Blogs in the Balance?

by on October 19, 2006 · 20 comments

Perhaps the most important misleading claim made in Bill Moyers’s informercial for Internet regulation is the notion that we’re in imminent danger of telcos using their control over the “last mile” to influence the direction of political debates. Moyers’s format didn’t allow him to go into the argument in much detail, but fortunately Yochai Benkler does on page 156:

[The network owner, D, has] the power to shape A’s information environment by selectively exposing A to information in the form of communications from others. Most commonly, we might see this where D decides that B will pay more if all infrastructure is devoted to permitting B to communicate her information to A and C, rather than any of it used to convey As message to C. D might then refuse to carry A’s message to C and permit only B to communicate to A and C. The point is that from A’s perspective, A is dependent on D’s decisions as to what information can be carried on the infrastructure, among whom, and in what directions. To the extent of that dependence, A’s autonomy is compromised. We might call the requirement that D can place on A as a precondition to using the infrastructure an “influence exaction.”

Sometimes, highly styized examples like this can illuminate important points by removing extraneous details. In this case, Benkler has done just the opposite: he’s abstracted away all the real-world characteristics of the web that are relevant to this issue. When we add them back in, it becomes obvious that this argument doesn’t work.


In a nutshell, what makes the Internet revolutionary for political discussion is that it’s a “pull” technology, in contrast to virtually all previous technologies which operated on a “push” model. My cable company has chosen roughly 50 television channels for me to choose from. They’re all broadcasted to my house continuously, and my only task is to choose among the 50 channels on offer. The Internet is different. I don’t sit down at my computer and flip one by one through the universe of blogs until I reach the one I want to read. My ISP waits until I send a request for a particular blog, and then my ISP goes out and fetches it for me.

If my cable company drops CNN from its lineup and puts Fox News in its place, Joe Consumer might might shrug and watch Fox. It’s conceivable that this sort of manipulation could nudge public opinion in a conservative direction. But if Joe types the address for Dialy Kos into his web browser and his ISPs gives him Michelle Malkin instead, he’s certainly not going to shrug and read that instead. He’ll call his friends and neighbors and tell them how outraged he is that his ISP is trying to manipulate him. He’ll probably switch to another ISP, if he has any choices. He’ll call the media. If the ISP is very large, journalists will suddenly get a flood of calls from outraged Daily Kos readers. Journalists, always hungry for a controversy, will report on the story.

Most importantly, there’s absolutely no chance that such a tactic would make Joe Consumer more conservative. If anything, he’ll take his ISP’s behavior as evidence that his views are under attack, and will search out new sources for left-of-center political commentary. Given that there are hundreds of thousands of blogs on the Internet, there’s no way the ISP can read all of them and block the ones whose views it dislikes. The ISP might be able to kill Daily Kos, but a dozen smaller blogs will spring up to take their place.

Slowing down Daily Kos rather than blocking it doesn’t really change the analysis any. Such a tactic would likely be detected and spark a backlash long before it was severe enough to actually deter people from reading Daily Kos. And if they did drive readers away from Kos, it would be to other liberal blogs, not into Michelle Malkin’s waiting arms.

Theoretically, you could ban or slow down all blogs except for a selected list of preferred blogs. But even that’s not really feasible, because then you’d have to have some way of distinguishing blogs from other web sites. There are millions of web sites, and it takes a matter of days for a blog to set up shop at a new address. It would take a full-time staff of hundreds to monitor new websites and blacklist the ones that appeared too blog-like.

OK, what if the ISP banned all websites except for an approved list of non-political and conservative ones. Obviously, that would be commercial suicide. People sign up for Internet access primarily to access websites. If the majority of websites were banned (and even Comcast or AT&T can’t afford the staff it would take to do an in-depth review of every website on Earth) the ISP’s service would be dramatically less valuable, and so fewer consumers would sign up.

Benkler goes on to make an elaborate argument to the effeect that private ownership of communications infrastructure is dangerous because infrastructure owners will inevitably sell “autonomy exactions” to the highest bidder. But his argument is based on a set of assumptions, on closer examination, have little or nothing to do with the real world. When you take into account the actual characteristics of the Internet, Benkler’s argument doesn’t make much sense.

In short, a few minutes’ though makes it clear that bloggers have nothing to fear from an unregulated Internet. I don’t think ISPs even want to censor blogs, but even if they did, they would fail. And they’d do themselves a great deal of economic harm in the process. In short, blog manipulation or censorship isn’t a serious policy concern, it’s a talking point designed to scare people who haven’t given any serious thought to how the Internet works.

