Techdirt has written a number of stories about how Big Pharma is never content with the patent bargain -- that, in return for a time-limited, government-enforced intellectual monopoly, products will afterwards enter the public domain. Instead, companies have come up with various schemes to extend the life of that monopoly -- and thus to cheat the public of the low-cost generic versions of the drug in question that should have appeared. The Daily Beast points to an antitrust lawsuit brought by 35 states and the District of Columbia against the makers of Suboxone, a prescription drug used to treat opioid addiction, over the alleged use of one such scheme, known as "product hopping". That's where:
a company makes modest changes to a product to extend its patent protections so that other companies cannot enter the market and offer less-expensive generic alternatives.
In this particular example:
Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals, Inc. -- now known as Indivior PLC -- and MonoSol Rx are accused of conspiring to switch Suboxone from a tablet version to a film, which dissolves in the mouth, in order to prevent or delay generic alternatives and maintain artificially inflated profits.
Over time, the states allege that Reckitt converted the market away from the tablet to the film through marketing, price adjustments and other methods. Ultimately, after the majority of Suboxone prescriptions were written for the film, Reckitt removed the tablet from the U.S. market.
The company received an analysis of data from U.S. Poison Control Centers on September 15, 2012 that found consistently and significantly higher rates of accidental unsupervised pediatric exposure with Suboxone Tablets ... than seen with Suboxone Film ... The rates for Suboxone Tablets were 7.8-8.5 times greater depending on the study period.
Curiously, though, Reckitt didn't mention that the study had been commissioned by itself, as the Guardian noted in an article at the time. Quite why Reckitt would want to pay for and then publicize a study that showed one of its own products was dangerous became clearer just a few hours later, when it submitted a "citizen petition" to the Food and Drug Administration:
urging the US regulator to ban any future competitor pills to its suboxone tablets that were insufficiently "child resistant".
In other words, Reckitt effectively wanted the FDA to ban any generic versions of its own tablets, now out of patent, while leaving its patented film formulation on the market to enjoy a new monopoly. As the Guardian reported:
A company spokesman has insisted commercial motives played no part in Reckitt's decision to withdraw suboxone tablets from the market. However, Martin Deboo, an analyst at Investec Securites said: "We view these moves as consistent with Reckitt's strategy of protecting the suboxone franchise by hastening migration to [strip] and raising barriers to entry to generics."
that federal and state healthcare programs, including Medicaid, as well as consumers and other purchasers have paid artificially high monopoly prices since late 2009, when generic alternatives of Suboxone might otherwise have become available. During that time, annual sales of Suboxone topped $1 billion and, since then, rates of opioid abuse in Connecticut and across the country have increased significantly.
That's a useful reminder that pharma patents are not just about monopolies and money, but also about people and pain.
The cable industry's relentless lobbying assault on the FCC's plan to bring competition to the cable box appears to be working. As we've been covering, cable lobbyists have been filling editorial sections nationwide with all manner of misleading dreck, claiming the FCC's plan (which you can read here (pdf)) will increase piracy, hinder innovation, hurt minorities, and rip giant holes in the time-space continuum. They've also engaged in the time-honored tradition of paying lawmakers that have no idea how technology works to make all manner of false claims about what the FCC's plan actually does.
Unfortunately for those of you tired of paying the cable industry $21 billion annually to rent a shitty cable box, it looks like the efforts are working.
Two of the Democratic Commissioners that originally voted yes on the plan say they're starting to get cold feet, surely only coincidentally after the cable industry decided to ramp up lobbying to levels not seen since 2009 to try and kill the plan. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, for example, is now claiming that the FCC plan she voted for is "too complicated" and that the FCC should compromise with the cable industry on some kind of new arrangement:
"Kudos to the chairman for kicking off this conversation [Rosenworcel voted along with Wheeler and Democrat Mignon Clyburn to kick off that conversation], but it has become clear the original proposal has real flaws and, as I have suggested before, is too complicated. We need to find another way forward."
