Posts tagged ‘antitrust’

A Spoonful of Sugar

By , 17 January, 2010, No Comment

I’ve got a piece in this week’s edition of Forbes on the real crisis in Pakistan—the systemic failures of government, particularly on economic issues. My case study is the mismanagement of the nation’s sugar supply:

The sugar crisis has its roots in the fragmentation of Pakistan’s sugar sector. Growers, millers, wholesale distributors and retailers each have their own regulatory overlords offering protectionist perks and their own cartels to defend such gains. Though this structure goes back to the 1950s, recent policy decisions and the worldwide spike in prices of commodities like sugar have aggravated its effects.

…Economic problems provide rallying cries for opponents like Sharif and radical insurgents eager to bring down the government, while a weak and dysfunctional state contributes to economic distress. In the case of sugar, whose consumption in Pakistan is approaching developed-country levels, the danger is acute: In 1969 a sugar shortage helped bring down the rule of military dictator Ayub Khan.

Read the piece in full (and comment!) here.

Google-opoly: A New Twist

By , 8 September, 2009, No Comment

I spent the weekend engaged in an interesting snark-fest with Jeff Jarvis in the comments section of his blog. Jarvis was complaining about the many requests he gets from journalists working on ‘anti-Google’ stories looking for a quote. It’s not surprising that he gets the requests, since he’s written a book advocating Google’s business model as a blueprint for all companies. Indeed, I reached out to Jarvis for my own Google story a few weeks ago, but he was understandably busy.

Jarvis’ accusation was that journos are fabricating news stories out of scant fact in order to exorcise our own curmudgeonly demons when it comes to living in a digital world. I’d admit that bias plays a role in the tone of coverage of Google, but since most of the queries he referenced are about ANTITRUST stories, I’m not sure bias actually drives the decision TO cover Google in the first place or that the facts behind those stories are as thin as Jarvis suggests. Those stories only arise AFTER the government somewhere decides to investigate Google; then we report on the investigation. And as far as I know, no journalist has reported on a non-existent lawsuit yet. So I’m really not sure what Jarvis was ‘kvetching about, despite trying to get some clarity from him multiple times.

To the contrary, I’m even more convinced that the regulators have a real case to make against Google than I was when I first got into my tussle with Jarvis a few days ago.

Conspiracy Theory Monday

By , 24 August, 2009, No Comment

While others were beaching it up, I spent my weekend poring over the responses from Apple, Google and AT&T; to the FCC over the iPhone-GoogleVoice snafu. AT&T; essentially repeated its earlier statement, with more umph—it takes no responsibility for what happened and says Apple was acting alone.

Apple tried to hedge it, first claiming that the GoogleVoice application hasn’t been rejected but is ‘still under review’ then listing reasons why it might deserve to be rejected. A host of tech commenters, led by Michael Arrington, called the first claim a bald-faced lie, and I’m inclined to agree. The FCC wouldn’t be investigating this if the application-rejection hadn’t provided the smoking gun. The FCC would not launch an investigation if Google’s complaint was simply that the process was just taking too long.

On the second point, however, I’m inclined to think Apple has a point. Not a legal case, to be sure (on legal grounds, I fully support them getting an FCC walloping), but a business one.

Notes from the Googleplex

By , 21 August, 2009, No Comment

I’ll admit, I feel a wee bit smug today. After musing about Google for many many months on this blog, I’ve managed to report out some of my ideas about data-as-a-commodity in a cover story for the UK’s New Statesman. If you’re going to read it, I suggest you also read WIRED’s take on the subject. I was less than floored by the WIRED piece, but I am curious as to how you think they compare.

Beyond the satisfaction of getting this analysis out there, I found this project fascinating, not least because I learned that Google’s PR officer reads this blog and follows tech reporters on Twitter. That’s PR101, of course, but it’s notable that Google, for all its exceptionalist rhetoric, works just like any other firm of its size.

