April 2010

PFF today released the fifth installment in our ongoing series on “The Wrong Way to Reinvent Media.” This series of papers explores various tax and regulatory proposals that would have government play an expanded role in supporting the press, journalism, or other media content. In the latest essay, Berin Szoka, Ken Ferree, and I discuss proposals for direct subsidies for failing media outlets and out-of-work journalists.

We argue taxpayer support for failing outlets and unemployed journalists implicates significant First Amendment concerns. On the whole, subsidies can make “journalists and media operators more dependent upon the State; compromise press independence and diminish public trust in the free press; and result in government discrimination in the politically inescapable dilemma of determining eligibility for subsidies.” Such an agenda would also entail huge cost to taxpayers—initially about $35 billion per year according to advocates—and would represent “a massive wealth transfer from one class of speakers to another…”

We warn that calls for seemingly beneficent bailouts “to save” the media and journalism may actually be driven by those who have something more nefarious in mind: a “post-corporate” world shorn of media capitalists, and “such radicalism must be rejected if we hope to sustain a truly free press and uphold America’s proud tradition of keeping a high and tight wall of separation between Press and State.”

The ideas within these and other essays in the series will be worked into a major PFF filing in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) proceeding on the “Future of Media” on May 7. The paper may be viewed online here and I’ve attached it down below in a Scribd reader.

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No, I’m not here to tell you more about the “supersized” FTC. Berin has done yeoman’s work to highlight that issue, among other things with the PFF event you can review here. On TechDirt, Mike Masnick wrote this morning about how the feds are itching to regulate the Internet.

This is about the direct government invasions of privacy likely to occur if S. 3217 passes. On the Cato@Liberty blog I write about the detailed financial market research that new regulatory agencies would do—research aimed at you.


Section 1071(b) requires any deposit-taking financial institution to geo-code customer addresses and maintain records of deposits for at least three years. Think of the government having its own Google map of where you and your neighbors do your banking. The Bureau [of Consumer Financial Protection] may “use the data for any other purpose as permitted by law,” such as handing it off to other bureaus, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“Washington, D.C. has determined that Washington, D.C. should manage the financial services industry. Your personal and private financial affairs will be managed there too.”

What would I say about my own writing but read the whole thing?

The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly on the verge of suing to block Google’s proposed acquisition of mobile advertising firm AdMob. The deal’s antitrust implications were discussed in a panel earlier this month on Capitol Hill featuring Berin Szoka. (For other interesting perspectives on the topic, see Geoff Manne and Tom Lenard).

In an opinion essay on Forbes.com this week, I argue that the FTC should approve Google’s acquisition of AdMob without conditions:

FTC Should Green-light Google AdMob Deal

by Ryan Radia

Google competes in many markets, but its most pressing threat comes not from a rival but from antitrust authorities. The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly on the verge of filing a lawsuit against Google to block its proposed $750 million acquisition of mobile advertising company AdMob. Yet antitrust fears about Google are misplaced. Government intervention would harm the very consumer interests the FTC is supposed to protect.

As the government prepares for a potential court battle against Google, the budding mobile advertising market is evolving before our very eyes. Just two weeks ago Apple launched iAd, a mobile advertising platform aimed at the world’s 50 million iPhone users. And Microsoft is in talks to acquire Millenial Media, another major player in mobile advertising, according to Business Insider.

Meanwhile, smart phone use is increasing rapidly–and opportunities for entry in the mobile advertising market are increasing with it. Can Google, armed with AdMob’s advertising platform, succeed in gaining the top spot in mobile advertising? Perhaps — but only if Google-AdMob manages to outcompete and out-innovate rivals that have deep pockets and brilliant engineers of their own.

What tomorrow’s mobile ad market will look like if Google and AdMob join forces is anybody’s guess. Trying to predict how a proposed merger or acquisition will impact consumers is difficult, if not impossible.

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What makes a joke funny is that there is often a kernel of underlying truth. And  when Senator Rockefeller quipped that COPPA’s age should be extended beyond 12 to age 18, or even 25, nervous laughter followed. Because unfortunately there’s existing movement afoot from some advocates to expand COPPA’s reach and scope to adolescents.

I attended this morning’s Congressional hearing on the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), where I heard TLF’s own Berin Szoka deliver masterful testimony. Based on what we heard at the hearing, we’ll have to be on the lookout for efforts to create a new privacy regime for adolescents (13-17).

