Government Policy and Technology Innovation

In a way that mirrors yesterday’s court ruling, the FCC announce they were going to investigate and likely force serious changes in the world of set top boxes. The FCC, at one point, forced and supported the cable industry in controlling the types of set top boxes (Set top boxes are cable boxes – Roku and AppleTV are cableless competitors) available to consumers. Since then, we’ve suffered with mediocre and extremely expensive boxes. Boxes that cost $16/month and over time you end up paying for a box 10 times over. The gist of this issue is whether or not to allow companies to make “soft” cable cards. Right now, if you want to decode any video from a coax cable from Comcast, you must have a physical card to do the decoding. There’s nothing preventing this from being accomplished entirely using software once you get the signal into the box and that’s what this is trying to encourage.

Granted, this has taken a while for the FCC to wake up and look at the competitive landscape and see that this isn’t in the public interest. Defining exactly what is in the public interest is a difficult because everyone sees this in a different light. However, it’s pretty obvious that something that you end up paying $1,920 over span of ten years isn’t in the public interest. The competition, Roku and AppleTV, each cost between 100-200 one time and you can use it until it dies which will probably be something like 10 years. I’ve had my Roku HD for 5 years now and it still works great. It would make perfect sense for me to buy a version, assuming I had cable at all, that would allow me to watch cable through it. Everything all in one place.

This is the type of regulation that government should be celebrated for encouraging. Granted they screwed it up to begin with and they are only righting a wrong now, but they’re on the right path. Regulation like Net Neutrality is a similar decision that can spur innovation. Looking at T-Mobile’s binge on plan, you can see why we need this. If I’m a small streaming company or, ya know, YouTube, I look at this platform and see how it’s slanted against me and limits what I’m capable of delivering on T-Mobile’s network.

in the case of the FBI and forcing technology companies to change their technology to reduce security, it’s nice to see an organization that’s willing to at least consider improving opportunities for innovators. Sure it may look like picking winners and losers – but when most policy is driven by current winners picking them to lose sure looks more like balancing the playing field to me.

Net Neutrality Vs. Title II – They Aren’t the Same

Since Title II passed I’ve seen a lot of articles that either indicate buyers remorse or have always been against Title II and are gloating that it’s going to be overturned. For example, Wired had an Op-Ed yesterday that used major points from Chairman Pai’s dissent against using Title II. Title II is clearly a divisive issue, as the guys over at KBMOD, where I also write, are completely divided over the supposed benefits of Title II. I sincerely hope that when we look back at this debate that we see this discussion as a confusing bit of history, because nothing happened. Where the Internet didn’t change and remained an open platform for everyone to easily and equally use.

Net Neutrality and Title II are not the same thing. Title II is an old law originally written in 1934 to regulate a single monopoly with the hopes of create more competition. It wasn’t successful but the legacy of Title II played an important role in the creation and development of the Internet. Title II was the policy regime that APRANET was developed. Whenever a scientist at MIT wanted to use a graphically powerful computer in Utah Title II was in full effect on that data system. Furthermore, Title II was the law of the land for all of dial up Internet. Which was actually a very good thing. The fact that there was Local-Loop unbundling meant that you could have an Internet service that was different than your phone company. It was also likely, given how low the costs were, that these ISPs didn’t have to pay many of the taxes that the Phone company did that you used to buy access to the Internet. We already know that Title II has and can foster a culture of innovation.

Net Neutrality is different than Title II because it was the architectural approach the initial designers took for creating the internet. There were a few key reasons for this, it was easier, required less computing power, and the majority of the early pioneers believed in what became the Open Source movement. In many cases it was the exception rather than the norm, early on, for scientists to patent their computer research. It’s likely because most of these researchers were Mathematicians and Physicists that came from a military background (WWI and WWII and all), so they weren’t used to patenting due to their educational background and the requirement for secrecy contributing to the war effort.

To provide preferential treatment to one packet of data over another required tools that simply would have prevented the data from arriving at its destination in a timely fashion in the 70’s. Remember this was during the time when a personal computer didn’t exist and computing used mainframes and terminals to do the work (interestingly we’re going back to that a bit with the cloud). This means that the routers would have had to have been mainframes themselves to decode the data and figure out what type of data it was before sending it to it’s next location. This was seen as a waste of computing power as well as an invasion of privacy. The point of the Packets was to help keep the data save and secure as much as to maximize capacity on lines connecting the computers.

