Restrictions Can Drive Innovation

As a Lean process improvement guy as well as someone that really loves reading about innovation I’ve always taught my students that regulations, limitations, and restrictions on processes, equipment, and activities offer us an opportunity to innovate around those rules. The way that I describe it is that rules place you in a box, but within that box you can move up and down and diagonal and develop some really interesting ideas because of what you can’t do. However, you don’t focus on what you can’t do as much as focusing on how you can avoid that and what you CAN do.

I saw a picture to a great discussion about how gluten free diets are forcing, at least one chef, to be more innovative in their cooking. I’d post it, but the image is so large it’d take up the entire post, so I linked it above. Essentially the chef had a dish with polenta on it and a base that was all glutenous flour, but he figured out a way to make it all polenta, which actually created a unique dining experience that he felt offered a superior taste.

Another area where regulation has been the root of many innovation is the financial sector. They complain the most about regulations because it’s “bad for the economy” or something like that. However, CDO’s and everything that caused the last collapse was in response TO regulations. They figured out how to work around the regulations and make even more money than before. In fact, many banks started to follow suit because they weren’t able to post as high of profits and were getting hit by Wall Street for under performing comparatively.

This is one of the reasons why I personally don’t see value in fighting regulation other than to shape it in one direction or the other. The companies that are able to exploit the regulation the best are going to end up being first to market or extremely fast followers. Meaning they will make a great deal of money and likely dominate the market. If you look at regulation as a “disruptor” and an opportunity to disrupt the regulation, you’re going to do really well as a business.

Driverless cars aren’t without ethical quandaries

While driving home the other day I was thinking about the new Google Driverless car stuff that I’ve seen. It’s an interesting looking vehicle, see it below. Apparently, one of the reasons why Google went fully autonomous was that people would be first hyper vigilant, then so lazy that they completely trusted the car in any and every situation.

Google’s fully automated driverless car

I believe it’s likely that the first round of driverless cars won’t be fully automated. Data will eventually show that the fully automated cars are perfectly safe, but we’re a paranoid lot when it comes to new technology. I also think that there are definitely risks with a fully autonomous car in regard to hacking and spoofing the system. I have a feeling that will become a game with hackers to try to trick the car into thinking that a direction is safe when it is actually not. To continually combat these risks Google will have to make it very easy to update the software, possibly while driving, as well as the hardware. I believe this is one of the many reasons why Google just announced their 180 internet satellites that they will be launching soon.

However, I think that the best of intentions will likely lead to some serious issues for Google and law makers in the next few years. For some of them an author at the Guardian wrote a few of them. That being said, I think that the first cars will not be fully automatic until enough data comes into show they are safe going highway speeds consistently. I think that this will lead to issues for Google.

One of the things that is missed in the Guardian article above is that if you’re an Android user, those very things could happen already. Your phone already tracks not just GPS but also nearby cell towers, so you could very easily subpoena either Google or your cell provider for records of your whereabouts. However, the interesting thing that Google talks about in regard to safety, is that drunk driving will be a think of the past.

As I mentioned before I think that there will be a manual mode and I think there will have to be one for a while because of definite hacker threats. You’d need to override. I also think that this would require a mechanical switch that literally overrides the system. The system would still run, but would not be able to override the human driver. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I don’t think that anyone can create a truly secure vehicle like this and if one is compromised then all of them would be under the exact same risk.

Now, let’s say a guy goes out drinking. Google knows where he is. Google knows that he took pictures of his shots Instagraming “#drinktilyoublackout!”. Google also knows that he texted a few friends through Hangouts fully integrated texting capability. Furthermore, he tweets to @Google “Getting Black out drunk no #DD #DriverlessFTW”. This guy then gets into the car, switches it to manual override for whatever reason gets in an accident, who is at fault here? Clearly the guy that’s driving right? Well, if he had a fully automated car with no other option he’d not hurt anyone. Google knows everything he’s doing. Google knows everywhere you go already because of how their devices work. The difference is now that they can control where you’re going and how you get there.

Is Google responsible for building a car with a manual override that could save people’s lives in other instances? Is the State responsible for mandating that Google put in that switch? Should Google have built in safety measures that make the user go through a series of actions or prove the driver is capable of overriding the car?

