Tales of the Sausage Factory

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.

 

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Better Privacy Protections Won’t Kill Free Facebook.

Once upon a time, some people developed a new technology for freely communicating with people around the world. While initially the purview of techies and hobbyists, it didn’t take long for commercial interests to notice the insanely popular new medium and rapidly move to displace the amateur stuff with professional content. But these companies had a problem. For years, people had gotten used to the idea that if you paid for the equipment to access the content, you could receive the content for free. No one wanted to pay for this new, high quality (and expensive to make) content. How could private enterprise possibly make money (other than selling equipment) in a market where people insisted on getting new content every day — heck, every minute! — for free?

 

Finally, a young techie turned entrepreneur came up with a crazy idea. Advertising! This fellow realized that if he could attract a big enough audience, he could get people to pay him so much for advertising it would more than cover the cost of creating the content. Heck, he even seeded the business by paying people to take his content, just so he could sell more advertising. Everyone thought he was crazy. What? Give away content for free? How the heck can you make money giving it away for free? From advertising? Ha! Crazy kids with their whacky technology. But over the course of a decade, this young genius built one of the most lucrative and influential industries in the history of the world.

 

I am talking, of course, about William Paley, who invented the CBS broadcast network and figured out how to make radio broadcasting an extremely profitable business. Not only did Paley prove that you could make a very nice living giving away content supported by advertising, he also demonstrated that you didn’t need to know anything about your audience beyond the most basic raw numbers and aggregate information to do it. For the first 80 or so years of its existence, broadcast advertising depended on extrapolated guesses about total aggregate viewing audience and only the most general information about the demographics of viewership. Until the recent development of real-time information collection via set-top boxes, broadcast advertising (and cable advertising) depended on survey sampling and such broad categories as “18-25 year old males” to sell targeted advertising — and made a fortune while doing it.

 

We should remember this history when evaluating claims by Facebook and others that any changes to enhance user privacy will bring the digital world crashing down on us and force everyone to start paying for content. Setting aside that some people might actually like the option of paying for services in exchange for enhanced privacy protection (I will deal with why this doesn’t happen on its own in a separate blog post), history tells us that advertising can support free content just fine without needing to know every detail of our lives to serve us unique ads tailored to an algorithms best guess about our likes and dislikes based on multi-year, detailed surveillance of our every eye-muscle twitch. Despite the unfortunate tendency of social media to drive toward the most extreme arguments even at the best of times, “privacy regulation” is hardly an all or nothing proposition. We have a lot of room to address the truly awful problems with data collection and storage of personal information before we start significantly eating into the potential revenue of Facebook and other advertising supported media.

 

Mind you, I’m not promising that solid and effective privacy regulation would have no impact on the future revenue earning power of advertising. Sometimes, and again I recognize this will sound like heresy to a bunch of folks, we find that the overall public interest actually requires that we impose limits on profit making activities to protect people. But again, and as I find myself explaining every time we debate possible regulation in any context, we don’t face some Manichean choice between libertarian utopia and a blasted regulatory Hellscape where no business may offer a service without filling out 20 forms in triplicate. We have a lot of ways we can strike a reasonable balance that provides users with real, honest-to-God enforceable personal privacy, while keeping the advertising-supported digital economy profitable enough to thrive. My Public Knowledge colleague Allie Bohm has some concrete suggestions in this blog post here. I explore some broader possible theoretical dimensions of this balance below . . . .

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Posted in Privacy, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

Title II Doesn’t Give FCC New Rate Regulation Powers — For One Thing, Section 706 Already Did That.

As we get closer to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) historic vote on reclassifying broadband as Title II, we descend further into a phenomena I refer to as #broadbandghazi. Crazy conspiracy theories and wild allegations abound, with the faithful ever insisting that the latest revelation proves, PROVES I SAY, the nefariousness of the evil dictator and tyrant Obama. The very fact that there is no actual evidence only proves how NEFARIOUS and EVIL are his ObamaPlans ™, etc.

 

Case in point, the oft repeated meme by opponents of Title II that Section 201 — by its very nature — imposes “utility style rate regulation” on broadband. Commissioner Pai, who has come to exceed even his usual histrionics on this particular subject, dramatically and repeatedly pushed this meme at his recent press conference. “The American people are being misled by about President Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet,” dramatically declaimed Pai, not sounding in the least like a crazed-conspiracy theorist. (And no, I’m not exaggerating, that actually was his opening line. See his statement here.) “the claim that President Obama’s Plan to regulate the Internet does not include rate regulation is flat out false.” (emphasis in original, *sigh*) When pressed to explain whether he accused Chairman Wheeler of being a liar, Pai demurred slightly, explaining that while everything Wheeler said about forbearing from the explicit price regulation statutes, Section 201(b) (47 U.S.C. 201(b)), by prohibiting all rates and practices that are “unjust and unreasonable,” by its very nature imposes “utility style price regulation” on broadband since it would allow people to bring complaints that the price charged is unjust and unreasonable. Q.E.D. Accordingly, no matter what the FCC Order actually forbears from or says, PRICE REGULATION IS COMING!! BE AFRAID AMERICA!! UTILITY! UTILITY! Pai in particular points out that the proposed Order will — *gasp* — allow consumers to file complaints and even use the courts if broadband providers rip them off with unjust or unreasonable rates and practices. “The plan repeatedly invites complaints from end users and edge providers alike,” warns Pai, apparently unaware that most people like the idea of a consumer protection agency like the FCC being authorized to take complaints when companies screw them over with unjust and unreasonable rates (as demonstrated by this delightful “Ode to Comcast (while waiting for the cable guy)”).

 

A few problems with this argument. First and foremost, Section 706 (47 U.S.C. 1302(a)) explicitly directs the FCC to use “price caps” to promote broadband deployment. In fact, if you go read the statute, price caps are the first explicit authority the FCC is already directed to use under Section 706. Keep in mind that Section 706 applies to broadband already under Title I. So to the extent the argument is based on the idea that language in 201 adds new authority, this argument fails. The explicit directive in Section 706 for the FCC to use price caps as direct rate regulation far exceeds any secret plan to regulate prices by implication from the language in Section 201 despite lots of forbearance to the contrary.

 

Indeed, given the explicit price cap language in Section 706, the FCC forbearance from future price regulation tied to reclassification actually reduces the likelihood of “utility style rate regulation” from the existing Section 706 authority (because, as I discussed back in this blog post on forbearance, the FCC can actually forbear from future obligations that don’t exist yet).

 

There are lots of other problems with this argument as well, as Politifact found when Ted Cruz first raised it back in November. So I elaborate on all the reasons the “Section 201 means utility style price regulation” is bogus #broadbandghazi conspiracy mongering below. . . .

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