Archive for 2010

FCC on Net Neutrality: A Step Forward

22 December 2010

The FCC approved new rules yesterday protecting net neutrality for the first time, bringing to a close a turbulent year of debate over how to best protect the open Internet and ensure the global network remains a vital platform for innovation. While the full text of the action is not yet available, key excerpts are available here, and it’s clear that there will be three new rules governing the ability of internet service providers to regulate the flow of information over their networks. 

First, internet service providers must be transparent in the ways they manage the flow of information over their networks. Second, providers of fixed broadband access are forbidden to block any legal content, applications, services or devices from the network. Third, providers may not “unreasonably discriminate” among content or users. These rules build on the principles laid out in the FCC’s 2005 Internet Policy Statement, codifying the ideal of an open, non-discriminatory internet into enforceable rules for the first time.

Reflecting the longstanding tenor of the net neutrality dispute, reaction to the FCC Report and Order has been dominated by criticism from the right (including FCC Commissioners McDowell and Baker, who voted against the action) that the rules are unnecessary and liable to stifle investment, and criticism from the left (including Commissioners Clyburn and Copps, who joined Chairman Genachowski in approving the measure) that the rules don’t go far enough in protecting the interests of internet users.

In particular, public interest groups and open internet advocates have criticized the FCC for excluding mobile networks from most of the protections afforded wired broadband. While blocking competitors’ apps and services will be outlawed, mobile network operators will retain a broad ability to manage their networks and prioritize content. As Chairman Genachowski explained in his remarks, there are technical issues that affect mobile that don’t exist on wired networks– there’s simply less capacity on mobile networks, and without an ability to actively manage traffic, mobile networks could quickly become overwhelmed and incapacitated by a few hyperactive users. 

Mobile is also different from wired broadband in that, for most consumers, the mobile industry is genuinely competitive. If you’re a Sprint customer, and Sprint blocks you from using third-party applications to pigeonhole you into using their own services, most people in this country are covered by at least three other major mobile networks.  As the mobile ecosystem continues to evolve, we’ll have to hope that the FCC will remain vigilant, and if anti-competitive, anti-consumer behavior by mobile networks operators becomes the norm, they will step in with stronger protections. For now, the FCC’s “measured steps” on mobile broadband are a prudent approach to regulating a dynamic industry.

The Report and Order also raises concerns about two other areas, without specifically regulating either. First, the FCC outlines four reasons why “pay for priority” arrangements– whereby a third party would pay the network operator to favor certain traffic over other– would probably violate the “unreasonable discrimination” rule. Second, the document describes “specialized services,” distinct from the internet but riding the same wires, including voice and video over IP. The FCC again pledges to monitor these services, and ensure that they’re not being used to evade the net neutrality rules. For now, we’ll have to take them at their word. As on mobile platforms, there’s extraordinary opportunity for innovative new services to arrive via broadband, and before there’s evidence of anti-consumer behavior by network providers, there’s no need to discourage innovation with preemptive rules.

In a blog post yesterday, the Chairman of our Globalization Initiative, Dr. Rob Shapiro, celebrated the end of the net neutrality fight. I hope he’s right, but I’m afraid this issue may linger for some time. Most troublingly, the FCC’s Report and Order does not stand on the strongest legal footing.  After the DC Circuit Court ruled earlier this year against the FCC in its suit charging Comcast with illegal content discrimination, the FCC’s authority to regulate the internet has been in some legal doubt. This lack of clarity should be troubling for both sides– network operators, because it continues uncertainty about the legal framework in which they will be working, and consumer advocates, because it puts these new rules protecting net neutrality in jeopardy. Ultimately, congressional action may be required to clarify the FCC’s authority and to establish clear rules of the road for this dynamic, exciting and important part of our economy.

Despite these ongoing issues, I applaud the FCC and Chairman Genachowski for finding a compromise on net neutrality that, for the first time, protects our open internet and the interests of internet users without impeding network providers in their continued investment in building the internet’s infrastructure.



