Lawrence Lessig: Michael Powell completes his fourth year as chair of the FCC in December, and his tenure has not been a quiet one. He oversaw one of the most ferocious public policy battles in FCC history – the fight over media concentration – and he did not hesitate to run the indecency flag up massive-fines hill, hitting CBS for $550,000 and Fox for $1.2 million.

He is the FCC head liberals love to hate, and is, in their eyes, one of George W. Bush’s first (of many) mistakes.



But to this liberal, there’s something important and rare in Powell’s legacy that deserves our respect. For in at least two critical domains of FCC policy, he has let the facts push ideology aside. When he was appointed, one media analyst warned, “Beware the rhetorical flashes of brilliance; beneath that is someone who wants to let the market decide at the expense of consumers.” The “let the market decide” part was no doubt correct; but liberals like me were too quick to assume “at the expense of consumers.”



Consider, for example, spectrum. When Powell took charge, most thought the FCC would quickly launch massive spectrum auctions. The reigning ideology was that spectrum is land, and that markets allocate land most efficiently.



But Powell’s FCC quickly sabotaged this idea, in part because technologists pushed him to see that spectrum is not like land: that perhaps the best way to allocate spectrum is to share it, and that perhaps the better market to encourage is not in spectrum itself, but in devices that share it.



Powell knew this was heresy. But without denouncing the party line, he nonetheless set up its demise. Auctions were slowed; spectrum commons were encouraged. The free space in which your Wi-Fi network runs would coexist with chunks of spectrum sold like so much beachfront property. It had the form of a fair fight – “may the best spectrum model win” – but it unleashed a powerful market in technologies that depend upon the commons. This market thus became the natural enemy of auctions.



More here.