Inside the Beltway (Politics)

WP coverThe Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just released a new paper by Brent Skorup and me entitled, “A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector.” In this 73-page working paper, which we hope to place in a law review or political science journal shortly, we document the evolution of government-granted privileges, or “cronyism,” in the information and communications technology marketplace and in the media-producing sectors. Specifically, we offer detailed histories of rent-seeking and regulatory capture in: the early history of the telephony and spectrum licensing in the United States; local cable TV franchising; the universal service system; the digital TV transition in the 1990s; and modern video marketplace regulation (i.e., must-carry and retransmission consent rules, among others.

Our paper also shows how cronyism is slowly creeping into new high-technology sectors.We document how Internet companies and other high-tech giants are among the fastest-growing lobbying shops in Washington these days. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, lobbying spending by information technology sectors has almost doubled since the turn of the century, from roughly $200 million in 2000 to $390 million in 2012.  The computing and Internet sector has been responsible for most of that growth in recent years. Worse yet, we document how many of these high-tech firms are increasingly seeking and receiving government favors, mostly in the form of targeted tax breaks or incentives. Continue reading →

Few dispute that mobile carriers are being squeezed by the relative scarcity of radio spectrum. This scarcity is a painful artifact of regulatory decisions made decades ago, when the regulators gave valuable spectrum away for free to government agencies and to commercial users via so-called “beauty contests.” As more Americans purchase tablets and smartphones (as of a year ago, smartphones comprise a majority of phone plans in the US), many fear that consumers will be hurt by higher prices, stringent data limits, and less wireless innovation.

In the face of this demand, freeing up more airwaves for mobile broadband became a bipartisan effort and many scholars and policymakers have turned their hungry eyes to the ample spectrum possessed by federal agencies, which hold around 1500 MHz of the most valuable bands. The scholarly consensus–confirmed by government audits–is that federal agencies use their spectrum poorly. Because many licensees use spectrum under the old rules (free spectrum) and use it inefficiently, President Obama directed the FCC and NTIA to find 500 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband use by 2020. Continue reading →

In an important essay this week entitled “Silicon Valley’s ‘Suicide Impulse’,” Wall Street Journal columnist L. Gordon Crovitz warns that “Silicon Valley has long prided itself on avoiding the lumbering relationship between big government and most industries, but somehow it has become one of the top lobbyists in Washington.” Crovitz is worried that Internet and technology companies are falling prey to what Milton Friedman labeled “The Business Community’s Suicidal Impulse”: the persistent propensity to persecute one’s competitors using regulation or the threat thereof. “Rather than lobby government to go after one another,” Crovitz argues, “Silicon Valley lobbyists should unite to go after overreaching government. Instead of the ‘suicide impulse’ of lobbying for more regulation, Silicon Valley should seek deregulation and a long-overdue freedom to return to its entrepreneurial roots.”

Crovitz’s essay touches upon a dangerous trend I have written about here and elsewhere in the past: the increasing politicization of the Internet and information technology sectors and the gradual rise of rent-seeking (i.e., favor-seeking) over time. I’ve written about this problem in essays like:

These essays have documented how tech companies are increasingly vying for the attention of legislators and regulators in Washington, statehouses, and international capitals across the globe.

Why should we care about the increasing politicization of the information technology sector? Continue reading →

By Geoffrey Manne & Berin Szoka

As Democrats insist that income taxes on the 1% must go up in the name of fairness, one Democratic Senator wants to make sure that the 1% of heaviest Internet users pay the same price as the rest of us. It’s ironic how confused social justice gets when the Internet’s involved.

Senator Ron Wyden is beloved by defenders of Internet freedom, most notably for blocking the Protect IP bill—sister to the more infamous SOPA—in the Senate. He’s widely celebrated as one of the most tech-savvy members of Congress. But his latest bill, the “Data Cap Integrity Act,” is a bizarre, reverse-Robin Hood form of price control for broadband. It should offend those who defend Internet freedom just as much as SOPA did.

