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Bureaucracy, from e-cigs to internet neutrality

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Washington, DC is full of buildings stuffed with bureaucrats. Inside, the paper they push affects our lives in ways big and small. Two of these paper-pushing-processes are in the news this week for striking new moves that could have major impact in very different ways. They involve smoking and how we get online.

First, a look at the Food and Drug Administration’s bid to regulate e-cigarettes for the first time:

“With FDA having no authority to regulate these products, it is a bit of the wild, wild West,” says FDA commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg.

The agency’s new proposal would bar sales to minors and require product approval, among other measures. But it does not crack down on advertising or flavored products thought to appeal to kids.

It’s not as tough as the tobacco industry feared. That has tobacco insiders optimistic, and anti-smoking advocates furious.

Up next is a long fight between industry, anti-smoking advocates and regulators:

It could be years before anything currently proposed becomes reality. While that going may be slow, over at the FCC, they’re talking about content we want to go fast, working on rules that could determine the fate of our internet. The FCC's proposal would allow companies to pay broadband providers to allow their content to "sprint" to computers faster. 

"It might behoove a company with deep pockets like Amazon or Facebook to pay extra and make sure they are promptly loaded on to your mobile device. But what about an independent media outlet?" asked Astra Taylor, an activist and author of The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. 

But Paul Gallant, a managing director at Guggenheim Securities, wonders if the FCC's proposals could benefit consumers by giving them more - and better - options. He suggests a scenario where ESPN pays Verizon Wireless so that customers can watch ESPN videos on their Verizon phones for free. For a lot of ESPN fans, that might look like good news. 

"I think the FCC is starting to realize that having a blanket rule against any kind of traffic prioritization may wall off innovative new business models," Gallant said. 

None of this is a done deal. The FCC will issue its proposal next month, and then open it up to public comment. There may not be enforceable rules until the end of this year, or later. 

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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