August 2014

If there is one thing I have learned in almost 23 years of covering communications and media regulation it is this: No matter how well-intentioned, regulation often has unintended consequences that hurt the very consumers the rules are meant to protect. Case in point: “universal service” mandates that require a company to serve an entire area as a condition of offering service at all. The intention is noble: Get service out to everyone in the community, preferably at a very cheap rate. Alas, the result of mandating that result is clear: You get less competition, less investment, less innovation, and less consumer choice. And often you don’t even get everyone served.

Consider this Wall Street Journal article today, “Google Fiber Is Fast, but Is It Fair? The Company Provides Neighborhoods With Faster and Cheaper Service, but Are Some Being Left Behind?” In the story, Alistair Barr notes that:

U.S. policy long favored extending service to all. AT&T touted its “universal service” in advertisements more than a century ago. The concept was codified in a 1934 law requiring nationwide “wire and radio services” to reach everyone at “reasonable charges.” In exchange for wiring a community, telecommunications providers often gained a monopoly. Cities made similar deals with cable-TV providers beginning in the 1960s.

The problem, of course, is that while this model allowed for the slow spread of service to most communities, it came at a very steep cost: Monopoly and plain vanilla service. I documented this in a 1994 essay entitled, “Unnatural Monopoly: Critical Moments in the Development of the Bell System Monopoly.” As well-intentioned regulatory mandates started piling up, competition slowly disappeared. And a devil’s deal was eventually cut between regulators and AT&T to adopt the company’s advertising motto — “One Policy, One System, Universal Service” — as the de facto law of the land. Continue reading →

Today my colleague Eli Dourado and I have filed a public interest comment with the New York Department of Financial Services on their proposed “BitLicense” regulatory framework for digital currencies. You can read it here. As we say in the comment, NYDFS is on the right track, but ultimately misses the mark:

State financial regulators around the country have been working to apply their existing money transmission licensing statutes and regulations to new virtual currency businesses. In many cases, existing rules do not take into account the unique properties of recent innovations like cryptocurrencies. With this in mind, the department sought to develop rules that were “tailored specifically to the unique characteristics of virtual currencies.”

As Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky has stated, the aim of this project is “to strike an appropriate balance that helps protect consumers and root out illegal activity—without stifling beneficial innovation.” This is the right goal and one we applaud. It is a very difficult balance to strike, however, and we believe that the BitLicense regulatory framework as presently proposed misses the mark, for two main reasons.

First, while doing much to take into account the unique properties of virtual currencies and virtual currency businesses, the proposal nevertheless fails to accommodate some of the most important attributes of software-based innovation. To the extent that one of its chief goals is to preserve and encourage innovation, the BitLicense proposal should be modified with these considerations in mind—and this can be done without sacrificing the protections that the rules will afford consumers. Taking into account the “unique characteristics” of virtual cur-rencies is the key consideration that will foster innovation, and it is the reason why the department is creating a new BitLicense. The department should, therefore, make sure that it is indeed taking these features into account.

Second, the purpose of a BitLicense should be to take the place of a money transmission license for virtual currency businesses. That is to say, but for the creation of a new BitLicense, virtual currency businesses would be subject to money transmission licensing. Therefore, to the extent that the goal behind the new BitLicense is to protect consumers while fostering innovation, the obligations faced by BitLicensees should not be any more burdensome than those faced by traditional money transmitters. Otherwise, the new regulatory framework will have the opposite effect of the one intended. If it is more costly and difficult to acquire a BitLicense than a money transmission license, we should expect less innovation. Additional regulatory burdens would put BitLicensees at a relative disadvantage, and in several instances the proposed regulatory framework is more onerous than traditional money transmitter licensing.

As Superintendent Lawsky has rightly stated, New York should avoid virtual currency rules that are “so burdensome or unwieldy that the technology can’t develop.” The proposed BitLicense framework, while close, does not strike the right balance between consumer protection and innovation. For example, its approach to consumer protection through disclosures rather than prescriptive precautionary regulation is the right approach for giving entrepreneurs flexibility to innovate while ensuring that consumers have the information they need to make informed choices. Yet there is much that can be improved in the framework to reach the goal of balancing innovation and protection. Below we outline where the framework is missing the mark and recommend some modifications that will take into account the unique properties of virtual currencies and virtual currency businesses.

We hope this comment will be helpful to the department as it further develops its proposed framework, and we hope that it will publish a revised draft of the framework and solicit a second round of comments so that we can make sure we all get it right. And it’s important that we get it right.

