With great fanfare, FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler is calling for sweeping changes to the way cable TV set-top boxes work.
In an essay published Jan. 27 by Re/Code, Wheeler began by citing the high prices consumers pay for set-top box rentals, and bemoans the fact that alternatives are not easily available. Yet for all the talk and tweets about pricing and consumer lock-in, Wheeler did not propose an inquiry into set-top box profit margins, nor whether the supply chain is unduly controlled by the cable companies. Neither did Wheeler propose an investigation into the complaints consumers have made about cable companies’ hassles around CableCards, which under FCC mandate cable companies must provide to customers who buy their own set-top boxes.
In fact, he dropped the pricing issue halfway through and began discussing access to streaming content:
To receive streaming Internet video, it is necessary to have a smart TV, or to watch it on a tablet or laptop computer that, similarly, do not have access to the channels and content that pay-TV subscribers pay for. The result is multiple devices and controllers, constrained program choice and higher costs.
This statement seems intentionally misleading. Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire sell boxes that connect to TVs and allow a huge amount of streaming content to play. True, the devices are still independent of the set-top cable box but there is no evidence that this lack of integration is a competitive barrier.
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The sharing economy is growing faster than ever and becoming a hot policy topic these days. I’ve been fielding a lot of media calls lately about the nature of the sharing economy and how it should be regulated. (See latest clip below from the Stossel show on Fox Business Network.) Thus, I sketched out some general thoughts about the issue and thought I would share them here, along with some helpful additional reading I have come across while researching the issue. I’d welcome comments on this outline as well as suggestions for additional reading. (Note: I’ve also embedded some useful images from Jeremiah Owyang of Crowd Companies.)
1) Just because policymakers claim that regulation is meant to protect consumers does not mean it actually does so.
- Cronyism/ Rent-seeking: Regulation is often “captured” by powerful and politically well-connected incumbents and used to their own benefit. (+ Lobbying activity creates deadweight losses for society.)
- Innovation-killing: Regulations become a formidable barrier to new innovation, entry, and entrepreneurism.
- Unintended consequences: Instead of resulting in lower prices & better service, the opposite often happens: Higher prices & lower quality service. (Example: Painting all cabs same color destroying branding & ability to differentiate).
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Sherwin Siy, Vice President of Legal Affairs at Public Knowledge, discusses emerging issues in digital copyright policy. He addresses the Department of Commerce’s recent green paper on digital copyright, including the need to reform copyright laws in light of new technologies. This podcast also covers the DMCA, online streaming, piracy, cell phone unlocking, fair use recognition, digital ownership, and what we’ve learned about copyright policy from the SOPA debate.
Marc Hochstein, Executive Editor of American Banker, a leading media outlet covering the banking and financial services community, discusses bitcoin.
According to Hochstein, bitcoin has made its name as a digital currency, but the truly revolutionary aspect of the technology is its dual function as a payment system competing against companies like PayPal and Western Union. While bitcoin has been in the news for its soaring exchange rate lately, Hochstein says the actual price of bitcoin is really only relevant for speculators in the short-term; in the long-term, however, the anonymous, decentralized nature of bitcoin has far-reaching implications.
Hochstein goes on to talk about the new market in bitcoin futures and some of bitcoin’s weaknesses—including the volatility of the bitcoin market.
Gabriella Coleman, the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy in the Art History and Communication Studies Department at McGill University, discusses her new book, “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking,” which has been released under a Creative Commons license.
Coleman, whose background is in anthropology, shares the results of her cultural survey of free and open source software (F/OSS) developers, the majority of whom, she found, shared similar backgrounds and world views. Among these similarities were an early introduction to technology and a passion for civil liberties, specifically free speech.
Coleman explains the ethics behind hackers’ devotion to F/OSS, the social codes that guide its production, and the political struggles through which hackers question the scope and direction of copyright and patent law. She also discusses the tension between the overtly political free software movement and the “politically agnostic” open source movement, as well as what the future of the hacker movement may look like.
Looking for a concise overview of how Internet architecture has evolved and a principled discussion of the public policies that should govern the Net going forward? Then look no further than Christopher Yoo‘s new book, The Dynamic Internet: How Technology, Users, and Businesses are Transforming the Network. It’s a quick read (just 140 pages) and is worth picking up. Yoo is a Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer & Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania and also serves as the Director of the Center for Technology, Innovation & Competition there. For those who monitor ongoing developments in cyberlaw and digital economics, Yoo is a well-known and prolific intellectual who has established himself as one of the giants of this rapidly growing policy arena.
Yoo makes two straight-forward arguments in his new book. First, the Internet is changing. In Part 1 of the book, Yoo offers a layman-friendly overview of the changing dynamics of Internet architecture and engineering. He documents the evolving nature of Internet standards, traffic management and congestion policies, spam and security control efforts, and peering and pricing policies. He also discusses the rise of peer-to-peer applications, the growth of mobile broadband, the emergence of the app store economy, and what the explosion of online video consumption means for ongoing bandwidth management efforts. Those are the supply-side issues. Yoo also outlines the implications of changes in the demand-side of the equation, such as changing user demographics and rapidly evolving demands from consumers. He notes that these new demand-side realities of Internet usage are resulting in changes to network management and engineering, further reinforcing changes already underway on the supply-side.
Yoo’s second point in the book flows logically from the first: as the Internet continues to evolve in such a highly dynamic fashion, public policy must as well. Yoo is particularly worried about calls to lock in standards, protocols, and policies from what he regards as a bygone era of Internet engineering, architecture, and policy. “The dramatic shift in Internet usage suggests that its founding architectural principles form the mid-1990s may no longer be appropriate today,” he argues. (p. 4) “[T]he optimal network architecture is unlikely to be static. Instead, it is likely to be dynamic over time, changing with the shifts in end-user demands,” he says. (p. 7) Thus, “the static, one-size-fits-all approach that dominates the current debate misses the mark.” (p. 7) Continue reading →
John Palfrey of the Berkmann Center at Harvard Law School, discusses his new book written with Urs Gasser, Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems. Interoperability is a term used to describe the standardization and integration of technology. Palfrey discusses how the term can describe many relationships in the world and that it doesn’t have to be limited to technical systems. He also describes potential pitfalls of too much interoperability. Palfrey finds that greater levels of interoperability can lead to greater competition, collaboration, and the development of standards. It can also lead to giving less protection to privacy and security. The trick is to get to the right level of interoperability. If systems become too complex, then nobody can understand them and they can become unstable. Palfrey describes the current financial crises could be an example of this. Palfrey also describes the difficulty in finding the proper role of government in encouraging or discouraging interoperability.