and Media Law Scholar, (215) 715.3507 (mobile), billdherman@gmail.com

AEJMC Supports Net Neutrality

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) urges the Federal Communications Commission to adopt rules preserving open and nondiscriminatory access to the internet.

The debate about network neutrality is complex and contentious, but we wish to address a specific myth advanced by network neutrality opponents: that this regulation would stifle innovation and create disincentives for investment in next-generation broadband networks.

The AEJMC rejects this claim.

The most important internet innovations have not come from network providers, but from creative outsiders who built their inventions on top of a neutral network. Requiring network neutrality is vital to preserve competition and investment in internet content, services, and applications.

The FCC should codify the internet openness principles that already guide the agency, and Congress and the courts should support this move. The rules would protect both consumers and innovators of content, services, and applications from unfair discrimination by internet service providers. Perhaps most importantly, these rules would help preserve and develop the internet as a key tool for communication that serves our democracy.

This statement was issued by the President of AEJMC and through the President’s Advisory Council.

Related links

* Federal Communications Commission
* Network Neutrality (Wikipedia)
* “Net Neutrality” in the news (Google)

About AEJMC

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication is a nonprofit, educational association of journalism and mass communication educators, students and media professionals. The Association’s mission is to advance education, foster scholarly research, cultivate better professional practice and promote the free flow of communication.

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Thanks to Newsweek for Having Me at News/Geek

Just a quick, 24-hours-overdue thanks to the folks at the Newsweek Dev Team for hosting me last night at their third News/Geek event.

I had a rollicking good time, the questions were awesome, and the post-talk celebration was even better. If you want the Powerpoint, it’s here in all its 12.2 MB glory.

Further discussion welcome.

Tiered Broadband Pricing and the Myth of the Internet Flood

Over at Public Knowledge, Robb Topolski has written an inspirational post, ISPs Behaving Badly, which criticizes Time Warner’s trial runs at tiered pricing.

I’m not opposed to tiered pricing in principle, though TW appears to have handled it rather badly, and it still fails to solve the root problem of weak competition in the wireline ISP market. Also, I’m skeptical that it’s necessary–rather than a way for TW to keep maintenance costs down and prices up in a market where consumers have few other options.

I really appreciate Topolski taking on the ever-invoked myth that the internet is about to become so choked up as to become unreliable. This is the threat that the “Internet Tubes” will get full, invoked by then-Senator, now-convict Ted Stevens was threatening all the way back in 2006.

Basically, this threat is still a bogeyman and looks to be so indefinitely. Last year, Telegeography concluded, “Internet traffic is growing fast, but capacity is keeping pace.”

Further, DSL Reports debunks the “exaflood myth” in their typical sharply opinionated style.

For a more detached, scholarly view of internet traffic, see the Minnesota Internet Traffic Studies (MINTS) site. Chief investigator Andrew Odlyzko and company are doing great work here. He also suggests that, if anything, the rate of growth in wireline broadband traffic is decreasing. The most recent MINTS post cites a Cogent estimate of 30% growth in internet traffic in Q4 2008 versus 2007.

Last February, Odlyzko argued that, at least as far as the network industries are concerned internet growth may be too slow. This was even based on higher estimates of growth; Odlyzko’s estimate at the time was that internet traffic grows at about 50% per year.

The key is that the cost of managing a network declines by about one third per year. Even exaflood believer Lawrence G. Roberts adopts the latter estimate, following Moore’s law.

If the cost of managing network traffic next year will be roughly 2/3 of this year’s per-bit price, and total traffic is around 3/2 of this year’s total, network providers spend about the same year-over-year for network maintenance (2/3 * 3/2 = 1) and thus make the same profit per subscriber.

Of course, it’s very un-sexy to tell your stockholders that per-subscriber profits will be the same as last year, especially considering the ever-decreasing potential for new subscribers in a broadband market that is approaching saturation.

Thus, dare I suggest: Maybe the exaflood threat is actually about broadband providers leveraging their way into a new business model–whether the Tony Soprano business model of “Charge Google,” or the wireless carriers’ model of tiered pricing.