Other jurisdictions, such as London, are looking to become the “global centre of financial innovation,” as Chancellor George Osborne put it in a recent speech about Bitcoin. If New York drops the ball, London may just pick it up. As Garrick Hileman, economic historian at the London School of Economics, told CNet last week:

The chancellor is no doubt aware that very little of the $250 million of venture capital which has been invested in Bitcoin startups to date has gone to British-based companies. Many people believe Bitcoin will be as big as the Internet. Today’s announcement from the chancellor has the potential to be a big win for the UK economy. The bottom line on today’s announcement is that Osborne thinks he’s spotted an opportunity for the City and Silicon Roundabout to siphon investment and jobs away from the US and other markets which are taking a more aggressive Bitcoin regulatory posture.

Let’s get it right.

There’s a small but influential number of tech reporters and scholars who seem to delight in making the US sound like a broadband and technology backwater. A new Mercatus working paper by Roslyn Layton, a PhD fellow at a research center at Aalborg University, and Michael Horney a researcher at the Free State Foundation, counter that narrative and highlight data from several studies that show the US is at or near the top in important broadband categories.

For example, per Pew and ITU data, the vast majority of Americans use the Internet and the US is second in the world in data consumption per capita, trailing only South Korea. Pew reveals that for those who are not online the leading reasons are lack of usability and the Internet’s perceived lack of benefits. High cost, notably, is not the primary reason for infrequent use.

I’ve noted before some of the methodological problems in studies claiming the US has unusually high broadband prices. In what I consider their biggest contribution to the literature, Layton and Horney highlight another broadband cost frequently omitted in international comparisons: the mandatory media license fees many nations impose on broadband and television subscribers.

These fees can add as much as $44 to the monthly cost of broadband. When these fees are included in comparisons, American prices are frequently an even better value. In two-thirds of European countries and half of Asian countries, households pay a media license fee on top of the subscription fees to use devices such as connected computers and TVs.

…When calculating the real cost of international broadband prices, one needs to take into account media license fees, taxation, and subsidies. …[T]hese inputs can materially affect the cost of broadband, especially in countries where broadband is subject to value-added taxes as high as 27 percent, not to mention media license fees of hundreds of dollars per year.

US broadband providers, the authors point out, have priced broadband relatively efficiently for heterogenous uses–there are low-cost, low-bandwidth connections available as well as more expensive, higher-quality connections for intensive users.

Further, the US is well-positioned for future broadband use. Unlike many wealthy countries, Americans typically have access, at least, to broadband from telephone companies (like AT&T DSL or UVerse) as well as from a local cable provider. Competition between ISPs has meant steady investment in network upgrades, despite the 2008 global recession. The story is very different in much of Europe, where broadband investment, as a percentage of the global total, has fallen noticeably in recent years. US wireless broadband is also a bright spot: 97% of Americans can subscribe to 4G LTE while only 26% in the EU have access (which partially explains, by the way, why Europeans often pay less for mobile subscriptions–they’re using an inferior product).

There’s a lot to praise in the study and it’s necessary reading for anyone looking to understand how US broadband policy compares to other nations’. The fashionable arguments that the US is at risk of falling behind technologically were never convincing–the US is THE place to be if you’re a tech company or startup, for one–but Layton and Horney show the vulnerability of that narrative with data and rigor.

Even though few things are getting passed this Congress, the pressure is on to reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) before it expires at the end of this year. Unsurprisingly, many have hoped this “must pass bill” will be the vehicle for broader reform of video. Getting video law right is important for our content rich world, but the discussion needs to expand much further than STELA. Continue reading →

In 2012, the US Chamber of Commerce put out a report claiming that intellectual property is responsible for 55 million US jobs—46 percent of private sector employment. This is a ridiculous statistic if you merely stop and think about it for a minute. But the fact that the statistic is ridiculous doesn’t mean that it won’t continue to circulate around Washington. For example, last year Rep. Marsha Blackburn cited it uncritically in an oped in The Hill.

In a new paper from Mercatus (here’s the PDF), Ian Robinson and I expose this statistic, and others like them, as pseudoscience. They are based on incredibly shoddy and misleading reasoning. Here’s the abstract of the paper:

In the past two years, a spate of misleading reports on intellectual property has sought to convince policymakers and the public that implausibly high proportions of US output and employment depend on expansive intellectual property (IP) rights. These reports provide no theoretical or empirical evidence to support such a claim, but instead simply assume that the existence of intellectual property in an industry creates the jobs in that industry. We dispute the assumption that jobs in IP-intensive industries are necessarily IP-created jobs. We first explore issues regarding job creation and the economic efficiency of IP that cut across all kinds of intellectual property. We then take a closer look at these issues across three major forms of intellectual property: trademarks, patents, and copyrights.

As they say, read the whole thing, and please share with your favorite IP maximalist.