October 2010

I sincerely hope it was a Washington Post editor, and not New America Foundation president Steve Coll, who picked the title for his editorial today, “Why Fox News Should Help Fund NPR.”  After all, Coll certainly must be smart enough to know that there is no law or regulation on the books today that gives the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or any other agency the ability to force private media providers to fund their public media competitors.  Moreover, it takes a lot of chutzpah to try to spin NPR’s recent Juan Williams fiasco into an excuse for private media providers like Fox News to fund NPR, but, shockingly, that’s exactly what Coll does. “The Williams imbroglio is teachable, but its lessons actually point in the opposite direction: America’s public media system, including NPR, requires more funding, not less.”  Hmm… that’s not exactly the lesson most of the rest of the world took away from this episode!

Coll first argues it makes sense for private media funds to be transferred to NPR becuase “In this time of niche publications and cable networks that thrive on ideological anger, we should be seeking to strengthen NPR’s role as a convener of the public square, a demagogue-free zone where all political and social groups — including conservatives and others opposed to federal funding of public media — should be welcome on equal terms.”  This is indicative of the all-too-common “progressive” impulse to force media upon us that we don’t want or even find offensive.  To be clear, I am not one of those people who finds NPR to be a hopelessly biased bastion of Leftist thinking.  While I think it’s clear to everyone that many of NPR’s stories and reporters do lean that direction, I also think there’s some outstanding reporting to be found there.  But if Steve Coll and his colleagues at the New America Foundation want to see NPR get more funding, they should do the same thing I do:  Open up their wallets and make the voluntary choice to fund it. To force everyone else to do so is despicable.

Continue reading →

I want to thank Tim Wu for continuing to engage in a discussion here about his book, The Master Switch, with his various comments to my ongoing rants.  After pouring out about 15,000 words over the past 4 days, I suspect I’m beginning to sound a bit like his cyber-stalker!  I feel a bit bad about this because I really do like Tim a lot and find him to be one of the all-around coolest and most laid-back guys in the Net policy business.  But, as I’ve noted in my ongoing series [see parts 1, 2, 3, & 4], we have profoundly different worldviews when it comes to information history and policy. And some of the recent comments he made to my 3rd post deserve a serious response.

In one of those comments he asks, “The question, then, is how you get, essentially, limited, controlled government in regulatory affairs; how you duplicate, in some sense, the limits imposed on other dangerous gov’t functions like the army. I don’t think this is having things both ways; I think this is trying to learn from what has gone wrong in the past.”  In the other, he says: “The question I’m asking in the end of the book is whether we can do better; try to have rules against the worse forms abuse without a creeping regulation that turns into capture. I suspect you think that’s impossible, but I don’t.”

So, here’s my response (and I’m making it a new, dedicated post here instead of just a comment in an old thread because I feel we are getting to the heart of the difference between cyber-libertarians (like myself) and cyber-collectivists (or whatever Tim would call himself). Continue reading →

After posting the first three installments of my ongoing look at Tim Wu’s important new book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, [see parts 1, 2, & 3], I’ve heard back from some readers as well as Prof. Wu himself that I may be going a bit hard on him, or that I am under-appreciating some of his valid critiques.  In particular, Wu and others have claimed I’ve ignored or downplayed his admission that the problem of regulatory capture is a prime culprit of “the cycle” he addresses in his book.  So, let me address that point here today.

I have acknowledged that Prof. Wu’s book includes some occasional references to the problem of regulatory capture or bureaucratic bungling throughout the history of communications and media policy.  In a comment to my previous post, Wu itemizes a couple of those instances, most of which I’d already cited before. But here’s probably the best passage from the book on this point:

Again and again in the histories I have recounted, the state has shown itself an inferior arbiter of what is good for the information industries. The federal government’s role in radio and television from the 1920s through the 1960s, for instance, was nothing short of a disgrace…. Government’s tendency to protect large market players amounts to an illegitimate complicity … [particularly its] sense of obligation to protect big industries irrespective of their having become uncompetitive. (p. 308)

I agree.  And, as I also noted in my previous essay, I very much appreciated this footnote in chapter 3 of Wu’s book: “The technical term for such a system is ‘corporatism’: in its extreme manifestation it is called ‘fascism.”  Wu is absolutely right.  I applaud him for labeling this system what it really is.