  • Brett

    Tim,

    I agree with you that context matters and that abstracting too much from the context may be misleading. But focusing in on the existing set of blog offerings and what would happen if one suddenly disappeared also misleads. Yes, some users would switch ISPs if their chosen blog is not available. (We could open up a debate on the effectiveness of switching as a means for disciplining ISPs, but let’s not for now.) The point Benkler and others make is a dynamic one about how the information-cultural environment is shaped. Pricing infrastructure access on the basis of identity, use, or application will shape the availablity and diversity of different users, applications and content. (That is one of the main reasons advanced for opposing net neutrality regulation, right?) It seems to me that Benkler is on solid ground in arguing that infrastructure owners have both the ability and incentive to shape the environment is a manner that makes it look more “push” than “pull.” To my knowledge, Internet technology is not inherently “pull” rather than “push.” It is is malleable.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Brett, maybe you can help me understand this argument by fleshing it out a bit. Can you give me a concrete example of how an ISP could use its control over broadband access to “shape the environment” of the blogosphere and change the mix of content or users? I’m trying to imagine a concrete scenario in which that would happen, and I’m drawing a blank.

    Imagine I’m the CEO of Comcast. I want to use my control over infrastructure to push some particular agenda on my blog-reading customers. How specifically would I go about it? What routing policies or other infrastructure changes would I implement?

  • Brett

    Tim,

    I agree with you that context matters and that abstracting too much from the context may be misleading. But focusing in on the existing set of blog offerings and what would happen if one suddenly disappeared also misleads. Yes, some users would switch ISPs if their chosen blog is not available. (We could open up a debate on the effectiveness of switching as a means for disciplining ISPs, but let’s not for now.) The point Benkler and others make is a dynamic one about how the information-cultural environment is shaped. Pricing infrastructure access on the basis of identity, use, or application will shape the availablity and diversity of different users, applications and content. (That is one of the main reasons advanced for opposing net neutrality regulation, right?) It seems to me that Benkler is on solid ground in arguing that infrastructure owners have both the ability and incentive to shape the environment is a manner that makes it look more “push” than “pull.” To my knowledge, Internet technology is not inherently “pull” rather than “push.” It is is malleable.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis Villa

    Fairly simple, no? As just one way, blogs that use our affiliated advertising network get priority routing; others do not. Or blogs who use their advertising revenue to pay for priority routing get priority routing; otherwise no. Or blogs who are on Kos’s blogroll (or instapundit’s) get priority routing, and others do not.

    All of these would be fairly simple to implement; all would empower a specific agenda.

    [Note that in practice, as I believe Ed Felten has pointed out, what this would mean is slowing down the 'others' instead of speeding up the privileged sites. But basically the same difference.]

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    As just one way, blogs that use our affiliated advertising network get priority routing; others do not. Or blogs who use their advertising revenue to pay for priority routing get priority routing; otherwise no.

    I don’t think this is quite on point. This might be a way for the ISP to increase revenues (although I’m skeptical about that) but it wouldn’t help the ISP “shape the environment” in terms of the content of blogs. Liberal and libertarian blogs could pay Comcast’s toll as easily as conservative blogs could. Indeed, it seems likely that Google and Six Apart would sign a deal with Comcast to give everybody on Blogger and Typepad priority access, so the average blogger on those services wouldn’t have to lift a finger to get fast-lane service.

    Or blogs who are on Kos’s blogroll (or instapundit’s) get priority routing, and others do not.

    This would mean slowing down 99.999% of the blogs in the world. Sports blogs, cooking blogs, MP3 blogs, etc, would all grind to a halt. Millions of blog readers who don’t read a single political blog would be inconvenienced.

    Moreover, unless you’re proposing that they’d slow down the entire web other than Kos’s blogroll, you’d have to come up with some way to distinguish a “blog” from a generic website. Is the New York Times a blog? Is Ars Technica? What about sites that use MT as a CMS but don’t actually have a blog format? And how long will it take people to come up with WP and MT plugins to disguise the blogginess of a user’s website?

  • Brett

    Good question. I am not suggesting that the CEO of Comcast would use control over the infrastructure to push a particular political agenda. I am suggesting that conditional prioritization or differential pricing can be used to preference certain types of technologies and certain types of content. Comcast may structure its pricing in many different ways. It may favor one type of blog application over another, which may affect the degree of interactivity or participation. It may favor one speaker or type of speaker over another–differential pricing may accomplish this simply by virtue of differences in those speakers’ relative willingness and ability to pay. It may prioritize delivery of traffic based on use of affiliated advertising (which could lead to problems if affiliates gather, aggregate, and process info about content posted). Etc.

