• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Catching Up

Hello, Readers!

August 24, 2010

Hello, Readers!

While I was on vacation, much has been going on in the national IT policy arena. I will devote a number of subsequent postings to this issue. First, today, is a little essay about the F.C.C. v. Comcast decision that came out some weeks ago. Although dated, this essay introduces a number of the issues and the "procedural posture" in a loose way that the F.C.C. stands right now on the mere authority to direct national policy in this area. This essay should also give you a pretty good idea of my thinking on regulation in general, so the subsequent posts on more contemporary issues, such as Google and Verizon, will make sense against that backdrop.

Please, comment away!


The District of Columbia appeals court's decision in Comcast V. Federal Communications Commission signals the need for clear exercise of regulatory authority over a wide range of issues that involve the Internet from broadband deployment to intellectual property.

Current governmental control over the Internet spans at least five separate administrative areas. The Department of Commerce stands over the main domain name servers; it delegates authority to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. The Federal Trade Commission regulates privacy. It is the authority, for example, of the rule that commercial web sites must have a privacy policy (although there are no rules over what that policy must say!). The Copyright Office, housed in the Library of Congress, trims the edges of what Congress promulgates with regard to copyright law. All too often it is accused of acting in the interests of the content industry. In an area of genuine concern, for example to address the file-sharing conundrum, it is without authority. Cybersecurity would appear to be fixed in new Department of Homeland Security, but for the fact that the nation’s “cyberczar” is on the White House staff.

As we now understand, the Federal Communications Commission can yet fine broadcasters for uttering profane words but it cannot issue rules designed to cabin Internet Service Providers from the wholesale management of content on the Internet. Whether it is successful at guiding a policy of national broadband deployment -- which the United States desperately needs to revive the economy and move its unemployed out of the industrial and into the information age -- through Congress remains to be seen. The tailspin that the Comcast decision has thrown the F.C.C. into leaves that matter in much doubt.

The Internet is not the medium of the future; it is the driver of economies, information and culture around the world today. Historians will look upon this moment in much the same light as the printing press: a reflection and engine of powerful social and political change such as Protestant Reformation and the development of capitalism. Closer to our time and in our own country we have plenty of examples of how communication and transportation developments have shaped our history, from railroads to the radio. The administrative agencies that emerged from those developments addressed inefficiencies and excesses of the free market imperfectly but at least with an eye toward the general welfare of the country.

We face similar challenges today addressing questions such as Internet access to the remote regions of our country (which are sometimes just down the road from expansive networks and computers), the very unfortunate creation of a whole generation of young copyright infringers (caught in the cultural distance between antiquated law and innovative technologies) or the obvious dependency between cyber and national security. More important, we do so in the context of an extremely competitive global market. Many areas of that market already “get it,” whether the “it” refers to the ideology or fiber optic cables. Scandinavian countries and developed Asian countries have near complete network penetration; Palestinian caves feature connectivity; India uses connectivity to provision “outsourced” services to its economic advantage and China stands up armies of people to fight the free flow of public opinion through the Internet precisely because the medium is charged politically.

The United States cannot afford either to ignore broader policy related to the Internet or to allow it to become bogged down in litigation about arcane legal issues. Whether the F.C.C. should classify the Internet under “Title I” or “Title II” might mean something to lawyers inside the beltway but it does nothing to advance the national agenda in the myriad ways that the Internet touches contemporary life today. Virtually every aspect of the Obama administration policies relies on this medium for its success, whether it is electronic medical records for health care, economic revitalization or education reform. Partisan politics aside, it is common sense that we remain competitive internationally. The Internet is more than just a technology; it is a world historical phenomenon that incorporates virtually every aspect of our society and the globe. It is time for our elected officials to have an informed, robust discussion about comprehensive Internet governance.


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