But here’s what’s so damn peculiar about Wu and his book when it comes to the problem of regulatory capture and bureaucratic mismanagement: as soon as he raises it, he immediately walks away from itThere’s seemingly never any serious lesson drawn from it. Continue reading →

A coalition of online travel sites, including Kayak, Expedia, and Travelocity, has recently formed in opposition to Google’s purchase of travel search services firm ITA, [according to the WSJ](http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304248704575574710753536950.html). The group is “launching a lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill, making the case to members of Congress that the deal would allow Google to dominate the online air-travel market by giving it control over the software that powers many of its rivals in the travel search business.” Microsoft also opposes the deal, noting that its Bing search engine relies on ITA information. Alas, I don’t think we’ll ever see an end to corporations trying to use the antitrust laws to protect themselves with no benefit to consumers.

Let’s be clear about what exactly ITA is, which is a search company. Airlines publish their flights, inventory, prices, and fare rules to computer reservation systems like Worldspan, Sabre, and Apollo. What ITA brings to the table is search technology that lets users sift through that information to find the best flights to suit their needs. They have developed industry-leading algorithms that look at the fare rules and pricing and show you what different flights can be combined to offer the best fare. ITA does not sell anything to consumers. Instead, they license their search technology to companies like Kayak and Orbitz. Unbeknownst to consumers, they use the ITA search engine on those sites and book there.

**ITA does not control any necessary input.* There is no barrier to entry for new competing travel search services firms. They just need to get the flight data from airlines or computer reservation systems. In fact, there are several other competing firms. ITA just happens to be the best one. And there is no guarantee that it always will be. A day after Google acquires the company, some small developer in a garage may unveil a competing algorithm that blows ITA out of the water. That is what is so wonderful about the internet. So what incentive will innovators have if they know that if they become *too* successful, their clients will incite the state to prevent them from cashing in on their hard work? What incentive will the Bings of the world ever have to innovate or acquire better travel search technology if they can get the government to guarantee them access to the best?

Congress, don’t fall for it.

This is the third installment in a series of essays about Tim Wu’s new book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.  As I noted in my first essay, Wu’s book promises to make waves in Internet policy circles, so I’m devoting some space here to debunking what I regard as some of the myths that drive his hyper-pessimistic worldview regarding the supposed death of openness.  In my second essay, I challenged Wu’s view of technological “cycles” and “market failure” and noted that he paints an overly simplistic portrait of both. In a similar vein, in this installment I will address Wu’s mistaken claim that purely free markets and “laissez-faire” have guided America’s communications and media sectors over the past century.

Wu’s narrative in The Master Switch is heavily dependent upon his retelling of the histories of several major sectors: telephony, film, broadcast radio, and cable television.  After surveying the history of those sectors throughout the past century, Wu concludes that “the purely economic laissez-faire approach… is no longer feasible” (p. 303) and that a fairly sweeping new regulatory regime – which I will address in a forthcoming post – is necessary to address the imperfections of the free market.

As any serious historian of the past century of information industries knows, however, we’ve never had anything remotely resembling a “purely economic laissez-faire approach” to communications, media or information policy in this country.  We’ve had a mixed system that allowed a certain degree of market activity accompanied by very heavy doses of “public interest” regulation.  Indeed, the story of 20th century communications and media markets is one of artificial barriers to entry, government (mis-)allocation of key resources (like spectrum), price controls, rate-of-return regulations, speech controls and mandates, regulatory capture, and good ‘ol boy corporatism. Continue reading →

Technology Liberation Front rebels apparently continuing their subversive ways on the streets of our nation’s capital. (Of course, I don’t condone this sort of thing.)

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has a terrific op-ed piece on Internet-age government transparency in the Washington Times today:

If agencies used consistent data formats for their financial information, their financial reports could be electronically reconciled. It would be possible to trace funds from Congressional appropriations through agencies’ budgets to final use. The same data could flow automatically into USASpending.gov, without the errors and inconsistencies that make it unreliable today.