I think that we need to hash out all of these before these cars are allowed on the road. I also think it’s going to be vitally important that we understand what happens with that data from all our cars, who can access it, and if we really have any privacy in a fully automated car like that. Simply by participating in our culture with a cell phone we’ve already eroded our privacy a great deal in both the public and private realm. Driverless cars will further impact that and will likely end up being a highly political issue over the next several years. Taxis, Lyft, and Uber will be out of business – the Car2Go model will beat them out any day of the week if the cars are autonomous. Direct to customers, like Tesla is pretty obvious. Lots of changes are going to happen through these cars.

We can’t just let this happen to us, we need to make decisions about how we want to include driverless cars in our lives. They aren’t inevitable and definitely not in their current incarnation.

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.

Is Net Neutrality regulation commie nonsense?

Network Economy

Regulation’s a bad thing, right? Personally, I think there are instances where regulation is an amazingly good thing that drives innovation. We also need to be cautious about who is saying regulation is good or bad. Back in the 90’s we’d hear that regulating in anyway to prevent acid rain would cripple business and kill our economy. This clearly didn’t happen, we have acid free rain for the most part, we have more productive manufacturing than ever. We also hear that regulating CEO pay by median rather than average is significantly more complicated to the point that a place stacked full of MBA’s can’t figure it out. Then there are regulations that pick winners like Solyndra and turns out to be a disaster. These cause higher taxes and are actual drains on the economy (personally I’m on the fence about experimenting with new technologies and having the government support them, but that’s me).

What about the FCC “regulating” net neutrality? I think that it’s important to look at how this all started. First, I’ll start with a bit of a history with the telecoms, then move to how the internet was developed, and move to comparisons between other monopolies.

AT&T has been described as a natural monopoly. This was partially helped by the US government because the government wanted coast to coast telephony and selected AT&T as the standard for that activity. This gave AT&T incredible market strength, but was also extremely fragile as it was continually under threat of being broken up for being a monopoly (which is was). To do everything they could to avoid this, the geniuses at Bell Labs continually designed ways to keep their costs down, improve quality, and make very thing better. They also had some government deals that helped them a lot (military contracts for telecom stuff, like the first satellite). The value of AT&T’s network grew every time a person joined the network.

The fact that one person joined Network A over Network B could further impact the growth of that network. Let’s say Person A is friends with 5 people and is already on Network A, it’s likely, if they are really good friends and A is known for making good decisions, that those five people will join A on Network A. The value increases by more than simply 5, because all five of those people can talk to each other as well as every other person they know on Network A. Now if Person A has more friends, but not as good of friends and they actually are better friends with Person A’s friends they will also likely join Network A. This sort of cascade effect will continue to happen. This is also known as Metcalfe’s law.

When AT&T was force to break up, all of that interoperability remained. Instead of one big monopoly there were regional ones instead. As we’ve seen over time, these same regional operators have slowly re-joined back into 2 Bells versus the non-Bells. AT&T being split is a type of regulation for sure, but it did spur some interesting competition for a time.

How the Internet was designed:

The internet was originally designed to operate in many different application layers. Essentially the bottom of the stack was Internet Protocol which was agnostic to the type of information being sent across it. At the time, the most efficient method was over Ethernet so there was not any requirement to be concerned over the application medium. Over time there would be some concern, but that was really addressed by the protocol.

What would happen is that the applications that required information to be sent on either end would translate the information to be used by the layer below it to send out, such as a web browser to the OS, to the network driver to IP, across the internet to the network driver to the OS to the web server application. Across this entire process the actual data being sent was unknown to any of the nodes in between the application layers. (If you’re interested in this check out Internet Architecture and Innovation).

Of course the companies providing the bandwidth for that did not want to find itself in a similar role as they had after the break up of AT&T where they were forced to become “dumb pipes” for whatever people wanted to send across their network. To prevent this they created capabilities like deep package inspection and other tools to identify what content was being shipped across their lines. This also was the beginning of violating “True” net neutrality.

Why were they dumb pipes? Because they were defined as a common carrier to increase competition across the land line providers and ISPs the telephone companies had no choice. This lead to the explosion of ISPs like AOL, Century Link, and so on. What has happened since? The broadband lines have been ruled that they are not “Common Carriers“. Meaning that the data across the line can be treated however the companies that own the lines want.

