Keeping It Real: The Oculus Rift and Virtual Reality

In January of this year came news, to excited reviews in gaming publications, of the imminent release of a new Virtual Reality headset called Oculus Rift.  As a headline in a British newspaper put it: “Virtual reality just got real: Could the Oculus Rift change the way we play, work and learn?

The short answer to that question is no.  The Oculus Rift will not, by itself, have that impact, but Virtual Reality, writ large, perhaps could.  The point is that it’s going to take a lot more than sophisticated display gear to do the trick.

In the terrific book Infinite Reality, published just a few years ago, authors Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson assert that Virtual Reality has in recent years “accelerated at an astounding pace,” such that “in a few decades the norms of social interaction, war, education, sex, and relationships will change drastically.”

But if VR is ever to achieve the kind of cultural revolution that its enthusiasts predict, it will have to be marked by a number of things that are not here now, and by conditions that may not obtain even if and when the technology is perfected.

First and foremost, though, is the technological necessity that VR be fully immersive and received by the senses as indistinguishable from real life.  People experience reality through their senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste; for VR to be fully immersive it will have to provide at least the first three of these.

This means that people entering virtual reality will need gear (like 3D stereoscopic headsets, and full body, or its equivalent, data suits) that provide (through avatars) representations of themselves and other people that look exactly like real people rather than cartoon characters.  This gear will also have to provide sounds and movement that are perfectly reproduced and, crucially, the ability to feel those things their avatars touch.

One of the more difficult technological problems is called latency, which is the lag time when a person turns his head in VR before the new scene is rendered.  If it happens too slowly the effect is unreal and causes motion sickness.  Indeed, according to an account in the Guardian, some gamers report that even the Oculus Rift induced nausea within 10 minutes of use.

But a dramatic cultural shift would require more than perfect technology: The requisite hardware, software, and telecommunications equipment would have to be widely available and affordable.  If availability or price had the effect of limiting VR just to those places where it’s mostly found now – university labs and certain government facilities, like the Pentagon – VR would fall far short of being a cultural tsunami.

Yet another obvious condition would be whether a sufficient number of people wanted to spend real time in “cyberspace,” the name for VR coined by the brilliant science fiction writer William Gibson.  For widespread cultural effects, large numbers of people would have to spend lots of time in VR.  Otherwise the whole thing might amount to something no more culture- or life-altering than an occasional real-life bungee jump, or white-water rafting trip.

There’s another condition that would have to obtain for VR to be all it could be.  But this one, judging by the literature available, is not so obvious even to the experts.  This condition lies in the nature of the restraints and imperatives, in law and regulation, which governments in the real world will inevitably seek to impose on Virtual Reality.

Whether premised on an asserted need to “protect the children,” or help close the “income inequality” gap, or promote “healthy lifestyles,” there is no chance that governmental bodies will leave VR alone.

Even today, for instance, the national debate over privacy – brought to a head by the overreach of the NSA, and negative effects of social media – is reaching a point where Congress, the courts, and/or agencies like the FCC may soon act.

Assume for a minute, however, that all of the technological, economic, and regulatory issues can be overcome, and that software programmers create worlds that are sufficiently complex and attractive. In that case, one can see how any number of things might take place in Virtual Reality.

Things, for instance, like commerce.  Of course there would need to be a wide variety of services offered and some kind of widely accepted digital currency, with a relatively stable exchange rate in the real world, into dollars, pounds, euros, etc.  Early prototypes of this might be Bitcoins, or the so-called Linden dollars that are used as currency in Second Life.

Other obvious attractions in Virtual Reality would be education, medicine, tourism, and games.  Imagine the growth in the already substantial industry of online gambling.  In a fully immersive VR environment, one’s avatar could look around the table at the other players in search of what gamblers call “tells.”

And then, of course, there is sex.  According to Blascovich and Bailenson there’s a lot of sex going on even today in Second Life, though there’s no sense there of touch, and the environment is just observed on a computer screen.

