Category: Technology

Single-Payer Music Care?

Les bon temps roulez! It appears the French legislature has picked up on the conversation started by one of Christine Hurt’s posts here a few weeks ago on the iPod, and wants to do something about Apple’s iTunes lockout of rival music sellers and players. The IP blogosphere is abuzz over the move, which directly challenges Apple’s aggressive efforts to leverage dominance in the portable-player market into a monopoly over digital music retailing.

Libertarians are likely to applaud moves like this, as this Cato Institute Report demonstrates. But I want to push the dialogue in an even more market-oriented direction. Since we’re thinking big here, why don’t consumers take some self-help measures? The recording industry is extraordinarily concentrated, provoking antitrust investigations left and right. So why don’t consumers form buyers’ cooperatives? If the “big four” own 90% of the music, why don’t consumers form four or so buyers’ groups that will negotiate access to music? Each would manage a library with about one-fourth of recordings. That seems to be the model behind Europe’s efforts to hold down health care costs—have one or a few big players form a monopsony (or oligopsony?), and bargain down the price.

Now I’m not saying that’s always the best solution for health care—as Cutler, DiMasi, and others have noted, a lot of innovation is funded by the fragmented buying pool in the U.S. system. But while I care a lot about innovation in health care, I’m a bit agnostic about innovation in music. Can we reliably say that the whole lot of music composed and performed after 1980 is worth more than J.S. Bach’s oeuvre? I don’t know. So I don’t care if “single-payer music care” ends up reducing revenues to the culture industries. Admittedly, in the end, I think it would actually help those industries, as William Fisher so skillfully documents in his Promises to Keep. But that’s another post…

2

The right to life, liberty, and a favorable ranking

Google uses its algorithms to set the Page Rank of websites. Anyone with a google toolbar can immediately see that Concurring Opinions has a pagerank of 5. Pageranks are determined based on Google’s algorithms, which are supposed to related to a site’s popularity (and to some degree, to longevity, as links build up). The system seems to work pretty well. Volokh.com has a pagerank of 7; the brand-new Orinkerr.com has a pagerank of 0 at present, but will doubtless climb the pagerank . . er, ranks . . . as it develops a track record of links.

Pageranks are more than just bragging rights, however. They affect how one’s site is listed in search results; this means dollars. And so we see this lawsuit:

A parental advice Internet site has sued Google Inc., charging it unfairly deprived the company of customers by downgrading its search-result ranking without reason or warning. . . .

KinderStart charges that Google without warning in March 2005 penalized the site in its search rankings, sparking a “cataclysmic” 70 percent fall in its audience — and a resulting 80 percent decline in revenue.

It seems problematic to suggest any right to a particular rank from a third-party ranking service. After all, there’s no contractual relationship here. And torts, like interference with business relationships, seem like a real stretch. Google isn’t a common carrier or anything else; Google is a third party, which happens to rank websites.

This isn’t such an unusual activity; entities create rankings all the time. If we chose to do so, we could rank something here at Co-Op — law blogs, perhaps — and I don’t think that we would have a responsibility to any of the entities we ranked. If our (hypothetical and non-existent) rankings listed Volokh.com at #1 and Conglomerate at #10, I don’t think that Gordon Smith could sue us — even if those rankings drove more traffic from Co-Op to Volokh than they did from Co-Op to Conglomerate. After all, we have no contract with any of them. (Similarly, if U.S. News lowers the rank of my law school, I don’t think that I’ve got an action against them.)

But I’d love to hear otherwise. And I’m ready to adapt with the times, if needed. I fact, I’ve got a complaint against Eugene Volokh all ready to go — you see, I don’t think he’s been listing Co-Op high enough up on his blogroll . . .

Boutique Medicine: Tax it, Don’t Ax It

Sick of waiting weeks for a doctor’s appointment? Or hurried visits? Well, “concierge physicians” have got a deal for you. Just pay a retainer to a practice (usually between $2,000 and $5,000 annually), and you’ll get immediate attention, long visits, and personalized preventive care. There’s just one catch—when you and, say, 400 other health care “consumers” sign-up at a given practice, it drops the other 1500 patients it had been serving to concentrate solely on retainer patients.

Is this problematic? Some important Democrats say yes, and have moved to kick “concierge physicians” out of the Medicare program. Tommy Thompson resisted that move when he headed HHS—and now he’s on a leading concierge franchise’s board. But since he’s left, some lower level officials at HHS have been raising concerns about “boutique medicine.”

