Open Networks and Regulation

Thomas Hazlett, professor at George Mason and one of the smartest people writing about telecom regulation today, has an interesting column about the iPhone that’s largely framed as a rebuttal to this Slate column by Columbia law professor Tim Wu. Wu’s column, published the week of the iPhone launch, argues that the iPhone isn’t truly revolutionary because like other cell phones, it’s a “walled garden.” It only works with AT&T’s wireless service, and it only offers the features that Apple and AT&T have approved ahead of time. A truly revolutionary phone, Wu says, would be an open platform that would allow third parties to develop new applications and services.

Hazlett, in contrast, feels that Apple’s walled garden represents the ingenuity of the market process:

Apple could have offered its device as an “open” platform, but instead chose (as with iTunes, iPods and Apple computers) to control how it builds, and how buyers use, its product. It aims for competitive superiority. Quashing its model bops the innovator on the head.

Unbundling phones from networks is suggested as a policy fix in the US. European phones, working with different Sim cards across carriers and borders, are the model. Innovation in the European Union is said to flourish. But the iPhone came first to the US, as did the BlackBerry and advanced broadband networks using CDMA data formats. That is not surprising given that US networks are afforded wide latitude in designing their systems. Licences in the EU mandate a GSM standard. What is recommended as “open” in fact deprives customers of a most basic cellular choice: technology.

Personally, I think they’re both right. Hazlett is right that government regulation of spectrum is a bad idea, and that robust property rights are far preferable. But Wu is right that open platforms tend to be more innovative than closed platforms. For example, during the 1990s the Internet’s open architecture allowed the creation of dozens of innovative startups like Netscape, Yahoo, and Google. The closed networks of companies like AOL and Compuserve simply couldn’t compete. There’s every reason to think a similar explosion of innovation would happen if it became easier for third parties to build new wireless devices and applications.

And indeed, if you read Wu’s article closely, nowhere does it advocate government regulation. Wu’s article is about technology and economics, not public policy. It doesn’t say anything a libertarian couldn’t whole-heartedly endorse. Of course, Wu has argued elsewhere in support of government regulations to force wireless networks more open. And I think he’s wrong about that—you can listen to a conversation Wu and I had on the subject back in June here. But it’s entirely possible to agree with his technological point about the merits of open networks without jumping to the conclusion that government regulations are called for.

Indeed, I think it’s important that when libertarians argue in opposition to some government regulation, that we not fall into the trap of reflexively opposing the goal the regulation is trying to achieve. There are a lot of computer geeks who are passionate advocates of open networks because they believe (correctly in my view) that open networks tend to provide greater opportunities for entrepreneurship. The argument that closed networks are superior is not only dubious on its merits, but it’s also guaranteed to drive a lot of people into the arms of the pro-regulatory side. I think it’s far better to leave debates about network architecture to the geeks, and focus on the more fundamental point that government regulations inevitably have unintended consequences such as regulatory capture.