The New Green Aristocracy: Ben Pile

Brilliant analysis on environmentalism and the legitimacy – Andrew.

An aristocracy is a form of government by an elite that considers itself to possess greater virtues than the hoi polloi, giving it the right to rule in its own interests. Aristocrats were referred to as ‘the nobility’, or ‘nobs’. These days we prefer decisions to be made democratically – the idea being that we can judge for ourselves which ideas serve our interests, thank you very much, ma’am.

But in recent years, politicians have sought legitimacy for their positions from outside of the democratic process. A new aristocracy is emerging from the emptiness of UK politics – and it’s considerably more virtuous than thou.

…Read more at The Register.

Earth to Ofcom: They're our airwaves. Give us them back

Sometimes Ofcom, Britain’s media and telecomms uber-regulator, likes to agonise in public whether Britain needs a media and telecomms uber-regulator.

It must feel like a stag night in SE1, as the executives fly in expensive blue-sky wonks and consultants, and Ofcom gets quite giddy with itself at the prospect of a world without Ofcom. Then sobriety returns, of course, and it wakes up and finds itself knickerless and handcuffed to a lampost.

So Ofcom gets back to what it loves doing best: Making Very Big Decisions about What’s Good for Us.

Yesterday Ofcom published its second Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) review in five years, and while this one extends itself to encompass new media – such as the very intarweb you’re reading now – it doesn’t do much more than hem and haw, and fret about the status quo. This PSB review doesn’t dare answer the questions it raises, while leaving the biggest issues untouched.

So here’s a modest proposal.
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Obama mounts 'Neutrality' bandwaggon

Politicians long ago gave up on politics. Instead of articulating great ideas, the choice that faces voters today is between identikit managerial bureaucrats who’ve never had a job outside politics. Most of their adult lives have been spent in the hermetic world of wonkdom. So it’s little wonder, then, that they have trouble distinguishing between fiction and reality.

And it’s no surprise at all to hear that a virtual Presidential candidate is throwing his electrons behind a virtual cause, to repeal a virtual law that never existed.

What else would a cypher do?

Asked whether he’d “re-instate Net Neutrality” as “the Law of the Land”, trailing Presidential Candidate Barack Obama told an audience in Cedar Rapids, Iowa pledged that yes, he would.

He also said he’d protect Ewok villages everywhere, and hoped that Tony Soprano had survived the non-existent bloodbath at the conclusion of The Sopranos.

(So we made the last two up – but they wouldn’t have been any more silly than what the Presidential Candidate really said.)

There are several problems with Obama’s pledge.
Continue reading “Obama mounts 'Neutrality' bandwaggon”

Google snubs UK's first Net Neutrality debate

The first significant Net Neutrality debate to take place in the UK was held today at Westminster. Chaired by former trade minister Alun Michael and the Conservative shadow trade minister Charles Hendry, the event attracted the chief Telecoms regulator and ministry policy chief, a clutch of industry representatives, and a sprinkling of members of both houses.

What emerged from the sessions is that ‘Neutrality’ is one of those incomprehensible American phenomenons, from which we’ve mercifully escaped. Your reporter was one of those invited to give a briefing – having reported on the issue from both sides of the pond – and said as much. But in the expectation that this would be the heretic view, rather than the near unanimous consensus opinion.

Summing up, Michael described the clamour for pre-emptive technical legislation as “extreme… unattractive and impractical”.

It was, he said, “an answer to problems we don’t have, using a philosophy we don’t share”.

That wasn’t the only surprise.

Google strop

Interestingly, the event was snubbed by Google, which in the USA has done so much to stoke the “Neutrality” crusade. Google has thrown lobbying money and muscle at Congress, but at Westminster, declined an invitation to speak. It sent a representative who told a fellow attendee that the panel was “biased”.

Stranger still, and this should cause conspiracy theorists some confusion – the Forum was sponsored by AT&T. That’s the AT&T that Neutralists insist doesn’t want to talk about its nefarious plans to sabotage the internet. Well, here it was. Maybe AT&T never had any intention of doing what the Neutralists claimed it wanted to do – and it was all a huge misdirection. But Occam’s Razor is never sufficient for conspiracy theorists, who simply create a new, and more elaborate narrative.

Overall, the debate was on another plane of technical and economic literacy to the hysteria served before Congress.

That doesn’t mean the UK regulator is oblivious to sensitivities. OFCOM regards the markets as essentially different. There’s more access competition here, and the UK doesn’t have such as ancient cruft as the US distinction between an information provider and a telephony provider. Greater competition means a regulator can do what a regular should do, believes OFCOM, and let the market sort it out.

OFCOM’s Douglas Scott reiterated that policy today. He said, however, he believed Neutrality wasn’t a US-only debate. Neutrality issues were being pushed up the agenda by the emergence of time-critical applications (such as video), and the ability of equipment vendors to deliver a smarter network. He then demolished most of the reasons why OFCOM needed to get involved.

