How Many Times Has Michael "Dr. Doom" Copps Forecast an Internet Apocalypse?
How many times can FCC Commissioner Michael Copps declare the Internet dead? Like a fire-and-brimstone preacher bombastically bellowing sermons warning of the impending End Times, Commissioner Copps has made a hobby out of declaring the Internet dead and buried unless drastic steps are taken right now to save cyberspace! The problem is, he's being saying this for the past decade and yet, despite generally laissez-faire policy in this arena, the Internet is still very much alive and well.
His biggest beef, of course, is Net Neutrality regulation--or the current lack thereof. He fears that without such a "Mother, May I" regulatory regime in place, the whole cyber-world is heading for eternal damnation. Echoing the fears of other Internet hyper-pessimists, Copps concocts grand conspiracy stories of nefarious corporate schemers hell-bent on quashing our digital liberties and foreclosing all Internet freedom.
Way back in 2003, for example, Comm. Copps delivered a doozy of a sermon at the New America Foundation entitled, "The Beginning of the End of the Internet." In the speech, Copps lamented that the "Internet may be dying" and only immediate action by regulators can save the day. Copps laid on the sky-is-falling rhetoric fairly thick: "I think we are teetering on a precipice . . . we could be on the cusp of inflicting terrible damage on the Internet. If we embrace closed networks, if we turn a blind eye to discrimination, if we abandon the end-to-end principle and decide to empower only a few, we will have inflicted upon one of history's most dynamic and potentially liberating technologies shackles that make a mockery of all the good things that might have been."
But that's hardly the only such fire-and-brimstone sermon that Rev. Comm. Copps has delivered about the death of the Internet.
Google / Verizon Proposal May Be Important Compromise, But Regulatory Trajectory Concerns Many
Recently, the Washington Post opined that the best way for the FCC to "regulate the Internet" was through a moderate approach, one which places limited authority in the Commission to address behavior that violates long-standing Net Neutrality practices.
The paper notes that Net Neutrality has been "a rule tacitly understood by Internet users and providers alike" for more than a decade. It then mildly rebukes the FCC's proposal to reclassify broadband providers as common carriers - "a move [which] would be a serious step backwards," in their view.
Within this context, the Post sees important compromise in the Google / Verizon legislative proposal, "especially its designation of the FCC as an adjudicatory body such as the Federal Trade Commission rather than one with intrusive regulatory authority."
[I am currently helping Berin Szoka edit a collection of essays from various Internet policy scholars for a new PFF book called "The Next Digital Decade: Essays about the Internet's Future." I plan on including two chapters of my own in the book responding to the two distinct flavors of Internet pessimism that I increasingly find are dominating discussions about Internet policy. Below you will see how the first of these two chapters begins. I welcome input as I refine this draft. ]
Surveying the prevailing mood surrounding cyberlaw and Internet policy circa 2010, one is struck by the overwhelming sense of pessimism about our long-term prospects for a better future. "Internet pessimism," however, comes in two very distinct flavors:
Net Lovers, Pessimistic about the Future of Openness: A different type of Internet pessimism is on display in the work of many leading cyberlaw scholars today. Noted academics such as Lawrence Lessig, (Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace), Jonathan Zittrain (The Future of the Internet & How to Stop It), and Tim Wu (The Master SwitchThe Rise and Fall of Information Empires), embrace the Internet and digital technologies, but argue that they are "dying" due to a lack of sufficient care or collective oversight. In particular, they fear that the "open" Internet and "generative" digital systems are giving way to closed, proprietary systems, typically run by villainous corporations out to erect walled gardens and quash our digital liberties. Thus, they are pessimistic about the long-term survival of the wondrous Internet that we currently know and love.
Despite their different concerns, two things unite these two schools of techno-pessimism.
The biggest changes in the wireless industry since 2000 have been consolidation among wireless carriers and increased use of wireless services by consumers. Industry consolidation has made it more difficult for small and regional carriers to be competitive. Difficulties for these carriers include securing subscribers, making network investments, and offering the latest wireless phones necessary to compete in this dynamic industry. Nevertheless, consumers have also seen benefits, such as generally lower prices, which are approximately 50 percent less than 1999 prices, and better coverage.
