We Need To Fix The News Media, Not Just Social Media Part I

A substantially similar version of this appeared on the blog of my employer, Public Knowledge.

Focusing blame Google and Facebook for the decline of in-depth news reporting and print journalism ignores the real and long-standing problems that lie at the heart of our troubled relationship with corporate media. Insisting that these companies should fund existing corporate media, or that we should solve the problem by allowing even more consolidation, would be a disaster for democracy.

Almost 20 years ago, I left private practice to work for a nonprofit law firm called Media Access Project (MAP). MAP focused on promoting policies designed to encourage the production of diverse news and views in the electronic media. When I joined MAP in July of 1999, we were facing a crisis of consolidation in the news industry, the rise of polarization, and the dissemination of “fake news” for both commercial and political purposes. Academics and pundits lamented the death of serious journalism, the tyranny of the ever faster news cycle, and the poisoning public discourse with increasingly coarse, angry, and vile commentary that pandered to people’s worst instincts. A new class of wildly popular and increasingly influential pundits sowed distrust for the “MSM” (“mainstream media”) and denounced anyone who disagreed with them as enemies of freedom. Meanwhile, the increasingly vertically and horizontally concentrated news industry cut costs by dramatically cutting reporting staff and reporting resources, and chased “synergies” by using the news to shamelessly cross-promote their entertainment and publishing products. News coverage was increasingly turning into “infotainment” (or, more politely, “soft news”). To the extent political coverage existed outside the polarized world of political punditry, it was reduced from genuine analysis to “horse race” coverage. No one in the news, it seemed, wanted to discuss actual substance – only which political party or politician was “winning” or “losing.” Even worse, a new cottage industry emerged to create and promote “fake news” in the form of Video News Releases and national syndicated broadcasts designed to appear both local and live.

Small wonder that audiences for news increasingly declined, and distrust of the media reached historic levels. To make matters even worse, the “cure” proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was to relax the remaining broadcast ownership rules, inviting further consolidation. Only by increasing consolidation, the industry argued, could the news industry survive in the face of fragmenting audiences, emerging competition from the internet, and declining newspaper revenues.

That was back in the late 1990s and early 00s. To quote Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again.” Except this time, instead of blaming “the internet” and the public’s supposed lack of interest in real news, people now blame Google and Facebook. Why? Because they are big. Because they derive their revenue from digital advertising at a time when print journalism has seen revenue from classified advertising drop precipitously low. Because “Google and Facebook, we hates it precious!,” and one should never miss an opportunity to link a problem to Google and Facebook and proclaim “delenda est!” Likewise, the proposed remedies have a very familiar feel. Allow the news media to consolidate further by relaxing the FCC ownership rules and creating exemptions to existing antitrust law, and/or preserve their historic revenue stream from classified ads (either by destroying Google and Facebook or making them pay tribute to existing media companies). These solutions have particular appeal to incumbent publishers, as they simultaneously absolve the existing media of any responsibility for the current state of journalism and cement the dominance of the existing corporate media giants.

It is precisely because the stakes are so high, however, that we need to look with extreme skepticism at proposals primarily designed to prop up the current consolidated and dysfunctional media landscape. If we want to address the very real problems created by a dysfunctional media, we need to separate which of these problems can properly be attributed to dominant platforms and which to structural problems in the traditional news industry. Additionally, legitimate fears of the ability of dominant platforms to act as gatekeepers, or concerns about their outsized influence on the economics of news production and dissemination, should not justify solutions that destroy the extremely important role these platforms have played – and continue to play – in civic engagement and enhancing the creation of new and independent outlets for news.

Read More »

Also posted in "A Republic, if you can keep it", How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, Media Ownership, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Leave a comment

What Problem Does Cryptocurrency Solve? Ask Any Small Business — or the Collins Family.

NY Times Columnist and Nobel Prizewinning economist Paul Krugman is a cryptocurrency skeptic. I don’t follow it closely enough to have an informed opinion, but I see nothing wrong with being skeptical of cryptocurrency. But after explaining his reasoning for skepticism, Krugman concludes with the following question:

“So that’s why I’m a crypto skeptic. Could I be wrong? Of course. But if you want to argue that I’m wrong, please answer the question, what problem does cryptocurrency solve? Don’t just try to shout down the skeptics with a mixture of technobabble and libertarian derp.”

