February 2007

Susan Crawford asks a good question: How does one reconcile being both “for” network neutrality regulation and rules against media concentration?

To be “for” network neutrality, it seems natural to have the view that the internet is displacing many prior forms of communications modalities–the press is in a free fall, people are watching much less broadcast television, etc.–and so it’s even more important to get internet access policy right and avoid gatekeepers. You’d want to talk about the empowering, emergent communications taking place online.

But to be “for” limits on media ownership, it may be necessary to argue that nothing much has changed. You have to claim that broadcast and newspapers control news and culture, and so it’s important to avoid more consolidation. The internet isn’t changing the local news picture, you’d have to say, and so its existence doesn’t change the media landscape. Blogs aren’t legitimate alternative news sources.

One logical response might be that big media does control information and culture despite the emerging competition of the net and precisely because of this should we have neutrality regulations to protect the fledgling voices. Media ownership rules would also be necessary until the emerging competition on the net actually serves as a check on concentrated media. That’s just me thinking out loud, but I’m sure it’s not too off the mark from the argument we’re likely to see. What I always want to know, and what is rarely made clear, is how much competition is enough to make regulation unnecessary in either context.

Geek Protectionism

by on February 27, 2007 · 16 comments

Over at Ars, Jon Stokes has a story on the debate over allowing more high-skilled immigrants into the country:

In an op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates argues yet again in favor of raising the cap on H1-B foreign worker visas from its present number of 65,000. Gates’ basic argument boils down to this: fewer students at American universities are opting for computer science degrees, which means that we need to raise the H1-B cap so that the software industry can import more foreign labor to fill those jobs that Americans–for whatever reason–don’t seem to be equipped for.

Of course, the fact that the importation of cheap foreign labor into the software industry job market hampers American programmers’ ability to compete and leads to depressed wages overall is never mentioned by Gates as a major reason why a computer science degree just isn’t that attractive any more to Americans. Who wants to spend four or five years getting a CS degree, only to be priced out of the job market by foreign programmers who are willing to work for less in exchange for a green card?

The rest of his article is about whether Bill Gates has been making misleading statements about how much Microsoft pays its immigrant employees. I don’t have anything to add to that debate, but I think the argument that Stokes makes above reflects a basic economic fallacy.

Continue reading →

SAN JOSE, February 26, 2007–AT&T Senior Vice President Jim Ciconni said Tuesday that the telecommunications world is fundamentally different from 1968, when the FCC required AT&T to allow competing telephones onto its network.

Speaking at the Technology Policy Summit here, Ciconni addressed the recent push for new wireless ‘Net Neutrality rules. “Unlike 1968, we have a pretty vibrant market out there,” he said.

The date refers to the year in which the agency allowed the Carterphone, which connected handheld radio conversations to telephone lines, onto AT&T’s network.

As a result, AT&T would reject any FCC requirement that put such rules in place on wireless carriers.

Continue reading →

SAN JOSE, February 26, 2007–Legislation to overhaul aspects of the patent system could take shape in as few as two or three weeks, said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property and the Internet.

“This is an issue that doesn’t break down on partisan grounds,” said Berman, adding that the technology sector’s desire to seek changes in patent laws has “created a groundswell, a strong momentum for reform, to make it the highest priority of our subcommittee.”

Berman, who was speaking at the Tech Policy Summit here, said that last Congress patent legislation died in a crossfire between the technology industry, which broadly supported changes, and the pharmaceutical industry, which opposed them. Berman said he had been pushing for changes since 2000.

Continue reading →

Communications Daily reports today that public TV stations are thinking about taking a direct role in distributing DTV converter boxes for their viewers–either by negotiating alliances with retailers, or distributing the devices themselves–perhaps as gifts during pledge drives. Nothing wrong with that–in fact its refreshing to see anyone doing something on the DTV transition without asking more subsidies. And a converter box during pledge week would certainly be nice change of pace from the usual menu of Ken Burns DVDs.