One of the largest complaints about implementing Title II is that there’s not enough economic evidence to support it. I believe that to be true to some extent. It’s hard to forecast something that’s happening as it’s happening. Especially since the FCC was unlikely to get access, legally, to the Netflix-Comcast/Verizon deals to ensure equal access (or maybe preferred) to their lines. It was clearly shown by Netflix that Comcast/Verizon were intentionally causing issues they could easily resolve and they did immediately after they got paid. With Comcast/Verizon planning to foreclose the video streaming market in this fashion and violating the spirit of Net Neutrality, some sort of regulation was needed to prevent this foreclosure.

I would have rather not had any sort of regulation go into effect. However, I believe that the actions that Comcast and Verizon are taking are anticompetitive and anti-consumer. Time Warner Cable supposedly makes 97% profit on their broadband service, which isn’t a surprise whenever you have a local monopoly/duopoly for broadband.

Could there have been a better way? Yes, the FCC could have taken action that would have forced increased competition. Something like setting goals for every city in the US to have no fewer than 3 broadband providers and providing assistance to municipalities that wanted to develop their own to meet that goal. Ironically, the one provision not included in the Title II rule that would help with that is local-loop unbundling, which would reduce the cost of a new ISP entering the market as they wouldn’t have to build their own network, which has slowed Google Fiber down considerably.

When we buy something do we control anything?

In new routers Comcast has decided to enable another WiFi signal that is public, but separate from your network, but still using your data. Initially, you were able to fairly easily turn off the the second network, however, Comcast has started to make it much more difficult. This raises the question in my mind, around if you’re paying for a service, shouldn’t you be able to control what is happening with that service within your house? It also raises the concern in my mind that the second network will use your data cap in the areas that have data caps – and Comcast plans to expand those caps even though we hate them.

Similarly, Uber, has done some pretty horrible things around data privacy of their users. Similarly, Facebook has conducted experiments on their users and what they display. In Uber’s case you buy the service, in Facebook, you pay for it through seeing ads. In each case you do not control anything done with your data once you enter the agreement to use their services.

Apple has been accused, and admitted to, deleting songs added to an iPod by a non-iTunes service. This is even more problematic in my mind than Amazon deleting something from your Kindle, because the iPod is a physical object that you own that was only updated whenever you connected the iPod to your computer. Furthermore, Apple was deleting things you owned without your consent from a product that you own because they didn’t want their competitors content on a product in their ecosystem. It is likely many people didn’t notice because you can have so many songs on the device, but I’m sure some people were confused.

Then there is the “licensing” that happens whenever you buy software, even whenever you buy a physical copy, companies like Autodesk have sued over the right to sell that “license” again. They sued and won over someone selling their physical disks, which is pretty insane, but they wanted to protect their product and claimed that it violate’s their licenses.

In all of these cases, a company is doing something related to a service you purchased without your consent or input into how they use it. Effectively, you don’t really control the stuff you buy. Even though we all feel like we own everything we buy, we really don’t. We don’t have control over the services we purchase and this is going to get worse over time. It will get worse, because software is eating the world, and is now in many more traditional industries like mining equipment manufacturer Joy Mining. Michael Porter wrote a really lengthy article about how software is having serious impact on the future of competition he argues that software will be everywhere and in fact companies need to build the internal capability to create software. As users of these new technologies we need to understand how companies use our data and what control we actually have on the services and products we buy.

Stupid laws, poor Decisions, and corruption

Uber and Lyft have been all over the news lately. They’ve been getting pushed out of city after city. They have had rulings go against them, like one in PIttsburgh today. The ironic thing is that the Judges were completely sympathetic to the people of Pittsburgh and Uber/Lyft, but had to rule in that way because of the way the law is written. I think it’s fair to say that the judges believe that if the people of Pittsburgh want these services they will have to work with the city council to have the commission responsible for Taxis change the rules so that Uber and Lyft are legal. Uber plans to running through the holiday weekend, in a similar fashion that they are in Austin, Texas where the services are also illegal.

The Supreme Court of the US has ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby in a case around if a privately held company has to pay for birth control based upon religious exceptions. However, there have been a lot of points indicating that there is hypocrisy in their approach. Through their 401(K) they own stocks in companies that manufacture birth control. They are willing to pay for vasectomies and vVagra, which seem incongruent with their beliefs. To be internally consistent Hobby Lobby should be against paying for vasectomies as well – the only difference between them and the Pill is that it is on the man not the woman. Should the results imply that Hobby Lobby must be internally consistent and be forced to divest those stocks and be prevented from paying for vasectomies? I’m not sure, but I think that there could likely be a lawsuit over that – forcing Hobby Lobby to explain the rationale of refusing to pay for one over the other. Which may have a different unintended consequence of hours getting cut to Wal-Mart levels and no one getting insurance except for salary employees.

