You may recall a number of years ago when Google experimented with delivering broadband from balloons in an effort labeled Project Loon. The project was eventually dropped, but a remnant of the project has now resurfaced as Taara – broadband delivered terrestrially by lasers.
Project Loon functioned by beaming broadband from dirigible to receivers on the ground, and Taara sprung out of the idea of using those same lasers for terrestrial broadband. Taara claims to be able to beam as much as 20 gigabits for 20 kilometers (12 miles). While that is impressive, the important claim is that the hardware is affordable and easy to install and align.
The Taara effort came out of the effort by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to form a division to work on moonshots – ideas that are futuristic sounding, but that could someday make the world a radically better place. This resulted in the creation of X, the parent of Taara, which is the laboratory in charge of the moonshot ideas.
Taara sees this technology as a way to increase broadband access in areas with little or no broadband access. This is also envisioned as a technology that can provide better backhaul to cell towers and ISP hub sites. The most promising use of the technology is to bring a high-speed connection to the many small villages around the world that aren’t connected to broadband.
The X website includes several case studies of the technology. In the Congo, the radios were used to beam broadband across the Congo River to make a connection between Brazzaville and Kinshasa. This was a 4.8 kilometer radio hop that is far less expensive than building a fiber route by road of almost 400 kilometers. Within the first 20 days after the connection, the backhaul connection through Taara carried almost 700 terabytes of data.
Taara has already been deployed in thirteen countries, and Taara is working with major players to quickly expand the use of the technology. This includes deals with the Econet Group and its subsidiary Liquid Telecom in Africa, the ISP Bluetown in India, and Digicel in the Pacific Islands. Taara is also now working with Bharti Airtel, one of the largest telecom providers in India to ramp up distribution. India has hundreds of thousands of small villages that could be candidates for the technology.
In Africa, the roll-out of the technology started in Kenya, working with Liquid Telecom and the Econet Group. The radios are perceived as the best way to build backhaul in places where it is challenging or dangerous to build fiber networks, such as across rivers, across national parks, or in post-conflict zones.
There are still 2 billion people on the planet who are not connected to the Internet, and in most cases, one of the primary impediments to expanding Internet services is the lack of affordable and reliable backhaul. The Taara lasers seem like a solution to bring broadband to a huge number of places that have lacked connectivity.
General Motors recently announced that it is going to stop supporting Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in some of its vehicles. These are smartphone mirroring apps that let a driver use their cellphone to connect to music, get driving directions, listen to eBooks, etc. GM announced that it plans to block the smartphone connection capability and will instead run a Google infotainment suite that includes Google Maps, Google Assistant, Spotify, and other apps that will be built into the dashboard display.
The company is not alone, and other companies like Mercedes and VW don’t like smartphone mirroring. GM says that it is doing this to take back control over customers and the in-car experience. I had to pause at that statement because I can’t think of a time when carmakers had that kind of control.
An article in Light Reading quoted an analyst saying that this means that the bandwidth used by the average car would grow from a few hundred megabytes per month to 4-8 gigabytes per month. That seems like a gigantic increase in bandwidth to me to take over the functions that were already going through a cellphone. Does this mean that the average driver really uses 4-8 gigabytes per month on the cellphone while driving? That can’t be true, and there is more at play here.
This raises a lot of questions for me. Does this finally mean that AT&T will reach its dream of requiring car owners to subscribe to a cellular subscription? That’s something the company has been angling for since the first conversations about smart cars and 5G. It seems likely that the cost of this service will be embedded in the cost of the car for the first year, but will all car owners be required to subscribe to this service when the paid year lapses? You might not have a choice if you can’t use your cell phone. Perhaps the car makers will pay this for a longer period if gaining control of the customer experience can generate additional monetary benefits higher than the cost of the cellular subscription.
Car companies have been trying to force subscriptions on car owners for years with the OnStar service. But most people drop that service at the end of the free period after buying a new car. I may be wrong, but I can’t see most car owners willing to buy a new monthly data subscription. There is no doubt that a 4–8 gigabyte cellular subscription is not going to come cheap.
