Articles by Larry Downes

Larry is Project Director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy and a Research Fellow at the Accenture Institute for High Performance. His new book, co-authored with Paul Nunes, is Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation (Portfolio 2014). His previous books include the New York Times and Business Week best-seller Unleashing the Killer App and The Laws of Disruption:  Harnessing the New Forces that Govern Business and Life in the Digital Age. He writes regularly for the Washington Post, the Harvard Business Review, CNET and, as well as other publications.

For CNET today, I have a long analysis and commentary on the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” introduced last week in the House. The bill is advertised as the House’s version of the Senate’s Protect-IP Act, which was voted out of Committee in May.

It’s very hard to find much positive to say about the House version. While there’s considerable evidence its drafters heard the criticisms of engineers, legal academics, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, their response was unfortunate.

Engineers pointed out, for example, that court orders requiring individual ISPs to remove or redirect domain name requests was a futile and dangerous way to block access to “rogue” websites. Truly rogue sites can easily relocate to another domain, or simply have users access them with their IP address and bypass DNS altogether. Continue reading →

On NPR’s Marketplace this morning, I talk about net neutrality litigation with host John Moe.

Nearly a year after the FCC passed controversial new “Open Internet” rules by a 3-2 vote, the White House finally gave approval for the rules to be published last week, unleashing lawsuits from both supporters and detractors.

The supporters don’t have any hope or expectation of getting a court to make the rules more comprehensive.  So why sue?  When lawsuits challenging federal regulations are filed in multiple appellate courts, a lottery determines which court hears a consolidated appeal.

So lawsuits by net neutrality supporters are a procedural gimmick, an effort to take cases challenging the FCC’s authority out of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has already made clear the FCC has no legal basis here.

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For Forbes this morning, I reflect on the publication late last week of the FCC’s “Open Internet” or net neutrality rules and their impact on spectrum auctions past and future.  Hint:  not good.

An important study last year by Prof. Faulhaber and Prof. Farber, former chief economist and chief technologist, respectively, for the FCC, found that the last-minute imposition of net neutrality limits on the 700 MHz “C” block in the FCC’s 2008 auction reduced the winning bid by 60%–a few billion dollars for the Treasury.

Yet the FCC maintained in the December Report and Order approving similar rules for all broadband providers that the cost impact of these “prophylactic” rules would be minimal, because, after all, they simply endorse practices most providers already follow.  (And the need for the new rules, then, came from where?)

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For CNET this morning, I have a long article reviewing the sad recent history of how local governments determine the quality of mobile services.

As it  turns out, the correlation is deeply negative.  In places with the highest level of user complaints (San Francisco, Washington, D.C.), it turns out that endless delays or outright denials for applications to add towers and other sites as well as new and upgraded equipment is also high.  Who’d have thought?

Despite a late 2009 ruling by the FCC that put a modest “shot clock” on local governments to approve or deny applications, data from CTIA and PCIA included in recent comments on the FCC’s Broadband Acceleration NOI suggests the clock has had little to no effect.  This is in part because the few courts that have been asked to enforce it have demurred or refused.

Much of the dithering by local zoning boards is unprincipled and pointless, a sign not so much of legitimate concerns over safety and aesthetics but of incompetence, corruption, and the insidious influence of  outside “consultants” whose fees are often levied against the applicant, adding insult to injury. Continue reading →

On Forbes this morning, I argue that the Department of Justice’s effort to block the AT&T/T-Mobile merger signals a dangerous turn in antitrust enforcement.

While President Obama promised during his campaign to “reinvigorate” antitrust, few expected the agency would turn its attention with such laser-like precision on the technology sector, one of the few bright spots in the economy.  But as Comcast, Google, Intel, Oracle and now AT&T can testify, the agency seems determined to make its mark on the digital economy.  If only it had the slightest idea how that economy actually worked, and why it works so well. Continue reading →

For CNET this morning, I offer five crucial corrections to the Protect IP Act, which was passed out of committee in the Senate back in May.

Yesterday, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, co-chair of the Congressional Internet Caucus, told a Silicon Valley audience that the House was working on its own version and would introduce it in the next few weeks.

Protect IP would extend efforts to combat copyright infringement and trademark abuse online, especially by websites registered outside the U.S.

Since Goodlatte promised the new bill would be “quite different” from the Senate version, I thought it a good time to get out my red pen and start crossing off the worst mistakes in policy and in drafting in Protect IP.