Apparently a DOJ antitrust lawyer was invited to a big Comcast shindig for the Olympics. The only reason the person didn’t go was because of the rules put in place to prevent her from going. I think there are two ways to interpret this. First, she’s sincere and wants to go, but is aware that it could look bad for her and Comcast if she went. Second, she’s sincere and is saying that it would be corrupt if she went even though it did look like a lot of fun. I can see both sides, but I think it’s pretty fair when people assume this is part of the general corruption within the US government. Where the government has a revolving door between the regulated and regulators. How can you hope to not have general corruption though being a decent person. You get to know the people you’re working with and you want to help them because that’s what good people do. It’s the most likely type of corruption to happen – corruption through complicity.

All in all, these three stories don’t play well for the US being a shining light on the hill. We’ve seen the MIddle East blow up of late and there’s a lot of discussion as to why. One reason is that we’re trying to push democracy on people that aren’t ready for it, however, are we even ready for it? Each of these stories shows that we have broken laws that could be captured by business or other entities. I think that for a country to export their version of democracy they need to have their house in order and show how well the system can work. I liken it to process improvement. Porsche is one of the best examples around this – they became some of the best Lean consultants in the world through fixing all of their problems first. You need to build credibility and show you can execute, then you partner with a struggling supplier and build the change together. You cannot force it down their throat.

Our system is broken in many places and the past few weeks really highlights that.

We know that NSA is hurting tech companies – that’s a good thing

Snowden leaked his documents a year ago. We’ve been getting a slow trickle ever since. However, some of these documents are getting date and surely the NSA is doing more stuff than they had in the past. That being said, they are continually being surprised by a new document that’s released or another. They clearly haven’t fully figured out the full list of documents that Snowden managed to take. Furthermore, they haven’t learned anything by not changing the techniques that they currently use. The NSA should have systematically shut down every program that could have been possibly leaked and moved onto something different. They haven’t, which means that they don’t really feel they need to change anything unless we force them to acknowledge that they’re doing something Americans (and the rest of the world) don’t want.

Today the guy that founded Netscape (a Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist) thinks that the fact the Edward Snowden released these documents hurt US technology companies. He thinks that because we now know that the US government does bad things with OUR tech company’s technology before it reaches a customer is hurting our companies. He blames Snowden. This is the most assinine thing I’ve ever heard. Marc Anderssen should be pissed off at the US government and praising Snowden because NOW US tech companies can DO something about it.

This is what a good manager or leader does. They support and acknowledge the fact that a person raise the attention of a problem, used them to address the root cause of the problem, and move on to the next problem. This is what Lean process improvement is all about. You NEVER shoot the messenger, you shoot the root cause of the problem eliminate it and make sure it never comes back. Saying that Snowden is a traitor because he highlighted the fact that the US government is taking good companies work (Cisco) and add malware is counter productive. We need to know when anyone government or otherwise is intentionally trying to break the internet. I do not believe that Mr. Netscape believes that the person who leaked the TransPacific Partnership is a traitor – when they essentially highlighted a similar problem.

I also believe, that labeling Snowden a traitor implicitly removes any blame from those companies that are being harmed by the US government. In many cases those companies have bee fully complicit with not just the US government, but “rogue” states (Iran, China, and other oppressive regimes) as well as companies (like Comcast, TWC, etc..) through enabling deep packet inspection (which allows anyone to snoop at anything you do. All of these have to have been enabled by a US technology company. These companies found a benefit to their benefit by doing this.

Now other companies, like Google, WordPress, and others are trying to get around both of these by encrypting their data. I actually suggested this as a tool to get around data caps or fast/slow lanes (if all data is encrypted you can’t slow or speed up traffic). This will inherently force a more net neutral internet (baffling deep packet inspection) and defeating much of the tools of the NSA.

All of these are good things. We know this because of Snowden. We know that tech companies need to address problems that the NSA and other government agencies have caused. This is a cause for celebration not condemnation. We need more people like him so that the internet can continue to thrive and be an economic driver. Don’t blame the messenger, if the US government is hurting US tech companies, we need to know so we can stop that from happening.

