Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

FCC Fading into Irrelevancy

A fun news item for free-marketers who enjoy watching technology make government regulation (and justification for regulation) obsolete: Today’s Washington Post reports that the Internet has so altered media conglomerates’ business models as to make the Federal Communications Commission’s broadcast media ownership limits irrelevant.

Few people know that the FCC has strict rules limiting broadcast media firms’ ownership of various outlets in both local and national markets. A firm that owns TV stations is barred from owning enough stations to broadcast to a majority of the U.S. population, and a firm that owns the largest newspaper in a local market cannot also own the most-watched TV station in that market.

Michael Powell’s FCC tried to relax those rules in 2003, and with good reason. But the courts and Congress stamped out that effort. As the WP explains, media firms have subsequently taken a second look at Internet communications, shaking off Time Warner’s bad experience with AOL and Disney’s with the go.com network.

The result? According to the WP, media firms are finding so many profitable outlets on the Internet that they’re hardly interested in Congress’s and the FCC’s new receptiveness to the idea of relaxing the ownership rules.

A.I. Yai Yai!

Economist Robin Hanson suspects that the world economy may soon be doubling every week or two. He arrived at that suspicion based on historical extrapolations, but he also has a theory as to how it might happen: the development, in the near future, of intelligent machines.

According to Hanson, efforts to computationally model the human brain, neuron by neuron, could reach fruition within the next 25 to 50 years. He plays pretty fast and loose with the details, though, so let’s take a closer look at the bleeding edge of the field.

The mother of all brain simulation projects is Blue Brain, a joint project of IBM and Ecole Polytecnique Fédérale de Lausanne (a Swiss town also known for its lower tech, but tastier, fondue). Announced with much fanfare in 2005, Blue Brain has as its anything-but-modest mission to create a complete and exhaustively accurate simulation of the human brain within a decade or so. They figure they can knock out the neo-cortex in the next few years.

Somebody buy these guys a calculator.

The current Blue Brain hardware has 8,000 processors and they have apparently set it up so that one chip models one or two neurons. That has allowed them, as of this month, to model a 10,000 neuron grouping called a “column.” That’s hugely impressive. But, umm, 10,000 down, 99,999,990,000 to go.

The human brain is estimated to have about 100 billion neurons, so they’re going to need another 10 million or so Blue Brain computers to finish the job given the current specs. They’re having a tough time convincing the Swiss government to spring for another one or two of them.

Mind you, computer processing power per dollar has been increasing exponentially over time since the earliest electromechanical computers. So maybe, in a generation, we’ll be revisiting this question. But that’s an awfully big maybe.

It seems doubtful that we’ll be able to create Marvin the paranoid android any time this century. And it’ll be some time after that before the technology is commercialized and we all have “plastic pals” who are “fun to be with!”

So keep contributing to that 401K. It’s gonna be a while before it starts doubling every week or two.

Sense and Sensenbrenner

Congressional whining over the FBI raid of Rep. William Jefferson’s office has reached the point of self-parody. Rep. James Sensenbrenner has now called for rare out-of-session hearings on the raid, titled, “Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?”

This would be the same James Sensenbrenner who wants to give federal law enforcement the power to snoop in on your Internet browsing, and who recently introduced a bill that would send parents to prison if they learn of drug activity near their children and fail to report it to authorities within 24 hours.

“Trampling the Constitution,” indeed. Amazing how reverent politicians get for the Constitution and the rights of the accused when one of their own is under the gun.

When is Market Power Not Market Power?

… When it’s online!

Google is the dominant search engine. Everybody knows that. As such, it’s an important bottleneck. If you can’t get your stuff out on Google, you’ll have a hard time getting your stuff out. Right?

Rumors are swirling that Google News has declined to treat certain news sources as news sources because of allegedly “hateful” content. Are sites critical of Islam being “disappeared” from Google News? If it’s true, that’s a bad thing. I don’t agree with hatred of Islam, but I want the fullest airing of people’s views on those issues.

So, if it’s true, something should be done. But what? Sue? Seek public-utility-style regulation for search, as is being done with broadband?

Or maybe what needs to be done is already being done.

I just said that rumors are swirling. How much of a bottleneck can Google be when its alleged censoriousness is broadcast by popular blogger Instapundit? This has probably already given more ‘ink’ to these marginal sites than being ranked on Google would.

Take a look again at the NewsBusters site I linked to above where I said “Rumors are swirling”. The discussion includes lots of people swearing off Google, arguing about Google’s search algorithms, comparing Google searches to Yahoo! searches, and yapping about other, dumber stuff.

In other words, based on the rumor that Google is treating certain sites badly, the people that disagree with that are talking about it, changing their search habits, and encouraging others to do so. In precise proportion to the importance of this issue to people in society, Google is losing business. This is what we call a self-correcting market. Google’s market power is feeble. Consumers are in the driver’s seat.

(N.B. Haters of Islam are but a small part of the overall market. If Google chooses not to make those sites available and the majority of consumers accept that, that is by definition what serves the greatest number in the best way. Opponents of that freedom should be clear that they want consumers not to get what they want. They want to force disagreeable speech on an unwelcoming public using government power. Now that would be a bad thing.)

 (Cross-posted from TechLiberationFront)

“Net Neutrality” Grasstroturf

The opponents of broadband regulation have produced an amusing animation that pretty effectively skewers the campaign for “net neutrality.” Why, yes, of course it’s produced by large corporations seeking after their own interests. But the piece effectively points out that the campaign for federal regulation of broadband is also a product of large corporations seeking after their own interests.

So, if it’s a debate between two large corporate interests, we can drop the ad hominem and just discuss which group of large corporations is trying to protect its property and its investments, and which group of large corporations is trying to win rents through the legislative and regulatory process. Figured it out yet? Good.

(Cross-posted from TechLiberationFront)