April 2012

Meet the Data Transparency Coalition.

The Washington Post‘s Capitol Business blog reports this morning:

A small but growing collection of companies has formed a coalition that will push the federal government to establish a standard system by which agencies categorize their data. …

“Our members understand that if the government identified its data elements in consistent ways, there would be vast new opportunities for the tools that they are building,” Executive Director Hudson Hollister said.

Early supporters include Microsoft and data analysis and management firms Level One Technologies, Teradata, and BrightScope. I’m on their Board of Advisors. One of their early priorities will be to pass H.R. 2146, the DATA Act.

(Here’s a nit I can’t help but pick: The Post says the coalition “aims to standardize ‘big data.'” No. It’s just data.)

Follow the coalition‘s founder and executive director on Twitter @hudsonhollister, and you can Like their Facebook page, as well, to get updates that way.

When the federal government torpedoed the AT&T/T-Mobile USA merger in December pursuant to the current administration’s commitment to “reinvigorate antitrust enforcement,” it created a new client in search of official protection and favors.

It was clear there is no way T-Mobile – which lost 802,000 contract customers in the fourth quarter – is capable of becoming a significant competitor in the near future.  T-Mobile doesn’t have the capital or rights to the necessary electromagnetic spectrum to build an advanced fourth-generation wireless broadband network of its own.

T-Mobile’s parent, Deutsche Telekom AG, has been losing money in Europe and expected its American affiliate to become self-reliant.  In 2008, T-Mobile sat out the last major auction for spectrum the company needs.

The company received cash and spectrum worth $4 billion from AT&T when the merger fell apart, from which T-Mobile plans to spend only $1.4 billion this year and next on the construction of a limited 4G network in the U.S.  But it must acquire additional capital and spectrum to become a viable competitor.

Unfortunately, every wireless service provider requires additional spectrum. “[P]rojected growth in data traffic can be achieved only by making more spectrum available for wireless use,” according to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.  Congress recently gave the FCC new authority to auction more spectrum, but it failed – in the words of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski – to “eliminate traditional FCC tools for setting terms for participation in auctions.”

Everyone fears it will take the FCC years to successfully conduct the next round of auctions while it fiddles “in the public interest.”  That’s why Verizon Wireless is seeking to acquire airwaves from a consortium of cable companies, and why T-Mobile will do anything to stop it.

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A few weeks back, now-former Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn blamed the retailer’s $1.7 billion quarterly loss and its decision to close 50 stores nationwide on the fact that its online competitors, Amazon.com in particular, “aren’t encumbered by the costs of running physical locations and in many cases don’t have to collect sales tax.”

Dunn’s comments rehash the now-familiar meme that forcing e-retailers to collect sales tax is the silver bullet to saving brick-and-mortar retailers. It gives politicians on all sides cover–for some, it’s a way to keep revenues coming in for excessive spending. For others, it’s a handy way to wave the flag for local commerce.

But slapping consumers with more taxes isn’t going to save retailing. In a short piece this week, BusinessWeek explores the fundamental shifts online retailing has created in consumer behavior. Here’s a nugget from the article:

Best Buy’s decline reflects a cultural shift that’s reshaping the retail world. All big-box stores, and Best Buy in particular, thrived in an era when comparison shopping meant physically going from store to store. The effort required of consumers was a kind of transactional friction. With the advent of mobile technology, friction has all but disappeared. Rather than ruminate with a salesperson before making a selection, tech-savvy consumers are more likely to walk into stores, eyeball products, scan barcodes with their smartphones, note cheaper prices online, and head for the exit. Shoppers can purchase virtually any product under the sun on Amazon or eBay while sipping a latte at Starbucks. For traditional retailers, that spells trouble, if not death. “So far nothing Best Buy is doing is fast enough or significant enough to get in front of these waves,” says Scot Wingo, CEO of e-commerce consulting firm ChannelAdvisor.

Certainly e-commerce created competitive problems for Best Buy, but the sales tax advantage was likely the least of them. Brick-and-mortar retailing is facing an out-and-out crisis that’s going to require creativity and innovation to solve. Taxing consumers who buy online won’t do much toward that end.

And for more, see Adam’s post on Heritage Foundation’s new report on Internet tax policy.