Challenge accepted! Because while I respect Dr. Krugman and generally have similar politics, he has fallen into the classic mistake of establishment economists in this area. The current set of electronic transaction mechanisms works very well for him and most people like him — so why would anyone want to change? Other than for nefarious purposes, of course.

 

Short answer: The highly concentrated nature of the payment processing industry and the banking industry generally creates lots of hidden transaction costs, permits extraction of rents and imposition of onerous terms on merchants, and can be exploited by government to impose extra-legal sanctions on disapproved businesses or individuals without due process.

 

Even shorter answer: Cryptocurrency solves the gatekeeper problem and creates competition in electronic payment processing.

 

I unpack below, but it will speed things along if you first read the recent Supreme Court decision in Ohio v. Amex and this Washington Post article on how the Collins family of Kansas found their Bank of America account frozen.

Read More »

Also posted in Tales of the Sausage Factory | Tagged , , | 2 Comments (Comments closed)

CPNI Is More Than Just Consumer Privacy — How To Apply It To Digital Platforms.

This is the fourth blog post in a series on regulating digital platforms. A substantially similar version of this was published by my employer Public Knowledge. You can view the full series here. You can find the previous post in this series on Wetmachine here.

 

“Customer proprietary network information,” usually abbreviated as “CPNI,” refers to a very specific set of privacy regulations governing telecommunications providers (codified at 47 U.S.C. §222) and enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But while CPNI provides some of the strongest consumer privacy protections in federal law, it also does much more than that. CPNI plays an important role in promoting competition for telecommunications services and for services that require access to the underlying telecommunications network — such as alarm services. To be clear, CPNI is neither a replacement for general privacy nor a substitute for competition policy. Rather, these rules prohibit telecommunications providers from taking advantage of their position as a two-sided platform. As explained below, CPNI prevents telecommunications carriers from using data that customers and competitors must disclose to the carrier for the system to work.

All of which brings us to our first concrete regulatory proposal for digital platforms. As I discuss below, the same concerns that prompted the FCC to invent CPNI rules in the 1980s and Congress to expand them in the 1990s apply to digital platforms today. First, because providers of potentially competing services must expose proprietary information to the platform for the service to work, platform operators can use their rivals’ proprietary information to offer competing services. If someone sells novelty toothbrushes through Amazon, Amazon can track if the product is selling well, and use that information to make its own competing toothbrushes.

 

Second, the platform operator can compromise consumer privacy without access to the content of the communication by harvesting all sorts of information about the communication and the customer generally. For example, If I’m a mobile phone platform or service, I can tell if you are calling your mother every day like a good child should, or if you are letting her sit all alone in the dark, and whether you are having a long conversation or just blowing her off with a 30-second call. Because while I know you are so busy up in college with all your important gaming and fraternity business, would it kill you to call the woman who carried you for nine months and nearly died giving birth to you? And no, a text does not count. What, you can’t actually take the time to call and have a real conversation? I can see by tracking your iPhone that you clearly have time to hang out at your fraternity with your friends and go see Teen Titans Go To The Movies five times this week, but you don’t have time to call your mother?

 

As you can see, both to protect consumer privacy and to promote competition and protect innovation, we should adopt a version of CPNI for digital platforms. And call your mother more often. I’m just saying.

Once again, before I dig into the substance, I warn readers that I do not intend to address either whether the regulation should apply exclusively to dominant platforms or what federal agency (if any) should enforce these regulations. Instead, in an utterly unheard of approach for Policyland, I want to delve into the substance of why we need real CPNI for digital platforms and what that would look like.

Read More »

Also posted in Tales of the Sausage Factory | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

Using The Cost of Exclusion to Measure The Dominance of Digital Platforms.

This is the third blog post in a series on regulating digital platforms. A version of this first appeared on the blog of my employer, Public Knowledge.

 

In my last blog post, I explained my working definition for what constitutes a “digital platform.” Today, I focus on another concept that gets thrown around a lot: “dominant.” While many regulations promoting consumer protection and competition apply throughout a sector, some economic regulations apply to “dominant” firms or firms with “market power.” Behavior that is harmless, or potentially even positive when done by smaller companies or in a more competitive marketplace, can be anticompetitive or harmful to consumers when done by dominant firms — regardless of the firm’s actual intent.