She was not endorsing the cable effort, but instead appeared to be supporting the effort to find a compromise proposal that addresses the flaws.
"I am glad that efforts are underway to hash out alternatives that provide consumers with more choice and more competition at lower cost."
Except there's nothing really that complicated or "flawed" about what the FCC is proposing. Under the plan, cable operators simply have to provide access to their programming -- using systems and copy protection of their choice -- to third-party hardware vendors without the need for a cable card. While there's certainly some engineering challenges with the idea, the "complicated" part only really comes from the cable industry's decision to fight cable box competition tooth and nail.
Meanwhile, the "compromise" referenced by the article that appears to have swayed Rosenworcel isn't much of one. Instead of real cable box competition, the cable industry has proposed a plan whereby they simply have to deliver their programming via app -- but consumers would still have to pay for a cable box if they want to do things like record via DVR. Consumer advocates and groups like INCOMPAS are warning that the cable industry will go out of is way in any voluntary proposal to find creative ways to continue forcing consumers to use their hardware and services.
"We also asked Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn's office if she still supports the original proposal and got this response: "Commissioner Clyburn appreciates and welcomes the constructive efforts by industry to put forward an alternative apps-based proposal. She continues to study the proposal with an eye towards a solution that adheres to Section 629 of the Communications Act; ensures truly competitive choice; enhances access to diverse programming; and provides the protections for copyright, security and privacy that consumers have come to expect."
Note again that the two waffling commissioners don't really provide any solid reasons why the FCC's original proposal couldn't work, but it's pretty clear that they've been influenced -- to one degree or another -- by the paid sound wall cable lobbyists have constructed in trying to scuttle real cable box competition. With their fellow Commissioners Pai and O'Rielly voting no on the proposal (because voting no on consumer friendly policies is their entire purpose in life) and foundering support among Democratic commissioners, Wheeler won't have the political firepower to get the plan approved.
Again that's not the end of the world. The legacy cable TV industry's empire is slowly crumbling with or without the FCC's help, it will just take a little longer if the FCC doesn't give the entire process a swift kick in the ass. If the FCC's cable box proposal sinks, the agency has more time and calories to focus on what's truly going to be important in the new streaming TV age: bringing real, sustained competition to bear on the broken U.S. broadband market.
from the just-another-symptom-of-a-diseased-system dept
Martin Shkreli -- founder of Turing Pharmaceuticals and overnight poster boy for everything that is wrong with the pharmaceutical industry -- spent a lot of yesterday defending his 5000% price hike on Daraprim, a drug that treats victims of toxoplasmosis. That the drug has a nexus with cancer and AIDS sufferers (basically anyone with a diminished immune system) made the price increase seem even more unconscionable.
Dr. Wendy Armstrong, professor of infectious diseases at Emory University, questions Turing’s claim that, after more than 60 years of physicians using Daraprim, there is a need for a better version of the drug.
“I certainly don’t think this is one of those diseases where we have been clamoring for better therapies,” says Armstrong.
Next, there's the inherent ridiculousness of this assertion, which portrays Turing's plans for Daraprim as a reverse pyramid scheme, in which future "investors" will benefit from the gouging of those who got in on the ground floor.
On top of that, Shkreli claims the drug is still underpriced, despite having been sold for $1/pill before its acquisition by the company Turing acquired it from.
While it's true that drug research and development can be expensive, it is nowhere near as costly as this price hike would indicate. Shkreli tossed out the easily-debunked claim that it costs $1 billion to bring a new drug to market. The actual cost is considerably lower (~$55 million), according to research using the same data drug companies provided to backup their claims of $1.3 billion in R&D costs per new drug.
Data also shows pharmaceutical companies spend far more on marketing than research and development. They have to. Most "new" products on the market aren't actually new. They're just variants on what's already available. It's tough to sell a "new" drug that doesn't outperform a competing product, hence the increased marketing expenditures.
