Issues

In Tech-Driven Economy, FCC Needs to Step Up

By: Mike Montgomery

It’s clear that technology is a key driver of prosperity in today’s modernizing economy. Trillions of dollars in economic activity flow through the networks which make up the internet, making America’s digital economy the envy of the world. Networks are redefining the services people consume and the income people derive. For example, according to a Pew survey, 72 percent of Americans have used a sharing or on-demand service.

That’s why the Federal Communications Commission has never been more important. From last year’s Net Neutrality rules to current proceedings about set-top boxes, internet privacy and business services, FCC rules are shaping the future of the internet – and the broader economy that it fuels. Whether you agree or disagree with these regulations, everyone agrees they will have a profound impact.

That is why it’s so disconcerting to see the FCC disconnected from the economic impact of its decisions. In a report he published in July, the FCC’s very own former chief economist, Gerald Faulhaber, Ph.D., raised alarms about the agency’s dangerous turn away from economic analysis in its decision making.

In the report, Dr. Faulhaber asks: Why do the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau all conduct stringent cost-benefit analyses on their decisions while the FCC does not?

The FCC has simply become too important to the economy for it to fail to explore the economic impact of its decisions. For example, numerous economists warned the FCC that its decision to impose so-called Title II regulations on internet service providers, which treats today’s advanced broadband access in the same way as telephone services from generations ago, will have a negative impact on investment and innovation while not solving the issue we all want addressed: how to ensure that internet traffic is treated fairly across networks, regardless of where it comes from. Yet, when issuing its Open Internet Order, the FCC conducted no economic analysis of the impact its proposed rules would have on consumers, innovation or investment.

How is that possible?

The problems continue. The FCC is currently facing a major backlash from Congress, Hollywood and many innovators for its proposed new technology standards for set-top boxes.

Read the full article here.

ZEV program running out of gas?

By: Kish Rajan

With the clock ticking down to the end of this year’s legislative session, our leaders in Sacramento are debating initiatives that will put more clean cars on the road, boost air quality and innovation, and improve the health of our residents. We must take advantage of this brief window of opportunity to recalibrate the state’s primary mechanism for encouraging electric vehicle adoption – the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) credit system.

California – led by Gov. Jerry Brown and the state air resources board — leads the world in the transition to zero tailpipe emissions, powered by ingenuity not only in the technological realm, but in the policy arena as well. The goal was to bolster the efforts of automotive entrepreneurs to accelerate the deployment of clean cars up and down the state, in an industry notoriously immune to change.

The ZEV credit program as it’s currently structured won’t get us to where we need to be – currently, fewer than four percent of cars sold each model year are electric.

To ignite and accelerate this shift, state policymakers introduced so-called “ZEV credits”, a program to incentivize car companies to devote significant resources toward developing and deploying electric vehicle models that excite drivers.  This is the carrot for the automotive industry to move forward. The intent was to inject vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions into the marketplace; it was smart, creative regulation to bolster innovation and creativity that should be a national model.

These credits were designed to work with companies small and large, legacy and upstart, in order to push the clean car market forward.

Yet, despite the best intentions of state regulators, the ZEV credit program as it’s currently structured won’t get us to where we need to be – currently, fewer than 4 percent of cars sold each model year are electric.

Read the full article here.

Advertising sucks, but TV would be worse without it

By: Mike Montgomery

Given the opportunity, many of us choose to organize our TV watching to minimize ads as much as possible. We record, fast forward or pay subscription fees to services like Netflix and HBO to watch shows ad-free. But here’s the dirty little secret of television — advertising makes it go and keeps it affordable for the viewing public.

Which is why the Federal Communication Commission’s attempt to “open” the cable set-top box to competitors has the potential to be a giant disaster for consumers. Let me explain. Although advertising is becoming increasingly easy to skip, it still funds an enormous number of programs. Last year advertisers spent $79 billion on TV. That’s down slightly from 2014 but still makes it the largest slice of advertising spending in media beating out digital and (obviously) print.

Advertising makes up as much as 50 percent of revenue for programmers and 8.5 percent of revenues for the so-called multi-channel video programming distributors. The money flowing from these ads keeps the TV ecosystem going. Networks have money to invest in and pay the creators who make TV shows. Prestige shows like “Mad Men” and “Empire” are financed by ads. But it also allows MVPDs to keep subscription prices relatively low by providing another source of revenue — one that doesn’t come out of consumers’ pockets. That helps subsidize pay channels, which is why standalone HBO costs $14.99 per month but you can get HBO through your cable provider for $10 per month.

The FCC’s proposal to open the set-top box market to third-party developers would destroy this entire system. The MVPDs would be required to provide their programming streams to anyone who wanted to use them. These third-party box makers wouldn’t be required to follow the advertising deals that MVPDs have carefully contracted. They could alter or delete the original ads or pile on more ads and keep all that new revenue for themselves, driving down the value of the “original” ads and sucking up revenue that would ordinarily go to fund new programs. Chairman Tom Wheeler has claimed the new rules won’t allow this but experts recognize that the “rules won’t prohibit extra ads around TV channels.”

