Landing Team Invades the Echo Chamber

Technology regulation is a gatekeeper with an enormous role in determining the kind of future we will enjoy. Engineers can create awesome new systems, but if we can’t get buy-in from regulators, they go for naught. Effective innovation is a kind of conversation between system creators and regulators.

Sensible regulation depends on rational regulator behavior and public awareness of issues. This awareness is not always as high as it could be because the clickbait-obsessed tech media does such a poor job of explaining emerging issues to the public. An uninformed public is vulnerable to manipulation by interest groups invested in the status quo, and nothing impairs progress like a mob.

This week’s reporting on the appointment of two tech policy scholars to the Trump transition’s FCC landing team was was shockingly repetitious and painfully ill-informed. Its most notable feature was the echoing of bad facts in lieu of research.

FCC’s Checkered History

As the nation’s premier communications regulator, the FCC has its fingers in a number of pies. Nothing new happens in communication by wire or radio without the FCC’s permission.

While the FCC played an indispensible role in the creation of Wi-Fi by developing the concept of licensing by rule, it held up the rollout of cellular telephones by refusing to make the necessary spectrum available for more than a decade after the invention of the cellular network.

Historically, the FCC’s primary job was the regulation of the monopoly Bell System. While this role came to an end with the breakup of the Bell System and the subsequent passage of the 1996 Telecom Act, the FCC tends to behave as if telephone monopoly were still the order of the day.

Competing Agencies

Today, the FCC is joined by other government departments in the promotion of new modes of communication. NTIA coordinates the use of radio spectrum and develops Internet policy. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) have also developed spectrum sharing plans.

In particular, the 2012 PCAST report Realizing the Full Potential of Government-Held Spectrum to Spur Growth has been very influential in slowing the transition of government spectrum holdings to general-purpose use.

The Federal Trade Commission was once charged with developing national policy on advertising and consumer privacy generally, but now it competes with the FCC. This is the result of the FCC’s reclassifying broadband internet service as a common carrier. Reclassification triggered a legal provision exempting common carriers from FTC oversight.

The FCC oversees all mergers that involve the transfer of spectrum licenses, but the Justice Department oversees all mergers of large companies. Hence, the FCC and DoJ have overlapping jurisdictions in large cable, satellite, and telecom mergers.

Rationalizing Regulation and Technology

The disconnect between the FCC’s skillset and modern technologies isn’t intentional. Rather, it’s a consequence of the rapid development of communications technology against the glacial pace of change in the structure of government regulations and the agencies that manage them. History accounts for the overlapping jurisdictions of the FCC, FTC, NTIA, and the White House.

The assignment of tech policy scholars Jeff Eisenach and Mark Jamison to the Trump transition’s FCC landing team was significant because both men have devoted considerable research to the problem of rationalizing the roles of communication regulatory agencies.

Eisenach has advocated the transfer of many FCC duties – especially those that apply to general markets – to the FTC for some twenty years. Jamison is a recognized expert on regulatory agency design who researches and consults with national regulators around the world. Both are regulatory reformers in a field in which reform is long overdue.

Media Reaction to the Reformers

A survey of 25 articles on the appointments of Eisenach and Jamison to the FCC Landing Team indicates that a handful of reporters covered the story well, while the majority parroted a common set of sensational talking points.

Coverage by the Guardian’s Geof Wheelwright, Multichannel News’ John Eggerton, BNA’s Lydia Beyoud, and the Washington Post’s Brian Fung emphasized the pair’s reforming mindset in an even-handed way after reading some of their work.

The next best articles confined themselves to discussions of the team’s views on net neutrality, an issue that grabs headlines but is actually less consequential than many believe. Ultimately, Congress will decide the fate of net neutrality, and the FCC will simply operationalize the law.

Articles in the net neutrality group include ComputerWorld’s John Ribiero, Fortune’s Matthew Ingram, The Register’s Kieran McCarthy, and Malathi Nayak at Reuters. With the exception of Ribiero, these writers also claimed that either Eisenach, Jamison, or both are current or former telecom lobbyists.

The Lobbyist Canard

This assertion is easily disproved with basic research at the website. While Eisenach was registered as a lobbyist with the Cap Analysis Group from 2003-2006, his only telecom client was the Australian carrier, Telstra. His billings for this engagement were zero, indicating that his lobbyist registration was pro forma. Jamison has never been a lobbyist at all.

With the exception of Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin, the bottom tier of writers – mostly bloggers – emphasize the false lobbying allegation. They all reference an Eric Lipton hit piece on Eisenach from the August 8th New York Times.

