September 20, 2013 2:47 PM

Sanctimony In Defense of Anything Is Unnecessary

Earlier this week Prof. Susan Crawford [of "net neutrality" fame] wrote an editorial that appeared in Bloomberg's online edition.  The editorial generally sticks to her by-now-familiar shtick that the FCC needs to, you know, do more net neutrality stuff.  But, this time her generally annoying undertone of school-marm-ish sanctimony became an uncomfortably strident ad hominem overtone.  

By now, if you pay any attention to telecom policy debates, you know that Prof. Crawford believes that cable is one big, evil monopoly [generally true] and that really good "net neutrality" regulations are urgently necessary [in order to avoid a massive chain reaction of events that would result in Skynet becoming self-aware in August of 1997].  Prof. Crawford is also a political animal, having served as President Obama's technology policy adviser. 

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The reason that I mention her political background is because it's part of the modern political tradition that being an extremist in defense of [your opinion vs. that of the other guy] is no vice.  Just as background, this notion comes from Ms. Crawford's political forbearer, Barry Goldwater, who said something similar as a candidate in the 1964 Republican Presidential primary contest [he didn't win].

Lucky for you, though, I--like many Americans--have transcended politics [read: became disenfranchised], and adhere to the more pervasive opinion (among normal people not employed by cable "news" channels) that it's not cool to be harsh toward other people when you're just talking about political stuff.  So what was Prof. Crawford's uncool move in the editorial?  This:

Leibowitz himself pooh-poohed that notion [that antitrust laws are sufficient to protect competition in Internet access] in 2007, when he pointed out that a high-speed Internet access provider "with monopoly power in a local market might use that power to block or degrade some applications or content that compete with applications or content the broadband company itself provides." Antitrust law, Leibowitz added, "would not prevent such a scheme except after a 'rule of reason' analysis" which would be "drawn out, uncertain, and expensive" -- leading him to conclude that antitrust law "is not necessarily well-suited to protecting" consumers' interests.
[Protip: if you ever see a big block quote in an online article--with no links--there's a good chance the quote is being misrepresented.]

She first mentions former FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz in an earlier paragraph that begins with a sentence noting that AT&T's Jim Cicconi [in a Media Institute speech] recommended that the FCC leave competition policy to the antitrust agencies (DoJ and FTC).  The very next sentence reads that Leibowitz "agreed" that the FTC (vs. the FCC) should deal with privacy issues, while noting that Leibowitz is now representing AT&T, and other large ISPs.  See what she's doing here?  Raises point she disagrees with, then says Liebowitz "agreed" on a completely different point.  Misleading?  You think?  But probably just an accident . . .

Until you get to the paragraph highlighted above, here we find out that Leibowitz is a traitor to his own regulatin' heart, right?  Well, no.  The only reason you would think this is because in an earlier paragraph we learned that Leibowitz agreed with Cicconi . . . err, at least on privacy stuff.  But still, Leibowitz is "selling out" his high falutin' big government ideals to big business, right?  No!  This quote is from a concurring statement he released as an FTC Commissioner after voting to adopt an FTC staff report recommending that the agency NOT adopt net neutrality rules!

You see, the FTC staff undertook a very thorough examination of the Internet access market and the concerns of people like Prof. Crawford, and concluded that because the market for Internet access was becoming more competitive, it was not necessary for the agency to adopt any specific net neutrality rules. Then-Commissioner Leibowitz made the above statements to make the point that if market conditions changed, he could see circumstances where the antitrust laws may not provide a timely, effective remedy.   

So, why does Prof. Crawford try to cite "good" Jon Leibowitz against his present clients?  Well to show that both of them are full of crap now, of course!  Not cool, you say?  No, and not persuasive either.  If this is what the defense of net neutrality has come to, Prof. Crawford, let it go: keeping your soul is more important.  

Trust me, Professor: no one wants Skynet to become self-aware by 1997, but even if people don't understand your points, or disagree with you, don't make them the "bad guy" just because they don't agree with you and don't share in the urgency of your mission. Policy-related issues deserve a spirited debate among influential leaders that includes a thoughtful examination of the facts, not a call for everyone to jump on the bandwagon and agree with one person's vision.



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