Read the full article here.

Airbnb, Homeaway and a City’s Tortured Path to Drafting Short Term Rental Regs

By: Tim Sparapani

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is in the midst of a sometimes hot, sometimes cold dispute that’s currently targeting companies that facilitate short-term housing rentals online, but more broadly is a challenge to the internet platform companies that are propelling San Francisco’s and the nation’s economy. The current dispute stems from the Supervisors’ innocuous sounding ordinance that would force internet platform companies like HomeAway and Airbnb to either require those who offer rentals on their sites to register with the City, or kick the renters off the companies’ sites. If the companies refuse or resist, they face significant fines.

Of course, the City could and should just take direct enforcement actions against the property owners who aren’t complying with local laws but it wants the companies to bear this burden.

The first ordinance passed by Supervisors this spring was swiftly challenged in court, in part because it was an attack that violated a key federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, that has helped the Bay Area’s tech innovators generate hundred of billions in economic value for the city, state, and national economy. Just last week, the Supervisors, who were previously resolute that the proposal did not violate federal law, withdrew the ordinance. They requested that the judge assigned to the case stay litigation while they rewrite the ordinance. Early drafts being circulated, however, appear to repeat the original mistake of punishing internet platforms when property owners fail to comply with the City’s registration requirements.

We live in the Internet Age, and more specifically, what I call the Internet Platform Economy. Internet platforms – Google, Facebook, eBay, Etsy, Tumblr, Craigslist, and a thousand others – are especially successful because they facilitate billions of people publishing content online, and with a few exceptions, the internet platform companies cannot be forced to police users’ content. America’s tech companies were empowered to create their online platforms by a provision tucked into a 20-year young federal law, the Communications Decency Act (CDA). With only a few exceptions, courts have ruled repeatedly that Section 230 of the CDA frees companies from liability for facilitating their users’ publication online of speech and content. This federal liability shield is the greatest single reason for the rise of these services because it is what allows internet platform companies to host billions of interactions without being constantly mired in legal disputes.

Read the full article here.

Why Every Entrepreneur Should Care About Nintendo’s Pokémon GO

By: Mike Montgomery

Pokémon GO has changed the game.

By that, I don’t just mean the world of video games. There’s no question that the mobile game, which at last count was being f you haven’t played, the game works with a GPS map that shows you where Pokémon are in the real world (you can tell a Pokémon is nearby via a virtual rustling of leaves). When they’re close enough, they appear as augmented reality on your phone and you try to catch them. The result is entertaining and adorable.

Although augmented reality has been around for years, this is by far the best use of the technology. Video game designers all over the world are probably scrambling to include augmented reality in whatever project they are currently working on.

But the impact of Pokémon GO is bigger than that. It’s even bigger than Nintendo’s 100% stock climb over the past few weeks. The game is also creating amazing opportunities for brick-and-mortar entrepreneurs.

Players don’t only try to catch Pokémon in the game. They also congregate at Pokéstops (where they can collect Pokéballs and other bonuses) and gyms (where they can battle other teams). Pokéstops and gyms are locations in the real world. Bookstores, churches, restaurants and murals that happen to be gyms or Pokéstops are suddenly being inundated by Pokémon GO players.

Businesses didn’t have a chance to sign up for this. The maps of key locations come from a previous game from Niantic (the studio behind Pokémon GO) called Ingress.

But they can take advantage of the business. For example, businesses can put out lures, which temporarily increase the number of Pokémon around that business. Inc calculated that lures only cost $1.19 per hour and they can drastically increase foot traffic. A friend who was playing Pokémon GO with her son noticed a lure at a local candy shop. Her son caught a bunch of Pokémon and she ended up buying him some candy.

Read the full article here.

Congress must resolve net neutrality once and for all

By: Mike Montgomery

When the U.S. Court of Appeals backed the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) so-called netneutrality rules this week, PC World nailed the problem with its headline: “The decision will be challenged, and the case could drag on for years.”

Regardless of how the court ruled, net neutrality was destined to play out in courtrooms for the next decade as policymakers, technologists and consumers grapple with how to ensure open access to the internet while not crushing innovation and discouraging investment that created the Web in the first place.

Today the battle is largely between ISPs and edge providers. But as we’ve seen with buyers’ remorse statements from companies such as Netflix and Cloudflare, as well as EFF’s John Perry Barlow, in the future these legal battles may become more muddled as tech titans realize that they could be captured by the rules designed to keep the internet accessible to all.

These battles would test the patience of Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day,” which is why there is only one entity that can settle the issue once and for all: Congress. Critics of the FCC contend the agency overstepped its bounds and applied 20th Century rules to innovative and rapidly changing technologies. At the same time, everyone wants to ensure that the internet continues to remain open and that we don’t create fast lanes, ban blocking and enhance transparency.