Did Apple conspire with e-book publishers to raise e-book prices?  That’s what DOJ argues in a lawsuit filed yesterday. But does that violate the antitrust laws?  Not necessarily—and even if it does, perhaps it shouldn’t.

Antitrust’s sole goal is maximizing consumer welfare.  While that generally means antitrust regulators should focus on lower prices, the situation is more complicated when we’re talking about markets for new products, where technologies for distribution and consumption are evolving rapidly along with business models.  In short, the so-called Agency pricing model Apple and publishers adopted may mean (and may not mean) higher e-book prices in the short run, but it also means more variability in pricing, and it might well have facilitated Apple’s entry into the market, increasing e-book retail competition and promoting innovation among e-book readers, while increasing funding for e-book content creators.

The procompetitive story goes something like the following.  (As always with antitrust, the question isn’t so much which model is better, but that no one really knows what the right model is—least of all antitrust regulators—and that, the more unclear the consumer welfare effects of a practice are, as in rapidly evolving markets, the more we should err on the side of restraint). Continue reading →

Two weeks ago, I penned a column for Forbes about the astonishing rise and fall of BlackBerry (“Bye Bye BlackBerry. How Long Will Apple Last?”), which somehow became the most widely-read and retweeted thing I’ve ever written in my life. I argued that BlackBerry’s story — indeed, the story of the entire U.S. smartphone sector — is the living embodiment of Schumpeterian creative destruction. Joseph Schumpeter’s “perennial gales of creative destruction” are blowing harder than ever in today’s tech economy and laying waste to those who don’t innovate fast enough, I argued, and nowhere is that more true than in the smartphone sector. I noted how, just five years ago, “BlackBerry” was virtually synonymous with “smartphones” and was considered one of the tech titans that seemed destined to dominate for many years to come. But now the BlackBerry’s days appear numbered and its parent company Research In Motion Ltd. is struggling for its very survival.

But there’s another company that I ignored in that essay that was also perched atop the mobile handset hill for a long time: Nokia. Here’s the horrifying opening lines from a Wall Street Journal story today about the company (“Nokia Crisis Deepens, Shares Plunge“):

Nokia Corp., long the biggest name in the cellphone business, is scrambling to stay relevant in the smartphone age. On Wednesday the company warned things will get worse before they get better, saying that competitors are rapidly eating into its sales in emerging markets such as China and India. Nokia also said its newest phone in the U.S. had a software glitch that is preventing some users from connecting to the Internet, marring its attempt to fight into the world’s most important smartphone market. The company’s American depositary shares slid 16% to a 15-year low of $4.24 in New York. Its market capitalization now stands at $16 billion, down from $90 billion five years ago.

It gets worse from there. The article continues on to document Nokia’s gradual slide and notes that, “like BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd., Nokia is trying to re-establish its relevance in a market dominated by Apple Inc.’s iPhone and Google-powered devices. Both Nokia and RIM are working on new devices they hope will make a splash, even as Apple and Android work on improvements of their own.”

To put into context how remarkable this rapid reversal of fortunes is, you need to try remember what life was like just five years ago: Continue reading →

Unshackling a market from obsolete, protectionist regulations can be a very challenging undertaking, especially when the lifeblood of a regulated industry is at stake. The latest push for regulatory reform to encounter the murky waters of modernization is the “Next Generation Television Marketplace Act.” The ambitious and comprehensive bill, introduced by Rep. Steve Scalise and Sen. Jim DeMint in their respective chambers of Congress, aims to free up the broadcast television market. The federal government’s hands have been all over this market since its inception, overseen primarily by the FCC, pursuant to the Communications Act.

The Next Generation Television Marketplace Act (“DeMint/Scalise”) is a bold and laudable bill that would, on the whole, substantially free up America’s television marketplace. But one aspect of the bill—its abolition of the retransmission consent regime—has sparked a vigorous debate among free marketers. This essay will explain what this debate is all about and why policymakers should think twice before getting rid of retransmission consent.

