Inside the Beltway (Politics)

Timothy B. Lee, founder of The Washington Post’s blog The Switch discusses his approach to reporting at the intersection of technology and policy. He covers how to make tech concepts more accessible; the difference between blogs and the news; the importance of investigative journalism in the tech space; whether paywalls are here to stay; Jeff Bezos’ recent purchase of The Washington Post; and the future of print news.

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Aereo LogoThere are few things more likely to get constituents to call their representative than TV programming blackouts, and the increase in broadcasting disruptions arising from licensing disputes in recent years means Congress may be forced to once again fix television and copyright laws. As Jerry Brito explains at Reason, the current standoff between CBS and Time Warner Cable is the result of bad regulations, which contribute to more frequent broadcaster blackouts. While each type of TV distributor (cable, satellite, broadcasters, telcos) is both disadvantaged and advantaged through regulation, broadcasters are particularly favored. As the US Copyright Office has said, the rule at issue in CBS-TWC is “part of a thicket of communications law requirements aimed at protecting and supporting the broadcast industry.”

But as we approach a damaging tipping point of rising programming costs and blackouts, Congress’ potential rescuer–Aereo–appears on the horizon, possibly buying more time before a major regulatory rewrite. Aereo, for the uninitiated, is a small online company that sets up tiny antennas in certain cities to capture broadcast television station signals–like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the CW, and Univision–and streams those signals online to paying customers, who can watch live or record the local signals captured by their own “rented” Aereo antenna. Broadcasters hate this because the service deprives them of lucrative retransmission fees and unsuccessfully sued to get Aereo to cease operations. Continue reading →

Ajit Pai FCCAjit Pai, a Republican commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), had an outstanding op-ed in the L.A. Times yesterday about state and local efforts to regulate private taxi or ride-sharing services such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. “Ever since Uber came to California,” Pai notes, “regulators have seemed determined to send Uber and companies like it on a one-way ride out of the Golden State.” Regulators have thrown numerous impediments in their way in California as well as in other states and localities (including here in Washington, D.C.). Pai continues on to discuss how, sadly, “tech start-ups in other industries face similar burdens”:

For example, Square has created a credit card reader for mobile devices. Small businesses love Square because it reduces costs and is convenient for customers. But some states want a piece of the action. Illinois, for example, has ordered Square to stop doing business in the Land of Lincoln until it gets a money transmitter license, even though the money flows through existing payment networks when Square processes credit cards. If Square had to get licenses in the 47 states with such laws, it could cost nearly half a million dollars, an extraordinary expense for a fledgling company.

He also notes that “Obstacles to entrepreneurship aren’t limited to the tech world”:

Across the country, restaurant associations have tried to kick food trucks off the streets. Auto dealers have used franchise laws to prevent car company Tesla from cutting out the middleman and selling directly to customers. Professional boards, too, often fiercely defend the status quo, impeding telemedicine by requiring state-by-state licensing or in-person consultations and even restricting who can sell tooth-whitening services.

What’s going on here? It’s an old and lamentable tale of incumbent protectionism and outright cronyism, Pai notes: Continue reading →

Adam Thierer, Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center discusses his recent working paper with coauthor Brent Skorup, A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector. Thierer takes a look at how cronyism has manifested itself in technology and media markets — whether it be in the form of regulatory favoritism or tax privileges. Which tech companies are the worst offenders? What are the consequences for consumers? And, how does cronyism affect entrepreneurship over the long term?

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WP coverThe Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just released a new paper by Brent Skorup and me entitled, “A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector.” In this 73-page working paper, which we hope to place in a law review or political science journal shortly, we document the evolution of government-granted privileges, or “cronyism,” in the information and communications technology marketplace and in the media-producing sectors. Specifically, we offer detailed histories of rent-seeking and regulatory capture in: the early history of the telephony and spectrum licensing in the United States; local cable TV franchising; the universal service system; the digital TV transition in the 1990s; and modern video marketplace regulation (i.e., must-carry and retransmission consent rules, among others.

Our paper also shows how cronyism is slowly creeping into new high-technology sectors.We document how Internet companies and other high-tech giants are among the fastest-growing lobbying shops in Washington these days. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, lobbying spending by information technology sectors has almost doubled since the turn of the century, from roughly $200 million in 2000 to $390 million in 2012.  The computing and Internet sector has been responsible for most of that growth in recent years. Worse yet, we document how many of these high-tech firms are increasingly seeking and receiving government favors, mostly in the form of targeted tax breaks or incentives. Continue reading →

Few dispute that mobile carriers are being squeezed by the relative scarcity of radio spectrum. This scarcity is a painful artifact of regulatory decisions made decades ago, when the regulators gave valuable spectrum away for free to government agencies and to commercial users via so-called “beauty contests.” As more Americans purchase tablets and smartphones (as of a year ago, smartphones comprise a majority of phone plans in the US), many fear that consumers will be hurt by higher prices, stringent data limits, and less wireless innovation.

In the face of this demand, freeing up more airwaves for mobile broadband became a bipartisan effort and many scholars and policymakers have turned their hungry eyes to the ample spectrum possessed by federal agencies, which hold around 1500 MHz of the most valuable bands. The scholarly consensus–confirmed by government audits–is that federal agencies use their spectrum poorly. Because many licensees use spectrum under the old rules (free spectrum) and use it inefficiently, President Obama directed the FCC and NTIA to find 500 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband use by 2020. Continue reading →

In an important essay this week entitled “Silicon Valley’s ‘Suicide Impulse’,” Wall Street Journal columnist L. Gordon Crovitz warns that “Silicon Valley has long prided itself on avoiding the lumbering relationship between big government and most industries, but somehow it has become one of the top lobbyists in Washington.” Crovitz is worried that Internet and technology companies are falling prey to what Milton Friedman labeled “The Business Community’s Suicidal Impulse”: the persistent propensity to persecute one’s competitors using regulation or the threat thereof. “Rather than lobby government to go after one another,” Crovitz argues, “Silicon Valley lobbyists should unite to go after overreaching government. Instead of the ‘suicide impulse’ of lobbying for more regulation, Silicon Valley should seek deregulation and a long-overdue freedom to return to its entrepreneurial roots.”

