Wouldn't it be great if the FCC ran the Internets?

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The House Energy and Commerce Committee has released discussion draft for comprehensive Communications Act "reform". As you would have expected, it's a total mess, with the biggest problem that it contemplates the FCC having an enormous amount of regulatory control over the Internet. Check out Section 102, which requires that ISPs register with the FCC:
SEC. 102. REGISTRATION OF BITS PROVIDERS. 
    (a) FEDERAL AND STATE REGISTRATION.—
       (1) REGISTRATION REQUIRED.—Any BITS provider offering BITS
           in any State shall file a BITS registration statement, and
	   any substantive amendments thereto, with the Commission, and
	   file a complete copy of such statement and amendment with
	   the State commission of such State.
       (2) PROHIBITION ON SERVICE PENDING REGISTRATION.—Subject
	   to paragraph (3), no BITS provider may offer BITS until
	   such provider's registration statement has become effective
	   in accordance with subsection (c).
       (3) TRANSITION.—If a provider was offering BITS prior
	   to the date of enactment of this Act, the commission 
	   shall, in order to provide for a reasonable transition 
	   period, provide a temporary waiver of the prohibition
	   in paragraph (2) during which such provider may offer
	   such service prior to the effective date of the
	   provider's registration statement.
    (b) FEDERAL FORM.—A BITS registration statement 
    shall be in such form, contain such information, and be 
    submitted at such time as the Commission shall require by
    regulation, after consultation with State commissions.
    (c) EFFECTIVENESS OF REGISTRATION.—
       (1) NOTICE OF FILING.—No BITS registration statement
           or any substantial amendment thereof filed with the 
	   Commission under this section shall be effective earlier
	   than 30 days following issuance of public notice by the
	   Commission of the acceptance for filing of such
	   registration statement or substantial amendment.
       (2) FAILURE TO SUPPLY INFORMATION.—The Commission
	   may disapprove a BITS registration statement that
	   the Commission determines fails to comply with the
	   requirements of the Commission under subsection (b).
       (3) OTHER GROUNDS FOR DISAPPROVAL.—The Commission 
           may disapprove a BITS registration statement if—
	   (A) the BITS provider or any of its officers has
               violated Commission rules, Federal or State law,
	       or has a notice of apparent liability pending
	       at the Commission; and
           (B) the Commission determines that the BITS provider's
	       offering of BITS could harm consumers.

At the moment, there's no registration requirement for ISPs. I can just buy a DS3 and some Ciscos and I'm in business. So, to start with this bill would require registration. That wouldn't be so bad except that (1) there's no requirement that the FCC act on my registration filing in any time period (at least not here). Can they stall me indefinitely? To make matters worse, if anyone at my company has violated any law, they can just determine that my offering would harm consumers and refuse to register me at all. As I read this, if one of my employees has a DUI on their record, I'm subject to disapproval of registration at the FCC's discretion. Why is this a good thing?

SEC. 104. ACCESS TO BITS
    (a) FEDERAL AND STATE REGISTRATION.—Subject to subsection (b),
    each BITS provider has the duty—
       (1) to provide subscribers with access to lawful content,
           applications, and services provided over the Internet, and
	   not to block, impair, or interfere with the offering of,
	   access to, or the useof such content, applications,
	   or services;
       (2) to permit subscribers to connect and use devices of their
	   choosing in connection with BITS; and 
       (3) not to install network features, functions, or
	   capabilities that do not comply with the guidelines
	   and standards pursuant to section 106 of this Act.

Point (10) here above is presumably supposed to please people who disapprove of carrier's blocking services. Of course, in the current market, that requirement isn't super-necessary, since I can just get a different ISP. Of course, with the FCC controlling entry to the market, this kind of requirement may in fact be necessary.

Also, take note of point (3), where ISPs are forbidden to install any feature that doesn't comply with the guidelines in 106, which reads (in part):

SEC. 106. COORDINATION FOR INTERCONNECTIVITY
    The Commission—
       (1) shall establish procedures for Commission oversight
           of coordinated BITS network planning by BITS providers,
	   and the interconnectivity of devices (including devices
	   from unaffiliated providers) with such networks, for the
	   effective and efficient interconnections of BITS 
	   providers' networks; and
       (2) may participate in the development by appropriate 
           industry standards-setting organizations of BITS
	   network interconnectivity standards that promote
	   interconneciton with—
           (A) BIT and BITS networks; and
	   (B) network capabilities and services by individuals
               with disabilities.

This is a little difficult to process, but it sure looks to me like the FCC can pretty much set any standards they want and then require ISPs to comply with them. Are their readers who interpret this differently?

Another classic is SEC 404.

SEC. 404. ACCESS BY PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES.
    (a) MANUFACTURING.—A manufacturer of equipment used
        for BIT, BITS, VOIP service, or broadband video service
        shall ensure that equipment designed, developed, or
        fabricated after the date of enactment of this Act is
        designed, developed, and fabricated to be accessible to
        and usable by individuals, unless the manufacturer
        demonstrates that taking such steps would result in an undue
        burden.
    (b) SERVICE PROVIDERS.—A BITS provider, VoIP service
	provider, or broadband video service provider shall
	ensure that the service it provides is accessible to
	and usable by individuals with disabilities, unless the 
	provider  demonstrates that taking such steps would result
	in an undue burden.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with manufacturers making their equipment accessible to the disabled, but it's not clear to me that the FCC should be in the business of requiring Cisco to have their management UI handicapped accessible (though they may already have it that way for all I know).

The idea that we need Congress and the FCC to tell us what kind of IT services we need would be a lot more comforting if they seemed to understand the Internet better. Emblematic of this is the fact that they treat generic Internet service (what they call BITS), VoIP, and Broadband video separately. This makes sense in some telco world where each service is separately tariffed, but of course the Internet doesn't work like that at all; bits are bits. I suppose it's arguable that VoIP services need some regulation because people's expectations have been set by the PSTN (though this is arguable) but broadcast video?

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1 Comments

Uh ... do you realize that this discussion draft was primarily written by telecom lawyers and lobbyists?

This isn't Congress or the Executive Branch trying to legislate "the Internets". It's telcos and related industries trying to block competition. Large software company lobbyists are even taking a crack at influencing this bill -- not to kill it but to get their pork on.

As a general rule, whenever you see a bill like this it is designed to do one of two cases:

1) It is an inflammatory approach by a Senator or Congressperson to raise campaign contributions. This type of bill has virtually no chance of passing but it will get people riled up and lobbying money will be spent.

2) It is written by a lobbyist, paid by a single industry player, to get a piece of pork which specifically advantages their business.


The other imaginable cases occur so rarely that I'm not certain they're worth considering. :)

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