November 2009

by Adam Thierer & Berin Szoka

Move over, health care reform, climate change, and the economy. Judging by White House visits by various government agency heads, the Obama administration instead appears preoccupied with the re-regulation of communications, media, and the Internet. The Administration has just released logs of all visitors to the White House and Executive Office Buildings from Obama’s inauguration through August—including a staggering 47 visits by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski. By contrast, no other major agency head logged more than five visits.  Chairman Genachowski obviously has an audience with those at the highest levels of power, including the President himself, but this raises questions about just how “independent” this particular regulator and his agency really are.

Genachowski visits to White House

Unprecedented Transparency by White House

The Administration deserves credit for releasing these visitor logs, which offer unprecedented transparency into the White House’s workings.  Unfortunately, the logs lack visitors’ affiliation and title, making it difficult to discern subtle patterns.  Furthermore, each entry indicates only one “visitee” and the total number of people involved.  Full disclosure requires identifying all meeting participants. Nonetheless, President Obama’s gesture is a great first step toward improved government accountability.

This openness allows us to ask questions we couldn’t pose for previous administrations—such as why the FCC head seems to have unparalleled access to the White House.  Lacking data from previous administrations, it’s difficult to make direct comparisons with previous FCC Chairmen, but the sheer number of visits by Chairman Genachowski leaves no doubt about his uniquely close involvement with the White House. Continue reading →

After over five years of blogging (since August 2004), 20+ TLF contributors have authored over 4,700 posts—creating an enormous repository of writing that provides free-market, market-oriented, skeptical, bottom-up, decentralist, cyber-libertarian, and/or Internet-exceptionalist perspectives on technology, communications, media and Internet news & policy.

To make it easier to sort through all these posts, and find material relevant to your quirkiest interests, just add our new search plug-in to Firefox. Firefox users, click here and then click on “Technology Liberation Front.” Check the box to “start using it right away,” and our custom search engine (powered by Google) will appear immediately in the drop-down of search engines under your search box (without having to restart Firefox), like so:

TLF Firefox search plug-in

You can change where our search engine appears by clicking on “managed search engines” at the bottom of the drop down (not shown here).  Please let us know if you have any problems with the search engine, but it should work exactly the same way the search engine on the TLF itself works (near the top of column 2 just under the clenched fist graphic).

You can create your own search plug-ins, accessible through Mozilla’s database, here. The process should take just a few minutes.

P.S. Microsoft will let users add a custom search engine to Internet Explorer 7 & 8 here (instructions), but hasn’t made it easy for people like me to add the custom search engines to the IE Gallery so that other users can easily find and add the search engine with a single click.

The disabled have much to give thanks for this year—but contrary to common assumptions, it’s not for paternalistic government accessibility mandates, regulations or subsidies (see, for example, the FCC’s November 6 Broadband Accessibility workshop), but for the good ol’ fashioned private sector ingenuity that has made America great. Five broad categories of examples suggest how constantly-improving computing power and innovation can make life easier for many, if not all, disabled users—and how market forces empower the disabled along with everyone else.

Video transcription. Last week, Google announced “the preliminary roll-out of automatic captioning in YouTube, an innovation that takes advantage of our speech recognition technology to turn the spoken word into text captions.” Google uses the same speech recognition technology it refined with its free Goog-411 and Google Voice services to automatically transcribe video dialog (which can also be automatically translated using Google’s translation engine). Why? Not because of any government mandate, but because of some combination of three factors: (i) it’s an easy way for Google to invest in its “reputational capital,” (ii) the underlying technologies of transcribing videos make videos easier to use for all users, not just the hearing-impaired, and (iii) those technologies also make it possible to contextually target advertising to the verbal content of videos.

It’s worth noting that Hulu currently offers closed captioning for some of its television programming but notes that “closed-captioning data that’s used for broadcast TV isn’t easily translated for online use.” The online television clearinghouse promises to offer more closed-captioning soon. Perhaps they ought to license Google’s algorithmic transcription?

Voice recognition for direct consumer use—most notably, Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10, the latest version of the leading voice recognition software, which was released in summer 2008 but only recently seems to have really hit critical mass. Continue reading →

Facebook power lawPerfect media equality is impossible.  There has never been anything close to “equal outcomes” when it comes to the distribution or relative success of old media: books, magazines, music, movies, book, theater tickets, etc.  A small handful of titles have always dominated, usually according to a classic “power law” or “80-20? distribution, with roughly 20% of the titles getting 80% of the traffic / revenue.