Carmakers wouldn’t be considering this unless it will make them money. I can think of several ways this could financially benefit them. They might get a share of any revenues paid to AT&T for a subscription. I have to imagine Google will pay them for getting access to a car’s data – having a car connected to a cellular plan will let car makers gather detailed analytics on how the car is being driven, and I imagine that creates a revenue opportunity for selling driver data to insurance companies and others. A car is not going to use 8 gigabytes of data monthly by connecting only to GPS and listening to music. That much data has to mean transferring a lot of base analytics about the car and the driver. I can’t imagine paying for a subscription that would let GM and Google spy on me.
This also raises questions about tying my car to a cellular carrier. The new FCC maps for the big cellular companies are a joke. There are huge areas of the country that have little or no cellular coverage. I live in Appalachia, and I don’t have to drive far to find areas with no cell coverage. One town we visit is Boone, NC, and over half of the drive between here and there has zero cell coverage. How will car companies deal with irate customers that require a service that doesn’t function where they live? My wife listens to an eBook from her phone on that drive – I know how upset she would be if that no longer works because she can’t connect her cellphone to the car speakers.
I’m not sure why carmakers think folks want or will accept this. I might be the exception, but I would never buy a car that forced this on me unless I had the option to disable it. I don’t want to be curated and monitored by my carmaker. Their relationship with me ends the day I pay for the car. My wife avidly dislikes Android and wouldn’t buy a car that forced her to connect to Google and Android instead of her preferred IOs. If GM or any other company mandates this, we’d take them off our list of cars to consider.
There has been a lot of talk lately from the White House and Congress about having the FCC regulate online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. From a regulatory perspective, it’s an interesting question if current law allows for the regulation of these companies. It would be ironic if the FCC somehow tried to regulate Facebook after they went through series of legal gyrations to remove themselves from regulating ISPs for the delivery and sale of broadband – something that is more clearly in their regulatory wheelhouse.
All of the arguments for regulating the web companies centers around Section 230 of the FCC rules. Congress had the nascent Internet companies in mind when the wrote Section 230. The view of Congress was that the newly formed Internet needed to be protected from regulation and interference in order to grow. Congress was right about this at the time and the Internet is possibly the single biggest driver of our current economy. Congress specifically spelled out how web companies should be viewed from a regulatory perspective.
There are two sections of the statute that are most relevant to the question of regulating web companies. The first is Section 230(c)(1), which states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
This section of the law is unambiguous and states that an online platform can’t be held liable for content posted by users. This would hold true regardless of whether a platform allows users free access to say anything or if the platform heavily moderates what can be said. When Congress wrote Section 230 this was the most important part of the statute, because they realized that new web companies would never get off the ground or thrive if they have to constantly respond to lawsuits filed by parties that didn’t like the content posted on their platform.
Web platforms are protected by first amendment rights as publishers if they provide their own content, in exactly the same manner as a newspaper or magazine – but publishers can be sued for violating laws like defamation. But most of the big web platforms don’t create content – they just provide a place for users to publish content. As such, the language cited above completely shields Facebook and Twitter from liability, and also seemingly from regulation.
Another thing that must be considered is the current state of FCC regulation. The courts have given the FCC wide latitude in interpreting its regulatory role. In the latest court ruling that upheld the FCC’s deregulation of broadband and the repeal of net neutrality, the court said that the FCC had the authority to deregulate broadband since the agency could point to Congressional laws that supported that position. However, the court noted that the FCC could just as easily have adopted almost the opposite position, as had been done by the Tom Wheeler FCC, since there was also Congressional language that supports regulating broadband. The court said that an agency like the FCC is only required to find language in Congressional rules that support whatever position they take. Over the years there have been enough conflicting rules from Congress to give the FCC a lot of flexibility in interpreting Congressional intent.
It’s clear that the FCC still has to regulate carriers, which is why landline telephone service is still regulated. In killing Title II regulation, the FCC went through legal gymnastics to declare that broadband is an ‘information service’ and not a carrier service.
Companies like Facebook and Google are clearly also information services. This current FCC would be faced with a huge dilemma if they tried to somehow regulate companies like Facebook or Twitter. To do so would mean declaring that the agency has the authority to regulate information service providers – a claim that would be impossible to make without also reasserting jurisdiction over ISPs and broadband.
