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2.0 out of 5 stars A Sweeping Call for Government Control of the Internet, January 8, 2013
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This review is from: Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age (Hardcover)
Susan Crawford's book is a sweeping call for centralized, top-down government control of America's broadband infrastructure that lacks any serious discussion of the costs associated with such far-reaching regulation of this rapidly evolving sector.

What is most astonishing about "Captive Audience" is the way Crawford so audaciously waxes nostalgic for the days of regulated monopoly. Simply put, Crawford doesn't believe that capitalism or competition have any role to play in the provision of broadband networks and services. "No competitive pressure will force these companies to act [in the public interest]," she argues on the last page of the manifesto. "Americans," she claims, "have allowed a naive belief in the power and beneficence of the free market to cloud their vision." She suggests we should just give up our false hope that markets can deliver such an important service and get on with the task of converting broadband into a full-blown regulated public utility.

Her proposed solutions read like the typical Big Government grab-bag of policy proposals: more government spending, more government ownership, and more government regulation (forced access regulation and rate controls) for any private carriers that are allowed to remain in operation as de facto handmaidens of the state. Crawford's perfect world scenario would seem to be some sort of amalgam of the U.S. Postal Service and the federal highway program. While both programs have sought to provide an important service to the masses, it goes without saying that both are also an absolute basket case in terms of service management and economic viability. But, for the sake of argument, let's say that Crawford is right and that public ownership and comprehensive government management is the way to go. Where will all this money come from for all the new government activity Crawford desires? Apparently it grows on trees because she isn't ever willing to admit that we find ourselves in the midst of major fiscal crisis that likely constrains the ability of governments to make these investments themselves. Luckily, private wireline and wireless broadband providers have been investing tens of billions in infrastructural upgrades in recent years, a fact that Crawford conveniently ignores.

More importantly, Crawford never fully confronts the fact that the era of regulated monopoly she cherishes was an unmitigated croynist disaster for consumers. That era had nothing to do with the "public interest" and everything to do with protecting the private interests of regulated entities -- namely, Ma Bell on the communications side and broadcasters on the media side. She also doesn't address the lackluster state of innovation during the 70 or so years during which time communications and media markets were under the tight grip of federal and state regulators, who controlled rates, restricted new entry, and discouraged innovation at virtually every juncture. If one is going to recommend a return to the regulatory past, they had better grapple with that uncomfortable, anti-consumer, anti-innovation history. Crawford utterly fails to in "Captive Audience."

While the book is nominally about broadband regulation, the bulk of it is actually dedicated to taking on one company -- Comcast -- and specifically picking apart its recent merger with NBC Universal. For Crawford, the Comcast-NBC deal represented something akin to the Mayan apocalypse of media policy. She wants us to believe that the deal has forever solidified Comcast's grasp on both programming and broadband markets. Comcast chief Brian Roberts is presented as the nefarious villain of the narrative; Crawford paints him as a cross between Gordon Gecko and Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons." Usually such neurotic narratives are reserved for Rupert Murdoch and how he is supposedly plotting mass media domination to brainwash the minds of the masses. But Crawford suggests that Roberts is the new Bond villain du jour and chapter after chapter are devoted to demonizing him, his father, and other execs at Comcast. She argues that "Comcast now owns the Internet in America" and that the company is "squeezing independent online video" providers out of the market.

Despite all this hand-wringing, the situation in the video marketplace has never looked brighter. Crawford fails to put things in historical perspective and examine consumer choices in this market today relative to the past. Of course, she probably didn't want to seriously examine that evidence because by every metric available, Americans have more and better viewing options at their disposal than ever before in history. We have more channels and more content available over more platforms (cable, satellite, telco, online, DVD, mail, etc) and more devices than ever before. Consumers have an unprecedented ability to access, record, time-shift, interact with, and even manipulate and redistribute video content. Of course, all this choice and quality comes at a cost, as Crawford continuously complains throughout the text. Apparently, in her view, all these great new programming options and technologies should just fall to us like manna from heaven with no price tag attached.

If you are looking for a more level-headed examination of the true state of the broadband marketplace, I encourage you to read Christopher Yoo's "The Dynamic Internet: How Technology, Users, and Businesses are Transforming the Network" and Randolph May's edited collection of essays on "Communications Law and Policy in the Digital Age: The Next Five Years." If, however, you are more interested in reading a one-sided manifesto for radical government control of the Internet, Crawford's book provides the blueprint.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 10, 2013 10:54:05 AM PST
The reality, however, is that bundled prices are going up, connectivity as a qualitative element is stagnant, and wireless policies of the providers force customers to adopt smart phones and compulsory data packages as they phase out basic wireless phone service. Verizon Wireless offers two basic phone models today. The choices then for a consumer are: type of smart phone and data package. Monthly fees hover around $80-90 and are guaranteed for only one year. Of course, rates will rise and competition is limited. Industry consolidation has allowed big monopolies to form in direct contrast to the Justice Department's forced divestiture of AT

Posted on Jan 24, 2013 8:26:30 AM PST
What I've seen emanate from Adam Thierer always seems to tire me out. Too much bombast & filigree for my tastes ("waxes nostalgic", "de facto handmaidens", "unmitigated cronyist disaster for consumers", "Mayan apocalypse").

Mr. Thierer's negative review seems centered on these criticisms of Ms. Crawford: "doesn't address the lackluster state of innovation during the 70 or so years ... under the tight grip of federal and state regulators." and "had better grapple with that uncomfortable, anti-consumer, anti-innovation history".

He mischaracterizes the nature of past regulatory enactments: they were NOT begun as anti-consumer or anti-innovation. Those enactments only became so when regulatory bodies fell to the sway of the industries they regulated. (Which is precisely what serves as the central indictment advanced by Ms. Crawford.)

That is known far-and-wide as 'regulatory capture'. To characterize it as an intentional aim (or even an unavoidable outcome) of regulation does a great disservice to this debate. Indeed it flirts with deliberate, strategic misdirection.

I have not read Ms. Crawfor's book, but what I take away from these reviews, comments and my other reading & thinking on the subject, it appears that some form of Glass-Steagal Act may be beneficial in the media/telecom world: content needs to be separated from carriage. I know the telcos fear such a future -- and will fight to the death to prevent it. Let's not allow them and Adam Thierer to take us all hostage.

Posted on Jan 30, 2013 12:57:07 PM PST
When reading a review by Adam Thierer, be sure to look at his body of work as a whole (not just at Amazon, but overall) for evidence of how someone can get paid to deliver an ideology, and how getting paid to do so inspires curious intellectual acrobatics. Like all of his reviews of new books that contain serious policy proposals, Thierer doesn't like this one because the proposal is for government to do something other than be a lapdog for corporations. This is an ideology that is far more stringent and inflexible than the policy proposals he criticizes with so many words but so little substance - those proposals that are made by people who are actually in the trenches with evidence that slavish CEO worship is not the only solution to any problem.

Posted on Feb 11, 2013 1:46:58 PM PST
A. Perpetua says:
It is blatant that you were paid to review this book, along with the other negative reviews that all came within a few days of yours. I have a question, do you guys really think people are dumb enough to actually fall for this sort of propaganda. You get a D for your obviously fake review, would not hire for fake reviews in the future.

In reply to an earlier post on May 31, 2013 3:28:20 PM PDT
bukhtan says:
Yes, this tyke is certainly a hired pop-gun.
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