The full details are in the article, but in brief, here’s what I hope the House does in its version:

  1. Drop provisions that tamper with the DNS system in an effort to block U.S. access to banned sites.
  2. Drop provisions that tamper with search engines, indices, and any other linkage to banned sites.
  3. Remove a private right of action that would allow copyright and trademark holders to obtain court orders banning ad networks and financial transaction processors from doing business with banned sites.
  4. Scale back current enforcement abuses by the Department of Homeland Security under the existing PRO-IP Act of 2008.
  5. Focus the vague and overinclusive definition of the kind of websites that can be banned, limiting it to truly criminal enterprises.

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On CNET this morning, I argue that delay in approving FCC authority for voluntary incentive auctions is largely the fault of last year’s embarrassing net neutrality rulemaking.

While most of the public advocates and many of the industry participants have moved on to other proxy battles (which for most was all net neutrality ever was), Congress has remained steadfast in expressing its great displeasure with the Commission and how it conducted itself for most of 2010.

In the teeth of strong and often bi-partisan opposition, the Commission granted itself new jurisdiction over broadband Internet on Christmas Eve last year.  Understandably, many in Congress are outraged by Chairman Julius Genachowski’s chutzpah.

So now the equation is simple:  while the Open Internet rules remain on the books, Congress is unlikely to give the Chairman any new powers.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa has made the connection explicit, telling reporters in April that incentive auction authority will not come while net neutrality hangs in the air.  There’s plenty of indirect evidence as well.

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By Larry Downes & Geoffrey A. Manne
Published in BNA’s  Daily Report for Executives

The FCC published in June its annual report on the state of competition in the mobile services marketplace. Under ordinary circumstances, this 300-plus page tome would sit quietly on the shelf, since, like last year’s report, it ‘‘makes no formal finding as to whether there is, or is not, effective competition in the industry.’’

But these are not ordinary circumstances. Thanks to innovations including new smartphones and tablet computers, application (app) stores and the mania for games such as ‘‘Angry Birds,’’ the mobile industry is perhaps the only sector of the economy where consumer demand is growing explosively.

Meanwhile, the pending merger between AT&T and T-Mobile USA, valued at more than $39 billion, has the potential to accelerate development of the mobile ecosystem. All eyes, including many in Congress, are on the FCC and the Department of Justice. Their review of the deal could take the rest of the year. So the FCC’s refusal to make a definitive finding on the competitive state of the industry has left analysts poring through the report, reading the tea leaves for clues as to how the FCC will evaluate the proposed merger.

Make no mistake: this is some seriously expensive tea. If the deal is rejected, AT&T is reported to have agreed to pay T-Mobile $3 billion in cash for its troubles. Some competitors, notably Sprint, have declared full-scale war, marshaling an army of interest groups and friendly journalists.

But the deal makes good economic sense for consumers. Most important, T-Mobile’s spectrum assets will allow AT&T to roll out a second national 4G LTE (longterm evolution) network to compete with Verizon’s, and expand service to rural customers. (Currently, only 38 percent of rural customers have three or more choices for mobile broadband.)

More to the point, the government has no legal basis for turning down the deal based on its antitrust review. Under the law, the FCC must approve AT&T’s bid to buy T-Mobile USA unless the agency can prove the transaction is not ‘‘in the public interest.’’ While the FCC’s public interest standard is famously undefined, the agency typically balances the benefits of the deal against potential harm to consumers. If the benefits outweigh the harms, the Commission must approve. Continue reading →

John Perry Barlow famously said that in cyberspace, the First Amendment is just a local ordinance.  That’s still true, of course, and worth remembering.  But at least today there is good news in the shire.  The local ordinance still applies with full force, if only locally.

As I write in CNET this evening (see “Video Games Given Full First Amendment Protection“), the U.S. Supreme Court issued a strong and clear opinion today nullifying California’s 2005 law prohibiting the sale or rental to minors of what the state deemed “violent video games.” Continue reading →

Last week the Senate Commerce Committee passed–with deep bi-partisan support–the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act.

The bill, co-sponsored by Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller and Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison, is a comprehensive effort to resolve several long-standing stalemates and impending crises having to do with one of the most critical 21st century resources: radio spectrum.

My analysis of the bill appears today on CNET. See “Spectrum reform, public safety network move forward in Senate.”

The proposed legislation is impressive in scope; it offers new and in some cases novel solutions to more than half-a-dozen spectrum-related problems, including: Continue reading →