Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

March 31 2015 11:45 AM

The Dark, Twisted Tale of How a DEA Agent Became a Paid Mole for Silk Road

This post originally appeared on WIRED.

Nearly 18 months after the Silk Road online drug market was busted by law enforcement, the criminal charges rippling out from the case have now come full circle: back to two of the law enforcement agents involved in the investigation, one of whom is accused of being the Silk Road’s mole inside the Drug Enforcement Agency.


DEA special agent Carl Force and Secret Service special agent Shaun Bridges were arrested Monday and charged with wire fraud and money laundering. Bridges is accused of placing $800,000 of Silk Road bitcoins he obtained in a personal account on the Mt. Gox bitcoin exchange. But Bridges’ charges pale in comparison with the accusations against the DEA’s Force, who is additionally charged with theft of government property and conflict of interest in his investigation of the Silk Road. Force allegedly took hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bitcoin payments from the Silk Road as part of his undercover investigation and transferred them to a personal account rather than confiscate them as government property. He’s also accused of secretly working for the bitcoin exchange firm CoinMKT, using his DEA powers to seize a customer’s funds from the exchange, and later using a subpoena to the payment firm Venmo to try to unlock his frozen funds there.

But there’s an even more surprising set of accusations against Force: That he acted as a paid informant for Silk Road’s recently convicted administrator Ross Ulbricht, allegedly selling information about the investigation back to Ulbricht under two different pseudonyms. Meanwhile, under a third pseudonym, Force is separately accused of trying to blackmail Ulbricht using other law enforcement data he believed might have been Ulbricht’s identity.

Force, a 46-year-old member of Baltimore’s Silk Road task force, began working in 2012 as an undercover agent on the case, communicating directly with Ulbricht, who was allegedly using the pseudonym the Dread Pirate Roberts. In that role, Force even served as a fictitious criminal named “Nob” who helped arrange a murder of Silk Road employee Curtis Clark Green for Ulbricht. That murder-for-hire didn’t happen; The entire killing was staged by the Baltimore task force. But the attempted murder was allegedly paid for by Ulbricht to silence Green as a potential witness, and it represents the first in a series of six killings prosecutors have accused Ulbricht of commissioning.

But allegedly, those anonymous communications with Ulbricht led Force down an even stranger, more corrupt path. “Force then, without authority, developed additional online personas and engaged in a broad range of illegal activities calculated to bring him personal financial gain,” according to a press statement from the Department of Justice.

The criminal complaint against Force and Bridges includes a detailed affidavit written by IRS agent Tigran Gambaryan. In that account, Force is accused of using his Nob persona and possibly others to sell Ulbricht law enforcement information, telling Ulbricht that a corrupt law enforcement official named “Kevin” was feeding him info. A folder on Ulbricht’s laptop at the time of his arrest, Gambaryan points out, was labeled “LE counterintel” and includes data that appeared to have been based on real internal materials from the federal investigation into Ulbricht’s activities.

At first, Force seems to have given Ulbricht only fraudulent information, according to Gambaryan, and Force kept his superiors aware of the fake informant scheme. But as time passed, more and more of Force’s communications with Ulbricht were encrypted, Gambaryan writes in the affidavit, preventing Force’s superiors and later Gambaryan from determining exactly what Force told Ulbricht. Eventually, Gambaryan writes, Force also asked Ulbricht to send him 525 bitcoins in payment for information about law enforcement’s investigation of the Silk Road—worth about $50,000 at the time—to a secret bitcoin address where he kept personal funds rather than the DEA’s confiscated money.

The revelation of an alleged Silk Road informant inside the DEA follows repeated hints in Ulbricht’s trial of those leaks. Ulbricht’s lawyer Joshua Dratel made multiple references to the Silk Road’s boss paying for counter-intelligence information from law enforcement officials. (He argued, however, that the Silk Road boss wasn’t in fact Ulbricht, but was instead using that leaked information to plan his or her exit from the Silk Road and to frame Ulbricht.) The operators of the Silk Road “had been alerted the walls were closing in,” Dratel said in his opening statement at trial.

