California has often been regarded as something of a barometer for the United States in general. Considering that, at one point, it would have comprised the eighth largest economy on the face of the Earth if it were its own country, this isn't exactly out of line. But it's also given rise to some strange developments, developments that other states are considering implementing as well. One of the latest emerged just last week as California announced plans to prohibit its Public Utilities Commission from regulating VoIP and other Internet services without direct permission from the state legislature.
It sounds preposterous -- and thankfully, California seems to agree -- but the bill is actually designed to protect against regulation of VoIP by public utilities. This is a measure that's opposed by large portions of Silicon Valley -- which by itself should be all the evidence most anyone needs that this is an absolutely terrible idea -- but is actually backed by a small but forceful minority comprised of academics and consumer advocates. SB 1161, as it's called, would prevent what some see as the establishment of a "crazy quilt" of state laws, and even local laws, targeting VoIP and other Internet technologies by requiring those who want to modify things like privacy standards or security to take their cases to the state rather than to local officials.
Naturally, the idea of a horde of rule-making bodies in one comparatively small location dealing with something like the Internet is a disturbing one to say the least. Imagine the confusion when something that's legal in, say, Orange (News - Alert) County would turn out to be illegal in the Bay Area. Yet, that's exactly what the academics and advocates have in mind, believing that, since Internet services are so important to society in general -- and they are -- they should be regulated by the government, like gas, water, and power. A recent Slate article reportedly joined the fray, suggesting that Facebook (News - Alert) should be, on some level, nationalized and its data stores put to work solving "significant social problems."
While the proponents of such legislation are correct in the sheer value of VoIP and the like, the problem is, it's simply incompatible with public regulation. Why? Because of its nature of constant change. Electric companies deal in a product that's largely unchanged since Ben Franklin's likely apocryphal key story. Water and gas companies? Even more so. But VoIP is a recent phenomenon, changing every day. Today's Skype (News - Alert) may well be tomorrow's Friendster. Skype itself may well be tomorrow's Friendster. How do you get public regulation behind that, in an environment like government where it takes months, or even years, to pass a budget under which it can operate?
The rapid changing of technology in the sector -- in VoIP, in social networking, in security and the like -- makes it incompatible with the concept of a publicly-regulated utility. Thankfully, for now, it looks like that particular bullet has been dodged in California, but the next one may not end so well.
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Edited by Rich Steeves