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Contradictory language in the Republican National Party's plank confounds

(This article deals with politics and the internet -- those who do not wish to read about these topics are forewarned)

The Republican National Party (RNP) published its platform -- entitled "We Believe in America" -- on Aug. 29, 2012, presenting the party's federal vision for America.  The platform claimed three primary authors -- Senator John Hoeven (R-N. Dakota), Governor Bob McDonnell (R-Virg.), and Congressman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

I. Digging Into the RNP "We Believe..." Platform

Reading the document I think the public may find many appealing aspects in the platform, starting with the subtitle "Reforming Government to Serve People" -- surely a worthwhile goal given today's state of hyper-deficits and inconsistent taxation.

But the troubling aspect of the platform from the perspective of a technology and science observer is the high degree of inconsistency and obfuscation amongst the various platform planks (though to be fair I fear we shall find similar problems in the Democratic National Party's (DNP) platform).

Let's dig into what exactly the platform says -- after weeks of rumors and speculation -- but first let's be perfectly clear what the platform is.  

It is somewhat of a myth to say that America does not have or has never had viable third parties -- President Andrew Johnson, the man who succeeded President Abraham Lincoln -- was effectively a third-party president after publicly renouncing the Democratic Party while in office, while also refusing to join the Republican ranks.

But in all practicality, the nucleus of political power in America today is largely binary.  And today it takes millions of dollars to get elected to office.  2008 marked the first race in which the average "price" of a seat in the House of Representatives passed the $1M USD mark.  The candidate with more money won 9 out of 10 federal races.  Much of that funding comes from the national party, which in turn receives a mixture of money from small donors and hefty special interests.

RNP

Against that backdrop, consider that the RNP's and DNP's platforms are non-binding, yet they do carry substantial weight and pressure.  Candidates who buck the carefully laid out talking points in the platform risk losing funding, and by proxy losing a job opportunity.  Of course there may be some element of pandering to the platform -- so it's not impossible to fathom that either party might adopt a plank (passage) that they have no real intention of enforcing.

II. Internet Free Speech

With that said, one key technology issue in the platform was the internet and free speech. 

On free speech, the RNP comments (pg. 12):

We insist that there should be no regulation of political speech on the Internet. By the same token, we oppose governmental censorship of speech through the so-called Fairness Doctrine or by government enforcement of speech codes, free speech zones, or other forms of “political correctness” on campus.

This is a comment most reasonable people can agree with.  The Federal Communications Commission has drawn much ire for its censorship of profanity on the airwaves, a policy that goes largely unenforced in satellite or internet radio.

It's also a welcome shift as both parties have used the tactic of "free speech zones", which inherently violates citizens' First Amendment rights.

Free speech zones were first introduced during Michael Dukakis's 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia.  While it is almost certain that was not the first attempt to suppress protest during a political rally, it entered the term "protest zone" into the popular vocabulary, a term which eventually evolved into the phrase "free speech zone".  Republican President George W. Bush would later go on to embrace the tactic for suppressing citizens' Constitutional rights, illustrating that both parties can tango on this topic.

Free speech zones
"Free speech zones", an inherently unconstitutional construct, have been embraced by both parties in today's "police state". [Image Source: Brandt Luke Zorn]

But there's also a fair degree of hypocrisy in the platform plank's supposed stand "against" free speech zones.  

In effect the RNP is enforcing "free speech zones" at its Tampa convention this week.  The Republicans do not let protesters into or directly outside of the arena (even on public streets) where the event is held.  Instead they have created "parade routes", which allow the protesters to march by at a respectively farther distance.

Of course locking out the rabble-rousers is no easy task, so the RNP and DNP each accepted $50M USD in taxpayer funds to enforce their free speech zones, which the RNP has chose to creatively rename, in order to assume the appearance that they disagree with it.

But to protesters like Jarid Hamil, organizer of March on the RNC, a Rafflesia (that's a jungle flower that smells like feces) by any other name still stinks as strong.  He tells NBC News, "The city is a police state, buildings are lined with fences and barricades, windows boarded up.  Helicopters constantly swarm the sky.  Meanwhile, the police parade their tank from time to time." 

This is not solely a Republican issue.  The DNP is expected to adopt almost identical efforts for its convention in Charlotte.  But the language of the RNP's platform plank versus the reality in the streets illustrates the creative efforts by both parties to obfuscate the ugly face of censorship.  Given that glaring revelation, one must wonder about the party's internet speech claims -- and indeed there is cause for concern and confusion (more on that later).