But here’s the really interesting thing: This trend is increasing, not decreasing, for newer and more “democratic” online media.  As I pointed out in two previous essays ["YouTube, Power Laws & the Persistence of Media Inequality" & "Cuban on Fragmentation & Attention in the Blogosphere (or Why Power Laws Really Do Govern All Media)"], there is solid evidence that blogs, YouTube, Twitter, and other digital media outlets and platforms not only follow a classic power law distribution but that the distribution is even more heavily skewed toward the “fat head” of the distribution curve, not “the long tail” of it.

The latest evidence of the persistence of power laws across media comes from Facebook. Erick Schonfeld has a new essay up at TechCrunch (“It’s Not Easy Being Popular. 77 Percent Of Facebook Fan Pages Have Under 1,000 Fans“) highlighting some new findings from an upcoming report by Sysomos, a social media monitoring and analytics firm. Here’s the summary from Schonfeld: Continue reading →

The Internet is massive. That’s the ‘no-duh’ statement of the year, right?  But seriously, the sheer volume of transactions (both economic and non-economic) is simply staggering.  Consider a few factoids to give you a flavor of just how much is going on out there:

  • In 2006, Internet users in the United States viewed an average of 120.5 Web pages each day.
  • There are over 1.4 million new blog posts every day.
  • Social networking giant Facebook reports that each month, its over 300 million users upload more than 2 billion photos, 14 million videos, and create over 3 million events. More than 2 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photos, etc.) are shared each week. There are also roughly 45 million active user groups on the site.
  • YouTube reports that 20 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute.
  • Amazon reported that on December 15, 2008, 6.3 million items were ordered worldwide, a rate of 72.9 items per second.
  • Every six weeks, there are 10 million edits made to Wikipedia.

Now, let’s think about how some of our lawmakers and media personalities talk about the Internet.  If we were to judge the Internet based upon the daily headlines in various media outlets or from the titles of various Congressional or regulatory agency hearings, then we’d be led to believe that the Internet is a scary, dangerous place. That ‘s especially the case when it comes to concerns about online privacy and child safety. Everywhere you turn there’s a bogeyman story about the supposed dangers of cyberspace.

But let’s go back to the numbers. While I certainly understand the concerns many folks have about their personal privacy or their child’s safety online, the fact is the vast majority of online transactions that take place online each and every second of the day are of an entirely harmless, even socially beneficial nature.  I refer to this disconnect as the “problem of proportionality” in debates about online safety and privacy. People are not just making mountains out of molehills, in many cases they are just making the molehills up or blowing them massively out of proportion. Continue reading →

kids watching TVIn a recent PFF paper I argued that “We Are Living in the Golden Age of Children’s Programming,” and showed how, despite incessant complaints by many policymakers:

the overall market for family and children’s programming options continues to expand quite rapidly. Thirty years ago, families had a limited number of children’s television programming options at their disposal on broadcast TV. Today, by contrast, there exists a broad and growing diversity of children’s television options from which families can choose.

I then documented there and in my book, Parental Controls & Online Child Protection:

  • the many excellent family- or child-oriented networks available on cable, telco, and satellite television today;
  • the growing universe of religious / spiritual television networks;
  • the many family or educational programs that traditional TV broadcasters offer; or
  • the massive market for interactive computer software or Internet websites for children.

And every time I turn around I find another great show, service, or site for families to choose from.  Continue reading →

Former Google executive turned Obama administration deputy chief technology officer Andrew McLaughlin made some unfortunate comments at a law school technology conference last week equating private network management to government censorship as it is practiced in China.

By many accounts, President Obama’s visit to China was unimpressive. It apparently included a press conference at which no questions were allowed and government censorship of the president’s anti-censorship comments. On its heels, McLaughlin equated Chinese government censorship with network management by U.S. Internet service providers.

“If it bothers you that the China government does it, it should bother you when your cable company does it,” McLaughlin said. That line is wrong on at least two counts.

First, your cable company doesn’t do it. There have been two cases in which ISPs interfered with traffic in ways that are generally regarded as wrongful. Comcast slowed down BitTorrent file sharing traffic in some places for a period of time, did a poor job of disclosing it, and relented when the practice came to light. (People who don’t know the facts will argue that the FCC stepped in, but market pressures had solved the problem before the FCC did anything.) The second was a 2005 case in which a North Carolina phone company/ISP called Madison River Communications allegedly blocked Vonnage VoIP traffic.

In neither of these anecdotes did the ISP degrade Internet traffic because of its content—because of the information any person was trying to communicate to another. Comcast was trying to make sure that its customers could get access to the Internet despite some bandwidth hogs on its network. Madison River was apparently trying to keep people using its telephone lines rather than making Internet phone calls. That’s a market no-no, but not censorship.

Second, if the latter were happening, Chinese government censorship and corporate censorship would have no moral equivalency. In a free country, the manager of a private network can say to customers, “You may not transmit certain messages over our network.” People who don’t like that contract term can go to other networks, and they surely would. (Tim Lee’s paper, The Durable Internet: Preserving Network Neutrality Without Regulation, shows that ownership of networks and platforms does not equate to control of their content.)