Ulbricht’s journal, taken from his seized laptop, also references two pseudonymous individuals named French Maid and Alpacino, whom Ulbricht seems to have used as sources for information about law enforcement activities. At one point Ulbricht writes that he paid French Maid $100,000 for the tip that Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles, who also ran a web-hosting company used by the Silk Road at one point, gave Ulbricht’s name to the Department of Homeland Security.

In his affidavit, Gambaryan writes that he believes Force was in fact French Maid. He points to Force’s knowledge not only of the DHS interview with Mark Karpeles, but also of the versions of PGP both French Maid and Force used and to the financial trail from Ulbricht’s payment to French Maid that eventually ended up in Force’s bitcoin account. He also points out a message where French Maid ends a message “Carl,” perhaps by accident. (Force allegedly “covered” for that error by explaining that French Maid also went by the name “Carla Sophia.”)

From there, the story gets stranger still: Under yet another pseudonym, “Death From Above,” Force is accused of telling Ulbricht he was a Green Beret and a friend of Curtis Green, whose murder Ulbricht allegedly believed he had paid for. “I know that you had something to do with [Green’s] disappearance and death. Just wanted to let you know that I’m coming for you,” Force allegedly wrote as Death From Above. “You are a dead man. Don’t think you can elude me.”

Death From Above later wrote to the Dread Pirate Roberts again and threatened to reveal his real name if Ulbricht didn’t pay him $250,000. According to Gambaryan, a screen-recording program on Force’s DEA computer captured video of him writing as Death From Above.

However, Gambaryan writes that Force was actually blackmailing Ulbricht by threatening to reveal the wrong suspect’s identity. Trying to show the seriousness of his threat, he sent Ulbricht the identifying details of an earlier suspect he believed to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, rather than Ulbricht himself. (That earlier suspect isn’t named in the affidavit.) Writing in his journal, Ulbricht dismissed the threat as “bogus.”

Bridges, for his part, is accused of a more traditional form of corruption: Quietly stealing money by exploiting a suspect’s arrest. Gambaryan describes how Bridges participated in the Baltimore Task Force arrest and questioning of Silk Road employee Curtis Green in Utah, and then used Green’s administrator account on the Silk Road to pull off a “series of sizable thefts” from Silk Road vendors. “The thefts were accomplished through a series of vendor password and pin resets, something that could be accomplished with the administrator access that [Green] had given to the Baltimore Task Force.” Bridges then allegedly moved that money through a series of accounts and eventually into the Fidelity account of a corporation he created as a money laundering vehicle.

It’s not yet clear whether or how all of the alleged corruption in the Baltimore Silk Road investigation might affect Ross Ulbricht’s own legal case. Ulbricht still faces murder-for-hire charges in Maryland as a result of that investigation, a case that could be tainted by the alleged, epic misconduct of these two investigators.

This afternoon, Ulbricht’s lawyer had this to say about the two arrests:

But Ulbricht was already convicted in February of seven felonies including conspiracy to sell drugs and launder money, as well as a “continuing criminal enterprise” charge often known as a kingpin statute. Based on the evidence in Ulbricht’s trial, that case seems to have largely been conducted by the New York division of the FBI and the Chicago Department of Homeland Security.

Given those two separate investigations, Ulbricht’s conviction or upcoming sentencing may not be affected by the charges against Force and Bridges. Instead, those charges merely add two more names to the long list of criminal suspects who allegedly gave in to the temptation of the dark web’s dirty money.

Read the full criminal complaint against both Force and Bridges here.

Also in WIRED:

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March 31 2015 11:34 AM

Play Pac-Man in Google Maps Right Now. Go.

You can't always get what you want, but today you 100 percent can. As an early April Fools' present, Google has rolled out Pac-Man Maps so you can gain world dot domination all over the globe.

Google did a Pac-Man Doodle in 2010 that was pretty awesome, but this is on a whole other level. You can toggle between regular maps and Pac-Man mode in the lower left corner of Maps, though I can't imagine why you would need to turn Pac-Man off. Look out for more Easter eggs on Google and all over the Internet as April 1 approaches.

