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Former FCC chairman dismisses net neutrality as distraction

Former FCC Chairman William Kennard published an opinion piece in the New York Times on Saturday, October 21st.

On the one hand, Kennard rightly points out that there is now a “broadband digital divide” (we have written about the digital divide and govt information before on FGI) and that there needs to be a “full-scale policy debate” about the direction of broadband internet. But then in the very next sentence, he blows off the net neutrality debate as “effectively preventing Congress and the public from dealing with more pressing issues.” It’s as if he doesn’t even realize that without net neutrality in place, the digital divide chasm will only grow deeper and wider — and the companies that Kennard works for or sits on the boards of will be the ones with the backhoes!

He DOES disclose that he works for the Carlyle Group, but does not say that he is also on the board of Sprint Nextel Corporation, Hawaiian Telcom and Insight Communications (a cable provider). These companies will benefit directly if the FCC/telco/Kennard triumvarate succeeds in getting Congress to forget Network Neutrality.

Lessig has a good response to Kennard.

On a side note, this is a good example of how to argue with statistics, and also why fact checking and data literacy are such important skills for readers. I still agree with Lessig’s basic premise on net neutrality, but notice that he used OECD stats to show that students in the US are not as computer literate as, say Greece, Poland, Portugal, and the Czech Republic. His OECD citation was unfortunately from the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which probably used data from 2001 — perhaps a bit out of date. Then a commenter confused the issue even more by pointing to newer OECD data on numbers of broadband subscribers rather than Lessig’s original computer usage statistics. Both broadband market penetration to end users and computer literacy per se are kind of beside the point when arguing for net neutrality IMHO, but numbers are like shiny objects to crows.

The numbers that would be really relevant to the net neutrality discussion — I haven’t looked to see if they’re available — would be cost/bit, up/download bit rate comparison and telco profit margins between the US, South Korea, Denmark, Netherlands etc. and then an extrapolation of how much it would cost broadband users for premium rates vs non-premium rates as well as projected telco profit margins in Kennard’s unregulated broadband future/present where large swaths of the country will have either no broadband access or monopolistic control over access. Those would be interesting numbers! Profit is one thing, but obscene profit at the expense of user access and future innovation is just that: obscene.

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