Tag: Internet

European Criticism of American Internet Platforms

The Guardian reports on calls by German chancellor Angela Merkel for internet platforms to “divulge the secrets of their algorithms”:

Angela Merkel has called on major internet platforms to divulge the secrets of their algorithms, arguing that their lack of transparency endangers debating culture.

The German chancellor said internet users had a right to know how and on what basis the information they received via search engines was channelled to them.

Speaking to a media conference in Munich, Merkel said: “I’m of the opinion that algorithms must be made more transparent, so that one can inform oneself as an interested citizen about questions like ‘what influences my behaviour on the internet and that of others?’.

“Algorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to a distortion of our perception, they can shrink our expanse of information.”

An algorithm is the formula used by a search engine to steer a request for information. They are different for every search engine, highly secret and determine the significance or ranking of a web page.

Merkel has joined a growing number of critics who have highlighted the dangers of receiving information that confirms an existing opinion or is recommended by people with similar ideas.

“This is a development that we need to pay careful attention to,” she told the conference, adding that a healthy democracy was dependent on people being confronted by opposing ideas.

“The big internet platforms, through their algorithms, have become an eye of a needle which diverse media must pass through [to access their users],” she said.

My sense is that some Europeans are frustrated at how American companies dominate many aspects of the Internet. However, instead of trying to compete with the American companies in the marketplace (which would be a welcome development, as more competition is good), they have decided that regulating these companies (e.g., through antitrust scrutiny) is their best strategy for reducing American dominance.

Appeals Court Approves Net Neutrality Rules

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld on Tuesday June 14, 2016 so called “net neutrality” rules issues by the Federal Communications Commission in February 2015.  Two previous attempts by the FCC to regulate the internet under different sections of the Telecommunications Act were overturned by the same court in 2010 and 2014 reflecting the traditional policy distinction between heavily regulated traditional telephone landline service and so-called information services involving computers that were not regulated.

The rule issued by the FCC in 2015 reclassified internet services as falling under the same legal regime as traditional telephone service.  Yesterday’s Appeal Court decision accepts that reclassification and the legal authority that goes with it.

Regulation has published four articles in the last two years year criticizing traditional public utility regulation of the internet.  Christopher Yoo from the University of Pennsylvania argues that traditional telephone regulation envisions a monopoly service and government oversight ostensibly intended to limit prices and expand service provision. But the expansion of wireless high-speed Internet has allowed multiple competitive providers to provide service to a large majority of American consumers while restraining capital costs.  “What Hath the FCC Wrought”, by former FCC chief economist Gerald Faulhaber, argues that service quality will suffer to the extent that internet access providers can’t charge more for streams that impose greater costs on the system. Kansas State professor Dennis Weisman argues that internet regulation will likely protect competitors from competition rather than serve consumer interests just like the old telephone regulatory scheme. And Larry Downes from the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy argues that the movement to re-regulate telecom is propelled by some firms’ quest for rents under new regulation, and by Federal Communications Commission attempt to regain political power and the benefits that come with it. 

Internet Industry More Popular Than Ever-60% Have Favorable View

New polling from Gallup finds that more Americans view the internet industry favorably than any time since Gallup began asking the question in 2001. Today, 60% of Americans have either a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” view of the industry, compared to 49% in 2014.

Favorability toward the Internet industry has ebbed and flowed during the 2000s, but today marks the most positive perception of the industry. Compared to other industries, Gallup found that the Internet industry ranks third behind the restaurant and computer industries.

Perceptions have improved across most demographic groups, with the greatest gains found among those with lower levels of education, Republicans and independents. It is likely these groups are “late adopters” of technology and have grown more favorable as they’ve come to access it. Indeed, late adopters have been found to be older, less educated and more conservative. Pew also finds that early users of the Internet have been younger, more urban, higher income Americans, and those with more education. Indeed, as Internet usage has soared from 55% to 2001 to 84% in 2014, many of these new users come from the ranks of conservative late adopters.

These data suggest the more Americans learn about the Internet the more they come to like it and appreciate the companies who use it as a tool to offer consumer goods and services.

Please find full results at Gallup.

Research assistant Nick Zaiac contributed to this post.