Shkreli also used a variant of "everyone else is doing it" to defend the price jump. He pointed to the existence of other cancer drugs costing "over $100,000" per treatment as justifying Turing's price increase. But being slightly less exortionate than competitors isn't the same thing as being "good."
Shkreli has little interest in being good, no matter what altruistic assertions he makes. His former company -- from which he was ousted over accusations of stock price manipulation -- also jacked up the price on an essential drug just because it could.
When Retrophin acquired rights to Thiola, the drug cost about $1.50 per pill. [Patients take multiple pills per day.] Now, Retrophin has decided to charge more than $30 for the same Thiola pill. Retrophin says it has plans to change the Thiola dose and develop an extended release version of the drug, but I have seen none of those changes yet. To my knowledge, Retrophin hasn't yet done any of this work -- except to drastically increase Thiola's price.
And indeed, Retrophin never did. From a 2015 presentation, it's generating sales for Retrophin, but nowhere in it is any indication the company is actually working towards an extended-release version of the drug.
I asked Shkreli about this and he claimed the company ditched the R&D plans after it ousted him. Maybe this is true, but it doesn't exactly instill any confidence in Shkreli's latest claims that price hikes are being done with an eye on increased R&D spending. Instead, they look like nothing more than the normal deflection performed by drug companies after controversial price increases.
Other circumstantial evidence does little for consumer confidence. Not only is Shkreli being sued by his former company for fraudulent behavior, he's previously been taken to court (by Lehman Brothers) for a $2.3 million loss he incurred (but never repaid) when his bet on a market decline went south. The complaint accuses him not only of failing to pay Lehman what was owed, but of pushing through the transaction without actually possessing the funds to cover the original purchase.
Shkreli also has a history of thriving on market failure. He has made money shorting pharmaceutical stocks while simultaneously engaging in questionable behavior. Here's a "treatise" he wrote detailing the negative aspects of one company's research efforts, which clearly states at the top of each page (for legal reasons) that he stands to personally gain if the company's stock price drops.
DISCLAIMER: The authors of this article have a conflict of interest and will benefit financially if the stock price of VTL falls. The authors reserve the right to change their investment if the price of VTL changes dramatically. Please read the Disclosure at the end of this paper for more information.
(This was tracked down from a deleted tweet by Martin Shkreli. Other Twitter users had commented on it, so it was recoverable from Google cache. Here's a screenshot, because the cache won't stay live for long.)
But he's also been accused of actions that are more than simply treading the edge of legality. A heated Twitter exchange implies Shkreli talked the FDA out of a drug approval -- something that hurt the company producing the drug, but paid off for Shkreli's stock short.
Shkreli's history does little to back up his assertions of altruistic goals and a future full of well-funded research and development. Instead, it shows someone who's willing to exploit every last dollar out of something and leave its dessicated corpse behind.
On top of that, share prices for several drug companies fell the day the Daraprim price hike went viral. That this may have worked out well for Shkreli can't be ignored, considering his prior experience with shorting pharmaceutical companies. Maybe this was part of the plan: Short pharma stocks. Jack price up on newly-acquired drugs. Play the villain while cashing in on the market decline.
That's all speculation, of course. What is certain is that Martin Shkreli is not THE problem. (He's not even "Big Pharma," even though several editorials have placed him in this group.) He's part of the problem, but his specific actions are more about exploiting obscure drugs that competitors aren't interested in. His actions shed little light on the genesis of high drug prices.
The original issue is patents. That has been mostly ignored by legislators and opinion pieces during the most recent push for some sort of drug pricing controls. And it will continue to be ignored because Daraprim's price hike is completely unrelated to patent monopolies. Turing's exclusive license for Daraprim includes only the use of the trademarked name. The patents have expired. Anyone can make it, but no one's been particularly interested in offering an alternative. (Maybe this will change now that a company has a chance to take on the villain du jour…)
But it's patents that make drugs unaffordable in the first place. New drugs are given, at minimum, 20 years of competition-free sales. That's two decades (at least) where drug companies can charge whatever they want because no one else can offer a competing product. Companies -- like Shkreli -- will claim they need this exclusivity to recoup "massive" research and development costs. But this simply isn't true. Pharmaceutical companies enjoy massive profit margins, much more than would be expected if they were faced with meaningful competition. The lie is exposed when patents expire. Prices fall dramatically once the market is opened, including that of the original manufacturer's.