Now, if you are a self-described "consumer advocate," I would hope the bottom line here is pretty straightforward and refreshing: Prices fell by 50% in 10 years. That alone is an amazing success story. But that's not the end of the story. The more important fact is that prices fell by that much while innovation in this sector was also flourishing. Do you remember the phone you carried in your pocket -- if you could fit it in your pocket at all -- ten years ago? It was a pretty rudimentary device. It made calls and... well... it made calls. Now, think about the mini-computer that sits in your pocket right now. Stunning little piece of kit. It can text. It can do email. It can get Internet access. You can Twitter on it. Oh, and you can still make calls on it (but who wants to do that anymore!)
The point is, this is a great American capitalist success story that everyone -- especially "consumer advocates"-- should be celebrating. So, what does Public Knowledge president Gigi Sohn have to say?
"These trends do not bode well for consumers, despite any benefits of the moment," she told Ars Technica.
The August 5th issue of The Economist had a compelling cover story entitled "Leviathan, Inc." in which the author notes "[p]oliticians are reviving the notion that intervening in individual industries and companies can drive growth and create jobs." But direct, long-term government management of companies, corporations or, worst yet, entire industries has proven time and again not to be successful.
Simply put, the head of a company makes decisions to maximize the outcome for that company and its owners or shareholders. Any government employee—even one in a role as acting head of a private company—is legally required to make decisions under a far stricter set of guidelines. Guidelines which force the decisions to be made for what is best not for the business they are charged with operating, but for the country as a whole. This is the case even if the decision made by the bureaucrat will result in a 'net negative' to the company and its owners/shareholders.
The article's anonymous author suggests that instead of "pick[ing] winners and coddl[ing] losers," government should improve the environment for all business by reducing regulations, investing in infrastructure, and "encourage winners to emerge by themselves, for example through the sort of incentive prizes that are growing increasingly popular."
Governments Privatizing Public Utilities Even As Some Want to Convert Internet Into One
Two articles of interest in today's Wall Street Journal with indirect impact on the debate over the future of Internet policy. First, there's a front-page story ("Facing Budget Gaps, Cities Sell Parking, Airports, Zoo") documenting how many cities are privatizing various services -- including some considered "public utilities" -- in order to help balance budgets. The article worries about "fire-sale" prices and the loss of long-term revenue because of the privatizations. But the author correctly notes that the more important rationale for privatization is that, "In many cases, the private takeover of government-controlled industry or services can result in more efficient and profitable operations." Moreover, any concern about "fire-sale" prices and long-term revenue losses have to be stacked again the massive inefficiencies / costs associated with ongoing government management of resources /networks.
Of course, what's so ironic about this latest privatization wave is that it comes at a time when some regulatory activists are clamoring for more regulation of the Internet and calling for broadband to be converted into a plain-vanilla public utility. For example, Free Press founder Robert McChesney has argued that "What we want to have in the U.S. and in every society is an Internet that is not private property, but a public utility." That certainly doesn't seem wise in light of the track record of past experiments with government-owned or regulated utilities. And the fact that we are talking about something as complex and fast-moving as the Internet and digital networks makes the task even more daunting.
Government mismanagement of complex technology projects was on display in a second article in today's Journal ("U.S. Reviews Tech Spending.") Amy Schatz notes that "Obama administration officials are considering overhauling 26 troubled federal technology projects valued at as much as $30 billion as part of a broader effort by White House budget officials to cut spending. Projects on the list are either over budget, haven't worked as expected or both, say Office of Management and Budget officials." I'm pleased to hear that the Administration is taking steps to rectify such waste and mismanagement, but let's not lose sight of the fact that this is the same government that the Free Press folks want to run the Internet. Not smart.