Free Trade on the Internet

This is from a recent speech by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR):

Today, the Internet represents the shipping lane of 21st Century goods and services. It is reshaping global commerce just like social media is reshaping societies. But right now the trade rules don’t neatly apply to the digital economy, despite the growing number of protectionist barriers popping up. The most recent WTO rules were written before the Internet.

It’s time for the digital economy to be within the Winners Circle by keeping data flows open and ensuring that foreign markets aren’t more legally hazardous than the U.S.

This is an important point. With regard to international trade in goods, the impact of the Internet has been significant, but only within certain limits. With the exception of goods for which electronic versions have been developed, you still need to make the goods at a factory and ship them around the world.  

With services, by contrast, the Internet revolution has been greater. A number of services that used to be difficult to trade internationally at all are now tradable with the click of a mouse. To use an example I’ve written about recently, online higher education services are taking off. Someday soon it may be just as convenient for a Washingtonian to get a degree from Melbourne University in Australia as it is to do so from Georgetown.

One problem, though, as Senator Wyden points out, is that many of our international trade rules were written in the pre-Internet era. This became apparent during the WTO dispute over online gambling. The rules could barely fit with this new industry.

FCC Takes Eye Off Ball, Leaves Court in Defeat

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit served the Tennis Channel a crushing blow, essentially holding that government agencies cannot tell cable operators what networks should be disseminated to consumers.  

The court found that the FCC had made an unforced error in ruling that Comcast had acted illegally against the Tennis Channel by refusing to distribute it as widely as Comcast’s own sports networks, Golf Channel and Versus.  This was a challenge based on Section 616 of the Communications Act, which gives the FCC authority to prevent “multichannel video programming distributors” from restraining the ability of unaffiliated “video program vendors” from competing “fairly by discriminating” – a broad power that the FCC still managed to abuse here.

Initially, the Tennis Channel contracted with Comcast to distribute its content on Comcast’s less broadly distributed sports tier.  It later approached Comcast with a proposal to reposition the channel onto a tier with broader distribution.  Comcast backhanded this proposal, citing financial impracticability – a basic analysis of whether such a move would make sense given ratings, market demand, etc.  An FCC administrative law judge, without citing contrary financial studies (or even a video replay) then corrected what he deemed to be marketplace “discrimination” and ordered Comcast to pay $375,000 to the government and make the Tennis Channel more widely available to consumers.

On appeal, the D.C. Circuit smashed that finding of unlawful discrimination. Indeed, substituting the judgment of an administrative agency for a freely agreed distribution deal for no good reason flouts basic principles of administrative and contract law.  Even in this day of government overreach, it’s just not cricket!

Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion warrants special attention – and applause.  He concluded that Section 616’s prohibition on discrimination only applies when a distributor possesses market power and that Comcast has no such advantage in the national video programming distribution market. According to Kavanaugh, applying Section 616 to a video programming distributor that lacks market power is not only outside the lines of the Communications Act, but the First Amendment as well.

That is, when Comcast distributes specific channels, it’s transmitting speech.  Overruling a cable operator’s programming choices thus interferes with editorial discretion to select and transmit a protected form of speech.  Courts should continue to umpire federal agencies that grant themselves the power to distort the marketplace of ideas.

For more on this case and the important First Amendment and rule of law issues it raises, see Randolph May of the Free State Foundation.

A Dogged Insistence on Real Numbers

The Freakonomics blog has an excellent post on the bills in Congress popularly known as SOPA and PIPA. The “Stop Online Piracy Act” and the “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act” aka the “PROTECT IP Act” would attempt to frustrate online copyright violations by tinkering with the inner workings of the Internet.

Would amending the Internet be justified? The post is called “How Much Do Music and Movie Piracy Really Hurt the U.S. Economy?”:

Supporters of stronger intellectual property enforcement … argue that online piracy is a huge problem, one which costs the U.S. economy between $200 and $250 billion per year, and is responsible for the loss of 750,000 American jobs. These numbers seem truly dire: a $250 billion per year loss would be almost $800 for every man, woman, and child in America. And 750,000 jobs – that’s twice the number of those employed in the entire motion picture industry in 2010. The good news is that the numbers are wrong …

Freakonomics’ authors picked up two good authorities: Cato’s own Julian Sanchez and Cato’s own (adjunct) Tim Lee. It’s nice to see Cato scholars getting high-profile credit for their dogged insistence on real numbers, something Congress routinely fails to exhibit.