In the USA, “all bits is equal” is a mainstream view, in Europe, it isn’t. The European framework permits ISP to prioritize packets by application, which the UK regulator regards as fine. A grey area, he suggested, was when an ISP offered MySpace a preferential Quality of Service deal, for a fee. Should the regulator constrain the fee?

Hand-off hands off

concerns about T-Mobile’s contract blocking VoIP calls last year. OFCOM was aware that rival network operators were striking deals with VoIP operators (3 UK now offers a packaging including Skype for £5 a month) and declined to intervene. T-Mobile has now responded with a VoIP tariff.

(It’s largely irrelevant, but still worth noting, that T-Mobile has yet to block a VoIP call made by your reporter, which suggests that while it wants to discourage VoIP calls it can’t afford to prevent them).

In that example, said Scott, OFCOM would probably have stepped in if all the operators were blocking VoIP.

Scott concluded by saying neutrality wasn’t an issue, so long as customers could migrate to an alternative provider quickly and easily.

Speaker after speaker described the difficulty of painting the phantom called Neutrality. Most characterized it as a US-centric debate. Most were wary of prescriptive regulation, which had to be technical by nature, when no harm had been caused and the problem couldn’t be described.

The Head of UK Telecoms Policy at the Department of Trade and Industry, Claire Hobson, said Neutrality was in danger of being an issue that’s “flogged to death”. She described the position as “relaxed but not comatose”, and reiterated Douglas Scott’s view that so long as people knew what deal they were getting, and could switch easily, “Neutrality” wasn’t an issue.

And Americans characterize Europeans as regulation-happy?

How AT&T chewed up, and spat out Net Neutrality

“It sure would be nice, but it doesn’t have much chance of happening because of market power, size, etc. I think it would be real hard to do. I don’t think the regulators would let that happen, in my judgment.” – Ed Whitacre on the possibility of taking over BellSouth, 2005.

The definition of a Southern Gentleman, it’s said, is someone so charming they can hand you your guts back on a plate – and you thank them.

If that’s the case, then AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre can have few peers in the charm sweeps. Whitacre has dispatched potential opposition to AT&T’s corporate expansion with the insouciance of a lion swatting a fly with its tail. Victory was complete shortly before the New Year, when the FCC agreed to Whitacre’s second mega-merger in the space of two years without hampering the emerging behemoth. The US regulator signed off on the AT&T-BellSouth merger that Whitacre himself had said he thought impossible, only 15 months earlier.

It’s been a masterpiece of misdirection. Whether by happy accident or design, Whitacre sent the opposition down a dead end, focusing its attention on a non-issue – or more accurately, an “issue” he himself created. The FCC applied the coup de grace with just one one sentence on December 29.

As the product of a series of mergers, AT&T now employs over 300,000 people and turns over $115bn in revenue – eleven Googles, or four Intels. The deal signed off by the FCC over the holidays also gives AT&T full control of Cingular, the United States’ second largest cellular network. Can there be anyone happier in the telecoms business tonight than Whitacre?

In a decade, American consumers have seen the number of Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs), or Baby Bells, coalesce from six down to just three: the odd man out, Qwest, the RBOC which covers the sparsely populated Mountain states, is surely next on AT&T’s menu.

The extraordinary thing is that all this took place at a time in the wake of the fall out from the telecoms bubble. The Bells enjoyed little affection from the public in any case, long before Global Crossing and MCI. and with an unpopular Republican President, Democrats can have been expected to push a few populist buttons, and hear some bells.

What actually happened is that Whitacre got everything he wanted, but only thanks to the aid of The Democratic Party, most of whom aren’t aware how thoroughly they’ve been outwitted.

Now that’s style.

Let’s see how he did it.

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The New Paranoid style in American politics

The most interesting thing to emerge from the so-called ‘Net Neutrality’ bid had nothing to do with telecomms technology or policy. It’s the startling and, at the same time, banal fact that paranoia has become the default flavour of politics on the net.

Phantoms fight phantoms, here. When the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote his famous 1964 essay for Harpers, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, he was inspired by the anti-Catholic fervour of the John Birch Society, and the anti-Communism of Senator McCarthy, which he saw embodied in Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. These were old trends which were merely a reoccurrence. Hofstadter observed –

“The paranoid is a double sufferer since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”

The “Net Neutrality” campaign – which created little excitement except on the outer fringes of the web – suggests that the left is now just as capable of being haunted by paranoid fantasies as the right.

What the internet has achieved, with its twisty maze of echo chambers all alike, is a rapid acceleration of this paranoid discourse, which expels nuanced and complex reasoning. Continue reading “The New Paranoid style in American politics”

A neutral net is a neutered net?

So-called “network neutrality” legislation hampers innovation and harms business and the public, Verizon’s chief spokesperson said this week. Tom Tauke, Verizon’s executive VP of public affairs, said in a speech that efforts to legislate against discrimination would hamper the take up of multi-tier network applications such as VPNs.

“The hospital that wants to provide home health monitoring for a heart patient is not going to rely on the internet,” he said.