Language, Literacy, and Rising Mobile Adoption

10 December 2010

The BBC had a good article this week about mobile-based learning tools. The piece doubled as a bit of self-promotion, as it discussed the BBC World Service Trust’s own project, Janala, which uses brief audio lessons to teach English to poor Bangladeshis. The other story is about Nokia’s Ovi Life tools, which has 6.3 million users in China, India and Indonesia, and just introduced in Nigeria. Nokia’s service uses SMS messages to teach English, instead of voice.

Much of the article focuses on the challenge of delivering content that is locally relevant and appropriate. Nokia’s service in Nigeria will use Hausa and pidgin English as available languages of instruction, just as they’ve used 11 regional Indian languages to make their service useful to Indians who don’t speak Hindi. Janala teaches English with a Bangladeshi accent, rather than the Queen’s, and replaced references to “tennis and hamburgers” with references to “cricket and rice.”  All good stuff.

But the question I want to zero-in on here has to do with the different models of instruction: voice vs. SMS.  I don’t want to take anything away from Nokia’s service– if they’re reaching over six million people, with over one million repeat users, they’re creating a valuable service. But around the world today there are more and more people who own mobile phones, and yet cannot read: people for whom SMS is useless.

In most countries, the literacy rate still exceeds the mobile penetration rate, but this won’t be true for long. Take a look at the graph below, which charts the growth rates in mobile penetration in a sampling of developing countries over the past 15 years. South Africa is in there as a fully-saturated market, to give you a sense of what the mature S-curve looks like:

Extrapolate those trends forward to today, and it’s a safe bet that 40-50% of Indians and Bangladeshis have a mobile phone, while the rate in Nigeria is creeping toward 60%. Literacy rates are still higher– India’s is around 66%, Nigeria’s is about 72%, Bangladesh’s is about 53%– but those numbers grow more slowly, at only about 1 or 2 percentage points each year over the past fifteen years. Probably sometime in the next two to three years, more Bangladeshis will own mobile phones than are able to read. The same will likely be true in India and Nigeria within four-five years, if not sooner. 

This should perhaps change the way we think about tools– not just learning tools, all tools– on mobile. If, very soon, there’s going to be a massive market of phone-owners without the ability to read, then how much can we make available by voice, as opposed to SMS? Earlier this year, I wrote about CGnet Swara, a citizen journalism service in Chhattisgarh, India, that’s entirely-voice based. What about banking services? Healthcare services? Even better, how might voice and SMS hybrid services be used to improve literacy? 

(Mike Trucano wrote about one project working on that problem here, and MobileActive.org covered another project here.)



Barriers to Information Freedom: Barriers to Trade

18 November 2010

Earlier this week, Google’s public policy shop released a white paper arguing for obstructions to the global free flow of information to be seen as barriers to free trade. The paper came out on the deadline for comments on the Commerce Department’s notice of inquiry on this subject (though apparently the deadline was extended for a few extra weeks– there’s still time!), and took on all the big questions sought by Commerce’s Internet Policy Task Force:  How are governments restricting the internet? What is the impact of these restrictions?  What can we do about it? The white paper is a good read, but 25 pages, so, forthwith, a summary and some thoughts:

The white paper outlines the tremendous economic impact and potential of the internet (1.7 billion users! [i.e.: customers] Global markets for local companies!), and then spends considerable time describing the ways that “more than 40″ governments disrupt the free flow of information on the internet, identifying four “common characteristics” of the restrictions.  First, restrictive governments will often impose rules or regulations on online service providers without making those rules clear and publicly available.  Second, governments will block entire platforms or services based on individual pieces of content or the actions of a small number of users. Third, foreign companies are frequently disadvantaged in favor of local companies. And fourth, restrictive governments apply their laws arbitrarily and haphazardly, targeting some violators while ignoring others.