III. Internet/Freedoms, Regulation, and the Great Unknowns 

The internet (and internet freedom) is also fodder for a longer plank (pg. 23) which comments:

The Internet has unleashed innovation, enabled growth, and inspired freedom more rapidly and extensively than any other technological advance in human history. Its independence is its power. The Internet offers a communications system uniquely free from government intervention. We will remove regulatory barriers that protect outdated technologies and business plans from innovation and competition, while preventing legacy regulation from interfering with new and disruptive technologies such as mobile delivery of voice video data as they become crucial components of the Internet ecosystem. We will resist any effort to shift control away from the successful
multi-stakeholder approach of Internet governance and toward governance by international or other intergovernmental organizations. We will ensure that personal data receives full constitutional protection from government overreach and that individuals retain the right to control the use of their data by third parties; the only way to safeguard or improve these systems is through the private sector.

It goes on in a followup plank of their "Vision":

The most vibrant sector of the American economy, indeed, one-sixth of it, is regulated by the federal government on precedents from the nineteenth century. Today’s technology and telecommunications industries are overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, established in 1934 and given the jurisdiction over telecommunications formerly assigned to the Interstate Commerce Commission, which had been created in 1887 to regulate the railroads.  This is not a good fit. Indeed, the development of telecommunications advances so rapidly that even the Telecom Act of 1996 is woefully out of date. An industry that invested $66 billion in 2011 alone needs, and deserves, a more modern relationship with the federal government for the benefit of consumers here and worldwide.

The current Administration has been frozen in the past. It has conducted no auction of spectrum, has offered no incentives for investment, and, through the FCC’s net neutrality rule, is trying to micromanage telecom as if it were a railroad network. It inherited from the previous Republican Administration 95 percent coverage of the nation with broadband.  It will leave office with no progress toward the goal of universal coverage – after spending $7.2 billion more. That hurts rural America, where farmers, ranchers, and small business manufacturers need connectivity to expand their customer base and operate in real time with the world’s producers. We encourage public-private partnerships to provide predictable support for connecting rural areas so that every American can fully participate in the global economy.

We call for an inventory of federal agency spectrum to determine the surplus that could be auctioned for the taxpayers’ benefit. With special recognition of the role university technology centers are playing in attracting private investment to the field, we will replace the administration’s Luddite approach to technological progress with a regulatory partnership that will keep this country the world leader in technology and telecommunications.
 

It seems a bit unfair to imply that Obama has done nothing with respect to the spectrum auction, given that it was only just authorized by Congress in March via the payroll tax cut extension bill (officially "The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act").  The underlying issue is the slow pace of the FCC, and issue that has affected both parties' plans over the years. 
Spectrum Auction
Republicans want to step up efforts to auction spectrum. [Image Source: Andy Kessler]

The net-neutrality repeal push is a more interesting stand.  I don't necessarily think it’s wise to condemn the Republican's proposal to repeal net-neutrality (which prohibits, say your broadband carrier for charging you a special fee to access YouTube versus other data traffic) -- lack of competition in the telecommunications industry, which is arguably was caused by the government, created problem.

IV. Republicans Role in Creating (and Trying to Fix) Telecom Monopolies

Today's market is slightly more competitive than the telephone market of yesteryear, but there are only four major carriers, with two carriers (AT&T Inc. (T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ)/Vodafone Group Plc. (LON:VOD) subsidiary Verizon Wireless) controlling approximately 2/3rds of contract wireless subscribers.  Likewise cable internet is ruled by a few stretching corporations -- AT&T, Comcast Corp. (CMCSA), and Time Warner Inc. (TWX), to name a few.

The real dilemma is that the government has artificially promoted a market devoid of competition, something telecommunications providers love.  To quote the 1913 comments [source] of Theodore Vail, the president of AT&T, "The public as a whole has never benefited [from competition]; all costs of aggressive, uncontrolled competition are eventually borne, directly or indirectly, by the public."

The roots can be traced to Bell's monopoly.  The monopoly began with a period of control via telecom patents.  Sound familiar?  Today Apple, Inc. (AAPL) is pushing for similar protections.

But patent monopolies, loathsome as they may be, have a tendency to implode under public outcry. By 1894, 80 smaller startups had gained a foothold -- 5 percent of the market. Bell fought back by pushing state lawmakers to pass state laws giving it leverage.

President Warren G. Harding (a Republican) in 1907 stated, "The telephone is and ought to remain a natural monopoly regulated by some competent authority".

