Factually Challenged Op-ed Insists Google Greed Is Behind FCC's Desire For More Set Top Box Competition

from the Google-ate-my-homework dept

We've noted how the FCC recently voted to bring some much-needed competition to the cable set top box market. Thanks to limited competition consumers still pay $231 annually for what's often garbage hardware -- hardware used to lock consumers inside the increasingly out-dated cable walled garden. As a fact sheet circulated by the agency (pdf) makes clear, the effort will simply involve cable companies delivering their content to third-party hardware using any generally accepted technology and the copy protection of their choice.

But we've also been noting how the cable industry is waging an all out public relations war against the idea. For the moment that war is being brought to bear most notably in the editorial sections of websites and newspapers all over the country, where a rotating crop of individuals -- most hiding their connection to cable industry cash -- have professed that the FCC's plan is everything from an attack on minorities to an invitation to piracy Armageddon. But the most common refrain continues to be that this is all just some kind of villainous plot by Google to freeload off the cable industry.

Why Google? Cable and phone company executives utterly loathe the search giant. Not only because of Google's history supporting net neutrality (though that's wavered in years since) and a general envy of the company's ad revenues (you ain't gonna ride my pipes for free!), but because Google Fiber is now disrupting the broadband space. As such, fighting a pro-consumer, pro-competitive initiative while somehow maligning Google is a perfect day over in cable land, even if the logic supporting these attacks makes absolutely no god-damned sense.

Take this new editorial over at the New York Times as just one such example. It breathlessly proclaims the FCC's plan will somehow "hand our TVs over to Google" and allow Google to "continue its questionable conduct" on other fronts in the TV sector:
"The F.C.C.’s proposal would give Google free access to the raw TV programming data it needs to power its search engine for TV. In effect, Google could use the data to become the modern version of the program guide, connecting users to the TV shows and movies that Google’s search algorithms determine are relevant.

It’s a simple concept: Turn on the TV, search for what you want to watch, scan the results, and then click on a link to start watching your favorite show or sporting event. But Google is missing a key ingredient for its search-centric TV. It lacks access to providers’ proprietary programming information — what shows are available when. Google cannot show a full list of TV programs in its search results without first entering into licensing agreements with cable companies to obtain that data."
That's nonsense. The goal of the FCC's plan is to open up the cable set top box for everybody -- not just Google. And does anybody seriously believe that the one key thing that has frustrated Google engineers is that it can't ascertain what time programs air? No, what frustrates Google -- and every other company with a foot in the streaming box ecosystem -- is the cable industry's vice-like stranglehold over pay TV hardware.

Again, it wouldn't just be Google that received programming data -- it would be every and any company that wants to jump into the suddenly competitive set top box space. And it's not like the cable industry still isn't going to be paid an arm and a leg by consumers to watch TV -- that programming is just going to be delivered by better, faster, cheaper hardware -- with DRM and most everything else still intact. Cable's opposition is, and always has been, about protecting the $21 billion in captive set top rental revenue the cable industry enjoys annually. All other justifications for the industry's opposition are entirely decorative.

And while the reform effort would help any company wanting to build a set top box, Google's missteps are specifically highlighted in painstaking detail over and over again by author Jonathan Kanter, who has spent a large portion of his career not-so-coincidentally helping Microsoft dodge antitrust inquiries at Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft, a law firm also frequently employed by the telecom sector. As such, some of Google's missteps appear to have been somewhat hallucinated by Kanter. Like this claim that Google's MO is to introduce a free product, then "close off competition" through discrimination and exclusion:
"Google is said to have followed the same playbook for years: introducing a free product into a competitive space, subsidizing that product with advertising revenue, and then closing off competition through discriminatory and exclusionary practices."
Uh, citation needed? When has Google ever actually done that last bit? If there's an industry that engages in "discriminatory and exclusionary practices" it's the cable industry the FCC's rules are targeting. You'll note though at no point does Kanter really explain why the FCC's taking action in the first place. Why did the chicken cross the road? Uh, Google! Kanter then trots out a number of just plain wrong history lessons to try and cement what was an already shaky point:
"In April 2015, for instance, the European Commission filed formal charges against Google, saying it rigged search results to favor its own content. Similarly, a Federal Trade Commission staff memo from 2012 revealed that Google regularly favors itself even over better alternatives.
Right, but Kanter ignores that the FTC also found that Google's experimentation was driven in large part to provide a better customer experience, not anti-competitive villainy. Other criticism of Google throughout the editorial is similarly incomplete or conflated:
"Google also seems to favor sites that rely on ads rather than subscription fees, a practice that has cut into news outlets’ profit margins. These kinds of practices starve content providers of revenue and chill investment in content creation.
Except that as a search engine Google can't magically see behind paywalls (and users often don't want to visit those sites anyway), so giving non-paywalled, ad-driven content a priority kind of makes sense. Again though, all of this finger pointing at Google is designed to shift the conversation away from the reason the FCC decided to take action in the first place: the cable industry and its own robust history of anti-competitive behavior, something Kanter just daintily floats over without mentioning it's the reason we're having this conversation in the first place.

No, Kanter's key refrain is that the FCC's plan is all about letting Google take the cable industry's hard-earned work and pass it off as its own. As such, he argues, Google should be heavily regulated before such villainous ambitions can take root:
"If the F.C.C. provides Google with the data it needs to build its search-based set-top, it should take significant steps to prevent Google from continuing its questionable conduct. At a minimum, the F.C.C. should require Google to commit to search neutrality, transparency, adherence to privacy standards and restrictions on anticompetitive bundling."
So wait, just so we're clear, your ingenious solution for the cable industry's aggressive walled garden anti-competitive stranglehold over set top box hardware is -- to regulate Google? And for years we've pointed out that the idea of "search neutrality" is bullshit. Throughout the net neutrality debate it was the cry of a telecom sector and its various policy tendrils, all pretending to be willfully oblivious to why physical, last mile services without competition (broadband) aren't regulated exactly the same as Internet services that users can choose not to use.

And buried under the Op-ed's conflations and bizarre omissions, that's just the thing the editorial intentionally misses -- quite painfully. Increasing set top box competition means that consumers would have a choice of set top boxes. As such, they could choose one that doesn't rely on Google technology if this is really such a concern for them. Of course it isn't -- the great Google set top antitrust albatross is a giant red herring being pushed by cable operators via an endless number of similar editorials. All of them carry the same message: don't open up the stagnant cable set top box market to competition or Google will run away with your daughter and pee on your azaleas.

Again it's a bunch of nonsense intended to misdirect the public from a central truth of the set top box debate: the cable industry is absolutely terrified of losing a central pillar in its quest to ensure cable remains a closed, walled garden ecosystem. Opening the set top box market to competition not only kills $21 billion in captive annual revenues, it suddenly opens the door to cheaper, better, more open hardware platforms -- built by companies with no qualms about pushing traditional cable customers toward alternative streaming options.

Filed Under: antitrust, competition, fcc, innovation, jonathan kanter, oped, open, set top boxes
Companies: google


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  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 1 Jun 2016 @ 12:40pm

    "Your shills only considered whether they could say something, and didn't bother to ask if they should..."

    Yeah, they trot out all these 'horrible things' that might happen if the Big Bad Google gets into the set top boxes market, and I imagine a good many people reading are wondering just why these things are supposed to be bad. The ability to look for what you want instead of having to wade through a mess of a 'tv listings' screen? That certainly sounds like an improvement to me, and yet they're acting like it would be the end of the world.

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