Only Congress can solve this problem by rewriting the laws that the FCC uses to base its rules. However well meaning the FCC was with its approach, two obvious negatives exist. The first is that the uncertainty over a decade-long legal fight leads tech companies – both those that supply the pipes and those who rely upon them – to play wait and see on new investments or innovations. That’s bad news for consumers and really bad news for an economy that needs a tech jolt.

The second is that we risk accepting that the Web deserves to be treated no differently than our water or electrical utilities – plodding and innovation-free, devoid of competition. That harms consumers and innovators alike due to a lack competition, choice and investment.

Read the full article here.

Periscope and Facebook shine a bright light on democracy

By: Mike Montgomery

Justice Louis Brandeis said, “sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants.” A ray of digital sunshine emerged last week as a new kind of disinfectant, one that may make sure our nation’s elected representatives keep cameras on.

Last Wednesday, a group of Democrats staged a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to draw attention to the gun responsibility debate raging across the country in the wake of the Orlando shootings. Republicans blocked a piece of legislation that would have made it illegal for people on the no-fly list to purchase guns. In protest, Democrats vowed to “occupy” the floor until Republicans allowed a vote on the bill.

In retaliation, the Republican leadership sent the house into recess, which caused C-SPAN’s cameras to go dark. The public window to the Hill is only open when the House is actually in session. Without cameras to watch, Republicans assumed they were taking the wind out of the Democrats’ protest sails.

But a few tech-savvy staffers and representatives quickly realized there was a way to keep the protest on the air. Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., was the first to take out his phone and start broadcasting the protest on Twitter using Periscope. C-SPAN soon started broadcasting the feed, eventually switching back and forth between Peters’s feed and Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Facebook Live feed.

Needless to say, this was an historic use of technology driving government transparency, one that will mark a real turning point in how we see our elected officials in action. Both Periscope and Facebook Live, per Politico, have been trying to become bigger parts of this election year by forming debate-night partnerships. But Wednesday, both sites showed just how powerful livestreaming can be when users can work around traditional media blackouts without tripping the piracy alarm like Periscope did when it burst onto the scene during the the Mayweather-Pacquiao boxing match.

Read the full article here.

The Dark Web Is Still A Huge, Difficult Problem

By: Tim Sparapani

If you want to buy someone’s private data, it’s disturbingly easy to do. It’s all there for sale on the dark web, a completely anonymous twin of the web most of us use daily.

The dark web (or deep web, if you prefer) is “dark” because the sites on it cannot be indexed by a web crawling browser, such as Google. That makes it hard for ordinary people, and law enforcement, to find specific websites. This anonymity has the advantage of creating a zone of free speech where individuals can communicate, think and explore ideas without government interference.

But it also creates a haven for illicit activity, including the buying and selling of drugs, child pornography and individuals’ private information such as social security numbers, health records and passwords.

People who don’t closely follow privacy issues probably associate the dark web with Silk Road, the infamous illegal drug marketplace that did millions in business before the FBI managed to shut the site down in 2013.

But the death of Silk Road didn’t put an end to the dark web. This shady technological playground is still going strong, and many sites that thrive on the dark web are a daily threat to privacy and the economy.

Over the past three months, the website LeakedSource has uncovered huge caches of account data being sold on the dark web from eight websites including Twitter, MySpace and LinkedIn. In some cases, those accounts came from privacy breaches at the web companies. In other cases, data thieves were able to steal information directly from users.

The way the account information was stolen matters less than the fact that so much of it is for sale. Need a Netflix password? They’re available for pennies on the dark web. You can also get stolen passwords for Hulu, HBO Go and Spotify.

The dark web has also become a haven for child pornography. According to an article on Wired, over 80% of dark web searches are related to pedophilia.

Read the full article here.

Solar Impulse 2 Shows The Possibilities, And Limitations, Of Movable Solar

By: Mike Montgomery

Anyone who thinks even a little about energy is thinking about renewables. According to REN21, new investments in renewable power and fuel climbed from $45 billion in 2004 to $270 billion a decade later.

That makes it an incredibly appealing market for entrepreneurs. The vast majority of that money has been focused on renewable energy that can go into the grid and power our homes and offices. But the Solar Impulse 2, a long, thin plane that is powered completely through the use of solar panels, has shown another side of renewable energy: solar-powered transportation.

Is the Solar Impulse 2 a breakthrough or a novelty? It may be a little of both.

Bertrand Piccard, one of two Swiss pilots who have been flying the plane in tandem, sees promise in the new technology. “Today we do not have the technology for a [commercial] solar airplane,” he says. “Nevertheless, it will happen.”

But not anytime soon. “It’s not years away, it’s decades,” adds Tom Werner, the CEO and president of SunPower, the company that manufactured the solar cells for the Solar Impulse 2.

Werner explains that when developing solar-powered transportation, you need to consider cost, weight and efficiency. Although the Solar Impulse 2 shows that it’s possible to power a vehicle solely from mounted solar cells, today the challenges for a typical passenger car or commercial airplane far outstrip any benefits. For example, in order to drive 200 miles a day only on solar power, a typical passenger car would need 10 times as many solar cells than would fit onto that car’s roof.

Read the full article here.