Go nuts.

Screencap of Google Maps

March 31 2015 10:10 AM

Our Data, Our Health. A Future Tense Event Recap.

When it comes to worries about medical devices, two very different threats are in play. On the one hand, we fear that corporate powers will take data about us from our devices and offer us little in return. On the other hand, we’ve been taught to fear that individual hackers will interfere with the devices themselves, potentially threatening our lives through the very tools designed to preserve them.

At a Future Tense event in Washington, D.C, on April 9, medical device security expert Kevin Fu worked to assuage the latter of these concerns, even as he indirectly approached the former. No matter what, Fu said near the start of his presentation, “Patients are much safer with medical devices than without, even when there are security problems.”


As Fu explained, the real threat with many medical devices can come from the doctors who work on them, especially when those physicians haven’t properly secured their own computers. When doctors use machines infected with malware to service pacemakers and other medical devices, that malware can potentially clog up the workings of those gadgets. Such interference is likely to be entirely accidental, a mere byproduct of the malware’s interaction with the systems it has infected.

Hospitals are especially vulnerable to such threats, partly because they tend to use computers running older operating systems. No longer updated by their manufacturers, these OS’s (cough, XP, cough) are often riddled with security vulnerabilities. It therefore becomes all the more important that physicians and medical technicians understand how to properly protect their computers—and thereby their patients. Just as we expect our doctors to scrub in before surgery, so too should we expect them to tidy up their hard drives.

Where poor digital hygiene and nonexistent digital literacy can interfere with medical technologies, manufacturers’ policies, technical complexity, and opacity can keep us from the data that our devices generate. Many of us now produce astonishing amounts of information—whether through dedicated fitness trackers, pedometers in our phones, or more particular devices like constant glucose monitors. The trouble is that few of us know what to make of that data, and fewer still know what the companies who collect it are doing with it. Joel Selanikio, a Georgetown University assistant professor of pediatrics and CEO of Magpi, said that we’ve made a deal with the companies that are monitoring us through these devices, but we rarely know what that deal is or what we’ve signed up for.

As Hugo Campos recently explained in Slate, implanted medical device manufacturers rarely grant patients access to data. What’s more Sara M. Watson, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, pointed out that many data collection companies aren’t currently offering their customers much in return. Fitbit, for example, is doing relatively little to recommend healthy habits, she said. This is partly because our data are too dense to be clear. Producing truly effective results from health data may mean allowing companies to measure our information against that of other people. Our individual data are unlikely to offer truly meaningful insights, and even the medical establishment lacks the resources to sort through the sea of information that we are generating.

As Deborah Estrin, a computer science professor at Cornell Tech and co-founder of Open mHealth, argued, this may mean moving away from a paradigm of data ownership. “From a pragmatic perspective,” she said, “I think a battle we should fight is that people should have access to their data.” That is, individuals should be allowed to examine their own results. Estrin believes they should also be willing to submit those results to others who can help them interpret it through large-scale comparative projects and other ventures. Casting a broader analytic net could reveal otherwise unforeseeable connections. Even an individual’s Netflix viewing habits might become a data point if they turned out to link up with other patterns. To yield such results, however, we would also have to cede control of even more of our data.

Naturally, these issues raise important privacy concerns directly related to the questions of cybersecurity. Lucia Savage, chief privacy officer for the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, observed that current privacy standards are often ill-equipped to accommodate new forms of medical information. For example, she explained that HIPAA does not require compartmentalization of anything but mental health issues. Meanwhile, Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology, noted that not a single consumer privacy bill has been voted out of committee recently.

Ultimately, concerns about medical devices may be overblown. In a comment that came close to summing up much of the event, Fu said that his biggest concern is the possibility that patients might start to refuse medical care on the basis of sensationalized fears. Instead of wringing our hands, he and his fellow speakers suggested, we would do well to advocate for greater care, clearer policies, and more robust privacy standards.