Senate Commerce (Consumer Protection Subcommittee) heard testimony from Facebook, Microsoft, PFF, Kathryn Montgomery, EPIC, and the FTC.  Members at the hearing were: Rockefeller, Pryor, Wicker, and Klobuchar. The hearing was convened to learn about how new technologies impact children privacy in the context of the FTC’s current review of COPPA. Through the prepared testimony, it was clear that there were two camps for the role of Congress:

1. Congress doesn’t need to amend or propose new legislation. The FTC has sufficient authority to make changes to COPPA, as only minor changes are needed Continue reading →

I write in “The Laws of Disruption” of the risk of unintended consequences that regulators run in legislating emerging technologies.  Because the pace of change for these technologies is so much faster than it is for law, the likelihood of defining a legal problem and crafting a solution that will address it is very slim.  I give several examples in the book of regulatory actions that quickly become not just obsolete but, worse, wind up having the opposite result to what regulators intended.

An unfortunate example of that problem in the news quite a bit lately is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act or ECPA.   (My first published legal scholarship, in 1994, was an article about a provision of ECPA that allowed law enforcement officers to use evidence they came across by accident in the course of an otherwise lawful wiretap, see “Electronic Communications and the Plain View Exception:  More ‘Bad Physics.’”)

Passed in 1986, ECPA at the time was a model of smart lawmaking in response to changing technologies.  It updated the federal wiretap statute, known as Title III, to take into account the rise of cellular technologies and electronic messages–which didn’t exist when the original law was passed in 1968.

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The Washington Post carried an article earlier this week by Cecilia Kang that noted the Federal Trade Commission could gain enforcement power over online businesses as a result of the financial services legislation under discussion in Congress. Ms. Kang contrasted the possibility of an empowered FTC issuing fast-track regulations against the recent experience of the Federal Communications Commission, which has become bogged down in its search for legal authority to issue net neutrality regulations. 

The comparison is insightful, but not for the reasons you might expect. Part of the debate over the FTC revolves around language in the House financial services bill that would repeal the “Magnuson-Moss” provisions that govern FTC promulgation of consumer protection regulations. (The name comes from the fact that these restrictions on FTC rulemaking were included in the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which got the FTC into the business of regulating car warranties.)

If the FTC wants to regulate some type of general business practice under the FTC Act, it has to establish a factual record substantiating that there is actually a systemic problem that regulation can solve, hold a public hearing, allow cross-examination on factual matters, and conduct an economic analysis of the regulation’s effects.  In short, the commission has to do the homework necessary to demonstrate that its proposed regulation will actually solve a widespread problem that actually exists.

When Tim Muris directed the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in the early 1980s, he authored an article in Regulation magazine pointing out that when the FTC does careful analysis before issuing a rule, the rule is more likely to benefit consumers, more likely to be upheld in court, and more likely to be issued expeditiously. He contrasted the evidence-based eyeglass rule, which took three years to issue, with the anecdote-based funeral rule, which took ten. Muris noted wryly, “Some critics of my position charge that it is revolutionary to ask a body of lawyers and economists not to impose its own view of proper regulation on the world without first systematically evaluating the problem.” Muris went on to serve as chairman of the FTC between 2001-04, and last month he defended the Magnuson-Moss restrictions in testimony before Congress.  

What does this have to do with the FCC?  The FCC lost its case against Comcast on appeal, precisely because the FCC tried to take shortcuts. The FCC tried to promote net neutrality by enforcing a set of “principles” that originated in a former chairman’s speech and were never promulgated in a notice-and-comment rulemaking. The FCC commissioners endorsed these principles without investigating whether there was a systemic problem (ie, more than a few anecdotes of misbehavior). Indeed, Chairman Martin’s Notice of Inquiry on “Broadband Industry Practices” that was launched around the same time the FCC took its enforcement action against Comcast turned up no evidence of a systemic problem. If the FCC now tries to impose net neutrality by reclassifying broadband as a “Title II” common carrier, it will have to do the difficult but necessary work of demonstrating, with real factual evidence, that broadband is more like a common carrier than like the lightly-regulated “information service” the commission previously decided it was.

We don’t need Congress to free the FTC from Magnuson-Moss. Instead, Congress should impose the same requirements on the FCC. Sometimes, taking the time to do your homework leads to better decisions, sooner.

I’m testifying this morning before the Senate Commerce Committee’s Consumer Protection Subcommittee on Examining Children’s Privacy: New Technologies and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act at 10 am in 253 Russell. I offered an overview of my testimony in a PFF TechCast interview yesterday.