But why are the stations so concerned about getting converter boxes to their viewers? The fear is that without easy access to converters during the DTV transition, viewers would flock to cable TV from over-the-air broadcasting. And although public TV is carried on cable, the stations –according to Comm Daily — are concerned that a shift away from over-the-air viewing would lead (among other things) to “more channel choices” for consumers, less viewship, and fewer contributions to public TV stations.

The key words here: “More channel choices.” There’s something that certainly must be stopped.

When Congress started funding public TV, the rationale was that, because television channels were scarce, viewers didn’t have adequate programming choices. Now, some 40 years later, the concern is there are too many television channels, and public TV is actively working to discourage viewers from obtaining those choices.

The public TV stations’ concern is understandable. They are no doubt right that more viewer choice will reduce their own viewership (and membership). And the stations are reacting the way most businesses would react–by trying to limit that choice. But why should federal taxpayers give them subsidies as they do it?

Very strange.

Unpopular on MySpace? Buy a few friends:

Enter FakeYourSpace.com, a business founded by Brant Walker, which offered users of MySpace.com and similar sites a way to enhance their page with photographs and comments from hired “friends”–mainly attractive models–for 99 cents a month each.

MobileAlibi.com and PopularityDialer.com offer similar services, using fake cellphone calls scheduled in advance to provide an excuse to escape a tedious situation, like a bad date, or to make the subscriber appear in demand.

(With apologies to Marginal Revolution.)

As everyone knows by now, whether the proposed Sirius-XM satellite radio merger goes through has turns, in large part, on the definition of the market in which the companies compete.

And it’s no secret that many tech analysts, being (often) forward-looking, recognize that satellite radio’s weakness is due to the competition it faces from other market segments.

But an analyst quoted in a Times column today makes a more interesting point:

“The question they have to ask now is: what problems haven’t been solved in the car?” said Michael Urlocker, a former wireless analyst with UBS Securities who is now the chief executive of The Disruption Group, a Toronto-based consulting company. “The lack of customer sign-ups on a profitable basis should be a sign that trying to create a better iPod than Apple is a losing proposition.”

In other words, satellite radio–today, tomorrow, and forever–is a losing proposition, not a powerful duopoly.

Continue reading →

My former PFF colleague Randy May, now president of the Maryland-based Free State Foundation, had an editorial in The Washington Times over the weekend about the ominous new trend of state governments pushing Net Neutrality mandates. He notes that Maryland has just introduced such a measure, joining California, Maine and Michigan as states who have tried to go at it alone on this front.

This is a dangerous development for reasons made clear in another Free State Foundation report, this one by James Speta of the Northwestern University School of Law. Speta points out that:

Continue reading →

Cnet News reports that BitTorrent (the company) is launching an online movie rental store today. As with Zudeo, a similar service from the creators of the Azureus bittorrent (the protocol) client, the movie files will reach viewers via tit-for-tat peer-to-peer networking. The question is whether consumers will bite at the chance to lend BitTorrent their bandwidth.

It’s one thing to download a movie or song directly to your computer from, say, Apple or one of the other online media stores. But bittorrent systems are different: They use your bandwidth to send the audio or video files to other computers. The result is less bandwidth fees for the movie store because it doesn’t have to pay for every byte sent to a customer.

Continue reading →

Frank Ahrens, the Washington Post’s outstanding media affairs reporter, has posted a short review of a new book I’ve been meaning to review myself by Eric Klinenberg called “Fighting for the Air: The Battle for America’s Media.” Klinenberg’s book is another “sky-is-falling” anti-media consolidation screed that serves as a call-to-arms for media activists to “take back” media. But as Ahrens points out, Klinenberg fails to acknowledge the radical changes underway in today’s media marketplace that undermine his argument.

In particular, Ahrens points to the growing media DE-consolidation trend that I’ve been discussing here in my ongoing series of essays on the issue. Ahrens provides a nice summary:

Here’s a partial list of recent upheavals since [Klinenberg] wrote his book: Viacom split in two. Clear Channel is selling its TV stations and one-third of its radio stations. The New York Times sold its TV stations. The Knight Ridder newspaper chain dissolved. Tribune sold TV stations and may yet be broken up. Walt Disney sold its radio stations. Emmis Communications sold its TV stations. Wave after wave of deconsolidation.

Continue reading →