Open Source, Open Standards & Peer Production

Sharing Economy paper from MercatusI’ve just released a short new paper, co-authored with my Mercatus Center colleagues Christopher Koopman and Matthew Mitchell, on “The Sharing Economy and Consumer Protection Regulation: The Case for Policy Change.” The paper is being released to coincide with a Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee event that I am speaking at today on “Should Congress be Caring About Sharing? Regulation and the Future of Uber, Airbnb and the Sharing Economy.”

In this new paper, Koopman, Mitchell, and I discuss how the sharing economy has changed the way many Americans commute, shop, vacation, borrow, and so on. Of course, the sharing economy “has also disrupted long-established industries, from taxis to hotels, and has confounded policymakers,” we note. “In particular, regulators are trying to determine how to apply many of the traditional ‘consumer protection’ regulations to these new and innovative firms.” This has led to a major debate over the public policies that should govern the sharing economy.

We argue that, coupled with the Internet and various new informational resources, the rapid growth of the sharing economy alleviates the need for much traditional top-down regulation. These recent innovations are likely doing a much better job of serving consumer needs by offering new innovations, more choices, more service differentiation, better prices, and higher-quality services. In particular, the sharing economy and the various feedback mechanism it relies upon helps solve the tradition economic problem of “asymmetrical information,” which is often cited as a rationale for regulation. We conclude, therefore, that “the key contribution of the sharing economy is that it has overcome market imperfections without recourse to traditional forms of regulation. Continued application of these outmoded regulatory regimes is likely to harm consumers.” Continue reading →

The sharing economy is growing faster than ever and becoming a hot policy topic these days. I’ve been fielding a lot of media calls lately about the nature of the sharing economy and how it should be regulated. (See latest clip below from the Stossel show on Fox Business Network.) Thus, I sketched out some general thoughts about the issue and thought I would share them here, along with some helpful additional reading I have come across while researching the issue. I’d welcome comments on this outline as well as suggestions for additional reading. (Note: I’ve also embedded some useful images from Jeremiah Owyang of Crowd Companies.)

1) Just because policymakers claim that regulation is meant to protect consumers does not mean it actually does so.

  1. Cronyism/ Rent-seeking: Regulation is often “captured” by powerful and politically well-connected incumbents and used to their own benefit. (+ Lobbying activity creates deadweight losses for society.)
  2. Innovation-killing: Regulations become a formidable barrier to new innovation, entry, and entrepreneurism.
  3. Unintended consequences: Instead of resulting in lower prices & better service, the opposite often happens: Higher prices & lower quality service. (Example: Painting all cabs same color destroying branding & ability to differentiate).

Continue reading →

Sherwin Siy, Vice President of Legal Affairs at Public Knowledge, discusses emerging issues in digital copyright policy. He addresses the Department of Commerce’s recent green paper on digital copyright, including the need to reform copyright laws in light of new technologies. This podcast also covers the DMCA, online streaming, piracy, cell phone unlocking, fair use recognition, digital ownership, and what we’ve learned about copyright policy from the SOPA debate.

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Marc Hochstein

Marc Hochstein, Executive Editor of American Banker,  a leading media outlet covering the banking and financial services community, discusses bitcoin.

According to Hochstein, bitcoin has made its name as a digital currency, but the truly revolutionary aspect of the technology is its dual function as a payment system competing against companies like PayPal and Western Union. While bitcoin has been in the news for its soaring exchange rate lately, Hochstein says the actual price of bitcoin is really only relevant for speculators in the short-term; in the long-term, however, the anonymous, decentralized nature of bitcoin has far-reaching implications.

Hochstein goes on to talk about  the new market in bitcoin futures and some of bitcoin’s weaknesses—including the volatility of the bitcoin market.

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Joshua Gans

Joshua Gans, professor of Strategic Management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and author of the new book Information Wants to be Shared, discusses modern media economics, including how books, movies, music, and news will be supported in the future.

Gans argues that sharing enhances most information’s value. He also explains that the business models of traditional media companies, gatekeepers who have relied on scarcity and control, have collapsed in the face of new technologies. Equally important, he argues that sharing can revive moribund, threatened industries even as he examines platforms that have, almost accidentally, thrived in this new environment.

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Gabriella Coleman

Gabriella Coleman, the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy in the Art History and Communication Studies Department at McGill University, discusses her new book, “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking,” which has been released under a Creative Commons license.

Coleman, whose background is in anthropology, shares the results of her cultural survey of free and open source software (F/OSS) developers, the majority of whom, she found, shared similar backgrounds and world views. Among these similarities were an early introduction to technology and a passion for civil liberties, specifically free speech.

Coleman explains the ethics behind hackers’ devotion to F/OSS, the social codes that guide its production, and the political struggles through which hackers question the scope and direction of copyright and patent law. She also discusses the tension between the overtly political free software movement and the “politically agnostic” open source movement, as well as what the future of the hacker movement may look like.

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Looking for a concise overview of how Internet architecture has evolved and a principled discussion of the public policies that should govern the Net going forward? Then look no further than Christopher Yoo‘s new book, The Dynamic Internet: How Technology, Users, and Businesses are Transforming the Network. It’s a quick read (just 140 pages) and is worth picking up.  Yoo is a Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer & Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania and also serves as the Director of the Center for Technology, Innovation & Competition there. For those who monitor ongoing developments in cyberlaw and digital economics, Yoo is a well-known and prolific intellectual who has established himself as one of the giants of this rapidly growing policy arena.