Net neutrality advocates fear that the Bell telephone company – now reborn in the shape of Verizon and AT&T – will restrict the services that can be run on the open internet, and charge internet companies more for their bandwidth as they seek to compete with cable. The old Bells say that in order to deliver new services such as TV and movies on demand, they need to be able to discriminate between packets. With fiber offering the potential of 10x to 20x connections that today’s broadband, they add, there’s plenty of bandwidth to go round. We’ll come on to quite how much in a moment.

Tauke rebuffed the idea that Verizon would punish internet companies, saying it made as much sense for the telcos to cripple the net as it did for coffee shops to replace their premium bestseller with a cheap and nasty brand. They’d go out of business if they pulled that stunt, he said.

It’s the oddest of odd debates. On the one side former deregulation enthusiasts have been rushing to write new laws and regulations. On the other side, the Bell Heads, so often mocked by the Net Heads for their reactionary disdain to new technology, can justifiably claim that they’re investing in innovation.

To the average Joe, innovation looks like video on demand – or a faster internet connection. To the Net Heads, innovation means Vonage and Skype. The VoIP services are something the telcos would dearly like eliminate, as they introduce a wildcard into the pricing, but they know they can’t, so they’ll settle for the next best thing, control.

“The plain truth is that today’s access and backbone networks simply do not have the capacity to deliver all that customers expect,” Tauke said. “Building out America’s internet and broadband infrastructure will require billions more in private capital investment.”

In that, he’s correct, of course. The passion behind “network neutrality” is largely based on a fear of price gouging, which given the Baby Bells track record, is entirely justifiable. AT&T boss Whitacre sees Google as freeloading on his network and has hinted he wants to charge the internet companies more.
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Blanket digital licence fails in France

Under heavy pressure from the French government, the country’s parliament has voted against introducing the world’s first blanket licence for sharing digital media. A section that would have permitted internet users to freely exchange copyrighted material, effectively legitimizing file sharing, and hastening the demise of digital rights management (DRM) software, had passed an earlier reading in a vote last December.

The measure proposed a levy of between €8 and €12 for a compensation pool, had won cross-party support – with strong backing from the left, the Greens, and the centre right UDF inside parliament- as well as the backing of consumer groups. MPs walked out in protest after the blanket license proposal was struck down, AFP reports, leaving the government to carry the day.

Although a similar model of compensation has been historically adopted for the public performance of recordings (such as in pubs), for radio, and most recently for satellite TV and webcasting, the consequences of the French vote would have been dramatic and far-reaching.

With a billion songs exchanged illegally each month on the P2P networks, the most immediate answer is that artists continue to lose out: it’s taken Apple three years to sell a billion songs.

But the implications for technology companies would have been fairly immediate.

The need for digital rights management software would have vanished, replaced by an even more urgent need for the kind of counting technology being devised by Snocap. Snocap intends digital services companies that use its software – such as Mashboxx – to be able to identify the songs being traded on the illegal networks and turn them into legitimate transactions. Today’s digital music services, which offer a limited choice, encumbered with digital restrictions, all for a much higher subscription “fee”, would have had to drastically alter their business models. They’d find themselves in the business of collecting “finder’s fees”, earned good editorial judgement and fulfulling music lover’s needs – rather than services based on artificial scarcity, and technological restrictions.

Direct compensation through a broadband fee works out much cheaper to the citizen than a commercial for-profit service. In his book Promises To Keep published last year, Professor Terry Fisher of the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School estimates that a $6 per month fee for broadband users would compensate both the recording and movie companies for 20 per cent of their revenue – more than they’ve ever claimed they lost through digital piracy.

But the strongest opposition came from the record labels at the top of the physical distribution chain – with the most vociferous opposition coming from the biggest- Universal Music Group.

Speaking at the Digital Music Forum in New York a fortnight ago, flat fee advocate and former Geffen executive Jim Griffin said he could see why UMG opposed a blanket license.

“I agree with Larry Kenswil [UMG’s digital supremo] – this would be bad for Universal. When you’ve reached 30 per cent market share, when you’ve pulled off the last big merger, when you’ve built up the barriers, there’s not a lot of benefit from equalizing access. But what’s good for UMG isn’t good for everyone else.”

For now the prosecutions, the DRM, and the illegal file sharing which leaves artists with no reward – all look set to continue. However, France’s long debate is sure to embolden campaigners, as it makes the once unthinkable suddenly seem very practical. And next to the value proposition of a flat license – wider choice at a lower cost – even the best of today’s digital subscription services look pretty shabby.

How computers make kids dumb

A study of 100,000 pupils in 31 countries around the world has concluded that using computers makes kids dumb. Avoiding PCs in the classroom and at home improved the literacy and numeracy of the children studied. The UK’s Royal Economic Society finds no ground for the correlation that politicans make between IT use and education.

The authors, Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessmann of Munich University, used the PISAtests to measure the skills of 100,000 15 year-olds. When social factors were taken into account, PC literacy was no more valuable than ability to use a telephone or the internet, the study discovered.

“Holding other family characteristics constant, students perform significantly worse if they have computers at home,” the authors conclude. By contrast, children with access to 500 books in their homes performed better. The negative correlation, the researchers explain, is because children with computers neglect their homework more.
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