So, if the government really wants to tackle the problem of overpriced drugs, it needs to start with the protections it grants that allow this to happen. But this seems unlikely to happen because drug companies have significant "buying power" when it comes to legislation, no matter how many people come forward to testify about being priced out of essential treatments.
Shkreli, however, is specializing in finding "orphan drugs" -- drugs for rare conditions that are no longer under patent protection (which would raise the acquisition price significantly) but which have seen little to no competitive movement over the years. His decision to implement a 5000% price increase, despite minimal costs (and benefiting from R&D performed 60 years ago), is one he can make because there's no market force in place to stop him. So, he may be the poster boy for everything that's wrong with the pharmaceutical industry, but he's not really indicative of the ongoing problem.
What he is, however, is an opportunist with a hedge fund background and a history of market exploitation. Any claims of altruism or searches for better treatments should be met with intense skepticism.
As was widely expected yesterday, the EU has officially come out with its "Statement of Objections" to Google practices that are at the heart of its antitrust complaint. They are almost entirely focused on the fact that Google promotes its own shopping search product at the expense of competitors. From the announcement:
Google systematically positions and prominently displays its comparison shopping service in its general search results pages, irrespective of its merits. This conduct started in 2008.
Google does not apply to its own comparison shopping service the system of penalties, which it applies to other comparison shopping services on the basis of defined parameters, and which can lead to the lowering of the rank in which they appear in Google's general search results pages.
Froogle, Google's first comparison shopping service, did not benefit from any favourable treatment, and performed poorly.
As a result of Google's systematic favouring of its subsequent comparison shopping services "Google Product Search" and "Google Shopping", both experienced higher rates of growth, to the detriment of rival comparison shopping services.
Google's conduct has a negative impact on consumers and innovation. It means that users do not necessarily see the most relevant comparison shopping results in response to their queries, and that incentives to innovate from rivals are lowered as they know that however good their product, they will not benefit from the same prominence as Google's product.
This somewhat echoes the FTC's analysis of Google's playing with shopping search -- but the FTC also noted that the end results actually seemed to be good for consumers (something the EU appears to be less concerned with). Here was the FTC's conclusion on the same issue:
Indeed, the evidence
paints a complex portrait of a company working toward an overall goal of maintaining its
market share by providing the best user experience, while simultaneously engaging in tactics
that resulted in harm to many vertical competitors, and likely helped to entrench Google's
monopoly power over search and search advertising. The determination that Google's
conduct is anticompetitive, and deserving of condemnation, would require an extensive
balancing of these factors, a task that courts have been unwilling- in similar circumstances -
to perform under Section 2. Thus, although it is a close question, Staff does not recommend
that the Commission move forward on this cause of action.
In short, it is clear that Google experimented with ways to improve its own shopping search performance, but it's hard to see how some of the EU's complaints make that much sense. What business is required to promote it competitors?
Either way, Google is now in the somewhat awkward position of pointing out that its own vertical search products both are good enough to deserve the treatment Google gave them, yet bad enough that no one actually uses them. Thus it has put out a somewhat hilarious blog post that talks about how little people actually use Google's vertical search products while also highlighting how many competitors there are. Here, for example, is the chart it shows for shopping sites in Germany:
It's pretty clear what point Google is trying to make there, though it seems likely that the EU Commission will quickly argue that this chart is actually unrelated to the point that it is making -- that Google may be somehow "unfairly" leveraging its dominant position in general search, to push its vertical shopping search on users. The real question, is whether or not that's harming end users in any way. That's the part that seems tough to support. There do appear to be many other options for searching. And, personally, as someone who regularly uses Google (and other search engines) for a variety of searching needs, I can say that I never use it for product/shopping search, whether or not it promotes it in its search results, because I automatically default to other specialized sites for those kinds of searches. I'm at a loss as to how Google promoting its own shopping search does any harm to me in those situations. It's just another competitor (and to me, not a very good one).