For reasons discussed in my previous blog posts, defining what constitutes “dominant” (or even identifying a single market in which to make such a determination), presents many challenges using the traditional tools of analysis favored by antitrust enforcers and regulators. I therefore propose that we use the cost of exclusion (“COE,” because nothing in policy is taken seriously unless it has its own acronym) as the means of determining when we need to apply regulation to “dominant” firms. That is to say, the greater the cost to individuals and firms (whether as consumers or producers or any of the other roles they may play simultaneously on digital platforms), the greater the need for regulations to protect platform users from harm. If a firm is “too big to lose access to,” then we should treat that firm as dominant.

 

Read More »

Also posted in Tales of the Sausage Factory | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments (Comments closed)

So What The Heck *IS* A Digital Platform?

This is the second blog in a series on regulating digital platforms. A (less snaky) version first appeared on the blog of my employer, Public Knowledge.


In Part I, I explored the challenges of regulating digital platforms to promote competition, protect consumers, and encourage news production and civic engagement. Today, I plan to dive into the first set of challenges. First, I define what I mean when I talk about digital platforms. I will argue that platforms that (a) provide a two-sided or multi-sided market; (b) are accessed via the internet; and (c) have at least one side that is marketed as a “mass market” service, share a set of characteristics and raise a similar set of concerns so that we should consider them as a distinct set of businesses.


Let me stress at the outset something that I will repeat multiple times. First and foremost, describing the common attributes of platforms does not make value judgments about whether these attributes are bad or good. Indeed, many of the attributes I describe have enormous positive effects for consumers, competition, and civic discourse. At the same time, however, the implications of these specific attributes give rise to a number of unique concerns that we read about every day, ranging from companies using targeted advertising to stalk people to extremists using social media to radicalize and recruit.


Equally important, nothing in sector-specific regulation replaces antitrust or consumer protection laws of general applicability. Nor does it suggest that digital services that do not meet the definition of a “digital platform” do not need oversight. Rather, both the definitions I propose below and the sector-specific recommendations that flow from them (discussed in future blog posts) complement each other. The fact that many platform attributes complicate existing antitrust analysis does not mean that antitrust law has now lost its utility as an important tool for protecting competition. But even embracing a broader view of antitrust law and its goals, there remains an important role for sector-specific regulation to address concerns that arise from the unique nature of digital platforms (as unique from other sectors of the economy).


Finally, before diving in, I must caveat this with the recognition that this is a field very much in flux. I have identified what I think are the important elements which, taken together, make digital platforms different from other lines of business or even other “internet companies.” Nor is this the only potentially useful distinction. In the past, for example, I have argued that we should also distinguish between “public utility” concerns (services so important the government has an affirmative responsibility to ensure affordable access for everyone) and services that, while important, do not rise to this level. Deputy Director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology Laura Moy, in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, provides an excellent distinction between “essential services” and “unavoidable services,” i.e., services so ubiquitous they are virtually impossible to avoid in one form or another. Others have different definitions of platforms, and/or different distinctions among them.


The definition I propose here is therefore not intended as a final conclusion, but an initial working definition to debate and refine over time. 

 

With all that out of the way, lets move on to the good stuff . . .



Read More »

Also posted in Tales of the Sausage Factory | Tagged , , | Comments closed

Why Platform Regulation Is Both Necessary and Hard.

This is the first blog in a series on regulating digital platforms.

 

As digital platforms have become increasingly important in our everyday lives, we’ve recognized that the need for some sort of regulatory oversight increases. In the past, we’ve talked about this in the context of privacy and what general sorts of due process rights dominant platforms owe their customers. Today, we make it clear that we have reached the point where we need sector-specific regulation focused on online digital platforms, not just application of existing antitrust or existing consumer protection laws. When platforms have become so central to our lives that a change in algorithm can dramatically crash third-party businesses, when social media plays such an important role in our lives that entire businesses exist to pump up your follower numbers, and when a multi-billion dollar industry exists for the sole purpose of helping businesses game search engine rankings, lawmakers need to stop talking hopefully about self-regulation and start putting in place enforceable rights to protect the public interest.

 

That said, we need to recognize at the outset that a lot of things make it rather challenging to  figure out what kind of regulation actually makes sense in this space. Although Ecclesiastes assures us “there is nothing new under the sun,” digital platforms combine issues we’ve dealt with in electronic media (and elsewhere) in novel ways that make applying traditional solutions tricky. Before diving into the solution, therefore, we need to (a) define the problem, and (b) decide what kind of outcome we want to see.

 

Read More »

Also posted in General, Life In The Sausage Factory, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Comments closed
  • Connect With Us

    Follow Wetmachine on Twitter!

Username
Password

If you do not have an account: Register