September 18, 2020

Mobile Network Providers Flirt with (Self-)Regulation

Mobile phone networks in the U.S. are developing a rating and filtering system to apply to content on their networks, according to a Reuters story by Antony Bruno.

The Federal Communications Commission oversees the distribution of wireless spectrum to U.S. operators, and wireless carriers do not want the [FCC’s] indecency campaign against radio, TV and cable broadcasters to come their way.

“The adult side of things has really kick-started it,” says Mark Desautels, [cellular industry association] VP of wireless Internet development. “As indecency becomes an increasing point of interest on the part of policymakers, we really need to be proactive about it.”

Avoiding government regulation by self-regulating is an old trick. In this case, though, it’s hard to see how the self-regulation will pacify the FCC. Here’s an example, from the article:

Wireless carriers and record companies view a rating and filtering system as an opportunity to offer a greater spectrum of content, including master ringtones or voicetones with explicit lyrics. Currently, wireless carriers offer only the most non-offensive content possible because they do not have a mechanism for limiting edgier content to adults.

Do they really think that the FCC will ignore complaints about explicit ringtones being heard in public, just because those tones happen to come from the phones of grownups? The FCC wants to stop kids from seeing or hearing adult content, period. Often they seem to be trying to keep adults away from adult content. Today’s FCC will never accept explicit ringtones, or visible-to-others adult images, being distributed in public.

Even more interesting is the mobile providers’ assertion that they control what happens on their networks. This may have been true historically, but we’re shifting now to a world where phones are really Internet-connected computers that are programmable by anyone. That means a phone can, in practice, access any data that its owner wants to get.

It’s true, of course, that mobile providers can wall their users off from the Internet, and can wall the phones that use their networks off from nonapproved programs. But doing so will make phones much less useful, by shutting out most of the world programmers and most of the world’s sources of information. Competition will force mobile providers to open their phone platforms to third-party programs and content.

The mobile providers would much prefer to keep their platforms closed. There is more money to be made by operating a closed platform than an open one, as long you can’t lose business to competitors who open their platforms. If you’re a mobile provider, you must feel the urge right now to make a deal with your competitors, in which you all agree to keep your platforms closed. But that would be an agreement not to compete, which is illegal.

It would be so much more convenient if some regulation came along that had the side-effect of keeping platforms closed. Perhaps a regulation that disallowed content that hadn’t been officially categorized by a mobile network provider. A regulation, coincidentally, just like the one the industry is starting to develop.

All of this is in vain, I think. The value to customers of open phone platforms is too large to ignore, and some platforms are open already. It’s hard to see how such a useful product feature can be stopped by voluntary means. And once platforms are open, people will get the content they want, like it or not.

Comments

  1. Grant Gould says:

    The subtext here is the fight between phone manufacturers (Nokia and Motorola and those folks) and carriers (Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.). The manufacturers want more open standards — they’d like ideally for the service to be a commodity (like DSL), and the phones (and the apps they run) to be the real choice. The carriers by contrast want the service to be the thing you choose, and the phones to be something they throw in with the deal, with the manufacturer’s name scraped off the faceplate and all apps, ringtones, and media bought and sold through them.

    Here in the US the carriers are winning this battle, but it’s the other way in Europe, where most new phone development happens, and the carriers are worried. The best way that they can keep their advantage over the manufacturers is to find ways to control and regulate the applications, ringtones, and other media available to the phone, thus blurring the distinctions between phones and sharpening the distinctions between networks, and additionally making life harder for app- and ringtone- and media developers and providers.

    It’s all about control, and claiming that some threat (the RIAA, FCC regs, “cellphone viruses”) forced them to do these things gives carriers an easy excuse for tightening their hold on the market. This is the subtext of the running battle in the cellphone world. DRM (notionally needed to appease the RIAA) moves control from manufacturers and developers to carriers. Content regulation, ditto. Applications-signing and “trusted applications,” again.
    –G

  2. Shaddack says:

    The only things needed for open access are a phone with an open-enough operating system to write applications for it (Symbian? Linux?), and a way to communicate with the Outside World (HTTP, and if that is walled off, email – remember the ancient times before the Web, the times of FTP-to-email gateways, where you could’ve requested a file to be sent to you by mail). Only one way to deliver unfiltered data is necessary, and there are many possibilities. One way is enough to tunnel all the other ones through.

    Email is a good option here. It is a deeply entrenched application, with considerable demand from the users.

    FCC may dream of keeping the control over mobile content, but that’s about all they can really do. The development towards open mobile access is technologically inevitable.

  3. Grant Gould says:

    Shaddick — you’ve got the wrong culprit. The FCC has not objected and likely will not object to mobile phones having more or less complete IP stacks accessible from arbitrary applications. Simlarly the FCC has not objected and seems unlikly to object to open operating systems. The FCC is cool with phones continuing to evolve for the moment.

    But for an open operating system actually available… keep looking. Symbian moved to application signing in its latest version, ostensibly to combat virus signing. Linux phones haven’t made it to market in more than a trickle. That’s not because of the FCC. That’s because the carriers won’t touch them.

    The carriers want regulation because it means power for them without their having to make excuses for anticompetitive behaviour. The FCC is just a convenient name for them to drop in their real fight, which is against phones, applications, and third-party content providers.
    –G