Toward a Free Market in Television

The DeMint/Scalise bill takes an axe to many of the myriad rules that stand in the way of a free market in television programming. As Co-Liberator Adam Thierer recently explained on these pages, the bill’s many provisions would among other things get rid of the compulsory licensing provisions in the Copyright Act that empower government to set the rates cable and satellite (“pay-TV”) providers must pay to retransmit distant broadcast signals. It would eliminate the “network non-duplication” rule, which generally bars pay-TV providers from carrying out-of-market signals that offer the same programs as local broadcasters. The bill would also end the “must-carry” rule that forces pay-TV providers to retransmit certain local broadcast signals without receiving any compensation.

These are just a few of the many provisions of the DeMint/Scalise bill that would substantially reform the Communications and Copyright Acts to foster a free video marketplace and bring television regulation into the 21st century. (For a more in-depth assessment of the positive aspects of the DeMint/Scalise proposal, see Adam’s informative Forbes.com essay, Toward a True Free Market in Television Programming; Randy May’s superb Free State Foundation Perspectives essay, Broadcast Retransmission Negotiations and Free Markets;” and Bruce Owen’s FSF essay, The FCC and the Unfree Market for TV Program Rights.)

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So, the Department of Justice has formally filed suit against Apple and several major book publishers claiming collusion over eBook pricing. Let’s say Apple and the publishers are guilty as charged and in violation of our nation’s antitrust laws. Here’s my opinion on that: So what? What Apple and the publishers are doing here is trying to find a way to sustain creative works in an era when copyright law is slowly dying. As I noted here in a post yesterday, I take no joy in reporting the fact that property rights for intellectual creations no longer function effectively. I wish they did still work, but they are failing rather miserably in an age of highly decentralized digital dissemination. Moreover, I am not prepared to see government go to absurd enforcement extremes in an attempt to make intellectual property rights work. But, that being said, something needs to sustain and cross-subsidize cultural creations in an age of mass piracy. I have increasingly come to believe that consolidation of content and conduit (or devices) is a big part of the answer. Alternatively, some sort of informal collusion among cultural creators and information distributors may be the answer.

Apple and the publishers have figured that out and come up with a plan that keeps intellectual works flowing while making sure that the creators behind them get paid. At a time when copyright critics always say “just find a better business model” Apple and the publishers did just that. But now Department of Justice officials say that business model should be forbidden. That’s crazy.  If we’re going to let copyright die, we should at least grant more pricing and deal-making flexibility to the creative community to structure business arrangements that might give them a lifeline.

But won’t such deals give publishers and other creative artists and industries more pricing power that will help them keep prices up artificially? Yes, of course! That is the whole point! God forbid we actually have to pay something to cultural creators. Ain’t that a scandal. But here’s a news flash: That’s what copyright law was all about, too. It was about helping creators put some fences around their “property” to help them maintain some degree of pricing power for goods with zero marginal cost. The scheme worked brilliantly for many years. It spawned a vibrant marketplace of ideas and helped America become the leading exporter of expressive works on the planet. But now the effectiveness of traditional copyright is fading rapidly. Industry consolidation, cross-promotions, pricing deals, and so on, will increasingly be the “better business model” some will turn to.  So, are we going to allow it? Or will critics just keep mouthing “go find a better business model” and have the government step in every time they don’t like the one industry chooses?  I say let experimentation continue.

On the podcast this week, Adam Lashinsky, author and editor-at-large for Fortune, discusses his new book, Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–and Secretive–Company Really Works. Lashinsky begins by discussing Apple’s obsession with secrecy to the point that employees do not discuss what they are working on with other employees. According to Lashinsky, secrecy is tied to focus and achievement, so Apple employees obtain a depth and expertise on one area, rather than being exposed to different areas of the company. He then discusses how secrecy impacts employee morale and how employees view accomplishment and achievement as a tradeoff for happiness and morale. Lashinsky then explains how other corporations can emulate Apple’s secretive style and reap the benefits.