    But my primary point is rather simple (although perhaps disconnected from your specific concern about political content manipulation). The arguments in favor of no regulation often focus on the perceived need to discriminate and prioritize to supply better products and services. Well, it goes both ways. The common refrain that “the market” will discipline infrastructure providers that do not give consumers what they want is overstated (for a variety of reasons Barbara van Schewick and I explain in a forthcoming paper), and even if true, it misses, what I think is, the more important point: consumer willingness to pay for specific types of applications or content may be a very poor guide for allocating infrastructure access (and from a longer term dynamic perspective, structuring the online environment).

  • Brett

    I was too slow (and busy with something else!). The comments prior to mine suggest that I am heading down a tangential path. I agree with your general point, Tim, that we have no reason to think that differential pricing would preference one type of political blog over another; they all would presumably be equally willing and able to pay.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Brett, maybe you can help me understand this argument by fleshing it out a bit. Can you give me a concrete example of how an ISP could use its control over broadband access to “shape the environment” of the blogosphere and change the mix of content or users? I’m trying to imagine a concrete scenario in which that would happen, and I’m drawing a blank.

    Imagine I’m the CEO of Comcast. I want to use my control over infrastructure to push some particular agenda on my blog-reading customers. How specifically would I go about it? What routing policies or other infrastructure changes would I implement?

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    It may favor one type of blog application over another, which may affect the degree of interactivity or participation.

    Can you elaborate on this point a little bit? Keep in mind that I don’t have any contractual relationship with Comcast. TLF is hosted by my friend PJ Doland, who pays an ISP called Rackspace for his connectivity, who in turn has a peeering agreement with a backbone provider like AT&T, which in turn has a peering agreement with Comcast. Comcast never sends a bill to me, to PJ, to Rackspace, or to AT&T.

    PJ chose to use Movable Type to host TLF. Are you saying that Comcast could somehow use its influence as a broadband ISP to encourage PJ to use another blogging application like Word Press (or perhaps a proprietary Comcast-developed blogging tool) that it liked better? How would it do that?

    The arguments in favor of no regulation often focus on the perceived need to discriminate and prioritize to supply better products and services.

    I know a lot of critics of regulation make this argument, but I don’t think I ever have. I’m a supporter of network neutrality as a technological principle. I’m just more afraid of the FCC than I am of AT&T.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis Villa

    Fairly simple, no? As just one way, blogs that use our affiliated advertising network get priority routing; others do not. Or blogs who use their advertising revenue to pay for priority routing get priority routing; otherwise no. Or blogs who are on Kos’s blogroll (or instapundit’s) get priority routing, and others do not.

    All of these would be fairly simple to implement; all would empower a specific agenda.

    [Note that in practice, as I believe Ed Felten has pointed out, what this would mean is slowing down the 'others' instead of speeding up the privileged sites. But basically the same difference.]

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    As just one way, blogs that use our affiliated advertising network get priority routing; others do not. Or blogs who use their advertising revenue to pay for priority routing get priority routing; otherwise no.

    I don’t think this is quite on point. This might be a way for the ISP to increase revenues (although I’m skeptical about that) but it wouldn’t help the ISP “shape the environment” in terms of the content of blogs. Liberal and libertarian blogs could pay Comcast’s toll as easily as conservative blogs could. Indeed, it seems likely that Google and Six Apart would sign a deal with Comcast to give everybody on Blogger and Typepad priority access, so the average blogger on those services wouldn’t have to lift a finger to get fast-lane service.

    Or blogs who are on Kos’s blogroll (or instapundit’s) get priority routing, and others do not.

    This would mean slowing down 99.999% of the blogs in the world. Sports blogs, cooking blogs, MP3 blogs, etc, would all grind to a halt. Millions of blog readers who don’t read a single political blog would be inconvenienced.

    Moreover, unless you’re proposing that they’d slow down the entire web other than Kos’s blogroll, you’d have to come up with some way to distinguish a “blog” from a generic website. Is the New York Times a blog? Is Ars Technica? What about sites that use MT as a CMS but don’t actually have a blog format? And how long will it take people to come up with WP and MT plugins to disguise the blogginess of a user’s website?

  • Brett

    Good question. I am not suggesting that the CEO of Comcast would use control over the infrastructure to push a particular political agenda. I am suggesting that conditional prioritization or differential pricing can be used to preference certain types of technologies and certain types of content. Comcast may structure its pricing in many different ways. It may favor one type of blog application over another, which may affect the degree of interactivity or participation. It may favor one speaker or type of speaker over another–differential pricing may accomplish this simply by virtue of differences in those speakers’ relative willingness and ability to pay. It may prioritize delivery of traffic based on use of affiliated advertising (which could lead to problems if affiliates gather, aggregate, and process info about content posted). Etc.

