Archive for December, 2011

The Search Neutrality Police

Monday, December 19th, 2011

Three months after holding a hearing on Google’s search engine business practices, Senators Kohl and Lee have written a letter to FTC Chairman Leibowitz urging a thorough investigation of the company.  As anyone with even the remotest interest in the subject knows, the FTC has had such an investigation underway for some time now, and it is undoubtedly the most high-profile antitrust issue currently on the agency’s agenda.  Thus, the only purpose for such a letter would seem to be to apply political pressure on the agency for what is, essentially, an antitrust law enforcement matter.

Most worrisome, the letter contains hardly a mention of what is in consumers’ best interests, which should be the focus of antitrust enforcement.  Instead, while the Senators write it is not their intention to protect any specific competitor, their arguments are based on the complaints of several competitors who testified during a committee hearing they sponsored to hear those complaints.

We hope and trust that the FTC is undertaking a thorough investigation based on antitrust law as opposed to bowing to pressure from elected officials.  This will increase the likelihood of a result that is truly in the interest of consumers.

Internet Hysteria – Are We Losing Our Edge?

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Scott Wallsten and Amy Smorodin

From Anthony Wiener’s wiener to the FCC’s brave stand on Americans’ shameful inability to turn down the damn volume by themselves, 2011 has been a big year for tech and communications policy. But how has one of the Washington tech crowd’s most important products—Internet hype—fared this year?  In this post, we seek to answer this crucial question.

The Internet Hysteria Index

The Internet is without doubt the most powerful inspiration for hyperbole in the history of mankind. Some extol the Internet’s greatness, like Howard Dean, who called the Internet “the most important tool for re-democratizing the world since Gutenberg invented the printing press.”[1] Others fret about the future, like Canada’s Office of Privacy Commissioner, who claimed, “Nothing in society poses as grave a threat to privacy as the Internet Service Provider.”[2]

Sometimes the hyperbole is justified. For example, thanks to Twitter, attendees at this past summer’s TPI Aspen Summit were privy to a steady stream of misinformation even before the DC-area earthquake stopped.[3]

In the same spirit, we present the Internet Hysteria Index (IHI). The IHI, which the DOJ and FCC should take care not to confuse with the HHI, is the most rigorous and flexible tool ever conceived for gauging the Internet’s “worry zeitgeist”. It’s rigorous[4] because it uses numbers and flexible[5] because you can interpret it in so many different ways that it won’t threaten your preconceived ideas no matter what you believe.

The IHI has two components. The first tracks fears of an unrecognizable, but certainly Terminator-esque, future Internet. We count the number of times the exact phrases “the end of the internet as we know it” and “break the internet” appear in Nexis news searches each year since 2000.

Figure 1: The End of the Internet as we Know It!


Figure 1 shows that 2011 produced a bumper crop of “break the internet” stories, mostly related to the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. The spike in 2006 reflects a wave of Net Neutrality stories after AT&T’s then-CEO proclaimed that “what they [content providers] would like to do is use my pipes free, and I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it.”

As our research illustrates, the “End of the Internet” hyperbole shows a healthy, generally upward trend, reflecting the effectiveness of our collective fretting and hand-wringing. Our data do not allow us to identify[6] whether the trend is due to clever Washington PR, lazy hacks retreading old lines, real concerns, or collusion among interest groups simply ensuring they can all stay in business by responding to each other.

The second component of our index measures the incidence of hand-wringing regarding the state of broadband in the U.S. In particular, this measure counts the number of times phrases suggesting lagging U.S. broadband performance show up in Nexis since 2000.[7] Figure 2 shows the results of our analysis.

Figure 2: The Grass is So Much Greener on the Other Side of the Pond: U.S. Broadband Sucks


The big spike in 2010 is related to release of the National Broadband Plan. The prior high, in 2007, saw stories focusing on the OECD rankings, broadband mapping, and the beginnings of broadband plan discussions.

Unfortunately, 2011 was not a good year for misinterpreting shoddily-gathered statistics. Figure 2 shows a dramatic drop-off in bemoaning the dire state of U.S. broadband, possibly after everyone just got really, really tired of talking about the National Broadband Plan. We’re extremely concerned that as a result, the U.S. may have fallen dramatically in the OECD worry rankings. In fact, in a warning shot across our bow, on December 14 the BBC reported that “the UK remains in danger of falling behind when it comes to next-generation mobile services” and superfast broadband.[8] We’re hopeful American fretting will pick up once analysts actually read the FCC’s USF order that was promulgated under the cover of 23 days between approval and publication. On the other hand, there is a risk that the sheer volume of the Order—the equivalent of more than 4 million tweets—might dissuade people from talking about it ever again.

For generations, Americans have taken a back seat to nobody on the important issue of Internet hyperbole. Let’s hope the inside-the-beltway crowd pulls itself together and breathes some life back into the speech economy. Happy New Year.


[1] http://motherjones.com/politics/2007/06/interview-howard-dean-chairman-democratic-national-committee

[2] http://dpi.priv.gc.ca/index.php/essays/the-greatest-threat-to-privacy/

[3] Picture from Funny Potato, http://www.funny-potato.com/blog/august-23rd-2011-east-coast-quake.

[4] It’s not.

[5] In other words, “probably pretty meaningless.”

[6] Actually, they do, but we don’t want to do the work.