The bottom line is that the FCC could assert some limited form of jurisdiction over the web companies. However, the degree to which they could regulate them would be seriously restricted by the language in Section 230(c)(1). And any attempt to regulate the web companies would give major heartburn to FCC lawyers. It would force them to make a 180-degree turn from everything they’ve said and done about regulating broadband since Ajit Pai became Chairman.
The odds are pretty good that this concept will blow over because the FCC is likely to quietly resist any push to regulate web companies if that means they would have to reassert jurisdiction over information service providers. Of course, Congress could resolve this at any time by writing new bills that would explicitly regulate Google without regulating AT&T. But as long as we have a split Congress, that’s never going to happen.
I’ve always kept an eye on European Union regulations because anything that affects big web companies or ISPs in Europe always ends up bleeding over into the US. Recently the EU has been contemplating new rules about online copyrights, and in September the European Parliament took the first step by approving two new sets of copyright rules.
Article 11 is being referred to as a link tax. This legislation would require that anybody that carries headlines or snippets of longer articles online must pay a fee to the creator of the original content. Proponents of Article 11 argue that big companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are taking financial advantage of content publishers by listing headlines of news articles with no compensation for the content creators. They argue that these snippets are one of the primary reasons that people use social media and they browse articles suggested by their friends. Opponents of the new law argue that it will be extremely complicated for a web service to track the millions of headlines listed by users and that they will react to this rule by only allowing headline snippets from large publishers. This would effectively shut small or new content creators from gaining access to the big platforms – articles would be from only a handful of content sources rather than from tens of thousands of them.
Such a law would certainly squash small content originators like this blog. Many readers find my daily blog articles via short headlines that are posted on Twitter and Linked-In every time I release a blog or when one of my readers reposts a blog. It’s extremely unlikely that the big web platforms would create a relationship with somebody as small as me and I’d lose my primary way to distribute content on the web. I guess, perhaps, that the WordPress platform where I publish could make arrangements with the big web services – otherwise their value as a publishing platform would be greatly diminished.
This would also affect me as a user. I mostly follow other people in the telecom and the rural broadband space by browsing through my feed on Twitter and LinkedIn to see what those folks are finding to be of interest. I skip over the majority of headlines and snippets, but I stop and read news articles I find of interest. The beauty of these platforms is that I automatically select the type of content I get to browse by deciding who I want to follow on the platforms. If the people I follow on Twitter can’t post small and obscure articles, then I would have no further interest in being on Twitter.
The second law, Article 13 is being referred to as the upload filter law. Article 13 would make a web platform liable for any copyright infringements for content posted by users. This restriction would theoretically not apply to content posted by users as long as they are acting non-commercially.
No one is entirely sure how the big web platforms would react to this law. At one extreme a platform like Facebook or Reddit might block all postings of content, such as video or pictures, for which the user can’t show ownership. This would mean the end of memes and kitten videos and much of the content posted by most Facebook users.
At the other extreme, this might mean that the average person could post such links since they have no commercial benefit from posting a cute cat video. But the law could stop commercial users from posting content that is not their own – a movie reviewer might not be able to include pictures or snippets from a film in a review. I might not be able to post a link to a Washington Post article as CCG Consulting but perhaps I could post it as an individual. While I don’t make a penny from this blog, I might be stopped by web platforms from including links to news articles in my blog.
In January the approval process was halted when 11 countries including Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands said they wouldn’t support the final language in these articles. EU law has an interesting difference from US law in that for many EU ordinances each country gets to decide, within reason, how they will implement the law.
The genesis of these laws comes from the observation that the big web companies are making huge money from the content created by others and not fairly compensating content creators. We are seeing a huge crisis for content creators – they used to be compensated through web advertising ‘hits’, but these revenues are disappearing quickly. The EU is trying to rebalance the financial equation and make sure that content creators are fairly compensated – which is the entire purpose of copyright laws.
The legislators are finding out how hard it will be to make this work in the online world. Web platforms will always try to work around laws to minimize payments. The lawyers of the web platforms are going to be cautious and advise the platforms to minimize massive class action suits.
