December 2010

There’s a sharp piece by Fred Wilson in the New York Times today pointing out the benefits of online “tracking.” It’s part of a series of essays in one of their “Room for Debate” series about the FTC’s new “Do Not Track” regulatory proposal.  (Our own Jim Harper also has a good essay worth reading.)

In Wilson’s essay, “Tracking Personalizes the Web,” he argues:

“Tracking helps services like the Weather Channel give you the information you are looking for without having to enter a lot of data every time you use the service. Tracking can make sure you don’t see the same news story twice.

Tracking is the technology behind some of the most powerful personalization technologies on the Web. A Web without tracking technology would be so much worse for users and consumers.”

He’s right, “tracking” makes personalization possible–and much more effective. But the really important point here is the one I made early today in my essay on “No-Cost Opt-Outs & Online Content & Culture“: data collection and advertising drive the free online content, sites, and services we take for granted today. Personalization of all those things is great, but we might not have some (most?) of them at all without data collection and advertising, or we’d at least have fewer that were entirely gratis.

Free isn’t really free, people!

In his essay today, “Go On, Opt Out. Just Don’t Come Cryin’ To Me …,” John Battelle has some very sensible thinking on the “Do Not Track” idea and privacy regulation more generally:

Look, if you want to, you can put yourself on a “do not track” list in the Real World. As you walk around in our Real World, where small shopkeepers and Starbucks alike attempt to lure you into their stores, you can simply decide to ignore their come ons. You can refuse to get a grocery card, and forego the discounts they offer. You can forego the countless coupons, come ons, and catalogs that come through your newspaper, browser, or your community mailer, and if you work at it, you can even opt out through some specialized services (with more coming soon, if the FTC gets its way). And you can turn off your television (cause lord knows even the shows are trying to influence you now), and you can ignore your friends when they talk about the latest, coolest promotion that Verizon or ATT has pushed them through their cell phones. If folks insist on talking about stuff that might smack of someone selling you something, heck, you can start to dress like the Unabomber and withdraw entirely from our obviously commercial culture. You might look weird, but at least folks will leave you alone. And if you do, your world will either be better, or it will suck more. Your call.

But don’t come crying to me when you realize that in opting out of our marketing-driven world, you’ve also opted out of, well, a pretty important part of our ongoing cultural conversation, one that, to my mind, is getting more authentic and transparent thanks to digital platforms. And, to my mind, you’ve also opted out of being a thinking person capable of filtering this stuff on your own, using that big ol’ bean which God, or whoever you believe in, gave you in the first place.   Life is a conversation, and part of it is commercial. We need to buy stuff, folks. And we need to sell stuff too.

Amen, brother.  This is a point Berin Szoka and I have made repeatedly here in the past: The debate over privacy regulation is fundamentally tied up with the future of online content and culture. The idea of a cost-free opt-out model for the all online data collection / advertising may sound seductive to some, but we must take into account the opportunity costs of regulation.  The real world is full of trade-offs and, despite what the Federal Trade Commission seems to think, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Today comes news that Senator Kohl has sent a letter to the DOJ urging “careful review” of the proposed Google/ITA merger. Underlying his concerns (or rather the “concerns raised by a number of industry participants and consumer advocates that I believe warrant careful review”) is this:

Many of ITA’s customers believe that access to ITA’s technology is critical to competition in online air travel search because it cannot be matched by other players in the travel search industry. They claim that ITA’s superior access to information and superior technology enables it to provide faster and better results to consumers. As a result, some of these industry participants and independent experts fear that the current high level of competition among online travel agents and metasearch providers could be undermined if Google were to acquire ITA and start its own OTA or metasearch service. If this were to happen, they argue, consumers would lose the benefits of a robustly competitive online air travel market.

For several reasons, these complaints are without merit and a challenge to the Google/ITA merger would be premature at best—and a costly mistake at worst. Continue reading →

I love listening to podcasts, yet I’m increasingly disappointed with popular tech news podcasts like CNET’s Buzz Out Loud, which despite being staffed by tech journalists, consistently fail to grasp the basic economics of the Net.  The latest case of this arose on Episode 1360 of “BOL,” which took on the recent dispute between Comcast and Level3 over their peering agreement.

To provide some background, Comcast and Level3 have had a standard peering agreement for years, meaning the balance of incoming and outgoing traffic on either side is so similar that the two have simply agreed to exchange data without exchanging any dollars.

In the past, Comcast and Level3 had a different arrangement. Comcast paid Level3 for access to their network in a “transit” agreement.  This sort of agreement made sense at the time because Comcast was sending a lot more traffic over Level3’s network than it was taking in from Level3, hence it was a net consumer of bandwidth and was therefore treated by Level3 as a customer, rather than a peer.

Now, the tables have turned thanks to Level3 taking on the huge tasks of delivering Netflix streaming video, which takes an impressive amount of bandwidth—up to 20% of US peak traffic, according to CNET.  So, logic and economics compel Comcast to start charging Level3, as Level3 is now the net consumer.

None of this background was understand by the folks at Buzz Out Loud, which probably explains why the hosts acted as though this peering dispute was a sign of the coming Internet apocalypse, decrying the action on the podcast and summarizing their feelings on the action in the episode’s show notes by stating:

We break down the Level 3 and Comcast battle–no matter how you slice it, it’s still very, very, VERY bad for the Web.

No, it’s really, really, REALLY not. Continue reading →