Happy anniversary, World Wide Web. Now, let’s go back to 1988

On 12 March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee publishes a proposal to link hypertext with transmission control protocol, the basis for the world wide web. On 6 August 1991, he launches the first web page. Prior to his proposal, the internet was pretty much a niche hideout for academics and military researchers. Berners-Lee’s proposal helped introduce ‘democracy’ to the original dark web of interconnected computers.

Democratizing digital information via open network architectures unleashed the digital demons that Mr Berners-Lee would like to see regulated today. We went from a relatively simpler system where Dr James Haywood Rolling Jr could send Dr Marshall Shepherd samples of research that could add artistic flavor to the otherwise drab depiction of weather patterns, to the current system where an 18-year old dressed in psychedelic garb can do the booty clap in front of a smartphone and send the images live from Accra. Using this information, the Digital Daemons, i.e. #Facebook#Google, and #Twitter, can create profiles based on every ‘like’ the booty clapper receives and market services and products to consumers.

Closer inspection of the history of the world wide web and Mr Berners-Lee’s criticism of today’s social media/social network companies exposes a downside of the premise that the Digital Daemons are negatively impacting global connectivity via the internet. Mr Berners-Lee is concerned that the one-half of the planet currently not connected to the internet may be at a disadvantage culturally and economically and that connecting to the Flying Spaghetti Monster that is the world wide web may be the developing world’s salvation.

Ironically, it is that arrogant premise that the world needs to be connected to a single standard that drove European colonial expansion across the globe and spawned a global financial system anchored by the Bank of International Settlements, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund to replace the colonizer when Europe entered its post-World War II decline. Whether he realizes it or not, Mr Berners-Lee’s liberal position on digital connectivity is steeped in the European DNA for conquest.

If Mr Berners-Lee and other progressives are so bloody concerned about the negative impact the Digital Daemons are having on access to and distribution of information, they should push for an internet that existed pre-1989 where communities of value-based information exchangers created their own databases, and protocols and criteria for membership in these groups. Ironically, under that type of scenario, application of net neutrality rules based on Title II of the Communications Act would be valid because the administrators and owners of the databases could more easily be defined as consumers of telecommunications in some type of corporate form.

Sometimes you have to go back to your past to find a solution to a current dilemma. Happy Anniversary, World Wide Web.

Free Press and Public Knowledge are getting a taste of big tent progressive politics

Brian Fung of The Washington Post put out a great piece this morning describing a growing rift between two factions on the progressive side of the net neutrality debate. Grass roots groups such as Free Press and Public Knowledge believe that supporters of the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 Open Internet Order should aggressively push the Congress to overturn the Commission’s 2017 repeal of the Order.

Corporate supporters of the Commission’s Open Internet Order such as Facebook and Google are taking a more centrist approach. While they apparently still support applying net neutrality rules based in Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, they are now signaling that a bi-partisan Congressional approach via a new law would help resolve the net neutrality dispute once and for all.

Based on Mr Fung’s writing, the big tent has a few holes in the tarp, as meetings hosted by the Internet Alliance and attended by both net neutrality factions are growing in the number of attendees and an increasingly diverse level of issues are sprouting. Free Press and Public Knowledge are finding the hard way a couple important lessons about any corporations true mission and that diversity is an empty narrative.

First, the corporate mission. I hesitate to say that the good people at Free Press and Public Knowledge are naive (but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that their 4 million pro net  neutrality followers are), but both groups seem to have fallen for Google’s and Facebook’s silly mission statements about doing no evil and connecting the world for connection sake.

Google and Facebook created and maintained dominant positions in internet search and social networking by first optimizing their business models to maximize shareholder value, a lesson the lawyers at Free Press and Public Knowledge failed to remember from the business associations classes in the second year of law school. “Russiagate” has raised the ire of Congress and Google, Facebook, and other social networking and internet portal companies are gathering their wagons around their revenue streams and profit centers from potential government attacks. They cannot afford any regulatory volatility that will arise from the uncertainty of how net neutrality principles will be applied to broadband access providers. They are realizing that compromise legislation passed in the immediate term is good for long term growth.

While Google and Facebook play in the “attention economy”, Free Press and Public Knowledge play in the “agitation economy.” To stay relevant as a grass roots advocate leader, they must tear up the astro turf regularly. Settling the net neutrality tennis match via a bi-partisan bill means 4 million pairs of eye balls not looking their way because the show will be over. Nothing else to see here. Problem solved.