Imagine what would happen in a deeply immersive virtual world where everyone was beautiful, and where there was a sensation of feeling, through some kind of data suits, in the users’ entire bodies.  As reported in Infinite Reality: “As virtual reality becomes more immersive, virtual sex will become more and more … satisfying.  Indeed, “teledildonics” is an emerging field that incorporates haptic devices, those capable of transmitting virtual touch, into virtual sexual experiences.”

For certain people, and certain applications, Virtual Reality would be overwhelmingly attractive.  Consider, for instance, the handicapped.  In VR a quadriplegic confined in real life to a wheelchair would be able to present himself, through his avatar, as fit and healthy, and in addition be able to experience the sensation of walking and running!

People who will never have the money to travel the actual world could travel virtually not only to places they’ve never been, but also to places that nobody has visited, like the bottom of the sea, or a realistic reconstruction of a long-since destroyed city like Pompeii.

The benefits of VR are vastly – one could say infinitely – more numerous than have been described here. Indeed, one could write hundreds of pages just about the educational benefits alone.  But there would definitely be prospective downsides as would impact individuals and society alike.

This can be inferred by reading the literature, especially the academic books.  In many cases these books read as though they were as much about psychology (social psychology especially), or even philosophy, as about technology.  What is the brain?  How does the brain observe reality?  What is reality?

It’s a short distance from those kinds of questions to the development of ideas about some of the downsides of Virtual Reality.  What happens, for instance, to individuals and/or society if people decide that cyberspace is more attractive than the real world?  When, through their avatars in VR, they are more successful, more beautiful, and more socially connected than they are in the real world?

What happens to their interest in real-life issues like politics and the environment, or in their neighbors and family, when people spend most of their life in cyberspace?

As with most things in life, the actual impact of VR will likely come to rest somewhere in the middle of the range of hypothetical benefits and liabilities.  And for this reason, and also because of the digital handwriting on the wall (as with the extraordinary growth of cell phones, social media, and the Internet), it would be folly to try to stand in the way.  For better or worse, Virtual Reality of some advanced sort is coming our way.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.


Facebook Jumps Into the Political Fray

The resolution of the flap over campaign ads paid for by a group ( funded by some leading tech barons, most notably Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, is going to be revealing of many things.

Perhaps for the first time the tech industry is giving financial and intellectual support to political campaigns that are bound to attract the enmity of many of the most fanatical people and organizations in the country: nativists, the public education lobby, and environmentalists among them.

The goals of are few but clear.  They want immigration reform, education reform, and support for scientific research.  It doesn’t sound all that radical, but in fact it puts the political neophytes from Silicon Valley directly in the crosshairs of a number of groups, evidence of which has come already via an organized campaign mounted by the Sierra Club in opposition to the campaign ads at issue.

The ads support two U.S. senators, a Republican (Graham) and a Democrat (Begich), both of whom favor immigration reform but who represent deep Red states whose citizens are believed to be hostile to the idea.  So the thrust of the ads is not about immigration, but about the senators’ views on environmental issues.  Graham favors the Keystone pipeline and Begich favors drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

In feverish opposition to this, the Sierra Club and like-minded “progressives” have organized “Dislike” campaigns against Zuckerberg, and held demonstrations outside of Facebook’s headquarters.  Given the cachet that environmentalists enjoy with the press, it’s clear that this campaign is going to create some ripples within, and among some of that organization’s tech industry backers.

So the question is, what will they do?  Will they buckle under the pressure and bad press, or will they dig in and move on?  It is, of course, ironic that the first of the organization’s kerfuffles is with environmentalists, since neither environmentalism (nor anti-environmentalism) is part of the group’s mission statement.

Not so in the case of their stance on public education.  The thrust of the spare language in the statement of principles is unmistakable.  It says they favor “Education reforms that produce more graduates in the science, technology and math fields and ensure all children receive a high quality education from effective teachers and accountable schools” (emphases added).

How, as a practical matter, this will sit with a public education lobby that resists any and all attempts at such reform, even as evidence of its manifest failure is everywhere apparent, is predictable and certain to embroil in other fractious debates.