But there has to be a balance. Content creators deserve to be paid for creating content. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. are popular to a large degree because users of the platforms upload content that they didn’t create – the value of the platform is that users get to share things of interest with their friends.
We haven’t heard the end of these efforts and the parties are still looking for language that the various EU members can accept. If these laws eventually pass they will raise the same questions here because the policies adopted by the big web platforms will probably change to match the European laws.
I recently wrote a blog that talked about the FCC’s formal goals for the next few years. I noted in that blog that some of the FCC’s actions currently seem to conflict with their stated goals. Today I present my take on what I see as the actual current priorities in our industry.
5G, 5G, 5G. The FCC and other policy makers have swallowed the 5G hype hook, line and sinker. I have no doubt that 5G will be an important part of our future telecom landscape, but the hype seems way out of proportion to the reality we are likely to see. Nothing highlights this better than a Qualcomm-sponsored article that claims that 5G technology will be as important as the introduction of electricity.
The FCC is sweeping away regulations that might interfere with 5G and already killed local say over the location of small cell electronics and towers. The FCC is well on the way towards allocating massive amounts of spectrum for 5G and ignoring other spectrum needs. The White House even held a 5G summit where politicians were repeating the talking points of the 5G carriers.
This all seems premature since engineers all say that the major benefits of mature 5G will come years from now. There will be some early 5G technology introduced into the market over the next few years, but this will not include the characteristics that make 5G an important technology. From a policy perspective, 5G seems to have won the war without having had to fight any of the battles. I’ve never seen this industry (and the politicians) go so gaga over a new technology that we aren’t even going to see for a while. The marketers at the cellular companies have clearly hit a hype home run.
The Rural Digital Divide Gets Lip Service. Talking about solving the rural digital divide is a high priority. The FCC rarely makes a presentation without mentioning how important this is to them. However, the FCC and others in Washington DC are doing almost nothing to solve the problem. The FCC even went so far as to list the rural digital divide as the first priority on their own list of goals but has done little to address the problem.
There is universal acknowledgement that the private sector is not going to invest in rural broadband without some funding help from government. Yet all of the state and federal grant programs added together are throwing millions of dollars at a problem that needs many billions of dollars to solve.
Meanwhile, the rural digital divide is widening as urban areas are seeing significantly faster broadband speeds while rural America is stuck with little or no broadband.
The Big ISPs Want to be Google. Every one of the big ISPs has made investments to try to catch-up with Google. The big ISPs want to monetize their vast troves of customer data. Big ISPs are envious of the advertising money made by Google and Facebook and want to grab a piece of those dollars. The FCC has aided the big companies by weakening consumer privacy protections.
But for whatever reason, the big ISPs haven’t yet figured this out. They have the most intimate and detailed access to customer data but have scarcely found any ways to understand it, yet alone monetize it.
Take My Residential Customers, Please. The big telcos have made it clear that they are not particularly interested in the residential market. CenturyLink made it clear this year that they will no longer invest in residential networks. Verizon has already sold vast tracts of rural networks. AT&T is constantly petitioning the FCC to let them tear down rural copper. Verizon is talking about expanding wireless local loops using 5G, but we’ll have to wait to see how serious they are about it.
Big ISPs Continue to Try to Squash Competition. The big ISPs miss no opportunity to squash competition, no matter how small. They all still rail against municipal competition, although all such competition added together is barely a blip on the national radar. They still pay for hit pieces – articles and papers that blast municipal fiber networks – even ones like Chattanooga EPB that is a paragon of competitiveness. They have been working hard to kick CLECs off of their dying copper networks, even thought the CLECs have been investing in newer DSL that can deliver decent broadband over the copper.
I think we badly need new CPNI rules for the industry. CPNI stands for ‘Customer Proprietary Network Information’ and are rules to govern the use of data that telcos and ISPs gather on their customers. CPNI rules are regulated by the FCC and I think it’s fully within their current mandate to update the rules to fit the modern world.