Crovitz’s essay touches upon a dangerous trend I have written about here and elsewhere in the past: the increasing politicization of the Internet and information technology sectors and the gradual rise of rent-seeking (i.e., favor-seeking) over time. I’ve written about this problem in essays like:

These essays have documented how tech companies are increasingly vying for the attention of legislators and regulators in Washington, statehouses, and international capitals across the globe.

Why should we care about the increasing politicization of the information technology sector? Continue reading →

By Geoffrey Manne & Berin Szoka

As Democrats insist that income taxes on the 1% must go up in the name of fairness, one Democratic Senator wants to make sure that the 1% of heaviest Internet users pay the same price as the rest of us. It’s ironic how confused social justice gets when the Internet’s involved.

Senator Ron Wyden is beloved by defenders of Internet freedom, most notably for blocking the Protect IP bill—sister to the more infamous SOPA—in the Senate. He’s widely celebrated as one of the most tech-savvy members of Congress. But his latest bill, the “Data Cap Integrity Act,” is a bizarre, reverse-Robin Hood form of price control for broadband. It should offend those who defend Internet freedom just as much as SOPA did.

Wyden worries that “data caps” will discourage Internet use and allow “Internet providers to extract monopoly rents,” quoting a New York Times editorial from July that stirred up a tempest in a teapot. But his fears are straw men, based on four false premises.

First, US ISPs aren’t “capping” anyone’s broadband; they’re experimenting with usage-based pricing—service tiers. If you want more than the basic tier, your usage isn’t capped: you can always pay more for more bandwidth. But few users will actually exceed that basic tier. For example, Comcast’s basic tier, 300 GB/month, is so generous that 98.5% of users will not exceed it. That’s enough for 130 hours of HD video each month (two full-length movies a day) or between 300 and 1000 hours of standard (compressed) video streaming.

Second, Wyden sets up a false dichotomy: Caps (or tiers, more accurately) are, according to Wyden, “appropriate if they are carefully constructed to manage network congestion,” but apparently for Wyden the only alternative explanation for usage-based pricing is extraction of monopoly rents. This simply isn’t the case, and propagating that fallacy risks chilling investment in network infrastructure. In fact, usage-based pricing allows networks to charge heavy users more, thereby recovering more costs and actually reducing prices for the majority of us who don’t need more bandwidth than the basic tier permits—and whose usage is effectively subsidized by those few who do. Unfortunately, Wyden’s bill wouldn’t allow pricing structures based on cost recovery—only network congestion. So, for example, an ISP might be allowed to price usage during times of peak congestion, but couldn’t simply offer a lower price for the basic tier to light users.

That’s nuts—from the perspective of social justice as well as basic economic rationality. Even as the FCC was issuing its famous Net Neutrality regulations, the agency rejected proposals to ban usage-based pricing, explaining:

prohibiting tiered or usage-based pricing and requiring all subscribers to pay the same amount for broadband service, regardless of the performance or usage of the service, would force lighter end users of the network to subsidize heavier end users. It would also foreclose practices that may appropriately align incentives to encourage efficient use of networks.

It is unclear why Senator Wyden thinks the FCC—no friend of broadband “monopolists”—has this wrong. Continue reading →

This may be the best speech by a regulator that you will read in your entire life. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Robert McDowell delivered an address in Rome today entitled, “The Siren Call of “Please Regulate My Rival”: A Recipe for Regulatory Failure.” I highly recommend it (and not just because I’m cited in it!) It is infused with important insights about the ugly downsides of excessive regulation of technology markets.

McDowell is an astute student of regulatory history and he documents how, despite the best of intentions, economic regulation has often been turned into a tool that industry exploits for their own narrow interests. Sadly, examples of such “regulatory capture” are rampant, as I have documented here before. McDowell notes that many telecom and media companies “suffer from the ‘please regulate my rival’ malady of an industry that has been regulated too much and for too long.  History is replete with such scenarios,” he says, “and the desire for more regulation for competitors always ends badly for the incumbent regulated industry in the form of unintended and harmful consequences.” That is exactly right.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire speech, but if you only have time to read one thing, make it the powerful and poetic closing paragraphs, which I have reprinted below:

Continue reading →

Did Apple conspire with e-book publishers to raise e-book prices?  That’s what DOJ argues in a lawsuit filed yesterday. But does that violate the antitrust laws?  Not necessarily—and even if it does, perhaps it shouldn’t.

Antitrust’s sole goal is maximizing consumer welfare.  While that generally means antitrust regulators should focus on lower prices, the situation is more complicated when we’re talking about markets for new products, where technologies for distribution and consumption are evolving rapidly along with business models.  In short, the so-called Agency pricing model Apple and publishers adopted may mean (and may not mean) higher e-book prices in the short run, but it also means more variability in pricing, and it might well have facilitated Apple’s entry into the market, increasing e-book retail competition and promoting innovation among e-book readers, while increasing funding for e-book content creators.

The procompetitive story goes something like the following.  (As always with antitrust, the question isn’t so much which model is better, but that no one really knows what the right model is—least of all antitrust regulators—and that, the more unclear the consumer welfare effects of a practice are, as in rapidly evolving markets, the more we should err on the side of restraint). Continue reading →