Yoo makes two straight-forward arguments in his new book. First, the Internet is changing. In Part 1 of the book, Yoo offers a layman-friendly overview of the changing dynamics of Internet architecture and engineering. He documents the evolving nature of Internet standards, traffic management and congestion policies, spam and security control efforts, and peering and pricing policies. He also discusses the rise of peer-to-peer applications, the growth of mobile broadband, the emergence of the app store economy, and what the explosion of online video consumption means for ongoing bandwidth management efforts. Those are the supply-side issues. Yoo also outlines the implications of changes in the demand-side of the equation, such as changing user demographics and rapidly evolving demands from consumers. He notes that these new demand-side realities of Internet usage are resulting in changes to network management and engineering, further reinforcing changes already underway on the supply-side.

Yoo’s second point in the book flows logically from the first: as the Internet continues to evolve in such a highly dynamic fashion, public policy must as well. Yoo is particularly worried about calls to lock in standards, protocols, and policies from what he regards as a bygone era of Internet engineering, architecture, and policy. “The dramatic shift in Internet usage suggests that its founding architectural principles form the mid-1990s may no longer be appropriate today,” he argues. (p. 4) “[T]he optimal network architecture is unlikely to be static. Instead, it is likely to be dynamic over time, changing with the shifts in end-user demands,” he says. (p. 7) Thus, “the static, one-size-fits-all approach that dominates the current debate misses the mark.” (p. 7) Continue reading →

John Palfrey of the Berkmann Center at Harvard Law School, discusses his new book written with Urs Gasser, Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems. Interoperability is a term used to describe the standardization and integration of technology. Palfrey discusses how the term can describe many relationships in the world and that it doesn’t have to be limited to technical systems. He also describes potential pitfalls of too much interoperability. Palfrey finds that greater levels of interoperability can lead to greater competition, collaboration, and the development of standards. It can also lead to giving less protection to privacy and security. The trick is to get to the right level of interoperability. If systems become too complex, then nobody can understand them and they can become unstable. Palfrey describes the current financial crises could be an example of this. Palfrey also describes the difficulty in finding the proper role of government in encouraging or discouraging interoperability.


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I’m pretty rough on all the Internet and info-tech policy books that I review. There are two reasons for that. First, the vast majority of tech policy books being written today should never have been books in the first place. Most of them would have worked just fine as long-form (magazine-length) essays. Too many authors stretch a promising thesis into a long-winded, highly repetitive narrative just to say they’ve written an entire book about a subject. Second, many info-tech policy books are poorly written or poorly argued. I’m not going to name names, but I am frequently unimpressed by the quality of many books being published today about digital technology and online policy issues.

The books of Harvard University cyberlaw scholars John Palfrey and Urs Gasser offer a welcome break from this mold. Their recent books, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, and Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems, are engaging and extremely well-written books that deserve to be books. There’s no wasted space or mindless filler. It’s all substantive and it’s all interesting. I encourage aspiring tech policy authors to examine their works for a model of how a book should be done.

In a 2008 review, I heaped praise on Born Digital and declared that this “fine early history of this generation serves as a starting point for any conversation about how to mentor the children of the Web.” I still recommend highly to others today. I’m going to be a bit more critical of their new book, Interop, but I assure you that it is a text you absolutely must have on your shelf if you follow digital policy debates. It’s a supremely balanced treatment of a complicated and sometimes quite contentious set of information policy issues.

In the end, however, I am concerned about the open-ended nature of the standard that Palfrey and Gasser develop to determine when government should intervene to manage or mandate interoperability between or among information systems. I’ll push back against their amorphous theory of “optimal interoperability” and offer an alternative framework that suggests patience, humility, and openness to ongoing marketplace experimentation as the primary public policy virtues that lawmakers should instead embrace. Continue reading →

You won’t find the words ‘government’ or ‘regulation’ in [this post at EFF's blog](https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/05/apples-crystal-prison-and-future-open-platforms) by Micah Lee and Peter Eckersley. They’re just appealing to Apple’s better angels to drop its closed ways. I’ve explained before why that’s [a rational thing to do](http://jerrybrito.org/post/23812306919/boycotting-apple-is-not-irrational). But will the EFF assure supporters like me that it will never endorse government enforcement of a “bill of rights” like the one Lee and Eckersley propose today?

What I like about EFF is that it is a pro-liberty group, but I hope I’m not wrong in assuming that they view liberty as I do: as [a negative concept](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_liberty). They never come out and say it, but it sure sounds like the authors believe that if Apple doesn’t come around to seeing the virtues of openness and provide an escape hatch, then maybe they should be forced to. I get that impression from passages like this:

>When technology and phone companies defend the restrictions that they are imposing on their customers, the most frequent defense they offer is that it’s actually in their customers’ interest to be deprived of liberty: “If we let people do what they want with their pocket computers, they will do stupid things with them. You will be safer and happier in our walled compound than you would be outside.”

Imposing on their customers? Seems to me like the vast majority of Apple’s customers are *choosing* these restrictions. It’s not Apple that thinks its customers are stupid, and is therefore “imposing” a locked phone on them, it’s Lee and Eckersley who seem to have a low regard for customers’ preferences and want to impose an open device on them.

We can of course debate [whether customers are being short-sighted](http://jerrybrito.org/post/23994473829/the-internets-philosopher-king) in the choice they’re making, whether the benefits of closed platforms [outweigh the costs](http://techliberation.com/2008/03/23/review-of-zittrains-future-of-the-internet/), and whether we have the best of [both](http://jerrybrito.org/post/23812308446/how-closed-is-apple-anyway) [worlds](http://jerrybrito.org/post/23812366268/turns-out-apples-walled-garden-susceptible-to-market) right now, but you can’t say that customers are being “deprived of their liberty.” What liberty are they being deprived of? Does the EFF believe there is a positive right to mobile computers that run arbitrary code?

I repeat my plea: Can EFF assure us that it will not support government regulation of computer manufacturers?