Losses from violations of copyright law are hard to calculate.

There are certainly a lot of people who download music and movies without paying. It’s clear that, at least in some cases, piracy substitutes for a legitimate transaction … In other cases, the person pirating the movie or song would never have bought it. This is especially true if the consumer lives in a relatively poor country, like China, and is simply unable to afford to pay for the films and music he downloads. Do we count this latter category of downloads as “lost sales”? Not if we’re honest.

And there’s another problem: even in the instances where Internet piracy results in a lost sale, how does that lost sale affect the job market? While jobs may be lost in the movie or music industry, they might be created in another. Money that a pirate doesn’t spend on movies and songs is almost certain to be spent elsewhere. Let’s say it gets spent on skateboards — the same dollar lost by Sony Pictures may be gained by Alien Workshop, a company that makes skateboards.

The challenges go deeper: The theoretical arguments about intellectual property laws are a congeries. Libertarian advocates of statutory intellectual property protection will cite Ayn Rand, who was a stalwart on defending creations of the mind as property. But a coherent system of rights does not produce conflicting claims, and intellectual property laws seem to exalt the property of some at a cost to the liberty of others. The some, in this case, are the music and movie industries, the others, Internet content companies and users.

This area still needs a good deal of sorting out. For the time being, a firm insistence on real numbers is a good thing. Serious empirical work is sorely needed. Killing off bogus numbers can only go so far.

But Don’t We Really Need Government Research?

It’s a valuable public good, research is, isn’t it? Think of where we’d be without it! I mean, it was government research that came up with the Internet, for heaven sake.

That’s a response to the argument I made last week against government funding of scientific research. Moving away from public funding of scientific research would solve the problem of private companies capturing publication spoils from research that taxpayers funded.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency did indeed come up with and popularize the protocol called TCP/IP, which the Internet uses. (Everyone’s use of the protocol really makes the Internet what it is, of course, but nevermind that.)

To take the Internet as proof that the government is a necessary producer of research and innovation, you have to reject the scientific method. Unfortunately, there are rarely controls in public policy. We can’t find out what would have happened if government policy had taken a different course, so we don’t know anything more about who should fund research from the fact that government-funded research has produced good things in the past.

But what would have happened if U.S. public policy had taken a different course? I’ve thought about the impossible-to-answer question of where we would have been without DARPA and other government influences on telecom. What most people don’t consider, I believe, is the restraining influence the government-granted AT&T monopoly had on telecommunications for most of the 20th century. AT&T developed a “Teletypewriter Exchange” system in 1931, for example, but had no need to develop it, there being little or no competitive pressure to do so. (Its patent on attaching devices to phone wires undoubtedly helped as well, preventing anyone using AT&T’s wires for modem service.)

Had there been competition, I suspect that someone would have come up with the idea of packet-switched networks—that’s what the Internet is—before Leonard Kleinrock did in 1962. Kleinrock was a student at MIT—he wasn’t at DARPA, which didn’t get into packet-switching until about 1966. (Then again, MIT was almost certainly awash in government money—specifically military money—so there you go. Maybe we owe all the good things we’ve got to war, but I doubt it.)

My guess—and it’s only that—is that we would have had the Internet some decades earlier if not for government interventions in telecommunications. We probably would have had multiple, competing “Internets,” actually, adopted more slowly than the Internet we got. (In a chapter of Privacy in America: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, I explored how government has accelerated the development of computing and communications, overpowering society’s capacity to adjust, with negative consequences for privacy.)

Support for government-funded research requires one to elide opportunity costs, the things foregone when one thing is chosen. As I said before, tradeoffs are ineluctable: Money spent on government research takes away from private research, or from other priorities such as reducing debt. In the absence of taxation to support research, the money would go to the public’s priorities as determined directly by the public in manifold spending and investing decision. Taxation and spending on government research is merely the substitution of centralized, political decision-making for a distributed, direct decision-making system. Its supporters are generally going to be beneficiaries of that system—elites, in short.

Even these beneficiaries of the status quo tend to agree that political decisions about funding for scientific research are warped. The solution to that problem, they’ll say, is fixing the political system—that is, creating a political system that is not so political.

Such a breakthrough is as unlikely as the invention of water that is not wet. Perhaps we can put DARPA on both projects.