Finally, there is the issue of immigration reform.  The two most prominent fears associated with the concept are (1) that it amounts to a kind of political power grab, or as Jay Leno quipped, that the new immigrants would go from being illegal aliens to “undocumented Democrats,” and (2) that there would be a huge rise in the social welfare cost of massive new immigration.

These are not irrational fears, but they could be ameliorated by legislative language. Meanwhile, the need for the USA to attract and retain large numbers of immigrants is clear if we are to stay competitive around the world, especially in the area of technology, and if we are to enlarge the work force that will soon be needed to pay for the retirement of millions of baby boomers.

For many years now, the tech industry has operated above and beyond the kind of messy and rancorous issues that the rest of us live with, and that has now engaged. It is a welcome development, but time will tell whether they are up to the challenge.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Internet Freedom in Peril

Not for the first time, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell has issued a clarion call to all those interested in maintaining a free and open Internet.

In testimony before the House last week, Comm. McDowell made the following points:

(1)  Proponents of multilateral intergovernmental control of the Internet are patient and persistent incrementalists who will never relent until their ends are achieved;

(2)  The recently concluded World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) ended the era of an international consensus to keep intergovernmental hands off of the Internet in dramatic fashion, thus radically twisting the one-way ratchet of even more governmental regulation in this space;

(3)  Those who cherish Internet freedom must immediately redouble their efforts to prevent further expansions of government control of the Internet as the pivotal 2014 Plenipotentiary meeting of the International Telecommunications Union quickly draws near;

(4)  Merely saying “no” to any changes is – quite obviously – a losing proposition; therefore, we should work to offer alternate proposals such as improving the long-standing and highly successful, non-governmental multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance to include those who may feel disenfranchised; and

(5)  Last year’s bipartisan and unanimous congressional resolutions clearly opposing expansions of international powers over the Internet reverberated throughout the world and had a positive and constructive effect.

Once again, a cogent and persuasive presentation by the FCC’s MFC (Most Favored Commissioner). Read the whole of his testimony here.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.


Google, the FTC, and ‘Plausible’ Justifiability

Though it was surely not its intention, the Federal Trade Commission’s conclusion last week of its investigation of Google invites the question: What useful function does the FTC serve?

Not content, after two years of investigation on the taxpayers’ dime, to largely look past the mountain of evidence of marketplace harm caused by Google’s search and advertising practices, the Commission compounded that error by declining to issue a formal consent order, leaving it in the hands of Google itself, without the prospect of penalty, to change some of its business practices.

As even Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch said in his statement of concurrence and dissent, the FTC’s “settlement” with Google “creates very bad precedent and may lead to the impression that well-heeled firms such as Google will receive special treatment at the Commission.”

In elaboration of his dissent from the settlement procedure, Comm. Rosch added this:

Instead of following standard Commission procedure and entering into a binding consent agreement to resolve the majority’s concerns, Google has instead made non-binding commitments with respect to its search practices….

Our settlement with Google is not in the form of a binding consent order and, as a result, the Commission cannot enforce it by initiating contempt proceedings.  The inability to enforce Google’s commitments through contempt proceedings is particularly problematic given that the Commission has charged Google with violating a prior consent agreement.

What Comm. Rosch delicately calls “special treatment,” the more cynical of us would recognize as political influence peddling, a practice that Google has become quite adept at employing.  First it bankrolled the codification, at the Federal Communications Commission, of “net neutrality” regulations, thereby providing a solution to a nonexistent problem; then it led the successful opposition to the PIPA and SOPA copyright bills, the better to protect its investment in YouTube; now it has neutered the FTC, with the consequence being that it can continue to game its search results in ways that favor companies it controls.

So how has Google managed such political feats?  Well, would you believe that money has played a role?  In the FTC investigation alone Google reportedly spent some $25 million lobbying the matter.  To give an idea of the magnitude of this kind of spending, it equals 10 percent of the FTC’s total annual budget of $250 million.

