Exclusive: Team Trump's net neutrality guru talks to El Reg

Bursting the filter bubble with Dr Layton

Interview The newest member of the Trump's Transition Team sounded bemused by the tech blog headlines when we caught up with her today.

As the academic who has conducted more empirical work into net neutrality than anyone else, Dr Roslyn Layton finds herself in demand from telecoms regulators all over the world. This week she faced the full fury of the Democratic Party's netroots activists after becoming the third expert appointee of Trump’s Transition Team. Never mind that the transition people had tapped into somebody who knows what they're talking about. The sky was falling!

This puzzles her.

"My research is the most valuable support for soft net neutrality that anyone will find," she asserts. "Nobody else has looked at which rules worked the best, in 53 countries."

Her influential work classified regulatory regimes into "hard" and "soft". Soft net neutrality were consensual and multi-stakeholder – such as in the UK, the Nordics and South Korea – while "hard" neutrality rules use punitive regulation and legislation, are ex ante, and pre-emptive.

They banned things before harm could be proven, like the approach adopted by Chile, the Netherlands and Slovenia. Layton found that there was more digital application level innovation under neutrality regimes that allowed more experimentation.

"Hard neutrality strengthens the incumbent. It makes it very difficult for a startup to compete with Netflix and Google," she explains. "It turns out soft rules work better because you have the power of the carrot and stick," she told us a year ago. "The stick holds operators' feet to the fire with the threat that the regulator can take more action. The carrot is the incentive for good behaviour and having a less regulated environment. When you have hard rules, you remove incentive for cooperation, so operators frequently put energy into litigation."

"Legislation is rule making by the will of the people," she explained on the phone today. "But the advocates have consistently rejected that approach, preferring the regulatory route."

Layton cites the Netherlands as an example of "hard regulation".

"You get more locally made innovation under soft rules. Do many people use any Dutch apps? Traffic to apps made in the Netherlands has fallen, while in Denmark it has risen." She noted that Netflix had made Holland its European HQ and Netfix was involved in the policy-making that pre-emptively banned the zero-rating of rival HBO Go.

That sounds like the kind of crony capitalism that Trump would want to be seen stamping on.

"We're using Chinese apps more every day. They have no net neutrality rules there, even though they looked at it. Innovation doesn't come from US-style rules."

Laying out the evidence isn't always easy, Layton observes, because "anyone who is against the net neutrality hardcore is tarred and feathered". Academics and economists Mark Jamison and Jeff Eisenberg, the first two experts on the Transition Team, were monstered. It isn't always rational – as we saw when the wrong SOPA was blitzed by furious activists in 2012.

"The sad part is that app developers are now afraid of participating in interviews and research because the haters will come after them if they express an opinion that differs from the party line on net neutrality."

The ancient protocols, such as RFC 791, indicate a polyservice network was what the Elders had in mind

Why, we wondered, does Layton think the net neutrality advocates have taken on such a religious tone? It's odd since the "neutrality" principle was dreamed up in the 21st century by legal academics at Stanford and Harvard, decades after the internet was invented (look at the core internet protocols and see it was designed as a polyservice protocol stack – neutrality doesn't come into it).

Is protecting an imaginary internet a kind of substitute religion?

"They don't believe consumers can make their own choices. Most net neutrality advocates don't like it when people attempt to measure or look at the data. They consider that an affront. But if you want to protect something, you measure it."

It's worth noting that the role of the transition team is to impart expert knowledge – not run the show. Eric Schmidt was on Obama's transition team, and it took a while before Google controlled the Government. At least a few years.

At the core of "net neutrality" is really a trade row between two powerful industries, about who pays for future internet infrastructure investment. Both need each other, but by painting it as a civil rights issue, internet companies get a chance to bypass competition law and stick it to the telco man. The Democratic Party and its grassroots obliged. ®


Co-authored with the LSE's Silvia Elaluf Calderwood, Layton's Zero Rating paper can be found at SSRN here. (more.)

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