Why is this bad in a network economy?

In a network economy, being able to fully control anything and everything can be very bad for the consumer if there is no other option. Now, you could argue that there are options, but in most cases because of other monopoly rules there are few options for allowing a new ISP.

A perfect example where a network monopoly isn’t a big deal is in Smart Phones. The iOS App Store is a natural monopoly in a network. The more people using the iPhone the more valuable it became and more app developers developed apps. It never became a problem that Apple regulates the entire experience BECAUSE there were other networks you could shift to, such as Blackberry, webOS, Windows (whatever mobile version you want to include), and, of course, Android. All of these ecosystems offer very different options for devs. Additionally, within Android there are competing App stores which further benefits the consumer. If there were no other competitors to iOS and it’s App Store the constraints that Apple puts on their product would likely be viewed as very anti-competitive and a type of “foreclosure.”

Market foreclosure is using one monopoly to enable another monopoly. Now, regardless of if you think that this should have happened or not, it did. Microsoft was hit for using it’s Window’s OS to foreclose on the internet browser market and was looking to do the same with their music player. What resulted was that MS was required to offer other browsers when a new Windows OS was launched and helped to reduce the market share of IE.

How does this apply here? Comcast is already trying to do the same with Netflix in the streaming video business. Comcast owns the content (Universal, NBC, etc), the connection (Comcast Cable ISP), the rules (data caps), and if they want to charge to access their network or not. Eliminating the rules of net neutrality tilt the table in the direction of Comcast to a degree that Netflix may never recover. If Netflix, at one point 2/3 of all internet traffic, had to pay for every bit they streamed to allow for an enjoyable streaming experience they would be bankrupt in very short order.

I get that Comcast’s of the world don’t want to be dumb pipes, they own the content and that’s king. However, not every ISP owns content (Verizon/AT&T) so they aren’t at such an advantage to companies like Netflix. However that’s where AT&T’s data plan comes in. Which would essentially level the table compared to Comcast. We, as end users, wouldn’t see any benefit out of this. It’s not that our subscription fees would lower or we’ll magically get faster internet. This is simply rent seeking behavior and bad for the economy overall. Only true new competition can lead to that. Changing these rules have zero impact on that competition.

What it does do though is negatively impact the creation of new businesses that want to stream video or provide a novel product that requires high bandwidth and equal rights to streaming. Removing the protections on net neutrality dramatically increases the cost of streaming that otherwise could go into building that startup’s infrastructure. Think of the problems at Twitch.TV with their growth. My subscription fees pay for the growth of the network that I subscribe to regardless if it’s something like Twitch or Comcast. Anything else will go to shareholders and CEOs.

Could we develop other options like a Mesh network? It’s possible, but for that to work the option would have to be a public/private venture. Most citizens aren’t going to help create that and likely don’t have the technology savvy to do so. To further complicate this issue many ISPs are actually pushing to make it illegal for cities to create their own ISP.

In many cases regulation is bad for business. However, in cases like net neutrality it’s returning the net to it’s roots and enabling much stronger competition based on the merits of the company providing the service, not the arbitrary whim of network owner.

Free-market, Small Government and Regulations

The free-market has been used to argue against regulations and for small government for years. However, I believe that the major supporters of using the free-market argument are disingenuous in their application of the argument. In addition, the free-market is a flawed theory which needs to be revisited by neoclassical scholars and adjusted.

The free-market theory comes from the idea that there is an invisible hand that guides the market towards equilibrium between supply and demand. This assumes that once the equilibrium is hit it will stay at that point until there is some shock to the system which would find a new equilibrium. Each time that there is a shock, the invisible hand would push the market into a new equilibrium. This idea came as a side comment in the Wealth of Nations. This idea has become enshrined in the minds of neoclassical economics in a manner that Newtonian Physics was presumed to be accurate. In both cases the theory is incorrect. Relativistic Physics has replaced Newtonian, but in Economics the free-market is still the prevailing mechanism for policy creation. There has been no evidence for an invisible hand at all. In fact Metcalf created the theory of a networked economy which argues that the value of a good becomes more valuable as more people use it. I’ve mentioned this in the past. Essentially, this will prevent any equilibrium from every being found as the price can increase and people will still adopt the networked item because it’s becoming more valuable to the user. Or the price can remain constant even when it should drop for other factors such as a reduction in cost of production. A perfect example is the iPhone. According to research Apple has a whopping 72% margins on the iPhone, even if production was moved to the US Apple would still make 42% margin on the iPhone. There also is an over production of the iPhone and strong competition, which would indicate that the iPhone should drop prices as they are capable with that large of a margin. This market has a great deal of competition and has a large number of companies producing, which indicates that it Apple should be under pressure to drop prices. However this isn’t happening because of the networked value of the iPhone. There are a huge number of apps for the phone, the apps are high quality and the product works well with other iPhones. The market has had no impact on the cost of the iPhone.