Wyden worries that “data caps” will discourage Internet use and allow “Internet providers to extract monopoly rents,” quoting a New York Times editorial from July that stirred up a tempest in a teapot. But his fears are straw men, based on four false premises.

First, US ISPs aren’t “capping” anyone’s broadband; they’re experimenting with usage-based pricing—service tiers. If you want more than the basic tier, your usage isn’t capped: you can always pay more for more bandwidth. But few users will actually exceed that basic tier. For example, Comcast’s basic tier, 300 GB/month, is so generous that 98.5% of users will not exceed it. That’s enough for 130 hours of HD video each month (two full-length movies a day) or between 300 and 1000 hours of standard (compressed) video streaming.

Second, Wyden sets up a false dichotomy: Caps (or tiers, more accurately) are, according to Wyden, “appropriate if they are carefully constructed to manage network congestion,” but apparently for Wyden the only alternative explanation for usage-based pricing is extraction of monopoly rents. This simply isn’t the case, and propagating that fallacy risks chilling investment in network infrastructure. In fact, usage-based pricing allows networks to charge heavy users more, thereby recovering more costs and actually reducing prices for the majority of us who don’t need more bandwidth than the basic tier permits—and whose usage is effectively subsidized by those few who do. Unfortunately, Wyden’s bill wouldn’t allow pricing structures based on cost recovery—only network congestion. So, for example, an ISP might be allowed to price usage during times of peak congestion, but couldn’t simply offer a lower price for the basic tier to light users.

That’s nuts—from the perspective of social justice as well as basic economic rationality. Even as the FCC was issuing its famous Net Neutrality regulations, the agency rejected proposals to ban usage-based pricing, explaining:

prohibiting tiered or usage-based pricing and requiring all subscribers to pay the same amount for broadband service, regardless of the performance or usage of the service, would force lighter end users of the network to subsidize heavier end users. It would also foreclose practices that may appropriately align incentives to encourage efficient use of networks.

It is unclear why Senator Wyden thinks the FCC—no friend of broadband “monopolists”—has this wrong. Continue reading →

This may be the best speech by a regulator that you will read in your entire life. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Robert McDowell delivered an address in Rome today entitled, “The Siren Call of “Please Regulate My Rival”: A Recipe for Regulatory Failure.” I highly recommend it (and not just because I’m cited in it!) It is infused with important insights about the ugly downsides of excessive regulation of technology markets.

McDowell is an astute student of regulatory history and he documents how, despite the best of intentions, economic regulation has often been turned into a tool that industry exploits for their own narrow interests. Sadly, examples of such “regulatory capture” are rampant, as I have documented here before. McDowell notes that many telecom and media companies “suffer from the ‘please regulate my rival’ malady of an industry that has been regulated too much and for too long.  History is replete with such scenarios,” he says, “and the desire for more regulation for competitors always ends badly for the incumbent regulated industry in the form of unintended and harmful consequences.” That is exactly right.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire speech, but if you only have time to read one thing, make it the powerful and poetic closing paragraphs, which I have reprinted below:

Continue reading →

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 →

In the wake of last week’s big SOPA showdown, a lot of people are talking about the expanded presence and power of the Internet, online operators, and digital Netizens in Washington policy debates. I certainly don’t mean to diminish the importance of this particular episode. It certainly is historic, regardless of how you feel about the specifics of SOPA. What does concern me, however, is the way this episode is prompting questions about how much more “engagement” Internet companies need to consider inside the Beltway. For example, today’s Wall Street Journal features an article on “The Web’s Growing Muscle” and notes:

The Internet industry has found a rare sweet spot in Washington. With Google in the lead, the companies have begun building a strong traditional lobbying force in Washington. And, to complement that inside game, websites’ millions of users have become a powerful outside weight on Congress. What’s more, in a rare Washington double play, the concerns of Internet companies have found a sympathetic ear both in the Democratic White House and among Republican presidential candidates who otherwise can’t agree with Barack Obama on anything.