Warren G. Harding
Republican President Warren G. Harding: "the telephone is and ought to remain a natural monopoly regulated by some competent authority."

The CATO Institute summarizes what happened next and how after a questionable allowance of Bell's acquisition of telegraph giant Western Union (non-intervention), the government intervened in the worst possible way to solidify the new communications monopoly:

A Senate Commerce Committee hearing in 1921 stated that "telephoning is a natural monopoly." And a House of Representative committee report noted, "There is nothing to be gained by local competition in the telephone business" (quoted in Loeb 1978: 14). A Michigan Public Utilities Commission report (1921: 315) from that same year also illustrates this prevailing sentiment, "Competition resulted in duplication of investment. . . . The policy of the state was to eliminate this by eliminating as far as possible, duplication." Many state regulatory agencies began refusing requests by telephone companies to construct new lines in areas already served by another carrier and continued to encourage monopoly swapping and consolidation in the name of "efficient service" (Lavey 1987: 184-85). Kellogg, Thorne, and Huber (1992: 17) sum up the prevailing sentiment: "To judge by actions, then, rather than words, government officials had no strong objection to monopoly telephone service. This was especially true for state regulators. For them, a local telephone monopoly was both welcome and convenient."

(Note: Both the House and Senate were Republican controlled, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats in the House nearly 3-to-1 [source].)

In other words, this mess in the telecommunciations industry was started approximately a century ago.  

But Republicans also deserve some credit for moving to fix the problem -- President Gerald Ford's U.S. Department of Justice was responsible for filing the suit which would eventually break up the American Telephone & Telegraph empire into so-called "Baby Bells".  

Problems though have continued, according to the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information's recent report [PDF] to Congress, through the 1990s at the state level as major telecom firms received grants, regulatory favors, and other government-given perks from both sides of aisle, in exchange for large deployment promises, which went unfulfilled.

So the lesson learned is that it's not necessarily enough to say a specific party is helping or hurting communications freedom, as if parties are incapable of change.  Likewise, as the free speech zone issue illustrates, parties can not be taken at their word.  But the fundamental truths seem to be:
  • The government must adopt basic regulation to preserve at least 3-4 large providers in wired and wireless markets
  • State governments must cooperate with that effort
  • The government should end handouts to telecoms for development
  • The government should not outlaw small community efforts to offer a competitive alternative
  • The government should allow broach of net-neutrality, so long as the market's players are not acting collusively to overprice certain kinds of content
  • The government should adopt a flat tax on all forms of income, such that large players are not able to gain a taxation (economic) advantage over smaller players via lobbying
From that perspective, the RNP's planks on internet freedom and regulation aren't bad, but they also aren't particularly good, being too nebulous and too centered around attacking the current administration, rather than elaborating on solutions.

V. Ban Porn, Ban Internet Gambling

But there is one stark and startling provision is entitled "Making the Internet Family-Friendly" (pg. 32):

Millions of Americans suffer from problem or pathological gambling that can destroy families. We support the prohibition of gambling over the Internet and call for reversal of the Justice Department’s decision distorting the formerly accepted meaning of the Wire Act that could open the door to Internet betting.

The Internet must be made safe for children. We call on service providers to exercise due care to ensure that the Internet cannot become a safe haven for predators while respecting First Amendment rights. We congratulate the social networking sites that bar known sex offenders from participation. We urge active prosecution against child pornography, which is closely linked to the horrors of human trafficking. Current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.

So, to be clear, you support the federal government spending taxpayer dollars to prohibition of gambling -- a restriction of the free market?  And you are backing enforcement obscenity laws, which as per my previous analysis have deemed by the Supreme Court to outlaw most forms of pornography (albeit going unenforced of late)?

Fifty Shades of GrayBackdoor
The porn ban would include outlawing depictions of bondage and anal sex.
[Image Source: Google Images]

Let us focus on two statements:

We insist that there should be no regulation of political speech on the Internet.

...and:

The Internet must be made safe for children... current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.

These are fundamentally incompatible statements.  In many ways, the new platform offers more questions than answers.  One thing is clear upon reading, though -- beware the wording.

(I'm going to be carefully analyzing the DNP's planks when they hit Charlotte.  I'm even trying to bring a published conservative book author onboard for the piece to scrutinize the platform.  You can look forward to that.)

Source: GOP





"A politician stumbles over himself... Then they pick it out. They edit it. He runs the clip, and then he makes a funny face, and the whole audience has a Pavlovian response." -- Joe Scarborough on John Stewart over Jim Cramer













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