March 30 2015 2:43 PM

Amazon Is Doing Clandestine Drone Tests in Canada

Amazon has been vocal about its frustration with current FAA restrictions on commercial drones. Now, true to its word, the company has taken its drone research out of the United States and is currently conducting delivery drone tests in Canada. The Guardian visited the company's drone range at an undisclosed location in British Columbia, 2,000 feet from the U.S. border. 

The company wants to use airspace above 200 feet and below 500 feet as a neutral zone for drones. This height range is above most buildings but below planes and helicopters. The Guardian reports that Amazon's drones would weigh less than 55 pounds and carry 5-pound or lighter loads (no lawn chair deliveries yet). The plan is for the drones to fly at 50 miles per hour.


The team running the tests includes aeronautics experts, software developers, a former NASA astronaut, and a former Boeing 787 engineer. The Guardian describes the scene at the test range:

Amazon’s drone visionaries are taking the permissive culture on the Canadian side of the border and using it to fine-tune the essential features of what they hope will become a successful delivery-by-drone system. The Guardian witnessed tests of a hybrid drone that can take off and land vertically as well as fly horizontally.

In December, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy Paul Misener wrote to the FAA, “Without the ability to test outdoors in the United States soon, we will have no choice but to divert even more of our [drone] research and development resources abroad.” Welp, here it is. Other companies could easily do the same thing, or may have already.

March 27 2015 6:22 PM

FCC Finally Releases (Heavily Redacted) Manual for Controversial Surveillance Device

Details about StringRays have trickled out slowly, but each new revelation comes with concerning implications for government agencies' ability to access the mobile communications of individuals. The surveillance tools, which pretend to be cell towers so mobile phones will be tricked into connecting to them and revealing their data, are manufactured by the Florida-based Harris Corp. In September, Matthew Keys at the Blot filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FCC to see the manual for the controversial devices. Six months later, he finally got the documents.

The manual describes two surveillance products, the StingRay and the KingFish (a cheaper and smaller option). Keys writes:

The manual indicates the StingRay and KingFish devices are sold as part of a larger surveillance kit that includes third-party software and laptops. Tables that contain the names of the other equipment is redacted in the copy provided by the FCC, but other records reviewed by TheBlot indicate the laptops are manufactured by Dell and Panasonic, while the software is designed by Pen-Link, a company that makes programs for cellphone forensics.

Redactions in the manual cover things like instructions for operating the devices and diagrams. The manual is loaded with warnings that it contains proprietary information and shouldn't be shared or copied. The document also says that it includes information protected under the International Traffic in Arms Regulation.

The manual is difficult to read, to say the least. One chapter summary says, "This chapter provides a list of features and capabilities of the StingRay II hardware, an equipment inventory, system specifications, and StingRay II setup," followed by near-complete redaction. For example, "The StingRay II chassis REDACTED as shown in Figure 2-5." Figure 2-5 is ... also redacted. Shocking.

As the Blot notes, the manual says that its contents are “associated with the monitoring of cellular transmissions,” even though this phrase seems to be blacked out in other similar parts of the document. The FCC redacted information under the trade secret FOIA Exemption 4.

The most important thing the document reveals is concrete evidence of how StingRays are purchased and distributed, and hints about how they work. Plus, the FCC clearly feels that it and the company that makes these products have something to lose by revealing even just the use manual.

If you’re in the market for a powerful mobile surveillance device, keep in mind that StingRays come with a limited 12-month warranty!

March 27 2015 2:03 PM

Apple Watch Could Make You a Walking Weather Station

Apple’s new watch will come with a suite of health-centric sensors—including, perhaps surprisingly, a barometer intended to track elevation changes during a workout and whether it’s outdoors or within a building. But for meteorologists, the advent of widespread wearable barometers is a game-changer when it comes to weather forecasting.

Last fall, after the announcement of the iPhone 6 and its barometer, meteorologist Cliff Mass wrote a giddy blog post about the promise of smartphone barometers. He said experimental results from his research team show that dense networks of mobile barometers alone can create highly accurate three-dimensional weather maps. That “almost sounds like magic” to Mass.