While CPNI is related to privacy issues it’s not exactly the same. CPNI rules involve how ISPs use the customer data that they must gather in order to make the network operate. Originally CPNI rules involved telephone call details – who we called, who called us, etc. Telcos have been prohibited by CPNI rules from using this kind of data without the express consent of a consumer (or else in response to a valid subpoena from law enforcement).
Today the telcos and ISPs gather a lot more information about us than just telephone calling information. For instance, a cellular company not only knows all of your call details, but they know where you are whenever you call, text or make a data connection from your cellphone. Every ISP knows every web search you make since they are the ones routing those requests to the Internet. If you buy newer ISP products like home automation they know all sorts of details that they can gather from monitoring motion detectors and other devices that are part of their service.
Such CPNI data is valuable because it can be used by the ISP to assemble a profile of each customer, particularly when CPNI data is matched with data gathered from other sources. Every large ISP has purchased a business arm that is aimed to help them monetize customer data. The ISPs are all envious of the huge advertising revenues generated by Facebook and Google and want to climb into the advertising game.
The FCC was given the authority to limit how carriers use customer proprietary data, granted by Section 222(b) of the Telecommunications Act of 1934. Those statutes specifically prohibit carriers from using CPNI data for marketing purposes. Over the years the FCC developed more specific CPNI rules that governed telcos. However, the FCC has not updated the specific CPNI rules to cover the wide range of data that ISPs gather on us today. Telcos still ask customers for permission to use their telephone records, but they are not required to get customer permission to track web sites we visit or our location when using a cellphone.
The FCC could invoke CPNI protections for companies that they regulate. It gets dicier for the FCC to expand CPNI rules past traditional carriers. All sorts of web companies also gather information on users. Google makes most of their money through their search engine. They not only charge companies to get higher ranking for Google searches, but they monetize customer data by building profiles of each user that they can market to advertisers. These profiles are supposedly very specific – they can direct advertisers to users who have searched for any specific topic, be it people searching for information about diabetes or those looking to buy a new truck.
There are many who argue that companies like Google should be brought under the same umbrella of rules as ISPs. The ISPs rightfully claim that companies like Google have a major market advantage. But the ISPs clearly prefer the regulatory world where no company is subject to CPNI rules.
There other web applications that are harder to justify as being related to CPNI. For example, a social network like Facebook gathers huge amounts of private data about its users – but those users voluntarily build profiles and share that data freely.
There are more complicated cases such as Amazon, which has been accused of using customer shopping data to develop its own product lines to directly compete with vendors selling on the Amazon platform. The company clearly uses customer data for their own marketing purposes – but Amazon is clearly not a carrier and it would be a huge stretch to pull them under the CPNI rules.
It’s likely that platforms like Facebook or Amazon would have to be regulated with new privacy rules rather than with CPNI rules. That requires an act of Congress, and it’s likely that any new privacy rules would apply to a whole large range of companies that use the web – the approach taken by the European Union.
It seems like one of the big digital platforms is in the news almost daily – and not in a positive way. Yet there has been almost no talk in the US of trying to regulate digital platforms like Facebook and Google. Europe has taken some tiny steps, but regulation there are still in the infancy state. In this country the only existing regulations that apply to the big digital platforms are antitrust laws, some weak privacy rules, and general corporate regulation from the Federal Trade Commission that protect against general consumer fraud.
Any time there has been the slightest suggestion of regulating these companies we instantly hear the cry that the Internet must be free and unfettered. This argument harkens back to the early days of the Internet when the Internet was a budding industry and seems irrelevant now that these are some of the biggest corporations in the world that hold huge power in our daily lives.
For example, small businesses can thrive or die due to a change in an algorithm on the Google search engine. Search results are so important to businesses that the billion-dollar SEO industry has grown to help companies manipulate their search results. We’ve recently witnessed the damage that can be done by nefarious parties on platforms like Facebook to influence voting or to shape public opinion around almost any issue.
Our existing weak regulations are of little use in trying to control the behavior of these big companies. For example, in Europe there have been numerous penalties levied against Google for monopoly practices, but the fines haven’t been very effective in controlling Google’s behavior. In this country our primary anti-trust tool is to break up monopolies – an extreme remedy that doesn’t make much sense for the Google search engine or Facebook.
