It only took a couple of months, but the telecom industry, with some other chosen companies, established a technical playpen that could have far-reaching implications for Internet policy. The new Technical Advisory Group (TAG), announced June 9, starts with a core group led by AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. There are no consumer or public-interest representatives in the original cast, although Google and DISH Networks are members.
We certainly believe in bringing technical expertise to complicated issues surrounding the Internet. After all, it took a lot of work to figure out that Comcast was sending reset packets that cut off their customers who were using BitTorrent, particularly as Comcast denied doing anything wrong.
While having technical experts talk to each other about technical matters has been a standard way of doing business for decades, the main concern over this TAG is what role it will play in the highly charged world of Internet practices and policy. It depends to whom one speaks. Dale Hatfield, the group's "facilitator," was quoted in the original announcement as saying, "The TAG will function as a neutral, expert technical forum and promote a greater consensus around technical practices within the Internet community." That's fine and as it should be.
Others had a different interpretation. Randy May from the Free State Foundation (a local Maryland version of Progress and Freedom) and Tom Lenard from the Technology Policy Institute, each were quoted as saying the TAG is a step toward industry self-regulation, with May going to far as to say the group was a reason for the Federal Communications Commission to "ditch the reclassification" of broadband telecommunications services. Those organizations tend take the sides of industry, and have the freedom to say things that industry dare not utter in public, even though industry itself tends not to be reticent about saying what it thinks.
The context for the origin of this TAG -- You're IT group is important in trying to determine how it will evolve. The idea was first broached by Verizon Exec. VP Tom Tauke in a March speech largely dedicated to the proposition that the industry can largely take care of itself without much need for the government to intervene.
Throw out "traditional regulatory models," Tauke said: "Instead, we could structure a process that uses the innovative, flexible and technology-driven nature of the Internet to address issues as they arise. Instead of the traditional rule-making process, federal enforcement agencies could structure themselves around an on-going engagement with Internet engineers and technologists to analyze technology trends, define norms to guide such questions as network management, and understand in advance the implications of new, emerging technologies.
"Technology leaders and experts from all players involved in the Internet should set up voluntary organizations and forums to provide advice, recommendations, and advisory opinions to government agencies. This will help inform the agencies' role as backstops that deter damaging activities that undermine the vibrant competition and openness that defines the Internet."
Under Tauke's formulation, the FCC is the backstop to an industry-organized network that would define norms and understand the implications of technologies. That's where this started. Tauke's speech certainly leaves open to interpretation a view that the group is but a mere gathering of wise persons dedicated to making sure the bits flow freely.
Whatever this TAG group is, aspires to be, or turns out to be, it should be clear that it should be as open in its membership and its deliberations. Closed doors and closed processes will not engender any public support.
There should be no mistaking this for any kind of a substitute for a complaint to the FCC. An industry body's recommendation should not be given equal weight to that of a regulatory agency. Google, one of the original members, agrees.
As Google Telecom Counsel Rick Whitt wrote: "To be clear, the BITAG is still very much a work in progress, and we welcome the involvement of other interested entities, especially those representing the Internet user community. Further, the purpose of the BITAG is not to replace the oversight and enforcement authority of the FCC or any other government body. Rather, we hope the BITAG can bring together some of the smartest technical minds in this space to provide some useful guidance to policymakers and Internet stakeholders alike."
And no one, no one, should take this group to be any reason at all for the FCC to abandon its program to make sure that there is an official, regulatory cop on the beat to protect consumers, promote innovation and provide rules of the road. Those are the steps that lead to economic growth. The reclassification exercise is built around the need to redirect universal service funds, to allow the FCC to deal with privacy, cybersecurity and other issues they will not be able to deal with absent the proper legal authority. The TAG -- You're IT group will deal with none of those and heaven knows they need to be dealt with.
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