The implications of highly localized weather forecasts are profound. The Weather Company, which owns the Weather Channel, has used local weather forecasts to drive increased revenue through context-specific advertising for years. But beyond creating clickier ads, dense networks of barometer-enabled smartphones in India and Africa could boost local economies by aiding agriculture and other weather-dependent sectors.

The potential for smartwatches to bring about a new generation of hyper-local forecasts reminds me of the below scene in Back to the Future. App developers are already working to make that past future 2015 a reality.

Adam Grossman is the co-founder of Dark Sky, the weather app that Apple featured during its launch event for the watch earlier in March. Though he’s excited about the potential of his new Watch app, he says Apple isn’t letting developers access the on-board barometer sensor yet. Since the watch requires an iPhone to work, its own on-board barometer is essentially redundant—but that will soon change.

“I don’t think Apple wants to require an iPhone with the watch,” said Grossman. “It always takes me longer to fish my phone out of my pocket than it does to check the weather. The watch is the right place for that kind of stuff.”

Nearly sentient weather forecasts will soon be a reality, thanks to Apple Watch.

Dark Sky

Grossman hopes that future versions of Dark Sky will collect barometer data in addition to “manual entry” data, like whether it’s currently snowing or raining. After that, he’ll focus on actually using the barometer data to improve the forecast.

Another company is a bit further ahead. Katerina Stroponiati is co-founder of Sunshine, a crowdsourced weather app that’s currently in beta and recently announced a significant new round of funding. Sunshine is planning a public launch in April.

“Sunshine is a weather network based entirely on mobile, which means that instead of just using traditional weather providers like [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], we use the sensors of the smartphones to collect the data,” Stroponiati said. “The more data, the better.”

Sunshine is planning to launch in cities across the United States once it receives enough data density to show a measurable improvement over existing forecasts—San Francisco will be one of its initial focus areas. Eventually, the goal is to “build a ground observation network of millions of devices.” Sunshine doesn’t yet have a Watch app but is planning one.

In addition to collecting weather data from phones and wearables, the company plans to use distributed computing on the mobile devices themselves to generate the forecasts. That would help bypass the need for expensive supercomputers.

Though small companies like Dark Sky and Sunshine are promising big results, Mass thinks a true transformation in meteorology will only happen when device makers like Apple and Samsung start to see themselves as weather data providers. Mass currently has access to about 120,000 pressure measurements an hour—enough to improve forecasts in some cases—“but there’s 40 million [mobile barometers] out there. There’s not many people with these apps, that’s the problem.”

March 26 2015 6:50 PM

Instapaper Joins the Slow Creep of Speed Reading

Instapaper, the reader app that lets you save Web pages and look at them later, released a new feature on Thursday called Speed Reading. Starting today, users can speed-read 10 articles per month for free, and premium users can do infinite speed-reading on their mobile devices. The feature joins a growing group of speed-reading software that's pushing the limit of how much content we can consume.

Instapaper offers speed reading as an option within its “action icon” on mobile as well as in its navigation bar on desktop. All you have to do to start blazing through all those articles you (optimistically) saved on the train yesterday is hit the “Speed” button and watch the words fly by. In a blog post, the company explains that this speed-reading approach is called rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP). It's “meant to help you eliminate subvocalization, that voice in the back of your mind repeating words as you read them, and reduce time lost scanning between words. The result is a more focused, faster reading experience,” the company writes.


Researchers have been studying RSVP for years, and it does seem to significantly increase reading speed, by eliminating the need for eye movement. But the research also indicates that comprehension can decline as reading pace increases. At some point there starts to be a tradeoff between speed and understanding.

The Instapaper feature is reminiscent of software from the speed-reading company Spritz, which started licensing its product for inclusion in other apps and services last year. There's also the app Spreeder, and others too, that have similar functionality. Instapaper developed its speed-reading capabilities in-house, but the goal of bringing instant reading-speed improvements to any user who wants them seems similar.

On Slate last year, Jim Pagels wrote of Spreeder, “My dependency on this application is so great that print text now seems difficult to focus on, and I find myself seeking out ebooks rather than print ones so that I can feed them into Spreeder.”