However, free-market champions would look at any effort to change the labor practices of Apple as wrong headed and regulation that isn’t required. The Market isn’t demanding any change to labor practices because the market can bear the current prices and the demand indicates that people don’t care about labor practices. However, it’s well known that there are no alternatives to Apple’s iPhone that are produced in an ethical manner. So voting with your money wouldn’t actually work here. The problem arises because there is something of a monopoly in the manufacturing of the smart phones in FoxConn. In this case there is a market failure. Which is something that neoclassical theorists argue cannot occur. The market cannot send a signal to firms because there is no mechanism in which the market could send a signal. This is can be understood if you view this industry as a networked economy. Where you see the ties between manufacturers and handset companies, which would show a massive connection to FoxConn.

Efforts to regulate the manufacturing of devices have been argued as the reason for moving the manufacturing to other countries. However, this is not the case in the case of Apple, as they would still have huge margins. It’s because the company is attempting to maximize profits, not reduce costs to be profitable. The same arguments have been used to argue for smaller government. Saying that since there are no market failures the government should not intervene in the industry.

The unfortunate thing is that these arguments immediately disappear when it comes to protecting the profits of record industries. The same free-market advocates then move to argue that intellectual property must be protected. Essentially, creating protection for a specific product through IP causes a market failure and prevents the market from operating at its most efficient because there are not other competitors in the market. Creating IP requires a huge regulatory framework from the mechanisms of registering, logging complaints and prosecuting actors that infringe on the IP.

This type of industrial policy is typically derided by the small government fans, as it is a type of regulation that selects a “winner” (IP owners) over “losers” (non IP owners). Which may be fine. However, whenever this selection pushes our government to select a winner (Music) over the fastest growing, possibly only growing, part of our economy (internet based companies) there is a serious risk to the future. As I’ve mentioned before these laws represent huge risks for innovation.

These laws are SOPA and PIPA, which I’ve discussed extensively. However, the next round of internet regulations come in the form of CISPA. This bill, which requires allows companies to share extensively with government agencies. This type of sharing of user data and information about the activities going on at the company would not go over very well from the the free-market advocates if this was a request for data about customer data for car dealerships or steel mills. Essentially, this is going to increase the cost of doing business in the US. This may prevent companies from working in the US and prevent innovation. If I was to create a company that dealt with social data I would not want to do so after the passing of this bill. It would be likely that I would be blackmailed into giving the government data about my users that I had no desire to give them.

The internet is the perfect example of a networked economy. Facebook’s value comes from the fact that it has a huge user base. This is true for Google, Amazon and Instagram (List of companies that support CISPA). Without the users the services is literally worthless. With the users a company without any revenues can be worth $1 Billion (Instagram). The difference between this bill and other bills like SOPA and PIPA is that the agreement is bidirectional. The government will likely help Facebook and Google fight Chinese attacks and give information to each other about the activities of online hacktivist groups like Anonymous. It is likely that 4chan will end up giving over IP data and other information related to anonymous and Anonymous users.

This is regulation that the internet doesn’t need and will stifle innovation. The government already has these powers, which maybe why the Obama administration is opposed to CISPA. It is also ironic that Obama plans on sanctioning countries that use Tech to abuse human rights specifically committing genocide. A whistle blower has recently announced that the NSA has intercepted 20 TRILLION emails and likely has copies of all of these stored somewhere. The passing of CISPA and any other law of similar persuasion  would likely protect companies like AT&T from future lawsuits for being complicit with these activities.