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Heritage Foundation released a new study this week arguing that “Congress Should Not Authorize States to Expand Collection of Taxes on Internet and Mail Order Sales.” It’s a good contribution to the ongoing debate over Internet tax policy. In the paper, David S. Addington, the Vice President for Domestic and Economic Policy at Heritage, takes a close look at the constitutional considerations in play in this debate. Specifically, he examines the wisdom of S. 1832, “The Marketplace Fairness Act.” Addington argues that, “enactment of S. 1832 would discourage free market competition” and raise a host of other issues:

The Constitution of the United States has set the legal baseline—the level playing field—around which the American free-market economy has built itself. The Constitution, as reflected in the Quill decision, is the source of the present arrangement regarding collection of state sales and use taxes by remote sellers. Ever since the Supreme Court decided Quill in 1992, American businesses have made millions of business decisions in the competitive marketplace based in part on settled expectations regarding state taxation affecting their sales transactions. The states and businesses advocating S. 1832 seek to change the current, constitutionally prescribed playing field. They seek to use governmental power to intervene in the economy to help in-state, store-based businesses by imposing a new tax-collection burden on out-of-state competitors who sell over the Internet, through mail order catalogs, or by telephone. Free-market principles generally discourage such government intervention in the economy to pick winners and losers based on legislative policy preferences.

Veronique de Rugy and I raised similar concerns in both a recent Mercatus white paper (“The Internet, Sales Taxes, and Tax Competition“) and an earlier 2003 Cato white paper, (“The Internet Tax Solution: Tax Competition, Not Tax Collusion”). We argued that there are better ways to achieve “tax fairness” without sacrificing tax competition or opening the doors to unjust, unconstitutional, and burdensome state-based taxation of interstate sales. Specifically, we point out that an “origin-based” sourcing rule would be the cleanest, most pro-constitutional, and pro-competitive alternative. I also discussed these issues at a recent Cato event. [Video follows.]

Andrew Orlowski of The Register (U.K.) recently posted a very interesting essay making the case for treating online copyright and privacy as essentially the same problem in need of the same solution: increased property rights. In his essay (“‘Don’t break the internet’: How an idiot’s slogan stole your privacy“), he argues that, “The absence of permissions on our personal data and the absence of permissions on digital copyright objects are two sides of the same coin. Economically and legally they’re an absence of property rights – and an insistence on preserving the internet as a childlike, utopian world, where nobody owns anything, or ever turns a request down. But as we’ve seen, you can build things like libraries with permissions too – and create new markets.” He argues that “no matter what law you pass, it won’t work unless there’s ownership attached to data, and you, as the individual, are the ultimate owner. From the basis of ownership, we can then agree what kind of rights are associated with the data – eg, the right to exclude people from it, the right to sell it or exchange it – and then build a permission-based world on top of that.”

And so, he concludes, we should set aside concerns about Internet regulation and information control and get down to the business of engineering solutions that would help us property-tize both intangible creations and intangible facts about ourselves to better shield our intellectual creations and our privacy in the information age. He builds on the thoughts of Mark Bide, a tech consultant:

For Bide, privacy and content markets are just a technical challenges that need to be addressed intelligently.”You can take two views,” he told me. “One is that every piece of information flowing around a network is a good thing, and we should know everything about everybody, and have no constraints on access to it all.” People who believe this, he added, tend to be inflexible – there is no half-way house. “The alternative view is that we can take the technology to make privacy and intellectual property work on the network. The function of copyright is to allow creators and people who invest in creation to define how it can be used. That’s the purpose of it. “So which way do we want to do it?” he asks. “Do we want to throw up our hands and do nothing? The workings of a civilised society need both privacy and creator’s rights.”  But this a new way of thinking about things: it will be met with cognitive dissonance. Copyright activists who fight property rights on the internet and have never seen a copyright law they like, generally do like their privacy. They want to preserve it, and will support laws that do. But to succeed, they’ll need to argue for stronger property rights. They have yet to realise that their opponents in the copyright wars have been arguing for those too, for years. Both sides of the copyright “fight” actually need the same thing. This is odd, I said to Bide. How can he account for this irony? “Ah,” says Bide. “Privacy and copyright are two things nobody cares about unless it’s their own privacy, and their own copyright.”

These are important insights that get at a fundamental truth that all too many people ignore today: At root, most information control efforts are related and solutions for one problem can often be used to address others. But there’s another insight that Orlowski ignores: Whether we are discussing copyright, privacy, online speech and child safety, or cybersecurity, all these efforts to control the free flow of digitized bits over decentralized global networks will be increasingly complex, costly, and riddled with myriad unintended consequences. Importantly, that is true whether you seek to control information flows through top-down administrative regulation or by assigning and enforcing property rights in intellectual creations or private information.

Let me elaborate a bit (and I apologize for the rambling mess of rant that follows).

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