Cablecaster, May 2001

Consumer Window

We can handle the truth

Full disclosure breeds consumer trust and satisfaction, especially when it comes to cable and Internet service

By Christopher Weisdorf, Rogers @Home Users Association

"The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness."

Niels Bohr (1885-1962), physicist

In this age of information, few statements underscore the importance -- and capture the essence of -- openness and full disclosure. Indeed, this declaration is many years old, but is perhaps more fitting nowadays than ever.

We live in a country where freedom, in general, is a birthright. Whether it's freedom of expression, mobility, or the right to a fair trial, we have lived under these principles for most, if not all, of our lives.

Freedom of information, unfortunately, is not held in such high esteem. Although it is one of our fundamental rights, the masses and the various governments have been less than sanguine in asserting, protecting and enforcing it.

In the United States, there are hundreds of thousands of documents that are supposed to be available via the Freedom of Information Act, but aren't. This is occurring not just because of the overly broad definition of the term "secrecy", but also because of the fact that the government has been unnecessarily secret for such a prolonged period of time.

A little more than four years ago, the Moynihan Commission, created by salient former Senator of New York State, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, called for an overhaul of the entire United States secrecy system. Various press coverage soon followed and about a year after that in 1998, Moynihan came out with his own book on the subject, titled Secrecy: The American Experience. All of this was especially significant since it was one of the only times that an established member of the government challenged the validity of a system that has been in place for so long.

Unfortunately, no one with similar stature has yet followed in Moynihan's footsteps to take up the cause of fighting excessive secrecy and championing citizens' freedom of information. Exacerbating the problem has been the expansion of intellectual property laws and definitions, along with the implementation of copy protection mechanisms which are meant to curb the "inappropriate" use of information. This, of course, has all been brought up in a prior column (see "The other IP", February, 2000), but it certainly has some bearing here.

Clearly, it is not just the governments who are responsible for the erosion of this specific freedom. Corporations have also contributed their fair share to inhibit this right. This comes not only as a result of the aforementioned intellectual property reforms -- which were prompted by vigorous corporate lobbying in the first place -- but additionally by internal policies which often effect either a selective, or total lack of disclosure to paying customers and the general public.

Very few laws and regulations have been instituted to curb such hideous policies, but one in recent memory is the U.S. Security Exchange Commission's Regulation FD, or full disclosure. The primary goal of this regulation was to eliminate the disclosure of information to the select few, a practice which leaves the regular investor out in the cold. Little did the SEC know, however, that their regulation would, indeed, be followed, but that the flow of information would be restricted even further in the process. A regulatory body with good and noble intentions managed to augment the very problem that is at the heart of this writing. Regulation FD has been cited repeatedly as a cause for many companies' lack of guidance going forward more than one quarter ahead. Corporations are increasingly clamping down on what kind of information they divulge, even with respect to their balance sheet. As an example, semiconductor outfit Cirrus Logic recently announced that it would take an inventory charge, but failed to disclose the quantity of the charge, or even what kind of inventory the charge was directed towards. Investors don't seem to be very accommodating towards this attitude of nondisclosure; how about consumers?

People both inside and outside our organization have, time and again, likened the disclosure policies of MSOs to that of the military, where information is disseminated only on a "need to know" basis. Declarations akin to this have also been made with regards to telcos all across North America and even their European counterparts.

Specifically addressing internet services, why are there no network status pages maintained by any of the major providers, save MindSpring (now part of EarthLink) and UUNET? UUNET doesn't even count, really, since it's not within the broadband Internet sphere. MindSpring, on the other hand, although they do provide a very comprehensive listing of both current and past issues, does not disclose any of their monitoring info on a real-time basis.

Consumers have been asking for network status pages for years. Why are their pleas going unheeded by virtually every single service provider there is? What benefits are being rendered to the withholding corporations? Do they feel they are shielding themselves from liability by not disclosing such information? Are such practices justified, considering the lack of consumer trust and confidence that stems from this nondisclosure? Do they, in any way, benefit the bottom line?

I believe that since this type of very necessary information is not being disclosed on a voluntary basis, that it must be required by regulation. Any outage or ongoing problem that affects more than 100 subscribers at a time, should be made fully available to paying customers, the general public and the regulatory authorities. The current network statistics should be real-time in nature, with past stats and details archived, all ready for immediate examination. Full details of ongoing problems and outages are of critical importance; they cannot be denied to customers and the general public, who are so often assumed to be totally ignorant of the associated issues and technology.

This kind of information could easily be published in real-time on the providers' web servers, with the only extra costs going to configure and maintain the physical servers and the software running on them. Service providers everywhere already maintain their own web servers and gather their own network monitoring statistics, so this disclosure requirement would not pose any technical difficulties, or be cost prohibitive.

"In the end, too much secrecy in the government for too long tends to erode the confidence of the society in the government," said the aforementioned Senator Moynihan, at one time.

As an addendum to that, I would just ask that you substitute the words "corporation" in place of "government" and "consumer" in place of "society". Who would have known that they would be synonymous with each now?

Christopher Weisdorf is president and technical director of the Residential Broadband Users Association (RBUA).

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