For devotes of the Free-Market these laws create market distortions and will cause serious harm to innovation on the internet. For people that understand networked economies, this will greatly undermine the value of these networks as users will likely change their behavior to mitigate the amount of information the Government can compile on them. CISPA and its sister laws SOPA and PIPA represent big government actions attempting to control and regulate industries that do not need to be regulated. In this case there is no market failure that needs to be addressed. Privacy is something that the users have been pushing for and Facebook and Google have steadily improved on those accounts. Surprisingly industry is doing a decent job at regulating itself. Finally, regulations being pushed by advocates of small government and free-market smack of hypocrisy and a lack of understanding. These laws require a deep understanding of the internet and how the market of the internet works. Without this understanding terrible laws will be passed that will damage our privacy and freedoms. For the issues that this law would protect from there are other methods that could be employed to gain the desired results without passing laws.

Contact your congressional members to fight against this bill.

Innovation and government regulation

Yesterday during a short twitter discussion the topic of US governmental policies killing new business starts came up. With the 140 characters I wasn’t able to property address the issue that was raised. It is extremely clear that SOPA is an innovation killer, because it effectively requires everyone to have a copyright lawyer on staff at the start of any sort of web company. If you have pictures, video, commentary or whatever on your site you’ll possibly be the target of some copyright holder. This policy isn’t in place and appears, for the moment, to be killed. I expect this law to be resurrected in a year or so. Despite the face that the EU adopted a resolution against SOPA.

Let’s look beyond SOPA though, what other policies are in place that seem to prevent job growth? One of the biggest ones right now is tax levels for people making $250,000 or more. Politifact did an analysis of Congressman Boehner’s claim that taxing millionaires hurts small businesses and prevents hiring. They found this statement to be False. Of course this does depend on the definition of a small business, which Politifact expresses is difficult to define. One metric that I’m aware of is based off the annual sales, where sales over $500,000/year moves you out of the small business area. This may not be the best amount, but let’s say your company has sales of $3,000,000 a year and has enough profit to pay you $1,000,000 of that a year. This tells me that you aren’t reinvesting and trying to continue to grow your firm, probably aren’t paying your employees very well. Additionally, at this amount of sales it is likely that as an entrepreneur you’ve had to get capital investment in one of several ways, loans or from venture capital. A bank wouldn’t care if you were getting paid a million a year, but there’s no way a VC would allow you to pay yourself that if they weren’t getting a good size chunk of money too and you were still planning on reinvesting in the future enough to get a huge IPO. Now, if you’ve built this company from the ground up to this level on your own, then you aren’t paying yourself that kind of money. You would have to be re-investing that money back into the firm to get new equipment hiring the best people, etc.

Another way for companies to get started is through spin-off from another company, bootstrapping themselves to get going or spinning-out of a university. I have an article that will come out soon in the Urban times that addresses some policies that can help with the creation of Spin-outs and start-ups. In the US, we still have the best policies for this. The EU as a collective and European countries are modeling many of their intellectual property laws and funding methods off of US policies. A few examples are a very similar law to the Dole-Bayh law from the 80’s to allow universities to own IP and to give it to their employees if they wish. The creation of technology incubators – this was a truly American innovation, innovation prize contests and national seed funds. The continual reinvention of these policies in the US allows us to create more new companies than European counterparts from a variety of sources.

Are there other policies that hurt the creation of companies? Yes, sure. I’m sure there are some pollution regulations that negatively impact the survival rate of firms. However, from a purely economic perspective this regulation is forcing the company to internalize the cost of the negative externality. Which the company should innovate to reduce the amount of pollution they are creating or buy equipment that reduces their costs in other ways. Innovation to reduce pollution should reduce the cost of raw materials, because they are being used more efficiently and in lower quantities. Every company wants to be able to reduce the amount of raw materials they use. In the next few years we will see greener companies, not because they have a desire to be sustainable, but because it’s more profitable. The regulations the EPA puts into place requires companies to internalize negative externalities, which from both a evolutionary and neo-classical economic perspective is expected from the market and when the market fails then and only then the government needs to step in.

There will be regulations that are industry specific that may slow the amount of innovation and creation of firms, but some of that is surely death by a thousand paper cuts (too much paper work) and the inability to figure out a way to acquire enough funds to get the company going. Compared to European countries the US is the leader for ease of firm creation and the EU is still playing catch up in that regard.