Fact Checking for The New York Times on Internet Policy

Posted by Kelly William Cobb on Tuesday, April 13th, 2010, 12:03 PM PERMALINK

This weekend, the New York Times published an op-ed by University of Michigan professor Susan Crawford on the why the FCC should regulate the Internet.  The op-ed outlines a unique history of an industry that was deregulated, leading to higher prices and lower speeds where discrimination can run rampant.  It's unique because it's fanciful and untrue, as I alluded to in a prior post.  Here are a few clarifications and corrections that the New York Times editorial board should have caught.

Crawford: "It wouldn’t be the first time that the F.C.C. relabeled Internet access services."

Every time the FCC has deliberately considered how to treat the Internet it has always found it to be a Title I, unregulated "information" service (see here, here, here, and here). So, it would be the first time.  While DSL, it is argued, existed as a Title II "telecommunications service" until 2005, this was basically by default since DSL runs through phone lines, which fall under Title II.  When the FCC first looked at how to treat DSL Internet specifically in 2005, they decided on Title I.  Meanwhile, cable, wireless, and all other types of services, which make up over 70% of the market, have always been "information services" and were never under Title II. Reclassification would be the first time all Internet access services were relabeled, a significantly more "radical" idea than keeping them unregulated in the first place.

Crawford: "But under the Bush administration the F.C.C. deregulated high-speed Internet providers."

First, you can't de-regulate something that was never really regulated (see above).  The FCC simply continued its hands off approach to regulating the Internet.  Nevertheless, it appears Net Neutrality proponents are now trying to wrap this issue in the Bush administration for some sort of political gain.  Yet opposition to Net Neutrality is not a partisan issue at all.  The Clinton administration, at least as far back as Chairman Kennard, repeatedly referred to the Internet as an information service that shouldn't be regulated.  And while Rep. Ed Markey has a bill to enact Net Neutrality (HR 3458) with 21 mostly Democratic co-sponsors, last fall 72 House Democrats sent a joint letter to the FCC opposing Net Neutrality.  When Markey gets 72 Democratic co-sponsors, we'll talk.  Until then, leave politics out of this.

Crawford: "The Bush F.C.C. hoped that deregulation would prompt greater competition in Internet access services. But a wave of mergers instead reduced it. Prices stayed high and speeds slow."

First, the number of providers increased by 22% between 2005 and 2008 (from 1,270 to 1,554), so there is certainly more competition. Second, while the consumer price index for all goods went up by 13.6% between 2004-2009, Internet access prices dropped by 22.7%.  So, prices are dropping.  Lastly, there is little consistent data on Internet speeds, but there are a couple things worth highlighting (calculated from FCC reports).  Between 2002 and 2007, the number of people connecting to high-speed Internet went from 19.9 to 121.2 million and most of them switched from dial-up service.  Furthermore, the number of people accessing speeds above 25 mbps grew by 66% between 2005 and 2007.  When cable soon rolls out new technology (called DOCSIS 3.0), speeds across the country will reach up to 100 mbps.  For a few more points and other arguments against Crawford's claim that the FCC can just classify the Internet however they want if they give "a good reason," check out this blog post by Scott Cleland.

All this "deregulation," proponents argue, means that ISPs are now able to discriminate against certain websites and therefore the Internet should be reclassified under Title II.  However, in all this history, there are only two instances of discrimination ever known to occur, and only one has served as the evidence based talking point for Net Neutrality. Most importantly, that one instance garnered so much negative attention (lasting up to at least this blog post) that no ISP since has ever dared to manage their networks in such a fashion for fear of a similar market backlash.

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