Regulating digital platforms would not be easy because one of the key concepts of regulation is understanding a business well enough to craft sensible rules that can throttle abuses. We generally regulate monopolies and the regulatory rules are intended to protect the public from the worst consequences of monopoly use. It’s not hard to make a case that both Facebook and Google are near-monopolies – but it’s not easy to figure out what we would do to regulate them in any sensible way.
For example, the primary regulations we have for electric companies is to control profits of the monopolies to keep rates affordable. In the airline industry we regulate issues of safety to force the airlines to do the needed maintenance on planes. It’s hard to imagine how to regulate something like a search engine in the same manner when a slight change in a search engine algorithm can have big economic consequences across a wide range of industries. It doesn’t seem possible to somehow regulate the fairness of a web search.
Regulating social media platforms would be even harder. The FCC has occasionally in the past been required by Congress to try to regulate morality issues – such as monitoring bad language or nudity on the public airwaves. Most of the attempts by the FCC to follow these congressional mandates were ineffective and often embarrassing for the agency. Social platforms like Facebook are already struggling to define ways to remove bad actors from their platform and it’s hard to think that government intervention in that process can do much more than to inject politics into an already volatile situation.
One of the problems with trying to regulate digital platforms is defining who they are. The FCC today has separate rules that can be used to regulate telecommunications carriers and media companies. How do you define a digital platform? Facebook, LinkedIn and Snapchat are all social media – they share some characteristics but also have wide differences. Just defining what needs to be regulated is difficult, if not impossible. For example, all of the social media platforms gain much of their value from user-generated content. Would that mean that a site like WordPress that houses this blog is a social media company?
Any regulations would have to start in Congress because there is no other way for a federal agency to be given the authority to regulate the digital platforms. It’s not hard to imagine that any effort out of Congress would concentrate on the wrong issues, much like the rules that made the FCC the monitor of bad language. I know as a user of the digital platforms that I would like to see some regulation in the areas of privacy and use of user data – but beyond that, regulating these companies is a huge challenge.
One of the quietest regulatory battles is happening at statehouses rather than with regulators. The large ISPs and big Silicon Valley companies have joined forces to kill any legislation that would create Internet privacy.
The privacy battle got started in 2016 when the FCC passed new privacy rules that required ISPs to get permission from customers before selling their personal data or browsing history. Those new rules would have gone into effect in April of 2017. But Congress intervened to kill the new privacy rules before they went into effect. In an effort led by Senator Jeff Flake, Congress added language to the Congressional Review Act, the bill used to approve the federal government budget, that rolled back the FCC’s new rules and that also prohibited the agency from introducing new rules that were ‘substantially similar’.
Since that time there have been numerous attempts in state legislatures to provide privacy rights for citizens. According to Michael Gaynor of Motherboard there have been over 70 bills in state legislatures in the last year that have attempted to introduce consumer privacy – and all have failed.
That’s an amazing statistic considering the public sentiment for putting curbs on ISPs being able to use customer data. A Pew Research poll from earlier this year showed that over two-thirds of people support stronger privacy rules.
The legislative failures have all come due to intense lobbying from ISPs. The big telcos and cable companies have always had a strong presence in statehouses and have contributed to campaign funds for key legislators for years. The lobbying effort has paid off many times in the past, but not always. The lobbying effort for the privacy issue has been particular effective since the big Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook have joined forces with the big ISPs.
Those two sets of companies are rarely on the same side on issues, but they all have a vested interest in monetizing customer data. The big web companies like Facebook and Google make most of their money by leveraging customer data. The big ISPs are newer to this business line, but they all have acquired data firms over the last two years to help them compete with Google for advertising dollars.
It’s not talked about a lot, but Silicon Valley firms now spend more money on lobbying in DC than the big ISPs. These companies are newer to lobbying at the state level, but the privacy issue has drawn them into local lobbying in a big way.