MP3 file: PFF TechCast #4 – Senate COPPA testimony of Berin Szoka

My pre-scripted oral testimony (PDF) follows below, but you can download my somewhat longer written testimony here, which offers an overview of our past work on this subject at PFF, particularly the paper Adam Thierer and I published last summer COPPA 2.0: The New Battle over Privacy, Age Verification, Online Safety & Free Speech.


Mr. Chairman and Committee members, thank you for inviting me here today.  My name is Berin Szoka.[1] I’m a Senior Fellow at The Progress & Freedom Foundation.  I commend this Committee for studying COPPA, and the FTC for its upcoming COPPA Review and Roundtable.[2]

Background on COPPA

For an “Internet Jr.” of sites “directed at” children under 13, COPPA requires sites either to age-verify all users or limit functionality to prevent children from making personal information “publicly available”—including the sharing of user-generated content.  COPPA imposes the same requirement on general audience sites when they have actual knowledge a user is under 13.  Because of this forced separation and the costs of age verification, COPPA may well have unintentionally limited choice and competition by driving increased consolidation in the marketplace for child-oriented sites and services online.  On the other hand, COPPA has been reasonably successful in fulfilling Congress’s original goal of “enhancing parental involvement” to protect children’s online privacy and safety.

Whatever this trade-off, I’m here today to caution against expanding COPPA beyond its original, limited purpose. COPPA’s unique value lies in its flexibility, subtlety, and intentional narrowness. Continue reading →

Facebook is in the spotlight—unfairly.

Yesterday, four Democratic U.S. senators — Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Michael Bennet (D-Col.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) — published a letter to Facebook expressing their concern over Facebook’s privacy policies.  They asked Facebook to “fix” its privacy policy?

Privacy is a complex and often personal concept – how do these four senators know it’s broken?

Well, the letter follows the announcement of Facebook’s new Open Graph API that could revolutionize social networking. As one commentator wrote on ReadWriteWeb, “the bits of this platform bring together the visions of a social, personalized and semantic Web that have been discussed since del.icio.us pioneered Web 2.0 back in 2004.” The future of the web is not just knowing whether a user is interacting with a webpage, but knowing whether users are liking a specific kind of thing (referred to as the semantic web).

This sounds like very interesting stuff (understatement intended). And here’s the thing that many people (including many members of Congress) forget:  Facebook is a new model of business that has shaken up the way we communicate. And it’s operating in uncharted territory, miles ahead of the Washington, D.C. crowd that would like to put their own stamp on the company. This is a company that is driving innovation, the last thing we need are politicians attempting to fine-tune the engine.

Which company is the next target of a letter? What’s the precedent being set by these demands for Facebook and other innovative web-based companies? I imagine there are a lot of concerned entrepreneurs across the country wondering if they’re next.

On Friday, May 7th from 9:00 a.m. – 10:45 a.m. at the National Press Club, The Progress & Freedom Foundation will hold a panel discussion entitled, “What Should the Next Communications Act Look Like?”  This event will consider the implications of the recent Comcast v. FCC court decision, the FCC’s pending “Net Neutrality” Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, as well as other developments which have lead many experts, officials, policymakers and a diverse array of companies to call on Congress to update the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Leading industry veterans will make their case for change, and explain how their proposals can be implemented. Our expect panel will include:

  • Thomas J. Tauke, Executive Vice President – Public Affairs, Policy and Communications, Verizon Communications
  • Peter Pitsch, Associate General Counsel and Executive Director of Communications Policy, Intel
  • Walter McCormick, President & CEO, United States Telecom Association
  • Ray Gifford, Partner, Wilkinson, Barker, Knauer, LLP
  • Michael Calabrese, Vice President, New America Foundation
  • Barbara Esbin, Senior Fellow, The Progress & Freedom Foundation

Please RSVP here is you plan to join us on May 7th for this event. Again, it will take place from 9:00 a.m. – 10:45 a.m. at the National Press Club (Holeman Lounge, 13th Floor, 529 14th Street NW).  Hope to see you there.

In this latest PFF TechCast, Berin Szoka and I discuss the two latest installments in our ongoing “Wrong Way to Reinvent Media” series. These two recent installments dealt with “media vouchers” and expanded postal subsidies as methods of assisting struggling media enterprises or promoting more hard news. In this 7-minute podcast, PFF’s press director Mike Wendy chats with us about these proposals and we argue that they both raise a variety of practical and principled concerns that weigh against their adoption by policymakers.

MP3 file: PFF TechCast #3 – Media Vouchers & Postal Subsidies (4/27/2010)