February 2011

For my contribution to Berin Szoka and Adam Marcus’ (of TechFreedom fame) awesome Next Digital Decade book, I wrote about search engine “neutrality” and the implicit and explicit claims that search engines are “essential facilities.” (Check out the other essays on this topic by Frank Pasquale, Eric Goldman and James Grimmelmann, linked to here, under Chapter 7).

The scare quotes around neutrality are there because the term is at best a misnomer as applied to search engines and at worst a baseless excuse for more regulation of the Internet.  (The quotes around essential facilities are there because it is a term of art, but it is also scary).  The essay is an effort to inject some basic economic and legal reasoning into the overly-emotionalized (is that a word?) issue.

So, what is wrong with calls for search neutrality, especially those rooted in the notion of Internet search (or, more accurately, Google, the policy scolds’ bête noir of the day) as an “essential facility,” and necessitating government-mandated access? As others have noted, the basic concept of neutrality in search is, at root, farcical. The idea that a search engine, which offers its users edited access to the most relevant websites based on the search engine’s assessment of the user’s intent, should do so “neutrally” implies that the search engine’s efforts to ensure relevance should be cabined by an almost-limitless range of ancillary concerns. Nevertheless, proponents of this view have begun to adduce increasingly detail-laden and complex arguments in favor of their positions, and the European Commission has even opened a formal investigation into Google’s practices, based largely on various claims that it has systematically denied access to its top search results (in some cases paid results, in others organic results) by competing services, especially vertical search engines. To my knowledge, no one has yet claimed that Google should offer up links to competing general search engines as a remedy for its perceived market foreclosure, but Microsoft’s experience with the “Browser Choice Screen” it has now agreed to offer as a consequence of the European Commission’s successful competition case against the company is not encouraging. These more superficially sophisticated claims are rooted in the notion of Internet search as an “essential facility” – a bottleneck limiting effective competition. These claims, as well as the more fundamental harm-to-competitor claims, are difficult to sustain on any economically-reasonable grounds. To understand this requires some basic understanding of the economics of essential facilities, of Internet search, and of the relevant product markets in which Internet search operates.

The essay goes into much more detail, of course, but the basic point is that Google’s search engine is not, in fact, “essential” in the economically-relevant sense.  Rather, Google’s competitors and other detractors have basically built precisely the most problematic sort of antitrust case, where success itself is penalized (in this case, Google is so good at what it does it just isn’t fair to keep it all to itself!). Continue reading →

Via TechDirt, “The news media always need a bogeyman,” says Cracked.com in their well-placed attack on techno-panics, “5 Terrifying Online Trends (Invented By the News Media).” It’s a popular topic here, too.

I’m not one of those libertarians who incessantly rants about the supposed evils of National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcast Service (PBS).  In fact, I find quite a bit to like in the programming I consume on both services, NPR in particular. A few years back I realized that I was listening to about 45 minutes to an hour of programming on my local NPR affiliate (WAMU) each morning and afternoon, and so I decided to donate $10 per month. Doesn’t sound like much, but at $120 bucks per year, that’s more than I spend on any other single news media product with the exception of The Wall Street Journal. So, when there’s value in a media product, I’ll pay for it, and I find great value in NPR’s “long-form” broadcast journalism, despite its occasional political slant on some issues.

In many ways, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports NPR and PBS, has the perfect business model for the age of information abundance. Philanthropic models — which rely on support for foundational benefactors, corporate underwriters, individual donors, and even government subsidy — can help diversify the funding base at a time when traditional media business models — advertising support, subscriptions, and direct sales — are being strained.  This is why many private media operations are struggling today; they’re experiencing the ravages of gut-wrenching marketplace / technological changes and searching for new business models to sustain their operations. By contrast, CPB, NPR, and PBS are better positioned to weather this storm since they do not rely on those same commercial models.

Nonetheless, NPR and PBS and the supporters of increased “pubic media” continue to claim that they are in peril and that increased support — especially public subsidy — is essential to their survival.  For example, consider an editorial in today’s Washington Post making “The Argument for Funding Public Media,” which was penned by Laura R. Walker, the president and chief executive of New York Public Radio, and Jaclyn Sallee, the president and chief executive of Officer Kohanic Broadcast Corp. in Anchorage. They argue: Continue reading →