“The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” & Constant Growth of Regulation

by on May 23, 2010 · 1 comment

Today’s NYT piece by Brad Stone about Google (Sure, It’s Big. But Is That Bad?) offers a superb example of how to use the rhetorical question in an article headlined to suggest that you might actually be about to write a thoughtful, balanced piece—while actually writing a piece that, while thoughtful and interesting, offers little more than token resistance to your own preconceived judgments.  But perhaps I’m being unfair: Perhaps Stone’s editors removed “YES! YES! A THOUSAND TIMES, YES!” from the headline for brevity’s sake?

Anyway, despite its one-sidedness, the piece is fascinating, offering a well-researched summary of the growing cacophony of cries for regulatory intervention against Google, and also a suggestion of where they might lead in crafting a broader regulatory regime for online services beyond just Google.  In short, the crusade against Google and the crusade for net neutrality (in which Google has, IMHO unwisely been a major player) are together leading us down in intellectual slippery slope that, as Adam and I have suggested, will result in “High-Tech Mutually Assured Destruction” and the death of Real Internet Freedom.

Ironically, this push for increased government meddling—a veritable “New Deal 2.0″—is all justified by the need to “protect freedom.”  But it would hardly be the first time that this had happened. As the great defender of liberty Garet Garrett said of the New Deal 1.0 in his 1938 essay The Revolution Was:

There are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom.

That theme lives on in the works of those like antitrust warrior Gary Reback, an anti-Google stalwart whose book Free the Market: Why Only Government Can Keep the Marketplace Competitive Adam savaged in his review last year. Reback argues:

Google is the “arbiter of every single thing on the Web, and it favors its properties over everyone else’s,” said Mr. Reback, sitting in a Washington cafe with the couple. “What it wants to do is control Internet traffic. Anything that undermines its ability to do that is threatening.”

Move over, ISPs! Search engines are the real threat! Somehow, I feel fairly confident in predicting that this will be among the chief implications of Tim Wu’s new book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, to be released in November, which his publisher summarizes as follows:

A secret history of the industrial wars behind the rise and fall of the twentieth century’s great information empires—Hollywood, the broadcast networks, and AT&T—asking one big question: Could history repeat itself, with one giant entity taking control of American information?

Most consider the Internet Age to be a moment of unprecedented freedom in communications and culture. But as Tim Wu shows, each major new medium, from telephone to cable, arrived on a similar wave of idealistic optimism only to become, eventually, the object of industrial consolidation profoundly affecting how Americans communicate. Every once free and open technology was in time centralized and closed, a huge corporate power taking control of the “master switch.” Today, as a similar struggle looms over the Internet, increasingly the pipeline of all other media, the stakes have never been higher. To be decided: who gets heard, and what kind of country we live in.

Part industrial exposé, part meditation on the nature of freedom of expression, part battle cry to save the Internet’s best features, The Master Switch brings to light a crucial drama—rife with indelible characters and stories—heretofore played out over decades in the shadows of our national life.

Egad! Who will save us from “information empires” and their “master switch?” (Adam mocked the “kill switch” idea in his 2008 debate with naysayer extraordinaire Jonathan Zittrain—start at 51:52.) The government, obviously! But how will they do so?

To the extent that there are real, demonstrable harms at issue, and not just bogeymen invented by the advocates of regulation or overblown anecdotes, and competition, facilitated by data portability among services, proves inadequate to prevent genuine harm to consumers, we could rely on”(1) a new legislative framework centered on an FTC-like enforcement model of ex post adjudication grounded in antitrust law; (2) increased industry self-regulation, technical collaboration, and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms; and (3) greater reliance on community policing and expert third-party oversight” such as PFF has proposed in the past regarding net neutrality (in”DACA”), as Adam and Mike Wendy have recently explained.

But I suspect that instead, we will wind up with a vast, and ever-expanding regime of prophylactic, ex ante “neutrality” regulation for not just Internet access, but also for “search neutrality” (Google as well as Microsoft) but also about “device neutrality” (mobile handsets), “app neutrality” (Apple’s iTunes store, Facebook’s developers and Google’s Android mobile OS) and so on for social networking, email, instant messaging, online advertising, etc.—in short, “Everything Neutrality!”

To riff off a longstanding theme of PFF’s work (Net Neutrality or Net Neutering?), and to paraphrase the even-more-longstanding Bob Barker: “Help control protect (via control) the pet population Net applications! Have your pet favorite Net service spayed or neutered!”

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