These restrictions have real impacts on trade and economic growth, as the next section of the paper argues. With restrictions, companies have a harder time reaching their customers, and even when they do, the degradation of their service lowers its value. When restrictions target “intermediary” companies– search engines, blogging platforms, cloud-based services– the effects are magnified, as they impact not just the blocked service, but other businesses– both local and foreign– that rely on the service for their own business. The ultimate effects of restrictions are lowered revenues for internet companies and others who depend on the blocked services, a high degree of uncertainty that makes it impossible for firms to plan their work, and unfair advantages given– often intentionally– to local, unrestricted businesses.

The white paper suggests three main steps for policymakers to combat barriers to free information/trade on the internet.  First, they must call attention to the restrictions imposed by foreign governments and the effects they have on the global economy. Second, policymakers must take action in instances where restrictions on the free flow of information online are in violation of existing international trade rules. The paper puts particular emphasis on the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which extends the WTO’s jurisdiction over goods to services, including information and communications services.  

Third, they must protect free flows of information in future international trade rules by establishing global openness as the default position, and mandating stronger transparency rules. The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement currently in negotiation already includes language that acknowledges the importance of information freedom in facilitating trade and restricts barriers to any information flow. The paper mentions other trade forums that could be ripe for introducing these ideas, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and the Doha Round of negotiations under the WTO, should it move forward.


This white paper is a valuable contribution to a side of the “internet freedom” conversation that has gotten less attention this year.  In her January speech on Internet Freedom, Secretary Clinton made clear that the free flow of information was an economic issue, as well as a strategic issue and a human rights issue. Most discussion, however, has centered on a universal right of access to information, described by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  While compelling and stirringly idealistic (I’ve defended this right on this blog many times before), arguments based on issues of human rights often don’t gain the purchase in the policy world that economic arguments do.  If we’re going to knock down barriers to information freedom– for the sake of human rights, economic interests, Western values, or whatever else– taking the economic approach is likely to be the most effective.

Related to white paper, the Center for Democracy and Technology just published a really interesting blog post about fees charged to Chinese universities by their government for accessing “international data.” Any time a student at a major university in China accesses a news or information portal hosted in another country, they pay a tax. As Google’s paper mentions, restrictions on information freedom have the effect– intentionally, in China’s case– of creating a fragmented internet: individual “intranets” rather than a single, global network. The sort of “data protectionism” that CDT describes inevitably deepens national divides, making the world less global and interconnected, and preserves the disparities in information access that idealists once hoped the internet could tear down. It’s troubling to watch these barriers erected and strengthened.

Back in August, we held an event here at NDN on the global free flow of information, and were fortunate to host Anita Ramasastry, co-chair of the “Free Flow of Information on the Internet” working group in the Commerce Department’s Internet Policy Task Force; she spent much of her talk discussing the trade approach to information freedom.  You can read a summary and watch a video of the event here.



Internet Necesario and the Mexican Netroots

8 October 2010

On Tuesday, the Mexican Senate unanimously passed a resolution urging President Felipe Calderon to withdraw from negotiations over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The grounds of their opposition? Concern about the treaty’s restrictions on privacy on the internet and free access to information.

If that sounds like an uncommon concern of the Mexican Senate, you would be right. So how did we get here? Come back with me to October 2009…

A year ago, the Mexican Senate proposed a new excise tax of 4% on all telecommunications. After a minor outcry, they revised the rate down to 3%, but it was hardly the cost that rankled Mexico’s netroots– the tax would add just a few pesos to their monthly bill. Rather, the devil lay in the scheme of the tax, which put telecommunications– including internet access– in a category typically reserved for tobacco, liquor, and luxury items.

It’s hard to imagine an opportunity more ripe for web-based protest, and the Twitter users of Mexico coalesced around the hashtag #internetnecesario (“the internet is a necessity”).  In a week in late October, thousands of irate Mexicans pushed the phrase into Twitter’s trending topics– one of the first times a Spanish phrase had made the cut– and brought the proposed tax to the attention of the media and the Senate itself.