But in addition to its FTC-specific lobbying, it’s well known that Google has cast its lot, through munificent campaign contributions and public policy support, with the current administration. Though it failed to come to pass, there was undoubtedly substance to the rumor that Google’s Eric Schmidt was being considered for a cabinet post in the Obama Administration.

Even so, there is evidence that the FTC commissioners know what they have done.  Their concluding statement about Google’s search practices, for instance, displays an almost comical defensiveness as they contend that, even if Google’s search practices favor its own companies, that is arguably okay:

In sum, we find that the evidence presented at this time does not support the allegation that Google’s display of its own vertical content at or near the top of its search results page was a product design change undertaken without a legitimate business justification.  Rather, we conclude that Google’s display of its own content could plausibly (emphases added) be viewed as an improvement in the overall quality of Google’s search product….  Although at points in time various vertical websites have experienced demotions, we find that this was a consequence of algorithm changes that also could plausibly be viewed as an improvement in the overall quality of Google’s search results….

Although our careful review of the evidence in this matter supports our decision to close this investigation, we will remain vigilant and continue to monitor Google for conduct that may harm competition and consumers.

Such limp-wristed rhetoric aside, there is a chance that Google will be brought to heel, just not by American authorities.  As it happens, the European Commission has also been investigating Google’s misdeeds, and the odds are good that, lacking the kind of political clout in Europe that it has in the USA, the company may actually receive from the Europeans something more than just a slap on the wrist.  On Dec. 18 the Commission gave the company 30 days to provide it with proposals to settle its complaints, something that could cost Google billions if it fails to do so.

Whatever the Europeans do, however, there remains the FTC’s foozled play, well put in a Bloomberg News editorial:

The FTC missed an opportunity to explore publicly one of the paramount issues of our day: Is Google abusing its role as gatekeeper to the digital economy?  Lawmakers, economists, other regulators, and consumers should all be in on this important debate over whether Google is leveraging its overwhelming dominance of search into unassailable market power in other areas. 


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

The ITU and the Internet

In 1971, when China was first admitted to the United Nations, William Rusher quipped that it was "a case of loosing a China in the bullshop.”  Such is the first thought that comes to mind in reflection on the latest bit of mischief to issue from the UN, in this case courtesy of that body’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

The second thought is of the power of precedents in law and policymaking.  Policywise, precedents can be likened to the engine of a train, the caboose of which is incremental or galloping movement in the same direction.

So the take-away from the vote last week in Dubai by 89 countries, including such freedom-loving regimes as those of China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela (you know, the usuals), is that it’s just a matter of time before many of those same countries claim the right, under the UN charter, to control the Internet through such things as filtering, identifying users, and surveillance.

Defenders of last week’s vote, like the head of the ITU, disingenuously claim that “The conference was not about Internet control or Internet governance….  And indeed there are no treaty provisions on the Internet.”  The key word here is “treaty,” since tucked away in the appendices, as reported by Ars Technica, is this sentence:

[WCIT-12 resolves to invite member states] to elaborate on their respective positions on international Internet-related technical, development and public-policy issues within the mandate of ITU at various ITU forums including, inter alia, the World Telecommunications/ICT Policy Forum, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development and ITU study groups. 

So for the first time, the precedent has been established that the UN is an appropriate body for the deliberation of policy issues affecting the Internet.  Never mind that this resolution is not binding on those countries, like the United States, which voted against the International Telecommunications Regulations.  The point survives: From this time forward the UN’s ITU will provide cover for those nations that wish to wall their citizens off from the open Internet.

Nor is this the only dangerous precedent to be noted in the context of the WCIT.  As warned two years ago by Ambassador Philip Verveer, the adoption by this country of so-called “net neutrality” regulations itself provides an opportunity for international mischief making.