Comcast and regulation

I believe that the 300 GB data cap that Comcast is tossing around is tomorrow’s 640k predictions from Microsoft. In 5 years when they are claiming to plan to implement it, 300GB will be woefully small. As it stands many games are 50GB and likely will only grow. As will the size of our movies we stream and other services that will develop in the next five years.

Comcast’s arrogant attitude towards it’s customers can only be described economically in one way: market failure.  If we had a strong competitive telecom market, Comcast would not be able to dictate prices in this way. We know this is true because we can see prices AND speeds that are significantly better elsewhere in the world.

There are two other results of this market failure, pushing regulation that prevents competition and preventing regulation that would prevent a foreclosure of another market. I’ll start with the regulation preventing competition.

In my last blog I mentioned an idea call private public partnership. This is the concept of a municipality working with a private enterprise to spread the risk of implementing a local high speed network because one of the big players won’t. Comcast and other telecoms have pushed and been successful at making these partnerships illegal in a few states. This means a small rural community can’t develop their own fiber network if comcast doesn’t do it for them. It also means a big city like New York couldn’t either. This type of regulation only hurts competition and helps comcast control the market. In the US these partnerships have worked well. Provo Utah sold theirs to Google.

The other way that Comcast is using this market failure is to push the idea that net neutrality is regilation. It is a bit, because it prevents comcast from using a monopoly to foreclose another market. This is what Microsoft got in trouble for with Internet Explorer.  Leveraging the monopoly of Windows to push out other browsers. In the EU the ruling against MS really help other browsers immediately. Comcast will likely try a similar tactic with their Xfinity platform by never having it count against your data cap. Pushing people to their platform and squeezing out Netflix.

The play to get Netflix to pay them is a long term play, hurts Netflix now, but essentially will be funding further development of Xfinity.  Don’t forget, Xfinity will likely get Universal content earlier as they own that conent. This will give their platform a distinct advantage over Netflix. It’s pretty obvious to everyone that the future of in home entertainment is streaming content. Hence, Google looking to buy Twitch.

Comcast is using the anti – regulation faction to fight net neutrality while leveraging that same group’s anti- government sentiment to prevent novel forms of competition to exploit customers and move into new markets. This is a dangerous problem because they will keep doing this to push out other competitors.

Should we celebrate about Google joining net neutrality fight?

It’s time we be skeptical of high tech companies that support policies that we want. Today, a large number of tech companies came out against the FCC’s plan to allow internet fast lanes. They aren’t as bold as Mozilla in their claims, they don’t push for the most extreme best for the consumer perspective. We, as consumers, have to understand there’s a reason for this. These companies (and there are a lot) wrote the letter without stating what their position actually is, just that they are for a “free and open internet.” This is essentially a dream statement for a lawyer/lobbyist, because “free” and “open” can mean a variety of things based on that company’s perspective.

These companies are willing to push for a free/open internet insofar as it enables them to make money. We have to understand that. Many of these companies are looking to disrupt incumbent market players and are leveraging the internet to enable them to do that.

Normally, I’d be really excited about all these companies coming out in favor of net neutrality. However, because of their tepid support, their lack of recommendations of what to do to address the net neutrality issue, and tardiness to the conversation I’m concerned as to what their actual motives are for this debate. This is a very different discussion than SOPA, where just coming out against the bill was enough. In this case it’s not, we need them to provide clear direction on what the FCC SHOULD do instead. This provides the FCC a path forward and a way to drive the conversation. Without that, essentially there’s no clearly articulated alternative during THIS debate. Yes, they’ve made an argument before, but they aren’t this time.

I also am concerned by this turn of events because of the recent report that Google and the NSA had a very close relationship. In very strict version of net neutrality deep packet inspection wasn’t possible because there was no way to actually do it. The first step to packet discrimination is knowing what’s in the material. Truly end-to-end net neutrality precludes the ability to eavesdrop and snoop on content being passed along the IP backbone. Any sort of relationship between the NSA and arguably the largest internet company in the world necessarily limits the full extent that Net Neutrality can actually be implemented.

Furthermore, we also must remember that a large number of these companies that are now for Net Neutrality were also for CISPA which includes handing over data to the government. Which, based on Google’s relationship with the NSA, they essentially did anyway.

So, it’s a good thing that these companies came out for Net Neutrality because truly only the power of their lobbying can overcome the FCC’s proposal and push Comcast and Verizon into accept the new rules. I don’t think that we citizens could do it on our own.

(if you want to try to fight corruption that’s sort of on display here, check out Mayone.us)