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His voice has not necessarily been crying in the wilderness, but Scott Cleland has been a leading and loud critic of powerful edge providers unrestrained by regulatory guard rails, members of the FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) club — especially Google, which he has long argued is the 40-foot python in the virtuous internet garden.
That view of the edge has gained currency in Washington policy circles with the revelations about Facebook and its profligate sharing of user information, the misuse of social media platforms by foreign actors, and the European Union’s recent record fine against Google.
When he is not writing lengthy think — and action — pieces about edge providers, which he said have gotten a “cheater’s charter,” Cleland is president of consulting firm Precursor LLC. He was deputy U.S. coordinator for communications and information policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration, and is also chairman of NetCompetition, an e-forum promoting Internet competition and choice and backed by broadband providers. He spoke with B&C senior content producer, Washington, John Eggerton.
You have long extolled the non-virtues of powerful edge providers and the need for government attention. That seems to be happening. Are you ready to declare victory?
Oh, not even close to victory. Essentially, people have woken up to an extremely serious problem long-term. There has been a ton of attention paid to it, but precious little forward movement towards addressing it legally or solving it with a remedy in the U.S.
You have particular concerns about Google. Is that because they are the 800-pound canary — or should that be python — in the mineshaft?
Google is in a league by itself in that it really doesn’t care about the rules or the law and it has an enormous legal team to deal with its serial law-breaking. It is a company that says one thing and does another. It collects mind-boggling amounts of information on everyone or everything. The last thing in the world you want to have concentrated in one hand is the power over information.
You know the old adage: If you toss a frog into warm water it will fall asleep, if you throw it in boiling water it will jump out. The world has no idea it is being boiled. If you are in politics, or government, or businesses or anything with power, Google is already the only entity that has collected the world’s information and they eventually control access to it.
Should the government regulate ISPs less or edge providers more?
Clearly Google has cornered the market on search syndication. There is a slam-dunk antitrust case on Android search, very close to the successful case against Microsoft.
More broadly, the biggest unaddressed problem is that we have an industrial policy that exempts internet platforms from regulation, federal and state, and immunizes from liability (under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, edge providers have immunity from criminal liability).
Imagine a sports league where one team didn’t have to follow any of the rules. That team could injure their opponents and their fans. That team could also be the referee and own the stadium. Which team wins the league championship every year in perpetuity? The internet platforms have been given a cheater’s charter.
Any chance for bipartisan network neutrality legislation?
There should be. Hope springs eternal. A deal is there on a silver platter for those who want to permanently address the issue in law.
What should I have asked you, but didn’t?
One thing I wanted to add is that the edge companies that started out as internet companies, rather than the core, which is essentially the regulated FCC industries, can do exactly the same thing as the regulated companies. The technology and adoption has fully converged, but the law under Section 230 and legacy are completely divergent. It is a government industrial policy that is choosing FCC-regulated companies to die over time for the benefit of internet companies, a policy that is years past any aspect of being worthy. It is an upside-down problem.
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