After thinking about retainer care for a while, I have a few conclusions about these efforts. In a nutshell: I think it’s unwise to try to ban concierge care outright. But I do worry about it. It’s consonant with a larger movement that TNR describes: “to radically transform health insurance altogether, so that risk is gradually transferred away from large groups ( i.e., the government and large employers) and onto individuals (i.e., you).” If health insurance starts to move from a “defined benefit” to a “defined contribution” model, we can count on a diversion of scarce medical resources from a common risk pool to pockets of well-heeled consumers. Here’s why I think so…

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Three Cheers for Categorizers!

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Dan mentioned an indefatigable blogger who’s now taxonomizing over 600 law-related blawgs. I’ve heard a lot of critics of bloggers complain about “navel-gazing” in this field. But this type of work is exceedingly valuable, as I try to demonstrate in a recent piece on “information overload externalities.”

In my view, categorizers are a uniquely beneficial “genus” in the information ecosystem, and they deserve special solicitude from copyright law. Categorizers should be able to provide small samples or clips from whatever works they organize or index, without begging for licenses from the copyrightholders who own the sampled work.

Unfortunately, categorizers have been getting some rough treatment by courts lately. For example, Google recently lost a battle against “erotic image purveyor” Perfect 10 because the low resolution images on its “image search” might reduce Perfect 10’s sales to the “cell phone viewing” market. The Author’s Guild (which appears neither to represent all authors nor to be a guild) is suing to stop Google’s digital book indexing project—even though Google permits any aggrieved copyright owner to opt out! They believe Google should have to work out, individually, permissions for each of the millions of books they want to index.

Imagine if uber-taxonomizer 3L Epiphany had to ask permission to quote or cite to any of the blawgs he compiled. Are we really going to let a few cantankerous holdouts veto an effort to archive and index the world’s expression? I hope not, for a couple reasons…

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17

Internet Censorship and the US Military

marines1a.jpgIf you learned that certain blogs and websites are being censored for having political content, you’d say: “That’s no surprise. China does it all the time.” Well, it’s not just China . . . the US Military appears to be taking some lessons from the Chinese government. A few days ago, Wonkette discussed an email it purportedly received from a soldier in Iraq complaining of Interent censorship. The email stated:

Just to let you know, the US Marines have blocked access to “Wonkette” along with numerous other sites such as personal email (i.e. Yahoo, AT&T, Hotmail, etc), blogs that don’t agree with the government point of view, personal websites, and some news organizatons. This has taken effect as of the beginning of February. I have no problem with them blocking porn sites (after all it is a government network), but cutting off access to our email and possibly-not-toeing-the-government-line websites is a bit much.

Another email posted recently on Wonkette is even more troubling:

Anyway, I had a few minutes today and thought I’d look and see what else was banned on the Marine web here. I think the results speak for themselves:

* Wonkette – “Forbidden, this page (http://www.wonkette.com/) is categorized as: Forum/Bulletin Boards, Politics/Opinion.”

* Bill O’Reilly (www.billoreilly.com) – OK

* Air America (www.airamericaradio.com) – “Forbidden, this page (http://www.airamericaradio.com/) is categorized as: Internet Radio/TV, Politics/Opinion.”

* Rush Limbaugh (www.rushlimbaugh.com) – OK

* ABC News “The Note” – OK

* Website of the Al Franken Show (www.alfrankenshow.com) – “Forbidden, this page (http://www.airamericaradio.com/) is categorized as: Internet Radio/TV, Politics/Opinion.”

* G. Gordon Liddy Show (www.liddyshow.us) – OK

* Don & Mike Show (www.donandmikewebsite.com) – “Forbidden, this page (http://www.donandmikewebsite.com/) is categorized as: Profanity, Entertainment/Recreation/Hobbies.”

If this email is true, I find it to be quite troubling. It is disturbing enough that the government is censoring political views from US soldiers. It is ironic that we are denying democratic discourse to our troops who are busy attempting to spread democracy in the Middle East. And it is really alarming if only certain political viewpoints are being censored while others are not. Anyway, this story just seems too outrageous to be true, and I sure hope it isn’t.

4

Apple, iPods, Network Effects & Interoperability

I’ve enjoyed reading Dave Hoffman’s post on the iPod phenomenon and Josh Wright’s rejoinder. I wasn’t too tempted to jump in until Frank (in the comments) blamed the iPod’s success on network effects. Interestingly, Apple has long been the victim of network effects in the personal computer sector. Although I had a Mac computer in 1988, I soon had to switch to IBM clones in order to be able to communicate with co-workers, clients, and courts. By making a product with hardware and software that was not interoperable, even though its product was arguably superior, Apple lost market share to the makers of cheaper computers that all used interoperable operating systems and software. Now, Microsoft Word tries with each new version to come closer to what MacWrite achieved in the 80s and Apple tries to rebound in a world where many people have two computers and technology has allowed some material to go between the two systems.