To draw a comparison with the wireless industry is instructive; even when wireless data transmission is more than doubling every year, wireless carriers keep charging lower prices for better service and rolling out every more reasonably priced all-you-can-everything plans.

Where there’s even modest (and far from ideal) competition, customers come out far better than in the duopoly-at-best home broadband market.

But then again, maybe “global traffic will exceed the Internet’s capacity as soon as this year.” That is, if you listen to Phil Kerpen’s commentary at Forbes–from January 2007.

Stimulus Bill: Content Filtering Out, Open Networks Requirement In

Thanks to Alex Curtis at Public Knowledge for the stimulus bill content filtering update. The good news is in the headline: No on content filtering, yes on open network requirements.

He also posted a PDF of the relevant section. See the highlighted portion on page 9 for the nondiscrimination requirements.

media, power, and responsibility

Why are media and power always a bad combination? Whether it is the elite who is abusing the media for its own purposes (in the words of Chomsky and Herman, to ‘manufacture consent‘) or whether it is the media themselves who are powerful, often heard as in ‘the media are biased‘, the message seems clear cut: the media and power do not go together – but is it?

The notion that media often are (ab)used by the powerful goes all the way back to the origins of communication research back in the fifties when it was primarily obsessed with the effects of propaganda. The concern here is that only a particular group of people, e.g. the elite, the powerful, have access to the media and are able to set the agenda for society – if not what the public should think, then what the public should think about. This line of research carries on in the media ownership concentration literature – who owns the media has the power to allocate resources, to control editors and set the agenda. Famous (notorious) examples include Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi. 

Then there is also concern that the media themselves are too powerful. While the media is supposed to act in the public’s interest, they often underserve certain segments of the public, such as minorities, or they slant news in favor of particular segments of the public – these are the issues of underrepresentation and misrepresentation. Not to mention the many issues the media effects research is trying to address – television violence is bad for our kids, video games make them dumb and lazy, the internet destroys their attention span, etc.

Most research seems to indicate that power and media don’t go together – bad things happen if they do. What I am wondering is – can the powerful use media for good, rather than bad? Power and media leading to bad things is a relationship of correlation, not causation. What responsibilities, obligations do the powerful have to use media for the greater good? This is a question that has been asked in democratic theory – the media should be a watchdog, should serve as a platform for the public to discuss important issues, etc. More specifically, and something I am interested in, is what kind of obligations are imposed on the media as a result of a particular power disparity – that is to say, what obligations should be imposed precisely because the media are powerful/are controlled by the powerful? 

In broadcast television, the imposition of rules that made sure political issues would be covered in a way that was honest, equitable and balanced was called the ‘fairness doctrine‘. The primary justification for imposing this (controversial) rule was that broadcast television only could carry so many channels because of spectrum scarcity. In other words, only a few limited number of channels could be broadcasted – because of the power this would give to those who control these few channels, the FCC made sure that important issues were covered in a ‘fair’ way. The fairness doctrine had many problems (partially because it wasn’t quite clear what was meant with ‘honest, equitable and balanced’ coverage) and was subsequently abolished. However, one could consider if the fairness doctrine or some kind of equivalent would still have relevance in modern days – in other words, if we’d had to ressurect this, how would it look like? Some have linked the fairness doctrine to the debates we have on network neutrality, arguing that it is in essence a fairness doctrine for the internet. 

One could thus compare the internet protocols – the rules that describe how connections on the internet are established – to rules we have for media access (besides the fairness doctrine, there have also been regulations such as the equal-time rules, specifying that broadcast stations must provide opportunity to opposing political candidates to speak).

But are the internet protocols by themselves enough? The internet protocols are famous for ‘not caring what kind of content they carry’ – as long as the protocols are followed. Should protocols care? The telecom providers argue the internet should care – they say it makes a difference (and a big burden on their network) whether content is video, peer to peer traffic or just text. They want to be able to prioritize some content over others. They want to be able to regulate traffic in such a way that a small number of users don’t end up hogging most of the bandwidth, or at least charge them more for it. Skeptics, and network neutrality proponents, fear that the telecom providers will abuse this power to prioritize content (“let’s make getting to the Microsoft Live search website really fast, and let’s slow down access to Google”). 