When the government of China forces networks and platforms to remove content that it doesn’t like, that demand comes ultimately from the end of a gun. Governments like China’s imprison and kill their people for expressing disfavored views and for organizing to live freer lives. This has no relationship to cable companies’ network management practices, even when these ISPs deviate from consumer demand.

McLaughlin is a professional colleague who has my esteem. I defended Google’s involvement in the Chinese market during his tenure there. But if he lacks grounding in the fundamentals of freedom—thinking that private U.S. ISPs and the Chinese government are part of some undifferentiated mass of authority—I relish the chance to differ with him.

My PFF colleague Barbara Esbin has a great piece about why “FCC Could Mess Up Internet With ‘Net Neutrality’ Rules No One Needs” in a USNews point/counterpoint debate with  Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Attack Access Project, who claims such rules “Would Keep the Web Free for Speech and Trade.” Here are her two best gems:

The FCC claims that broadband Internet markets are insufficiently competitive today to protect consumer interests. Yet a 2007 Federal Trade Commission report found no market failure and warned regulators to proceed with caution. The FCC acknowledges that broadband service providers face growing traffic volume demands that must be managed but claims that they have the potential—the opportunity, means, and motive—to act in an anticompetitive fashion when transporting Internet traffic across their networks. FCC detectives point to economic theory suggesting providers have incentives to act in an anticompetitive manner against competing providers of content, applications, or services. What is missing from this crime scene investigation is the body—the actual evidence that providers are behaving anticompetitively or are likely to.

And:

Lacking evidence that regulation is now necessary to combat either market failure or other consumer harms, the FCC is left to postulate a dystopian world without network neutrality rules. It claims that unless it acts now, we risk losing what we value most about the Internet. In other words, it creates what economists would call a “counterfactual.”

But we don’t need economic theory to tell us what a world without network neutrality rules would look like because we already live in that world. And in the real world, the fact is that the Internet ecosystem we have is functioning quite well to satisfy customer needs without the ministrations of the FCC. In fact, one might go so far as to say it functions as well as it does because of that.

Of course, regulatory advocates would insist that broadband providers aren’t really behaving themselves today, citing a handful of vastly exaggerated examples. But they would probably fall back on the argument that broadband service providers are just waiting to start behaving even more anti-competitively until the threat of net neutrality regulation has been removed.

It’s certainly true that government disciplines markets as much by the threat of regulation as the actual exercise thereof, but that’s especially true of antitrust laws: Even if we never see an antitrust suit brought against an ISP for anticompetitive behavior towards applications and content providers, antitrust laws would still play—indeed, have already played—a vital role in discouraging companies from engaging in the kind of behavior Andy Schwartzman worries about. That’s why PFF proposed relying on case-by-case antitrust enforcement rather than preemptive regulation with its 2005 DACA project.

Given the dangers of inviting further proscriptive government regulation of the Internet: “All we are saying, is give love antitrust a chance…”

Let’s give thanks for the miracle of the modern Internet, which makes darn near any bit of fine literature or obscure doggerel available at our fingertips.  A case in point: My search for Larry the Cable Guy’s “The Story of the First Thanksgiving as Told by my Drunk Grandpa” immediately returned a readable link:

Grandpa’s Thanksgiving Story Lyrics

Please do not click on that if you are offended by crude or politically incorrect humor.  Oops, too late!

Happy Thanksgiving!

ClickerAround this time last year, a relative 20 years my senior was asking me what I was writing about and I mentioned how I’d been collecting anecdotes and stats for what was becoming our “Cutting the Video Cord” series here.  That series has documented how the Internet and new digital media options are displacing traditional video distribution channels.  We’ve been exploring what that means for consumers, regulators and the media itself.

I asked this relative of mine if they spent any time watching their favorite shows, or even movies, online or through alternative means than just their cable or satellite subscription.  He said he didn’t because of the lack of an easy way to find all their favorite shows quickly.  Specifically, he lamented the lack of a good “TV Guide” for online video. I explained to him that, for most of us 40 and under, our “TV Guide” was called “a search engine”!  It’s pretty easy to just pop in any show name or topic into your preferred search engine and then click on “Video” to see what you get back.  Nonetheless, I had to concede that random searching for video wouldn’t necessarily be the way everyone would want to go about it.  And it wouldn’t necessarily organize the results in way viewers would find useful–grouping things thematically by genre or offering the sort of related programming you might be interested in seeing.

Well, good news, such a service now exists. Katherine Boehret of the Wall Street Journal brought “Clicker.com” to my attention in her column last night, a terrific new (and free) video search service: Continue reading →