The privacy laws passed by the last FCC are similar to those in effect in Europe. Web users there get the choice to opt out of being tracked by online companies and ISPs. Interestingly, a lot of people in Europe elect to make their data available to the web companies. Many people like the personalized advertising and other benefits that comes along with the surveillance. It turns out that many people, particularly Millennials don’t mind being tracked, and are not opting out. Apparently, though, that’s not good enough for the big web companies who want to track everybody online.
There are still ways for consumers who don’t want to be tracked to reduce their web presence. People can use VPNs to bypass their ISP, although there is still a risk of the VPN provider harvesting their data. There are several companies working on creating an encrypted DNS service that hides web searches from ISPs. Numerous people (like me) have dropped services like Facebook that are openly tracking everything done inside the platform. Search engines like Duck Duck Go, which don’t record web searches are growing in popularity.
Of course, one of the best ways to cut down on surveillance is to change service to a small ISP. Small telcos, WISPs, fiber overbuilders and municipal ISPs don’t track and monetize customer data. Unfortunately, most people don’t have an option other than a big ISP. I always advice my clients, who are all small ISPs to emphasize that they don’t spy on their customers – it’s a strong selling point to people who care about privacy.
I started to write a blog a few weeks ago asking the question of whether we should be regulating big web companies like Google and Facebook. I put that blog on hold due to the furor about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. The original genesis for the blog was comments made by Michael Powell, the President and CEO of NCTA, the lobbying arm for the big cable companies.
At a speech given at the Cable Congress in Dublin, Ireland Powell said that edge providers like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple “have the size, power and influence of a nation state”. He said that there is a need for antitrust rules to reign in the power of the big web companies. Powell put these comments into a framework of arguing that net neutrality is a weak attempt to regulate web issues and that regulation ought to instead focus on the real problems with the web for issues like data privacy, technology addiction and fake news.
It was fairly obvious that Powell was trying to deflect attention away from the lawsuits and state legislation that are trying to bring back net neutrality and Title II regulations. Powell did make same some good points about the need to regulate big web companies. But in doing so I think he also focuses the attention back on ISPs for some of the same behavior he sees at the big web providers.
I believe that Powell is right that there needs to be some regulation of the big edge providers. The US has made almost no regulations concerning these companies. It’s easy to contrast our lack of laws here to the regulations of these companies in the European Union. While the EU hasn’t tackled everything, they have regulations in place in a number of areas.
The EU has tackled the monopoly power of Google as a search engine and advertiser. I think many people don’t understand the power of Google ads. I recently stayed at a bed and breakfast and the owner told me that his Google ranking had become the most important factor in his ability to function as a business. Any time they change their algorithms and his ranking drops in searches he sees an immediate drop-off in business.
The EU also recently introduced strong privacy regulations for web companies. Under the new rules consumers must opt-in the having their data collected and used. In the US web companies are free to use customer information in any manner they choose – and we just saw from the example of Cambridge Analytica how big web companies like Facebook monetize consumer data.
But even the EU regulations are going to have little impact if people grant the ability for the big companies to use their data. One thing that these companies know about us is that we willingly give them access to our lives. People take Facebook personality tests without realizing that they are providing a detailed portrait of themselves to marketeers. People grant permissions to apps to gather all sorts of information about them, such a log of every call made from their cellphone. Recent revelations show that people even unknowingly grant the right to some apps to read their personal messages.
So I think Powell is right in that there needs to be some regulations of the big web companies. Probably the most needed regulation is one of total transparency where people are told in a clear manner how their data will be used. I suspect people might be less willing to sign up for a game or app if they understood that the app provider is going to glean all of the call records from their cellphone.
But Powell is off base when he thinks that the actions of the edge providers somehow lets ISPs off the hook for similar regulation. There is one big difference between all of the edge providers and the ISPs. Regardless of how much market power the web companies have, people are not required to use them. I dropped off Facebook over a year ago because of my discomfort from their data gathering.
But you can’t avoid having an ISP. For most of us the only ISP options are one or two of the big ISPs. Most people are in the same boat as me – my choice for ISP is either Charter or AT&T. There is some small percentage of consumers in the US who can instead use a municipal ISP, an independent telco or a small fiber overbuilder that promises not to use their data. But everybody else has little option but to use one of the big ISPs and is then at their mercy of their data gathering practices. We have even fewer choices in the cellular world since four providers serve almost every customer in the country.