Crovitz on the Great Internet Optimist vs. Pessimist Debate
I've noted here before that Gordon Crovitz is my favorite technology policy columnist and that everything he pens for his "Information Age" column for The Wall Street Journal is well worth reading. His latest might be his best ever. It touches upon the great debate between Internet optimists and pessimists regarding the impact of digital technology on our culture and economy. His title is just perfect: "Is Technology Good or Bad? Yes." His point is that you can find evidence that technological change has both beneficial and detrimental impacts, and plenty of people on both sides of the debate to cite it for you.
This is a subject I've spent a lot of time noodling over here through the years and, most recently, I compiled all my random thoughts into a mega-post asking, "Are You an Internet Optimist or Pessimist?" That post tracks all the leading texts on both sides of this debate. I was tickled, therefore, when Gordon contacted me and asked for comment for his story after seeing my piece. [See, people really do still read blogs!]
Back in March, the Motion Picture Association of America re-launched its film-rating website, filmratings.com. While this may be old news to some, I just learned about it from a post on BoingBoing which makes fun of the rationales given for the ratings, which are available on the new website. Example: The movie "3 Ninjas Knuckle Up" was "rated PG-13 for non-stop ninja action."
Net Neutrality, Banned Business Models & Price Controls
I continue to be mystified by the contention of some Net neutrality advocates that it is not a form of economic regulation. The reality, of course, is that Net neutrality would ban business models and necessitate price controls. If that ain't regulation, I don't know what is. As Robert Litan and Hal Singer note in their new Harvard Business Review essay, "Why Business Should Oppose Net Neutrality," "Non-discrimination under the FCC's net neutrality proposal means that ISPs cannot offer enhanced services beyond the plain-vanilla access service to content providers at any price." Thus, any type of service prioritization or price discrimination would be prohibited under the FCC's Net neutrality regulatory regime.
As I explained in this earlier essay and in the video below, this would be a disaster for investment, innovation, and consumer welfare. Differentiated and prioritized services and pricing are part of almost every industrial sector in a capitalistic economy, and there's no reason things should it be any different for broadband. As Litan and Singer note, "The concept of premium services and upgrades should be second-nature to businesses. From next-day delivery of packages to airport lounges, businesses value the option of upgrading when necessary. That one customer chooses to purchase the upgrade while the next opts out would never be considered 'discriminatory.'"
And let's not forget, something has to pay for Internet access and investment in new facilities. Differentiated services can help by allowing carriers to price more intensive or specialized users and uses to ensure that carriers don't have to hit everyone - including average household users - with the same bill for service. Why would we want to make that illegal through Net neutrality regulation and the misguided price control schemes of a bygone regulatory era?
Google's Schmidt on Targeted Ads, Monetization & the Future of News
Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins has a terrific, wide-ranging interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt in today's paper that is well worth reading. One thing worth highlighting is Schmidt's comments on the "economic disaster that is the American newspaper." He argues that, "The only way the problem [of insufficient revenue for news gathering] is going to be solved is by increasing monetization, and the only way I know of to increase monetization is through targeted ads."
The reason for the indispensability of advertising is simple: Information (including news and other forms of "content") has "public good" characteristics that make it is very difficult (and occasionally impossible) for information-publishers to recoup their investments. Simply put, they quite literally lack pricing power: Whatever they charge, someone else will charge less for a close substitute, inevitably leading to "free" distribution of the content, even though the content is anything but free to produce. Advertising is the one business model that has traditionally saved the day by rewarding publishers for attracting the attention of an audience.
Thus an attack on advertising is an attack on media / news itself. And yet Washington is currently engaged in an all-out assault on advertising, marketing, and data collection efforts / business models.
Incidentally, Google recentlysubmitted comments with the Federal Trade Commission in reaction to its Staff Discussion Draft about the future of journalism and laid out their views on many of these issues. More importantly, as summarized on pg. 30 (of the pdf) of this Newspaper Association of America filing to the FTC, Google has proposed an interesting monetization model that utilizes Google Search, Google Checkout and DoubleClick ad server, "to build a premium content system for newspapers." Worth checking out. Kudos to Google for taking these steps and to Schmidt for again stressing the importance of targeted advertising for the future of media.