As Robert McDowell, than whom no other FCC commissioner in memory has been right more often, put it in congressional testimony earlier this month:

Should the FCC’s regulation of Internet network management be overturned by the court, in lieu of resorting to the destructive option of classifying, for the first time, broadband Internet access services as common carriage under Title II, the FCC should revive a concept I proposed nearly five years ago – that is to use the tried and true multi-stakeholder model for resolution of allegations of anti-competitive conduct by Internet service providers….

If we are going to preach the virtues of the multi-stakeholder model at the pending World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, we should practice what we preach.  Not only would the U.S. then harmonize its foreign policy with its domestic policy, but such a course correction would yield better results for consumers as well. 


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.


Google and the First Amendment

By guest blogger KURT WIMMER, ESQ., partner at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, D.C., and chairman of The Media Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council.

I just had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion at an American Antitrust Institute conference.  My panel included such luminaries as Eli Noam of Columbia, Gene Kimmelman of the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, and Susan DeSanti of the Federal Trade Commission.  Unlike many of my colleagues on the panel, I’m far from being an antitrust expert.  My topic was a more familiar one – whether enforcement of antitrust law against a search and advertising provider would violate the First Amendment. 

The question arises because of a novel proposition being advanced by Google.  The Federal Trade Commission is investigating claims that Google has violated antitrust law by manipulating search results to favor its own services and bury the services offered by vertical search engines that might compete with Google.  Google has argued that it is absolutely immune from antitrust liability because its search results constitute speech protected by the First Amendment – in fact, it asserts that the First Amendment actually “blocks” the application of antitrust law to it.  Google analogizes its work to that of a newspaper editor selecting information for publication, and seeks the same “absolute” protection that a newspaper editor would receive under the First Amendment.

But wait – newspaper editors don’t receive absolute protection under the First Amendment.  If editors’ work is absolutely protected, why did I spend last night discussing a story with an editor to mitigate defamation risk?  Why did I defend a deposition last week of a reporter attempting to keep his source confidential?  Why have reporters gone to prison in the United States to protect sources?  Why are some in Congress talking about doubling down on legal restrictions to stop leaks to the press?

The First Amendment is not absolute, and never has been, for anyone, whether they run a newspaper, a blog, or a search-and-advertising business. False and deceptive speech, as Google’s manipulated search results are alleged to be, falls outside the protection of the First Amendment.  Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, made precisely this point in an All Things Digital interview just this month, and he’s precisely right as a matter of constitutional law.  Otherwise, the FTC would have no jurisdiction to enforce privacy laws or laws against false advertising and deceptive trade practices.

Of course, non-deceptive speech also may be regulated in many circumstances.  The antitrust laws, which regulate commercial behavior to promote competition, are an example of laws that may permissibly restrict certain kinds of speech.  The plain fact is that “the First Amendment does not provide blanket protection to restraints of trade effectuated through speech,” in the words of the Department of Justice.  This principle has been applied consistently since the Supreme Court affirmed an antitrust judgment against the Associated Press in 1945, and remains the law today.

Google’s arguments that it is uniquely immune from antitrust liability, regardless of how it has abused its massive market share, remind me of the quaint musings of early Internet pioneers that law cannot apply in “cyberspace.”  But the same law that applies offline generally applies online (in the absence of online-specific legislation such as Section 230), and damage to competition that may occur on the Internet can destroy real businesses in the real world.  No one is above the law – not even Google.  Whether any of the allegations against Google can be proved, of course, remains to be seen.  But to assert at the very outset that the First Amendment actually “blocks” liability, regardless of what the FTC or a court might find, ignores the law.

If you’d like to read more, the Media Institute has graciously agreed to host my paper (available here) that addresses these issues in more depth.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

DOL Reportedly Postponing New ‘Lock-up’ Policy

Published reports suggest that the Department of Labor is poised to delay implementation of a policy announced in April that would require reporters working in the DOL’s “lock-up” room to use government computers and transmission lines when writing stories about DOL reports and data as they’re released.  The proposed policy caused a flurry of criticism from media outlets and prompted a June 6 hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  DOL will announce a new start date this week, according to reports quoting an e-mail from DOL media specialist Carl Fillichio.