So, I am interested in the madness behind duplicating this strategy in the mp3 industry of creating a product that stands out but stands alone. One can go to any electronics store and buy a cheaper mp3 player that will use MusicMatch, or one can buy the much more expensive iPod that requires the use of iTunes (unless you have access to someone with a computer science degree). First, why would Apple go down this road again? Second, why is this scenario working better this time? The only difference I can see is the point that Dave makes — mp3 players, while pricey, are almost disposable. Perhaps network effects are not going to favor the interoperable here over the superior first-mover because the initial outlay is not as substantial. If I’m buying an expensive computer, I want to be able to use it for awhile, communicate with others and possibly resell it on the open market, but if I’m just buying something that lasts a year, I’ll buy the cool one. Any other explanations? (Yes, I have an iPod, but our other $150 mp3 player broke twice in one year also.)

6

Google’s PageRank and Google’s Justice System

google.jpgGoogle doesn’t look kindly upon attempts to game its PageRank system. Google PageRank is the way Google determines what order to display search results. The higher a page’s rank is, the higher up the page appears in a search results list.

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According to Google:

PageRank performs an objective measurement of the importance of web pages by solving an equation of more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms. Instead of counting direct links, PageRank interprets a link from Page A to Page B as a vote for Page B by Page A. PageRank then assesses a page’s importance by the number of votes it receives.

PageRank also considers the importance of each page that casts a vote, as votes from some pages are considered to have greater value, thus giving the linked page greater value. Important pages receive a higher PageRank and appear at the top of the search results. Google’s technology uses the collective intelligence of the web to determine a page’s importance. There is no human involvement or manipulation of results, which is why users have come to trust Google as a source of objective information untainted by paid placement.

What happens when a website tries to game Google’s PageRank system? Philipp Lenssen has an interesting post about one such case over at Google Blogoscoped:

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0

Privacy of Internet Search Records

subpoena1.jpgHere are some recent interesting links about the privacy of Internet search records:

Check out Patriot Search for a laugh. It’s a new search engine where your results are reported directly to the government: “Our mission is to provide the best possible search engine to you while at the same time, making sure the government is informed should you search for something obscure, illegal, or unpatriotic.” [Thanks to Scott Forbes for the link.]

CNET has interviews with Internet search companies about the kind of data they retain about their users. Of the many questions asked, the answers to these two questions are particularly interesting:

1. “Given a list of search terms, can you produce a list of people who searched for that term, identified by IP address and/or cookie value?”

AOL: “No. Our systems are not configured to track individuals or groups of users who may have searched for a specific term or terms, and we would not comply with such a request.”

Google: “Yes. We can associate search terms with IP addresses and cookies, but not with users’ names unless they are registered with Google.”

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3

Congress takes action on Wikipedia abuse . . .

. . . but not the kind of action you might be thinking. A law against Wikipedia abuse? An investigation? A blue-ribbon panel? Nope — our fearless political leaders have decided to take up the rallying cry “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Declan McCullagh has the story (via my sharp-eyed, non-Wikipedia-abusing colleague Deven Desai):

The trusty editors at Wikipedia got together and compiled a list of over 1,000 edits made by Internet addresses allocated to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The IP address subsequently was blocked and unblocked.

An extensive analysis reveals how juvenile official Washington secretly is, behind the mind-numbingly serious talk of public policy.

One edit listed White House press secretary Scott McClellan under the entry for “douche.” Another said of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma) that: “Coburn was voted the most annoying Senator by his peers in Congress. This was due to Senator Coburn being a huge douche-bag.”

It boggles the mind to think that Congress is abusing Wikipedia. I mean, if we can’t trust Congress, and we can’t trust Wikipedia . . . my goodness — who can we trust?

0

Website Hacking Blackmail

A while back, I wrote about the Million Dollar Homepage, where Alex Tew, a student, created the idea of selling a million pixels on a website to advertisers for $1 each. His plan was successful, and he recently reached his goal of raising a million dollars in just a few months.

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But the story attracted some unsavory criminals bent on ruining Tew’s enterprise. From the BBC:

But the publicity brought the unwanted attention of extortionists who knocked the site over with a massive denial-of-service attack.

Following a week of downtime, the website is now back online.

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