I was never convinced that Title II regulation went far enough – but it was better than nothing as a tool to put some constraints on the big ISPs. When the current FCC killed Title II regulation they essentially set the ISPs free to do anything they want – broadband is nearly totally unregulated. I find it ironic that Powell wants to see some rules the curb market abuse for Google and Facebook while saying at the same time that the ISPs ought to be off the hook. The fact is that they all need to be regulated unless we are willing to live with the current state of affairs where ISPs and edge providers are able to use customer data in any manner they choose.
The web model of using advertising revenues to pay those who create content is quickly breaking down and it’s going to drastically change the free web we are all used to. It feels like a lot longer, but the advertising web model has now been operating for only twenty years. Before that people and companies built web sites and posted content they thought was interesting, but nobody got compensated for anything on the web.
But then a few companies like AOL discovered that companies were willing to pay to place advertising on web pages and the web advertising industry was born. Today news articles and other content on the web are plastered with ads of various kinds. And it is these ads that have funded the new industry of web content providers. These are now numerous web magazines and other websites that are largely funded by the revenues from ads. Most of the news articles you read on the web have been funded from the ad revenues.
But ad revenue of this kind are disappearing and this is likely going to mean a major transformation of the web in the near future. Here are some of the main reasons that ad revenues are changing:
People have changed the way that they find and read content. Twenty years ago we all had a list of our favorite bookmarked sites and we would peruse those web sites from time to time to catch up on their content. But today the majority of people get their content through an intermediate platform like Facebook, Twitter or Google. These platforms learn about your tastes and they direct articles of interest to you. We no longer search for content, but rather content finds us.
And that means that the big platforms like Facebook control the flow of content. A few years ago Facebook reacted to user complaints that their feeds were too long and busy and the company reacted to this by only flowing a percentage of potential content to users. That meant that a person might not see that an old high school friend bought a new puppy, but it also meant that each user on Facebook saw fewer web articles. The impact from this change was dramatic to web publishers, who on average saw a 50% immediate drop in their revenue from Facebook.
Meanwhile the big platforms decided that they should keep more advertising revenue and they are now promoting content directly on their platform. For example, Facebook now pays people to create content and Facebook favors this over content created elsewhere – which has further decreased ad revenues.
Advertisers have also gotten leery about the web advertising environment. This has worked using instantaneous auctions where web sites bid for advertising slots. Web sites willing to pay the most get the best advertising content, but the automated selling platforms strives to place every ad somewhere on the web. This resulted in large companies getting grief after finding their ads on unsavory web sites. Big companies were not enamored in finding that they were advertising on sites promoting racism or radical political views. So the big companies have been redirecting their advertising dollars away from the auction-driven ad system and have instead been placing ads directly on ‘safer’ sites or directly on the big web platforms. Google and Facebook together now collect the majority of web advertising.
There has also been a huge growth in ad blockers. People use ad blockers in an attempt to block many of the obnoxious ads – those that pop up and interrupt with reading content. But using ad blockers also deprive revenue for those sites that any user most values. While only miniscule amounts of money flow from each ad view, it all adds up and ad blockers are killing huge numbers of views.
The last straw is that web browsers are starting to block ads automatically. For example, the new version of Chrome will block ads by default. Soon, anybody using these browsers will be free of auction-generated ads, but in doing so will kill even more ad revenues that have been paying those that create the content that people want to read.
We are already seeing what this shift means. We are seeing content providers now asking readers to directly contribute to help keep them in business. More drastically we are seeing a lot of the quality content on the web go behind paywalls. That content is only being made available to those willing to subscribe to the content. And we are seeing a drop in new quality content being created since many content creators have been forced to make a living elsewhere.
But the quiet outcome of this is that a huge chunk of web content is going to disappear. This probably means the death of content like “The ten cutest puppies we found this week”, but it also means that writers and journalists that have been compensated from web advertising will disappear from the web. We’ll then be left with the content sponsored by the big platforms like Facebook or content behind paywalls like the Washington Post. And that means the end of the free web that we all love and have come to expect.