We’re glad to see that DOL is at least planning to postpone the policy.  Media Institute President Patrick Maines was an early and outspoken critic of this bureaucratic folly, questioning the wisdom of such a move in his May 7 post.

Let’s hope that any delay becomes permanent, and that this attempt to extend the government’s hand into reporters’ notebooks is forever banished to the dust heap of bad ideas. 


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils. 

Julius Genachowski and Broadband Billing

Comments made earlier this week by FCC chairman Julius Genachowski have raised hackles at organizations like Free Press and kindred groups.  The occasion was the Cable Show in Boston, and the offending subject was what is called “usage-based billing” – the radical notion that people who use more of a thing should pay more than those who use less.

In a Q&A session with Michael Powell, former FCC chairman and current CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Genachowski avowed that there was much to like about broadband providers basing their charges on usage (rather than on a one-size-fits-all basis).

This wasn’t the first time Genachowski had endorsed this practice – it was part of the net neutrality regulations that the FCC promulgated a couple of years ago – but it was enough to provoke the simple folk at Free Press into eruptions of their usual blather.

The last time broadband billing was discussed in this blog (April 2009), the news was Time Warner Cable’s decision, under fire from people and organizations like Free Press, Public Knowledge, and Sen. Charles Schumer, to suspend their trials of this kind of billing in a handful of cities.

As reported at the time, the air was thick with celebration as the “victors” issued triumphant statements on the occasion.  Triumphant no more, they have been reduced, in response to Genachowski’s comments on Tuesday, to broadsides and bromides like this one from Matt Wood, policy director of Free Press: “The data caps being pushed by the biggest cable companies are bad for consumers … and the FCC should be investigating these caps, not endorsing them.”

But enough about broadband billing per se.  The more noteworthy thing about Genachowski’s comment is that this marks at least the third time that he has demonstrated his independence from the louder voices among communications policy outfits.

The first time was with the FCC’s adoption of what came to be called “net neutrality lite,” and the second was when he hired Steve Waldman to head up the agency’s “future of media” report, a document that steered clear of the most intrusive and inappropriate kinds of recommendations that had been proposed for it.

None of this is to say – nor would the gentleman necessarily welcome our saying – that Mr. Genachowski is the very model of what one looks for in an FCC chairman.  Though the net neutrality regulations are much better than what they might have been, better still would be no such regulations at all.

Still, in an environment as divisive as Washington’s, it’s probably a good idea once in a while to step outside of it all and give credit where credit is due.  So props to Julius Genachowski for his embrace of usage-based broadband billing.  ’Tis a fine thing he’s done.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.


The Truth Behind Google’s Copyright-Bills Hysteria

Though the final chapter in the legislative history of the copyright bills hasn’t yet been written, a couple things are obvious even now: The tech industry has demonstrated great political clout through the mobilization of its users and fan base; and the industry lobby, led by Google, will say and do pretty much anything to advance its commercial interests.

This provides the background for what happened within just a few days last week, as Congress was flooded with calls and mail, and petitions were signed by millions, in opposition to bills whose intent was to provide an effective way to combat content infringement on rogue websites abroad.

Didn’t matter that most fans of social media, file-sharing, blogs, and the like know next to nothing about communications policymaking, or even the details of the laws they were moved to oppose.  They know what they like, and dislike, and when manipulated into seeing the copyright bills as a threat they responded in great numbers.

None of which, of course, is to wonder why people feel more of a kinship with things like the social media than they do with the mainstream media.  The one-way and “one-to-the-many” aspects of the old media don’t empower people, or allow for their personal expression, in the manner of blogs or social media like Facebook and YouTube.

But the reason so many people were disposed to dislike the copyright bills, and their knowledge of what was actually in them, are two different things.  What moved them to act on their dislike was yet another.  For these parts of the story we have to look to the tech industry lobby, and Google most importantly.  It was Google that floated the canard that passage of the bills would forever change “the Internet as we’ve known it.”