As for diverse voices, that narrative does not work. The bigger your tent, the further off course the original message drifts. Sooner or later the money bags step up and start setting priorities and those priorities will place those with the least coin ahead of the pack. The 4 million three huggers are going to have internet access no matter their personal beef with their broadband access provider. Most have access to two or three providers whether wireless or wireline. Facebook and Google cannot take comfort in any certainty. As big as they are in digital space, the wilderness is huge and there is always a young predator getting ready to spring out with new technology and the hunger and thirst to match.

Facebook and Google’s profit motives and needs are no different than the broadband access providers Free Press and Public Knowledge rail against. Facebook and Google will take control of the circus under the big tent and call for some grown up behavior that protects their revenues and profits.

 

Will Congress regulate.@facebook like a public utility? Given its potential benefit to partisan politics, probably not. #socialmedia

The Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins, Jr. posted an article last Friday about Facebook’s apparent maturity as a business given its focus on regulatory issues such as the potential of Congress to regulate the social media company like a public utility. Mr Jenkins points out that Facebook’s fear of regulation, a fear shared by other “tech” companies, comes from the attention that large companies draw to themselves as the result of centralization of power. In this case, Facebook is perceived as one of the few central nodes of power in the digital space (along with fellow FANGs; Amazon, Netflix, and Google). Issue is, does Facebook have a monopoly status that justifies “public utility” regulation. My answer is no.

The classic argument for regulating a firm as a public utility is that the public has an interest in benefiting from the use of the public’s rights-of-way including the efficiencies that flow from making such uses exclusive to one firm in a given territory. Electric and water utilities quickly come to mind when we discuss public utilities and rights-of-way. Would you rather see your streets and driveways dug up to provide multiple pipes from multiple water or electricity suppliers or would you rather one supplier who is forced to comply with a pricing model that creates a competitive price and rate of return on the assets used by the utility to produce a good? For the most part, society has settled for the latter. We don’t like the idea of having an excess number of utility lines running overhead or into our residences for aesthetic or safety reasons.

Does Facebook fall into this public utility model? No, it does not. According to Facebook, the company makes almost all of its revenue from the sale of advertisement. Facebook uses its algorithms to identify potential viewers of content or purchasers of services for its advertisers and display ads these ads to content viewers and services purchasers in exchange for an advertising fee. Ad services, including the delivery of advertisements to consumers, by Facebook’s admission is a competitive business. Unlike electricity transmission and distribution, ad delivery is not a monopolized industry. As Mr Jenkins points out in his piece, ads are ads, digital or otherwise, and Facebook is no where near dominating a $540 billion advertising industry.

Even if Facebook had a monopoly on the delivery of advertisements or advertisement services, would a regulator risk creating a state action by regulating Facebook’s advertising services? Bearing in mind that the latest buzz around Facebook ads was spawned by the delivery of advertisement messaging produced by Russian nationals allegedly designed to disrupt and defraud the American electorate, would Congress require that Facebook vet the firm generating advertisement content? Would Congress risk the overturn of legislation requiring Facebook vet advertisers if found violating the First Amendment?

I think that even advertisers confident that their messaging does not violate the public interest would think twice about placing advertisements on Facebook’s platform. More important, from the perspective of the regulator, an administrative agency would not to create the risk of creating First Amendment violations and having to defend those violations in court. As the U.S. Supreme Court held in Edenfield v. Fane:

“The commercial market place, like other spheres of our social and cultural life, provides a forum where ideas and information flourish. Some of the ideas and information are vital, some of slight worth. But the general rule is that the speaker and the audience, not the government, assess the value of the information presented. Thus, even a communication that does no more than propose a commercial transaction is entitled to the coverage of the First Amendment.” 113 S.Ct. 1792, 1798 (1993)

Finally, political parties may not want to impede the returns to electioneering that social media has been providing for the past decade. According to the Brookings Institution, since the 2008 national elections, political parties have been determining how best to convert the amplification and engagement created by social media during a campaign season into two-year and four-year governance.  Political parties have been encouraged to use social media in a number of ways including the following:

  • Acknowledging that the electorate is using social media as a “trust filter” of political news and information;
  • Realizing that politicians have decreasing control over debate topics and that control is shifting to social networks;
  • Making continued use of social media platforms to directly engage constituents;
  • Using social media platforms as “virtual surveys” of constituent sentiment and gauging feedback from the surveys; and
  • Leveraging ordinary citizens’ use of social media to persuade the electorate.