Finally, because my colleagues were in London, I was in New York and Google was in California, this piece was reported, written and edited at odd hours of day and night, with snippets of text sent between us over a veritable menagerie of technologies. We each took raw notes in Word, then posted them to a shared Google Document (for the uninitiated, this is a service that allows you to host a document on the web so multiple authors can see it). We outlined and drafted the piece on Adobe’s BuzzWord (a similar service that also allows to share comments on the document), and sometimes used GChat (Google’s instant messaging service) to tweak individual sentences or paragraphs before updating the central file. Then we fine tuned it with our editors in old fashioned Word attachments.

In the process, I learned what each of these software programs is best for: GoogleDocs is great for sharing big chunks of raw text, but useless for organization. Adobe is the best for comments and in that sense, the best collaborative tool, but it’s Flash-based and unsuited to older computers.  Word is the easiest place to get a holistic picture of whatever you’re working on without getting sucked into the minute-by-minute changes.

None of these programs offers you everything you need. For most of the last ten days, I had Word, Google Mail/Chat, Google Docs, and BuzzWord open at once. Usually, I was on the phone too. The frenzy was a reminder that there are limits on the world-flattening capacity of computers. In the end, the best writing happened when we were on the phone with one another, writing each sentence together instead of dividing the work, and with one of us taking centralized control for typing. In other words, we wrote best when we slowed down instead of using technology to speed us up. A sobering thought for tech-evangelists.

Updated: Memes travel fast. The BBC ‘s Maggie Shiels makes similar points about BookSearch.

Good News that Makes Me a Little Bit Mad

By , 2 August, 2009, 5 Comments

The FCC is investigating Apple’s decision to disable third-party iPhone apps that let users access Google Voice from their phones, and to reject Google’s own application providing the same service. At first, most tech commenters were eager to exonerate Apple by blaming it all on Big Bad AT&T;, who, as a telecom provider, obviously have a competitive reason to block any VOIP technology.

But as the FCC letter to AT&T; points out, AT&T; has no problem letting users access Google Voice over AT&T;’s network when they do it on a BlackBerry. As the FCC’s decision to send a letter to Google too highlights, there are legit fears of Google from Apple’s side as well: Google has its own phone, where it gets to engage in its own application cherry-picking.

Now Apple, who obviously don’t have anything approaching a monopoly on handsets, can’t be accused of monopolization (using market power to eliminate competitors) as Microsoft was a decade ago. AT&T;, if it turns out they were involved, could be accused of using market power over networks/connectivity that way. What Apple would be on the hook for is colluding with AT&T; in a way that bars competition. Even though it’s clear that banning Google Voice bars competition–ie VOIP competing with AT&T;’s network–it’s unclear to me whether that competition threatens Apple directly. Google, broadly, poses a threat to Apple, but this specific feature might not if it improves the appeal of the iPhone. I don’t know enough about the part of antitrust law that covers collusion (as opposed to the section covering monopolization) to know if the colluding company must be enhancing ITS OWN market power/eliminating ITS OWN competition to be guilty. Commenters, please help out?

On the whole, however, I’m glad the FCC is looking into it–that’s what antitrust regulators are for. What upsets me is that the regulators seem disproportionately inclined to take on cases of companies that upset consumers, where it’s clear how the man-on-the-street is negatively affected by the practice at hand. So because most consumers like Google, hate AT&T; and could care less about Apple, this case makes sense to the Feds.

Meanwhile, the Feds do not bite as often at companies who might be violating anti-trust law in a way that restricts the market at either a more abstract, or simply a less consumer-facing way. Consumers love Google and resent/mistrust the big names in paid content, so the Feds have, until this administration, overlooked the fact that behind the screens Google is establishing a sealed monopoly of online data that prices out whole sectors of content creation, whether that means new web-based news organizations or music, or book or film distribution channels, and impairs the monetization capacity of other sectors that might one day move online.

If the laws bar restrictions on competition (which they do), those laws need to be applied indiscriminately to all companies not only because that’s what rule of law means but also because the unchecked power of companies we like now may prevent the creation of companies we would like tomorrow.