Maybe it's all an elaborate conspiracy to hook us on speed reading so we can ... OK, yeah, it's probably just a cool app feature.

March 26 2015 2:12 PM

The HTML Tags the New York Times, CNN Use During Tragedies

When big news stories evolve into tragedies and people are flocking to read the latest online, website design becomes the backdrop for grave information. And as Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins points out, you can tell a lot about how different sites react to tragic stories by checking out what's going on behind the scenes in their HTML.

You may not know anything about coding, but you can still see what's behind the websites you visit by using a tool called the element inspector. Most browsers, like Firefox and Chrome, let you hover your cursor over any part of a website and then "Inspect Element" to see the commands, components, and style sheets that underlie any part of the site.


With news breaking about Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 over the past couple of days, Higgins noticed that the New York Times had a line of code on its news story about the incident that read:

<meta property="ad_sensitivity" content="noads" />

Basically, this shows an effort to monitor ad content and reduce ad intensity around a topic that was at first mysterious and then increasingly tragic. And when Higgins reached out to contacts at the Times, they confirmed that the site has a manual switch that can put individual articles in "sensitivity" mode. The settings seem to be either standard, "noads," or finally "tragedy," depending on the content of the story. In the case of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525, the Times eventually upgraded to tragedy.

Sources at sites like the Guardian told Higgins that they have similar measures in place so there isn't a dancing Geico newt competing with dire news.

Meanwhile, CNN's coverage of Flight 4U 9525 included an enormous home page banner that read "DELIBERATE" in a huge font. If you check the HTML, as Slate Director of Technology Doug Harris thought to, CNN calls this a "screaming banner" (see top image). There has even been evidence that services like Gmail reduce their ad load when messages contain trigger words like "suicide."

As Higgins writes, "It’s interesting in part because it’s almost an acknowledgement that ads are invasive and uncomfortable." The Internet is filled with lists of unfortunate ad placements, and the worst ones are probably upbeat ads intruding on solemn moments.

Update, March 26, 2015, 4:30 p.m.:  A spokesperson confirmed that, like the New York Times, CNN Digital didn’t run ads on any of its videos related to Germanwings Flight 4U 9525. "In these types of tragedy cases, it’s an editorial decision that we make," she wrote.

March 26 2015 12:43 PM

Giant Leap: The Race to Mars and Back—a Future Tense Event

Humans have long been fixated on Mars, first as a metaphor of what lies beyond our reach, and now, increasingly, as a destination—for our probes and ourselves and perhaps even for our first base in deep space. Still, fulfilling our Mars yearnings in the next few decades requires enormous technological advancement. Can we now build a spacecraft capable of sustaining prolonged human travel in deep space? What are the remaining logistical hurdles to solve in finally launching our first mission to Mars? Do we know all we need to know about the human body, and its limits, in order to take this next leap into space? Join us to learn about these interplanetary challenges and opportunities, and their surprising implications for the future.

On Thursday, April 9, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—will discuss these issues at an event in Washington, D.C.  The two-hour event will begin at noon and will be held at the New America offices at 1899 L Street NW.


For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website. Follow the discussion online using #MarsAndBack and follow us @FutureTenseNow.


Noon: A Day in Deep Space: Technology, Research, and the Human Condition

Kate Greene
Science and technology writer
Former crew writer for NASA-funded HI-SEAS project

Josh Hopkins
Space exploration Aachitect, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co.

Dr. Tara Ruttley
Associate ISS program scientist, NASA’s International Space Station

Phil Plait
Slate’s Bad Astronomy blogger

1 p.m.: How Will We Tax in Space?

Adam Chodorow
Professor of law, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University

1:15 p.m.: Will Entrepreneurs Face Red Tape in Deep Space?

Richard DalBello
Vice president of business development and government affairs, Virgin Galactic

Henry Hertzfeld
Space analyst, Space Policy Institute, George Washington University

Jeffrey Manber
Managing director, NanoRacks

Patric Verrone
Writer/Producer, Futurama

This event is underwritten by Lockheed Martin.