The piece concludes with a quote from an anonymous media executive saying “People are looking at what Google spent on lobbying and wondering, ‘Can we match that?’ It has to be a big spend.”

I cannot possibly think of anything more demoralizing than that. Continue reading →

Over at, [I consult public choice theory to glean]( the meaning of last week’s SOPA protest success:

>The SOPA blackout protest last week was an unprecedented event. Its massive success — with dozens of members of Congress switching their stance in one day under the withering intensity of thousands of phone calls — surprised even the activists who spurred the protest. So does this mean that we are entering the much-heralded era of Internet-powered citizen democracy?

Read [the whole thing here](

Yesterday, President Barack Obama announced two nominations to the Federal Communications Commission: Jessica Rosenworcel, replacing Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps, and Ajit Pai, replacing Republican Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker.

The FCC faces a unique challenge: Because it regulates the communications industry, essentially every rule it issues implicates the free speech values at the heart of our Constitutional heritage. The First Amendment was intended to be a shield against government meddling, not a sword for regulatory activism, however well-intentioned. Moreover, the FCC regulates an industry being transformed by the Digital Revolution.

We at TechFreedom look forward to working with these new Commissioners to ensure that FCC regulations serve consumers by advancing competition and innovation while respecting free speech rights. The Commission should ask, and explicitly answer, the following questions whenever considering the need for new, or existing, regulations:

  1. What free speech rights are at stake?
  2. How substantial is the government’s interest? Has the market failed?
  3. Can regulation, always slow to start and slower to adapt, really address the problem better than technological change?
  4. Will the regulation’s benefits outweigh its costs, considering its likely unintended consequences?
  5. Are there less-restrictive and more speech-protective ways government can achieve its interest, such as enforcing existing antitrust and consumer protection laws, supporting consumer education, empowering users to make their own decisions, or compelling disclosure to consumers?

Over a week ago the Washington Post published an interview with Google’s Eric Schmidt to which I’ve been meaning to draw your attention. He’s reflecting on the relationship between Silicon Valle and D.C. days after his Senate testimony, and it’s incredibly candid, perhaps because as the Post noted, “He had just come from the dentist. And had a toothache.” Here are some choice quotes:

On getting told to testify:

So we get hauled in front of the Congress for developing a product that’s free, that serves a billion people. Okay? I mean, I don’t know how to say it any clearer. I mean, it’s fine. It’s their job. But it’s not like we raised prices. We could lower prices from free to…lower than free? You see what I’m saying?

On regulation:

And one of the consequences of regulation is regulation prohibits real innovation, because the regulation essentially defines a path to follow—which by definition has a bias to the current outcome, because it’s a path for the current outcome.

On the D.C. shakedown:

And privately the politicians will say, ‘Look, you need to participate in our system. You need to participate at a personal level, you need to participate at a corporate level.’ We, after some debate, set up a PAC, as other companies have.

On political startups:

Now there are startups in Washington. And these startups have the interesting property that they’re founded by people who were policymakers, let’s say in telecommunications. They’re very clever people, and they’ve figured out a way in regulation to discriminate, to find a new satellite spectrum or a new frequency or whatever. They immediately hired a whole bunch of lobbyists. They raised some money to do that. And they’re trying to innovate through the regulation. So that’s what passes for innovation in Washington.

There’s a real sense of exasperation that is almost absurd–that is, an exhausting attempt to find rationality in political decision making. Of course, there is rational decision making, it’s just on a different margin. Here is Schmidt on expanding H-1B visas:

I’m so tired of this argument. I’m tired of making it. I’ve been making it for twenty years. In the current cast of characters, the Republicans are on our side, our local Democrats support us because our arguments are obvious, and the other Democrats don’t—because they don’t get it. The president understands the argument and would like to support us, he says, but there are various political issues. That’s roughly the situation. That’s been true for twenty years, through different presidents and different leaders. It’s stupid.

The whole thing is worth reading.