At the time, Lipton was supposed to report on ethics and corporate influence over public policy, but his views on ethics are not well formed. In Lipton’s world, those who accept money from clients for services rendered are automatically ethically dubious. This position would indict Lipton himself, because he tends to attack policy figures who are at odds with his employer’s editorial positions.

Essentially, the Times uses the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lipton to weaponize ethics in the defense of its editorial views.

Defending the Boss

Lipton attacked Florida academic Kevin Folta in September 2015, falsely alleging meaningful financial ties to Monsanto and collusion to promote genetic engineering. The Times supports the labeling of genetically engineered food and insists, contrary to the scientific evidence, that genetic engineering fails to increase agricultural yield or reduce pesticide toxicity.

In fact, a meta analysis of 147 peer-reviewed studies says: “On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.” Lipton’s critique of Folta echoes an attack by anti-GE advocacy group USRTK based on an underhanded FOIA expedition paid for by the organic food industry.

USRTK forwarded the fruits of its FOIA request to Lipton and he ran with it, adding a new dimension: Lipton compared Folta with Charles Benbrook, a consultant who does nothing but work for hire for the organic industry. The claim that GE increases pesticide use is Benbrook’s creation.

Lipton’s Low Blow

Folta, the chairman of the Horticulture Department at the University of Florida, earns his entire living as a legitimate academic, so comparing him to a professional advocate with a history of shoddy, agenda-driven research is a low blow.

The Times also supports the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality regulations, which Eisenach opposed. That fact alone was sufficient to make him a target for Lipton’s allegations of ethical impropriety.

Professional Ethics in Public Policy

The ethical dimension of public policy work is covered by disclosure: policy analysts who combine consulting with non-profit think tank fellowships must diligently disclose sponsors of commissioned work, as Eisenach has always done.

They are also required not to advocate for the interests of their professional clients in the name of the think tank. The mere fact of work for hire does not compromise policy scholars.

I learned these rules from Eisenach himself while working with him at the American Enterprise Institute, and I have never seen anyone follow them more diligently than he. There certainly are consultants who cut ethical corners in Washington, but Eisenach is not among them.

Tech Blog Echo Chamber

Hence, I was disappointed to see references to Lipton’s unjustified attack on Eisenach in no less than 17 blogs and news articles: The Next Web, TechCrunch, The Verge, BoingBoing, Ars Technica, USA Today, TechDirt, DSL Reports, Light Reading, Forbes, International Business Times, BGR, Fortune, Re/Code, Quartz, Wireless Week, and Gizmodo all linked to Lipton’s tale. TechCrunch called it “excellent reporting” but it wasn’t good enough for Pulitzer mention.

The idea that Trump would appoint a pair of lobbyists to oversee the transition of the FCC after pledging to “drain the swamp” of lobbyists certainly would be news if it were true.

The fact that it’s blatantly untrue means it’s nothing more than clickbait, endlessly circulated in an echo chamber of false outrage by attention seekers too lazy to research their own stories. Such mindless parroting is more harmful than over-the-top fake news because its effects are longer lived.

Echoes in Action

Without knowledge of the nature and motivation for Lipton’s work, it seems reasonable on its face to cite the New York Times. After all, it’s a well established newspaper that often publishes news fit to print.

But the bottom tier of blog posts on the Eisenach and Jamison appointments displayed a much more disturbing trend: they copy each other.

In an op-ed for Inside Sources published in September 2014, Eisenach wrote: Net neutrality is crony capitalism pure and simple — an effort by one group of private interests to enrich itself at the expense of another by using the power of the state. This quote appears in seven of the 25 articles, each time as appearing in an AEI document.

At roughly the same time, Eisenach testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on net neutrality in which he made a similar remark to the effect that net neutrality is an effort by one set of private interests to enrich itself by using the power of the state to obtain free services from another. This quote appears in nine of the 25 posts.

In isolation, these quotes create the appearance that the writers has researched their subject. But in reality the bloggers have simply copied other bloggers, typically without attribution, on a subject they haven’t researched at all. The copying is clear from the misattribution of the Inside Sources op-ed.

This is how an echo chamber works.

The Bottom Line

The FCC is need of reform, and a great deal of thoughtful work has been done by both Democrats and Republicans about how to restructure the institution. Former FCC Chief Technologists Dave Farber and Henning Schulzrinne discussed this issue with me on our HTF podcasts.

So policy experts who are engaged in the reform discourse rightly were prime candidates for the transition’s FCC landing team. The fact that these two have well developed records on agency reform is the real news here.

Efforts to reform the FCC should be carefully scrutinized because the job needs to be done well. It’s unlikely that the tech blogs are going to be much help. For the most part, they’re an incurious bunch obsessed with their clicks.