March 26 2015 11:30 AM

Congressional Republicans Are Risking the Internet Economy

Congressional Republicans, displeased with the recent re-enactment of net neutrality rules have increasingly turned to a new line of argument. Republicans promised a “major confrontation,” but now the fact is that most Americans, including 85 percent of Republicans, oppose allowing broadband providers to charge websites for higher speeds. That makes criticizing the actual principles of net neutrality a losing game. Instead, in the Washington version of an ad hominem attack, the target is no longer net neutrality itself but the agency that enforces it, the Federal Communications Commission, and its chairman, Tom Wheeler. Wheeler is accused, among other things, of paying attention to the president’s views on the issue—something the current Congress takes as a kind of mortal sin. But more substantively, some Republicans, like Bob Goodlatte of the Judiciary Committee, are pushing to replace the FCC as net neutrality enforcer altogether, putting in its place the Federal Trade Commission wielding the antitrust laws. It may sound merely technical, but it is a reckless idea that puts at risk a regime and policy that has generated both two decades of impressive economic growth, not to mention great cultural flourishing. It also violates the basic and supposedly conservative principle: “If it isn't broke, don't fix it.”

To Washington outsiders the difference between the FCC and FTC may represent the epitome of Beltway meaninglessness. But there is an important difference rooted in both history and substance.


Since at least the 1970s depending on how you count, the FCC, originally tasked with oversight of the Bell monopoly, has employed some version of a net neutrality rule (though the phrase, which I’m at least partially responsible for, was not used until the 2000s). By this I mean an FCC rule protecting the idea of the communications networks as an innovation platform by protecting the businesses that operate “on top” of the nation's communications networks from the underlying firms, usually monopolists or duopolists, that own the pipes. In the 1970s and ’80s, this meant protecting companies like Compuserve or AOL from the Bell Company (and then Bell Companies). In the 2000s it meant protecting companies like Skype from DSL providers, and today it mainly means protecting much of the Internet sector from both cable and telephone carriers. The point is that while the companies may change, the principles do not.

This longstanding neutrality policy has been an incredible success by any measure. Under one or another version of the regime, the Internet economy has created at least a million jobs and contributed greatly to the economic growth of the entire country, even when the rest of the economy was flat. Nonetheless congressional Republicans are willing to put this at risk—as they would, by abruptly placing an antitrust agency in charge of overseeing this innovation platform.

For there are important substantive differences between the generalist antitrust law and net neutrality rules. Antitrust law is episodic and focused on prices; its enforcement nowadays mainly targets price-fixing schemes and mergers. Yes, it can do more (the Microsoft case being an example), but such instances are rare and extremely time- and resource-intensive. The net neutrality regime, in contrast, is fundamentally concerned with the protection of an innovation platform by maintaining low barriers to entry for entrepreneurs. That just isn’t something that the antitrust law is particularly attuned to.

Net neutrality also supports a rich and very diverse cultural output, something that the antitrust law has trouble valuing. There is a difference between a television and a toaster, and the FCC is able to take into account important noneconomic values that the people who actually use the Internet care about. The human value of connecting with friends and family is not always captured well in antitrust’s economic equations.

In short, leaving the Internet’s fate as an entrepreneurial platform to antitrust enforcement strikes me as taking a serious economic and cultural risk. This is not in any way to malign the FTC, which is a very fine place—it has an impressive staff of lawyers and economists and also is housed in a more attractive building than the FCC. In full disclosure, I worked there myself and have a great affection for the place. I just don’t think, as a generalist agency, it has the tools for this particular job.

I also have more than a little suspicion that the real reason congressional Republicans want to move net neutrality enforcement is a deeper opposition to the principles of Internet openness that they'd prefer not to make public. For it is not as if either the current Republican Party or the telephone companies have been enthusiastic about strong antitrust enforcement, making the sudden enthusiasm for the Sherman Act somewhat surprising. The real point of the operation may not really be to relocate the net neutrality regime, so much as to bury it.