    But my primary point is rather simple (although perhaps disconnected from your specific concern about political content manipulation). The arguments in favor of no regulation often focus on the perceived need to discriminate and prioritize to supply better products and services. Well, it goes both ways. The common refrain that “the market” will discipline infrastructure providers that do not give consumers what they want is overstated (for a variety of reasons Barbara van Schewick and I explain in a forthcoming paper), and even if true, it misses, what I think is, the more important point: consumer willingness to pay for specific types of applications or content may be a very poor guide for allocating infrastructure access (and from a longer term dynamic perspective, structuring the online environment).

  • Brett

    I was too slow (and busy with something else!). The comments prior to mine suggest that I am heading down a tangential path. I agree with your general point, Tim, that we have no reason to think that differential pricing would preference one type of political blog over another; they all would presumably be equally willing and able to pay.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    It may favor one type of blog application over another, which may affect the degree of interactivity or participation.

    Can you elaborate on this point a little bit? Keep in mind that I don’t have any contractual relationship with Comcast. TLF is hosted by my friend PJ Doland, who pays an ISP called Rackspace for his connectivity, who in turn has a peeering agreement with a backbone provider like AT&T;, which in turn has a peering agreement with Comcast. Comcast never sends a bill to me, to PJ, to Rackspace, or to AT&T.;

    PJ chose to use Movable Type to host TLF. Are you saying that Comcast could somehow use its influence as a broadband ISP to encourage PJ to use another blogging application like Word Press (or perhaps a proprietary Comcast-developed blogging tool) that it liked better? How would it do that?

    The arguments in favor of no regulation often focus on the perceived need to discriminate and prioritize to supply better products and services.

    I know a lot of critics of regulation make this argument, but I don’t think I ever have. I’m a supporter of network neutrality as a technological principle. I’m just more afraid of the FCC than I am of AT&T.;

  • Anonymous

    Basically, yes, the point is that the web of contractual arrangements including ISP-consumer, ISP-ISP, backbone-ISP, etc, are malleable as are the technologies that they employ and support. I am not going to attempt to describe the range of possible differential pricing strategies and potential shifts in these relationships in a detailed map. But yes, I do think that if conditional prioritization or differential pricing on a relatively fine-grained level (e.g., application or content specific) becomes the norm rather than the exception for infrastructure providers, then the web of contractual relationships shifts and application-level distortions (due to prioritization or differential pricing) present a problematic risk, not just for blogging applications but for many other types as well. Would it be worth the effort for Comcast to influence bloggers’ choice of blogging technology? Why would Comcast care about what technology consumers choose? Well, I am not going to tackle these questions here, but I suspect you see where this goes.

    Keep in mind that some of the dynamic shifts I am concerned with are not necessarily risks associated with anticompetitive or otherwise “bad” behavior on the part of infrastructure providers. (Those risks matter too, of course.) Acting rationally, infrastructure providers will optimize their technologies, contractual relationships, and offerings to maximize their returns. Some of the troublesome shifts flow from the impact of differential pricing on how users/consumers behave.

    I understand your position (re. AT&T vs. the FCC) and did not mean to suggest that you were making the argument about the need to discriminate and prioritize to supply better products and services.

  • Anonymous

    Basically, yes, the point is that the web of contractual arrangements including ISP-consumer, ISP-ISP, backbone-ISP, etc, are malleable as are the technologies that they employ and support. I am not going to attempt to describe the range of possible differential pricing strategies and potential shifts in these relationships in a detailed map. But yes, I do think that if conditional prioritization or differential pricing on a relatively fine-grained level (e.g., application or content specific) becomes the norm rather than the exception for infrastructure providers, then the web of contractual relationships shifts and application-level distortions (due to prioritization or differential pricing) present a problematic risk, not just for blogging applications but for many other types as well. Would it be worth the effort for Comcast to influence bloggers’ choice of blogging technology? Why would Comcast care about what technology consumers choose? Well, I am not going to tackle these questions here, but I suspect you see where this goes.

    Keep in mind that some of the dynamic shifts I am concerned with are not necessarily risks associated with anticompetitive or otherwise “bad” behavior on the part of infrastructure providers. (Those risks matter too, of course.) Acting rationally, infrastructure providers will optimize their technologies, contractual relationships, and offerings to maximize their returns. Some of the troublesome shifts flow from the impact of differential pricing on how users/consumers behave.

    I understand your position (re. AT&T; vs. the FCC) and did not mean to suggest that you were making the argument about the need to discriminate and prioritize to supply better products and services.

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