The idea is simple, if not easy to implement. Put government data in uniform formats, accessible to the public, and let public oversight work its will. Whether you prioritize good government, small government, or both, expect improvement.

A federal judge sided with privacy over taxes yesterday, signaling a victory for consumers in North Carolina. Now we’re waiting to see if this also means victory for consumers and online companies that sell into Colorado.

A U.S. District Court in Seattle blocked North Carolina’s Department of Revenue from compelling Amazon to reveal the names and addresses of its customers so that North Carolina could go after them for not paying use taxes on purchases where they did not pay sales tax.

The North Carolina DOR had been auditing Amazon’s 2003-2010 sales into the state and had asked for “all information for all sales to customers with a North Carolina shipping address.” Amazon provided detailed information about the purchases, but the DOR demanded information about the customers making the purchases. Amazon balked and filed suit, and the ACLU even intervened to support Amazon. And they won.

The court was clear that states cannot compel companies to disclose the purchasing behavior of its citizens:

The First Amendment protects a buyer form having the expressive content of her purchase of books, music and audiovisual materials disclosed to the government. The fear of government tracking and censoring one’s reading, listening and viewing choices chills the exercise of First Amendment rights.

What does this have to do with Colorado? Everything and more.

Continue reading →

Tim Wu was kind enough to comment on my general overview and critique of his new book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.  That essay will be the first of many I plan to pen about Wu’s important book.  I appreciate Prof. Wu being willing to engage me in a debate over some of these issues since I’m sure he has better things to do with his time. Some of the points he raised in his comment will be addressed in subsequent posts.

In this post, I want to respond briefly to his assertion that I was “missing the point of the book” which is “to describe the world we live in.” He says that his book, “suggests that we tend to go through open and closed cycles in the Information Industries, and that, roughly, both have their strengths and weaknesses, and both become popular at different times for various reasons.”  But he fears there are “greater risks in the closed periods.”

Contrary to what he suggests, I certainly understand that’s the point of his book, it’s just that I don’t fully agree with his analysis or conclusions. Let me be clear about a crucial point, however: I accept that almost every industry goes through “cycles” of some sort and that, typically, after a “Wild West” period of greater “openness” and more atomistic competition, some degree of “consolidation” or more “closed” (or proprietary) models often sets in.  (A somewhat different and far more descriptive interpretation of such cycles can be found in Deborah Spar’s 2001 book, Ruling the Waves: Cycles of Discovery, Chaos, and Wealth from Compass to the Internet. She outlines a more refined 4-part cycle of: Innovation, Commercialization, Creative Anarchy, and Rules.)

My primary beef with Prof. Wu is that, contrary to his assertion yesterday in commenting on my post, his book seems to regard the progression of “the Cycle” as mostly linear and one-directional: straight down toward a perfectly closed, corporate-controlled, anti-consumer Hell.  By my reading of his book – much like Lessig and Zittrain’s work – Wu is painting an overly pessimistic portrait of technologies being subjected to the “perfect control” of largely unfettered markets.

I believe history – especially recent history — teaches us something very different.  Continue reading →

Carl Malamud is a breakthrough thinker and doer on transparency and open government. In the brief video below, he makes the very interesting case that various regulatory codes are wrongly withheld from the public domain while citizens are expected to comply with them. It’s important, mind-opening stuff.

It seems a plain violation of due process that a person might be presumed to know laws that are not publicly available. I’m not aware of any cases finding that inability to access the law for want of money is a constitutional problem, but the situation analogizes fairly well to Harper v. Virginia, in which a poll tax that would exclude the indigent from voting was found to violate equal protection.

Regulatory codes that must be purchased at a high price will tend to cartelize trades by raising a barrier to entry against those who can’t pay for copies of the law. Private ownership of public law seems plainly inconsistent with due process, equal protection, and the rule of law. You’ll sense in the video that Malamud is no libertarian, but an enemy of an enemy of ordered liberty is a friend of liberty.