But the ability to be able to distinguish, to prioritize some content over others might not be a bad thing. We can disagree about who should be able to prioritize, on what basis – for example, many people might not want the telecom providers to be able to prioritize on the basis of profit maximization – but what about the following: Clay Shirky has helped us understand that the blogosphere follows a powerlaw - that is to say, a small number of so-called A-list blogs gets a disproportionate amount of attention.

If you are such an A-list blog, and you wield a certain power in the form of mass attention, what kind of moral obligations follow out of that kind of power?

OK Go Singer’s Brilliant on Net Neutrality

I’m stoked by Damian Kulash’s New York Times opinion calling for mandated network neutrality. It’s a far more accessible, engaging piece than almost anything written on the subject, and he makes a compelling case. Kudos to him.

P.S. On a personal note, it’s been a metric year since I blogged, and for good reason. Life is crazy now, not least because my wife Tina Collins just got a 2 year fellowship at (ahem) HARVARD! So as I finish up my dissertation (still expecting to wrap it up this summer), we’re gearing up to move (her and probably me) to Cambridge. While I’m still actively applying for tenure-track jobs across the country, I’m also looking at postdocs and other work around Boston.

Expect more rage-against-the-machine blogitude once I’m resettled.

FCC Hearing: Comcast Hired Seat Warmers

At yesterday’s FCC hearing into Comcast’s practice of blocking BitTorrent traffic in Cambridge, Comcast hired several dozen seat warmers to reduce the number of critics who could get into the hearing.

The hearing was held at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. When Catherine Bracy, the Center’s administrative manager, opened the door to the hearing at 7:15 am, “none of the 35 to 40 people waiting to get in appeared to know what the hearing’s subject matter would be,” the AP reports. She also saw a couple of the ringers sleeping in the front row during the hearing.

So far, this means that Comcast has:

*Blocked most BitTorrent traffic by adding fraudulent bits to transit streams
*Claimed that it was doing no such thing
*Once confronted with two different studies (one by the EFF, the other by the AP) proving as much, admitted that they do indeed block BT traffic
*Described its actions as “delaying” BT traffic when the goal and effect is to stop most BT transfers
*Pretended this was all no big deal
*Changed its ToS to reflect the blockade

And now, we add:

*Hired ringers to reduce public access to a hearing into these practices

Let’s hear it for Philadelphia’s own cable giant, Comcast!

(For more on the hearing, check out Berkman’s FCC hearing linkfest.)

Comcast to FCC: Why Regulate? We Have the Blogosphere

In a filing with the FCC (pdf), Comcast claims that, thanks to market competition and blogging watchdogs, there is no need for regulatory intervention to protect net neutrality.

The company’s recent discrimination against peer-to-peer traffic is the cause of the hearing. Last August, Comcast denied the charges (which were first documented on… drumroll please… a blog), but now the company has stopped fighting the clear and convincing evidence, instead changing the Terms of Service to reflect the fact that they are willfully throttling BitTorrent traffic.

Now, they claim:

Network Management is best left to the sound, good-faith judgment of the engineers and proprietors who run and own the networks and who are best able to remedy customer service issues promptly, rather than to regulation. The self-policing marketplace and blogosphere, combined with vigilant scrutiny from policymakers, provides an ample check on the reasonableness of such judgments.

There’s only one problem: whatever market pressure and public criticism can be leveled has already come to pass, and Comcast still has not changed direction. Could this have something to do with the market failure in the broadband market? After all, a duopoly is rarely the sign of a healthy market.

At least one prominent blogger and vocal Comcast critic finds the argument laughable.

On DRM-related sidenote, somebody (presumably Comcast) put a password on the PDF, preventing the wholesale one-step copying of text. Yet further evidence that the company is deeply committed to an open dialogue on net neutrality.

(Link from Lok)