The irony in Google’s claim was apparently lost on most of the media, tech and mainstream, which may explain why so few reporters pointed out that this alleged threat is word-for-word what the company said, 13 years ago, in opposition to another copyright bill (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), passage of which has since proven to be a positive boon to Internet companies.

It may also explain why so few reporters pointed out that Google’s claims about the copyright bills – as precursors to the regulation of the Internet – are not just over the top but hypocritical.  It was, after all, Google that successfully lobbied, with the active help of a majority of FCC Commissioners, for so-called “network neutrality” regulations, the precedent of which provides not for just speculative but “here and now” regulation of the Internet.

Still, if crass exaggeration and hypocrisy were all that Google displayed in this regard, one might be inclined just to dismiss it as boys being boys.  But it didn’t stop there.  Google, and other groups that should know better, also gave expression and currency to the bunkum that the copyright bills amounted to an assault on the First Amendment.

That this argument was utterly demolished by the country’s leading First Amendment expert, Floyd Abrams, didn’t give them a moment’s pause, with the upshot being that this nonsense was parroted by all sorts of people as a reason for rejection of the bills.

In August of last year, The Media Institute filed a white paper with the Federal Trade Commission titled “Google and the Media: How Google is Leveraging its Position in Search to Dominate the Media Economy.”  Among other things, the paper demonstrated the ways in which Google profits from copyright infringement; that indeed the use of other people’s content without their permission has been at the heart of the company’s business plan.

Though the paper didn’t recommend any particular remedy, it asked the FTC to intervene in a way that would prevent the media economy from being dominated by a single entity.  Google’s conduct regarding the copyright legislation shows that, far from pulling back, its interest in this kind of domination is growing apace.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  This piece was first published in the Dallas Morning News on Jan. 25, 2012.


Rationalizing Theft: A Postscript

The fight over the copyright bills currently being considered in Congress puts on display two of the tech industry’s least attractive characteristics – its sense of entitlement, and its extraordinary lack of knowledge about things outside the area of its core competency.

So it is that the bills in question (the Protect IP and Stop Online Piracy acts) are said by the tech industry’s lobbyists and fan base to threaten the “end of the Internet as we’ve known it,” the same claim they made 13 years ago in opposition to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  (And we all know how that worked out.)

As mentioned in an earlier post, all of the techies profess to have an interest in preventing copyright infringement; it just happens that they oppose anything and everything that’s ever been (or will be) proposed for the purpose.

The earlier blog scored the hyperbolic, not to say hypocritical, aspects of the criticism being leveled at today’s copyright bills.  But after reading additional criticism of them published since, it’s clear that I overlooked something.

Though most critics don’t come right out and say so, much of the criticism of the bills springs from people who, convinced that industries like Hollywood and the traditional media are of less importance than the Internet, believe that for this reason copyright laws ought to favor the latter over the former.  As one techno-philosopher, commenting on a piece in TechCrunch put it: “The Internet is the new entertainment industry.”

One needn’t dispute the current and future importance of the Internet (and all things digital) to know that this is an inapposite and corrosive argument, for the simple reason that copyright protection was never designed to be meted out in proportion to the financial dimensions of a company or industry.  It’s a constitutional law that is meant to protect all copyright holders, whatever their commercial girth or market caps.

To put it another way, the Constitution does not have to accommodate industries; industries have to accommodate the Constitution. This is, after all, one of the reasons we call our own a nation of laws.

Because The Media Institute is not a lobby, we’re not in a position to know whether the House or Senate bills will pass either body.  We read that some softening of them may be in the cards, though the recent forceful testimony in support of the bills, as written, by Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante would seem to suggest otherwise.

Whatever the outcome, one thing has been made clear by the tech industry’s shrill opposition.  If U.S. copyright laws – and those people and industries that rely on them – are to survive, there will have to be a far more sophisticated and generous understanding of the value in copyrights generally.  As Ms. Pallante chillingly put it in her remarks to the House Judiciary Committee: “It is my view that if Congress does not continue to provide serious responses to online piracy, the U.S. copyright system will ultimately fail.”


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.