The Problem with WIRED

By , 19 July, 2009, No Comment

The August issue of WIRED has an interesting article on the growing antitrust pressure on Google, a pet cause of mine. It’s well reported, and well-written, as WIRED usually is. It more or less lays out the case against Google that I would make: that the individual markets in which it has x or y share are irrelevant, because Google is building a macro-market by aggregating data over all web content. Then it lays out the most common  counter-argument: that regulators shouldn’t be trying to stop companies the public likes/benefits from to protect the fluidity of the market. I disagree with this counter-argument. Other regulatory provisions–like consumer fraud laws–respond to public opinion, but antitrust laws exist explicitly to protect and promote competition.

What struck me about the WIRED piece, however, was its attempt at neutrality and its muted tone. [If you're skeptical, go to the library, find a copy, and see for yourself.] WIRED never does that. It has an opinion about ever tech-related debate, usually an opinion that reflects the views of its editor, Chris Anderson, which I’ve discussed before. Elsewhere in the same issue is an article advising readers to embrace illegal downloads as a form of civil disobedience. [I've got plenty of free music on my computer that shouldn't strictly speaking be there, but I'd never be so presumptuous as to pretend it was anything more than miserliness that landed it there.]

The tone of the Google piece suggests to me the major problem with WIRED. It’s a magazine about the modern technology industry written by people who helped create the modern technology industry, by people who moved out to the Valley before it was cool. Their natural instinct is to explain tech companies to the rest of us, and defend those companies from the big bad economy back East. The folks at WIRED still they think they are writing about scrappy endearing startups, even though those companies aren’t scrappy or small anymore.

Yes, this piece is an improvement over a February article that painted the attack on Google as an evil conspiracy of big bad telecom companies. But even where their own reporting suggests there’s a real antitrust case to be made against Google, their personal sympathy for the GOOG prevents them from giving the piece the kind of umph they give to everything else.

It’s all pretty ironic, since as magazine writers who work for Conde Nast, everyone at WIRED is part of the ‘old’ economy. And while they advocate that everyone else give up their content for free and celebrate that Google will own it, their own website is pretty closely protected. That’s why this blog post has no links to the current issue–it’s been mailed to subscribers in print, but it’s not yet available online.

How to Deal with Google

By , 17 April, 2009, 5 Comments

When I posted my concerns about the market power of Google a few weeks ago, I got the following arguments in response:

–what Google offers the ordinary computer user is the opposite of a monopolized experience: free innovate products. Let’s call this argument “Google is not evil.”
–what Google offers the buyers of ad space and data is also the opposite of a monopolized experience: innovative services that cost less than their competitors. Let’s call this argument “Google is not greedy.”
–Google has achieved its dominance of search-based advertising and data-aggregation on the merits of its algorithms. Let’s call this argument “Google is not cheating”
–Google plays in many fields but doesn’t own any of them, since there’s still all that TV, radio and yes, print advertising still out there that Google hasn’t yet taken over. Let’s call this argument “Google is not that big.”
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Google is not God

By , 25 March, 2009, 3 Comments

I have been vocal on this blog about my Google-agnosticism. I don’t think Googleization is the solution to all business models though I do think the Internet represents more opportunity than cost to many industries. And though I do worry about digital privacy, I don’t think the firm’s digitization of our lives has to be fascist in its outcomes.

I’m usually sanguine about the new digital order, because I believe in the basic legal structures of a functioning market economy: the checks placed on any one company by the requirement to compete with others and the checks placed on all companies by government should, in theory, protect us from total Googleization and the violation of our privacy rights.
Here’s the problem: Google has become a monopoly and the entity entrusted to crack down on monopolies–the State–is dependent on various forms of digital data mining, at which Google excels. Now government has colluded with trusts and cartels before, but usually there is a body of journalists and consumers who pressure them to right the wrong. The real problem with the Google is how much civil society has cheerled monopolization:
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