It is 2018 and Congress should view social media that has greater benefits as an electioneering tool if it is not regulated. From a regulatory perspective, there is no economic or legal justification for regulating social media as a public utility.

Opt-in, Opt-out policy appropriate for addressing online privacy

In May 2017, U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn introduced H.R.2520, the Browser Act, a bill designed to provide consumers with some control over the use of their personal information. Specifically, consumers that use broadband access services or websites or applications providing subscription, purchase, account, or search engine services are provided, depending on the sensitivity of personal information, the choice to opt-in or opt-out of policies used by these services to manage consumer information.

For sensitive information, opt-in approval must be expressly granted by the consumer. Sensitive information includes:

  • financial information;
  • health information;
  • information about children under the age of thirteen;
  • social security numbers information;
  • information regarding a consumer’s geo-location;
  • web browsing information: or
  • information on the history of usage of software programs or mobile applications.

Consumers must be provided the opportunity to give opt-out approval for non-sensitive information.

Mrs Blackburn’s intent with the legislation is to equalize broadband access providers and edge content providers under the eyes of the Federal Trade Commission, the federal agency responsible for consumer protection and anti-trust law enforcement. In my opinion, this is not a far off from former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s goal of openness and transparency throughout the entire internet ecosystem; from consumer to broadband access provider to websites provided by edge providers.

What Mrs Blackburn’s bill also does is address information asymmetries, where edge content providers are viewed as having more knowledge on the value of consumer information that they extract from websites than the consumer does herself. The consumer cannot answer the question, “Is the value of the information I receive from online, x, greater than the value of the information that I give up, p, where that information is private?

It is not readily apparent whether H.R.2520 was also designed to save the consumer from asking this question: ” Why should I pay for an economic good i.e. privacy that isn’t Google’s to sell in the first place?”

Professor Caleb S. Fuller of Grove City College describes privacy as an economic good, something that the consumer wants more of. Most consumers are not willing to pay to protect this good, even though they know that firms like Google are collecting this information for free. For example, according to Professor Fuller’s research, 90% of Google’s users know that their “mouse droppings” are being tracked.While 29% of Google’s users don’t mind being tracked, 71% do. Their reasoning, according to Professor Fuller includes the fear of price discrimination based on their information; the receipt of spam advertising; the risk of identity theft; and the “dis-utility in just not knowing who knows what.”

One equitable solution, in my opinion, would be for Google and other edge providers to pay their subscribers to provide private data. Google could provide an offering schedule based on the sensitivity of the information it wishes to purchase. Consumers would have to consider the value of the privacy they give up in exchange for the value obtained from accessing web content. I wouldn’t expect every consumer to sell their data. Google will wisely set limits on its offers and a significant portion of consumers unable to get a price they want will settle for the old private data for access exchange that they have been conducting for two decades.

The opt-in, opt-out policy mitigates the work that the consumer should put in to determine the value of her data, but gives her the final say over how her private data can be used. Unfortunately this is also the down side where the market won’t be used to truly determine the real value that can be sold.

When the #internet was just for #academics….#broadband

Democrats are wary of Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Hillary Clinton’s loss in the November 2016 elections allegedly compounded by a misinformation game played by the Russians via social media has the Democrats in Congress asking themselves if a little more transparency i.e. regulation of social media practices is necessary in order to prevent any more shenanigans from Russia.

In the net neutrality debates, Democrats and grass roots progressives have taken the position that due to their gatekeeper position, internet access providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are in a position to negatively impact the innovative internet portal and social media services that Facebook and Google provide. Democrats argue that we don’t want to discourage the creation of the next Facebook by allowing Comcast to throttle speeds from potential upstarts or block a consumer’s access to the new Twitter. Now these members of Congress appear a bit wary of the cat that they have been snuggling up to; being scraped by the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) is not fun.

What I find ironic is that these congressmen were no where to be found as the FANGs were busy building a business model on acquiring consumer data from the droppings that consumers leave all over the internet. This data collection didn’t impact the politicians, who thrive on political intelligence so having a master information collector or two on their donor page didn’t hurt. It wasn’t until the FANGs messed with the source of a politician’s livelihood i.e. the vote, that the FANGs fell under deeper scrutiny.

It is up to the individual to choose whether to use FANG services. I have little to no use for Facebook myself. Amazon, Google, and Netflix deliver pretty much what they promise: logistics and content. What’s amusing is that highly educated, professionals in the Congress have yet to figure out the business model that social media relies on for its survival.

