October 13, 2008

Addams Family or Ned Flanders? The FCC Internet Censorship Battle Heats Up

Greetings. The FCC appears poised to push ahead with plans to auction off spectrum to provide "free" nationwide wireless Internet service, but wants to make sure that the Internet you access this way is thoroughly culturally shackled. Even search engines could be forbidden.

At issue is a chunk of unused spectrum that a former FCC official has had his eyes on for quite some time. John Muleta was head of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, then co-founder of M2Z Networks, Inc. M2Z wanted the spectrum to set up an Internet service that would be free and ad-supported at low speeds like 384 Kbs, and a paid service at higher speeds. And they promised to filter content to make the free service "family friendly" (so warm and cuddly that phrase).

When the Commission didn't move fast enough for M2Z's liking, M2Z sued. The FCC decided that they wanted to auction off the spectrum, but auction rules to many observers appear to favor M2Z. The Commission also bought into M2Z's concept that the free service must be "family friendly" content filtered (that is, content censored).

Today we learn that the FCC has determined that use of the spectrum won't interfere with T-Mobile's adjacent 3G services -- a point of strong disagreement with T-Mobile -- and that the Commission plans to go ahead with their auction and Internet censorship requirements.

There are more than a few interesting and important issues relating to all this. Obviously, if the FCC is wrong about the lack of interference, there are going to be a whole lot of very upset T-Mobile customers -- not to mention T-Mobile themselves who paid something like $4B for their nearby spectrum just a few years ago.

Another question we might ask -- does it make sense to hand off the entire nationwide control of this unused spectrum to a single entity? Why not make it available on reasonable terms to the various smaller spectrum-starved regional and local wireless entities -- we might actually see some vibrant Internet access competition enabled that way. But of course money talks and spectrum walks.

Of even broader significance is the whole concept of the FCC mandating a censored Internet. This is a repugnant and unrealistic concept, and likely to land the Commission in endless resource-wasting battles.

Any attempt at selective filtering is doomed to failure. Myriad ways around typical filters will be possible via proxies and other means. To really nail down Internet content, you'd probably have to move from a "prohibited" list to a "permitted" list. That is, only allow access to a walled garden of sites that have been pre-cleared and "sanitized for your protection" -- and no access to anything else.

Otherwise, escapes around the block filters will always be easy. Even general purpose search engines and archives would seem possible targets for blocking, since their descriptions and caches might provide the Web surfer with all manner of officially "unapproved" materials.

And what the blazes does "family friendly" mean anyway? Just whose family are we talking about? I'll admit that seeing the filter list from Gomez Addams or Grandpa Munster might be intriguing, but my suspicion is that we'd get something much closer to the political sensibilities of Homer Simpson's neighbor Ned Flanders.

Whoever might end up in the role of grand exalted censorship god, this whole scheme is not an appropriate concept for the FCC to be mandating. Auctioning off the available spectrum for more Internet access is one thing. But regardless of whether it's being auctioned to a single or multiple parties, any winners should be required to abide by content neutral rules just as everyone else in the ISP business should be doing.

Trying to force feed the public with a pablum of so-called "family friendly" Internet content in auctioned spectrum is a bad joke, an impractical abomination, and an idea worthy of filing only deep in Grandpa Munster's dungeon.


Posted by Lauren at October 13, 2008 06:23 PM | Permalink
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