By week’s end– the last day of the legislative session– “Internet Necessario” had surpassed negotiations over the federal budget as the country’s top political story, and Mexican Senators were getting crash courses in the internet age. With many of the capital’s Twitterati sitting in the room for negotiations over the tax, the proceedings were broadcast live across the internet, and the Senators’ words were subject to instantaneous scrutiny, ridicule, or praise: an unusual circumstance for policymakers who typically operated at a distance from their constituents.

In the end, the tax was voted down unanimously, and the idea of the internet as a “luxury” was cast out of the discourse with derision. The lesson for the Senators was clear: don’t mess with the internet, because people are paying attention, and can make their voices heard in ways previously unimaginable.

Senator Francisco Javier Castellón Fonseca, Chair of the Senate’s Science and Technology Commission, was a leader in the fight against the telecommunications tax. He was also a leader in social media– a year ago, he was the only member of the Senate on Twitter; now over 40 Senators are tweeting madly. By all accounts, Senators are engaging with citizens over Twitter to an extent that has never been seen before in Mexican democracy.

The end of this story (for now) is of course that ACTA suffered a harsh blow from the Mexican Senate this week. A year since this country’s netroots first made their voices heard, they have enjoyed ever more direct contact with their government, and were able to successfully mobilize for a cause once again. The Calderon government is likely to continue negotiations over the treaty, despite the unanimous resolution against it.  Still, a treaty like this would require ratification from the Senate, so its chances of passing into law here seem far dimmer since the Mexican netroots made their voices heard.



A Tale of Two Twitters

6 October 2010

Ok, two stories from Mexico City.


In July, four Mexican journalists were kidnapped in Durango.  The kidnappers, connected to a drug cartel, sought to force the TV news media to air segments sending the message that Los Zetas, a rival drug gang, was doing business with corrupt officials.  The journalists’ respective employers– most notably Televisa, the biggest media company in Latin America– negotiated for their freedom, but walked away from the table.

losqueremosvivosFor many Mexican journalists, the situation was too familiar– caught between vicious thugs who have killed 64 journalists in the past decade, a complicit government that fails to protect the freedoms of press and information, and media companies that fail to protect their reporters. And so a group of them took to Twitter, uniting around the hashtag #losqueremosvivos (we want them alive).

Within a week, the journalists’ simple demand had spread like wildfire on Twitter, migrated to Facebook, and morphed into a full-fledged movement. The reporters planned a march in Mexico City for August 7, invited journalists from around Mexico to join in the capital or host their own marches, and introduced colleagues around the world to their grievances.  Over 2,000 journalists showed up to march in Mexico City, and 14 other groups held their own rallies around the country.

The journalists were beaten, starved, and threatened, but were ultimately freed shortly after the rally, and the kidnappers arrested.  Nonetheless, all four reporters are seeking asylum in the U.S., on the grounds that, as journalists, they are persecuted by a government that “can’t and won’t protect them.”


In February, Mexico City was shaken by news of a double murder.  Twitter user @atorreta and her boyfriend were both shot walking home from dinner, and her brother reported the whole episode from the hospital with tweet after tragic tweet.  The Mexico City Twitter community erupted in a fury of rage, angst, and calls for justice.  Online news sources published the story on their front pages.  And hours later, everyone learned that the entire story was false, made up.

It’s not clear who made it up.  What is clear is that Mexican cartels have grown ever more sophisticated in their own use of social media, executing a well-thought through media strategy, using all the tools in their toolbox. This episode is characteristic of the sort of manipulation and misinformation that bad actors can use to their advantage on a frenzied network like Twitter.


So what do we have here? A case study in how social media can be used for organizing and sharing ideas, and a cautionary tale against taking Twitter at its word. Beyond that, two arguments for the necessity of good reporters, and good journalism.

If we take seriously the right to information, we must also take seriously the right to inform. Even in this technology-dense world– perhaps even more so than before– we rely on good journalism to give us a platform for intelligent debate. Here in Mexico, where journalists are shot dead for reporting on corruption, or threatened and silenced for calling out the cartels, there is a dearth of good information about these issues, and not enough informed debate. New media and technologies will be a part of bridging that gap. And so will good reporters.