[7] Specifically, the search is ((“U.S. falling behind “OR “U.S. lagging”) AND broadband) OR ((“United States falling behind” OR “United States lagging”) AND broadband).

[8] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16174745

Carrier IQ: Another Silly Privacy Panic

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

By now everyone is probably aware of the “tracking” of certain cellphones (Sprint, iPhone, T-Mobile, AT&T perhaps others) by a company called Carrier IQ.  There are lots of discussions available; a good summary is on one of my favorite websites, Lifehacker;  also here from CNET. Apparently the program gathers lots of anonymous data mainly for the purpose of helping carriers improve their service. Nonetheless, there are lawsuits and calls for the FTC to investigate.

Aside from the fact that the data is used only to improve service, it is also useful to ask just what people are afraid of.  Clearly the phone companies already have access to SMS messages if they want it since these go through the phone system anyway.  Moreover, of course, no person would see the data even if it were somehow collected.  The fear is perhaps that “… marketers can use that data to sell you more stuff or send targeted ads…” (from the Lifehacker site) but even if so, so what?  If apps are using data to try to sell you stuff that they think that you want, what is the harm? If you do want it, then the app has done you a service.  If you don’t want it, then you don’t buy it.  Ads tailored to your behavior are likely to be more useful than ads randomly assigned.

The Lifehacker story does use phrases like “freak people out” and “scary” and “creepy.”  But except for the possibility of being sold stuff, the story never explains what is harmful about the behavior.  As I have said before, I think the basic problem is that people cannot understand the notion that something is known but no person knows it.  If some server somewhere knows where your phone has been, so what?

The end result of this episode will probably be somewhat worse phone service.

(Cross posted from the Truth on the Market blog)

The AT&T/T-Mobile Merger Conundrum: Increase Efficiency AND Create Jobs?

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

How did the proposed AT&T and T-Mobile merger, which many viewed as so certain when announced, end up on life support? Is it because of the decision by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to challenge the merger in court? Or maybe because of skeptics’ claims regarding the likelihood of the merger “creating jobs?”

Those factors certainly played a role, but another reason the merger reached the brink of collapse is arguably because the current jobs crisis made it impossible for AT&T to justify the merger to antitrust authorities while also making it palatable to politicians and the FCC with its broader “public interest” standard.

For antitrust purposes, AT&T had to demonstrate that it would not substantially reduce competition and that if it did, the increased efficiency of a merged company would greatly outweigh those costs. For political purposes, in an era of persistent unemployment AT&T decided it had to demonstrate that the merger would create jobs.

Horizontal mergers between large competitors, such as the proposed one between AT&T and T-Mobile, are generally subject to tough antitrust scrutiny. Antitrust policy is indifferent to the effect of a merger on jobs, instead focusing on the effects of the merger on competition and consumers while weighing those effects against the potential economic benefits of a more efficient merged firm.

As the DOJ-FTC Horizontal Merger Guidelines note, “Competition usually spurs firms to achieve efficiencies internally. Nevertheless, a primary benefit of mergers to the economy is their potential to generate significant efficiencies and thus enhance the merged firm’s ability and incentive to compete, which may result in lower prices, improved quality, enhanced service, or new products” (p.29).

The efficiency argument is always a high bar in a merger case since “the antitrust laws give competition, not internal operational efficiency, primacy in protecting customers” (p.31). One way the merged company might increase efficiency would be to lay off large numbers of workers if it believed it could maintain service quality while doing so. By appearing to take that option off the table and arguing that the merger was, in fact, good for jobs, AT&T raised the efficiency bar even higher than it normally is.

It is, of course, possible to increase employment and efficiency if the firm increases output by more than it increases costs. AT&T made an argument consistent with that outcome in its filings by contending that spectrum constraints are distorting investment decisions at both AT&T and T-Mobile.

AT&T’s biggest claim regarding jobs was that the merger would lead to more jobs through better mobile broadband. However, the empirical link demonstrating that broadband increases employment—rather than simply being correlated with higher employment—has not been rigorously established, as Georgetown Professor John Mayo and I demonstrate in a paper published earlier this year.

As a result, even if DOJ were willing to consider effects external to the firms, industry, and direct consumers, the speculative nature of the claims would probably cause the DOJ to disregard them. As the Merger Guidelines note,

Efficiency claims will not be considered if they are vague, speculative, or otherwise cannot be verified by reasonable means. Projections of efficiencies may be viewed with skepticism, particularly when generated outside of the usual business planning process. (p.30)

The FCC is more sympathetic to the effect on jobs than DOJ, but the staff report made it clear that it expected the merger to result in a net loss of direct employment and was highly skeptical of the claims regarding the indirect effects on employment (see Section V(G), beginning at paragraph 259 for the jobs discussion).

In short, even setting aside the substantive questions of the net effects on competition, consumers, and broadband availability, the merger was always going to be an especially tough sell in the current economic and political climate.

To win the day, AT&T had to convince antitrust authorities that improved efficiencies by the merged firm would outweigh any resulting reduction in competition while simultaneously convincing politicians that the merger was good for jobs. But convincing DOJ that the company would increase employment risked signaling to DOJ that the merger was not about efficiency, and convincing the FCC that the merger was good for efficiency risked signaling to the FCC that the merger would not produce jobs.

Unable to thread that needle, AT&T’s strategy collapsed. Whether it will succeed with a new strategy remains to be seen.