I think it is best that the internet go back to what it was meant to be: a way to connect information seekers with data. The irony is that internet service providers have been providing their networks as a part of the larger data transmission scheme for over two decades but seem to be catching the most heat from congressmen that support the companies providing the most abuse.

Why Google’s investors may want it to issue its own cryptocurrency

Let’s say a certain individual or corporation has generated a lot of value for society.  Its quality of product, service, or information is consistent. There is increasing demand for its product. Customers are enamored with anything affiliated with the product.

Now suppose this high value individual or corporation leverages its value by issuing a digital coin of its own. In the beginning it accepts this coin only along with fiat cash. During this phase, the issuing corporation decides to accept digital coin from other high-value corporations, say Amazon accepting Google-issued coin and vice-versa.

Other producers from manufacturers to farmers to utilities rather than issue their own coin or mine other types of coin may decide to accept coin issued by high value corporations, again based on the premise that the products, services, or information produced by these corporations is consistent.

To further maintain the value of the coin, these corporations would act like mini-central banks, capping the amount of coin made available and driving up the coins price. They could also increase exclusivity of their product by prohibiting the exchange of their coin for fiat cash.

I suspect the wealth class would like a wide moat around their investments. The ability to move their transactions to cyberspace and become mini-sovereigns with favorable tax treatment will be topped off by creating their own “consumer resort.”

And the four week fall in cryptocurrency prices helps allowing them to either short cryptos or merely pick them up on the cheap.

We may be at the beginning of a different type of fork where the wealthy will enjoy cryptocurrency derived from a decentralized platform while the “information poor” are stuck with a digitized fiat currency. It is still to early to see if that scenario plays out since, at least in the United States, the federal government has made no decision to regulate cryptocurrency as anything else but a payment system and there are no plans right now to develop a “fedcoin.”

 

ISPs, not edge providers, reflect the reality of communications and connectivity

Within the Communications Act of 1934, Congress created the Federal Communications Commission for the purpose of regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communications. Congress intended the Commission to make available a rapid,efficient, nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communications network and provide that network at reasonable rates for the nation-state’s consumers. Congress wanted a nation-state, barely a hundred years into its industrial revolution and in the middle of its worst recession, to have the ability to connect all of its citizens.

The episodes of connection via a phone call were not expected to take up the 135 minutes a day that the average person spent on social media in 2017. Earlier today in an op-ed on Axios.com, Evan Spiegel wrote about the difference between social media and his communications app, Snapchat. In his words:

“The personalized newsfeed revolutionized the way people share and consume content. But let’s be honest: this came at a huge cost to facts, our minds and the entire media industry.

This is a challenging problem to solve because the obvious benefits that have driven the growth of social media – more friends! more likes! more free content! – are also the things that will undermine it in the long run.

  • New alternatives for self-expression, including services like text messaging, WhatsApp, and Snapchat are part of a shift towards using communication applications to express yourself rather than posting on social media, because communication apps are oriented around talking with your close friends, free from judgment.
  • Social media fueled “fake news” because content designed to be shared by friends is not necessarily content designed to deliver accurate information. After all, how many times have you shared something you’ve never bothered to read?”

Social media is a bulletin board that you placed on the front of your dorm room, open to a myriad of Post-It notes left by dorm mates and easily read by everyone else, is my summation of Mr Spiegel’s distinction between his service and Facebook. Snapchat; another form of private communication similar to texting or voice calls versus the barroom brawl that is social media.

As concerned as progressive congressional Democrats appear to be about Russia’s ability to use the permeability of Facebook, Twitter, and Google to allegedly upend an election, they do not appear to be in any rush to apply onerous privacy rules to social media, a business model designed for fake news.

Social media was a “god send” for the State. Social media aggregates people into groups that can be operationalized and manipulated. A lot less expensive than tapping phone lines in order to get the pulse of society. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are media outlets and as such are in a position to create messaging and target it toward certain groups. Facebook doesn’t ask “What’s on your mind” for no reason.

Some consumers want balance. They are using the ear buds to create space in the real world and don’t mind connecting where there is value in social media exchange, but they want the option of withdrawing to a position where their smartphone, at the end of the day, is merely for texting and sending/receiving voice calls.

Congress and the Commission should keeps their focus on the infrastructure aspect of communications and leave the bulletin board behavior to the kids.