As we noted a few months ago, based on a tool that Yelp and TripAdvisor put together, there are arguments to be made that Google could do a better job with how it handles vertical search results, using its search algorithm to pull in results from others -- but it's difficult to see why anyone should want government bureaucrats determining how to build search engine results.
Say what you will about the copyright industry, but it certainly doesn't give up. No matter how many times a bad idea is fought off, sooner or later, it comes back again. The best example of this is probably WIPO's Broadcasting Treaty, which Techdirt has been covereing for a decade: in 2004, 2005, 2008, 2011 and 2013. This campaign to give broadcasters yet more monopoly rights -- as if they didn't have enough already -- is still underway, and the EFF provides us with a timely update on the current state of play:
The latest draft of the treaty also attempts to control post-fixation uses of broadcast signals -- in other words, to provide broadcasters with rights to control uses of content that has been recorded from a broadcast.
Here's why that would be awful from many viewpoints:
Since these post-fixation rules would apply regardless of whether the content was in the public domain or whether a "fair use" argument applies, it could impact the work of journalists, archivists, and creators who could otherwise legally gain access to source content through broadcasts.
And that's not all:
The draft also includes worrisome protections that would prohibit DRM on broadcasts from being circumvented, which could outlaw the use of open source video software such as VLC and MythTV to watch or time-shift televisions broadcasts, and would restrict future technological innovation. These provisions would effectively nullify the effect of any exceptions and limitations to the exclusive rights of broadcasters that the treaty may end up adopting.
As this shows, while pushing for new bad ideas, the copyright industry is always happy to re-use some of its old bad ideas -- even more reason to fight the WIPO Broadcasting Treaty yet again.
One of the general rules that we try to follow here on Techdirt is to avoid anything that has to do with "partisan politics" or debates that involve "Democrats" v. "Republicans." Thankfully, many of the tech issues that we discuss don't fall neatly into one camp or the other -- issues around intellectual property, privacy, innovation and surveillance seem to have supporters and detractors on both sides of the traditional aisle. Sometimes that's because the issue is so "new" that it hasn't been twisted and distorted into a partisan fight yet. Sometimes (more frequently) it's because these issues aren't ones that get enough attention at all. Net neutrality was like that in the early days, a decade ago. It was a legitimate concern that was being raised about broadband providers potentially abusing market power. Somewhere around 2004 or 2005, however, something shifted in the debate, and it suddenly became a "partisan" issue with Democrats tending to be "for" net neutrality and Republicans tending to be against it. At this point, the debate became stupid. This often seems to happen with partisan issues. Once the "Parties" take over (and this is true of both parties), pretty much all debate on the relevant facts goes out the window, and it all becomes hyperbole and rhetoric. That has absolutely been the case with the net neutrality debate as well.
So, while we don't normally dive into any kind of partisan spin on things, because the rhetoric has become absolutely ridiculous on net neutrality, it seemed worth discussing why the Republican claims that reclassification under Title II is some sort of "government takeover of the internet" or "regulating the internet" are just wrong. And we'll go one step further and point out why Republicans should actually be standing right along side their Democratic colleagues in supporting reclassification. This shouldn't be a partisan issue at all, but a bipartisan effort to make sure that the internet remains free and open for true innovation and competition (the kind of thing that both parties should agree on).
We'll start by pointing to a fantastic article from James Heaney, a self-identified conservative, who goes into great detail explaining why free marketers should support reclassification of broadband access by the FCC. He covers a lot of ground that we've discussed before, but does so in a clear and concise manner that makes it easy to read. In short, he notes that free markets and competition are great for innovation -- and that while regulation can often get in the way of those things, so can monopoly power. Further, he highlights how internet infrastructure is effectively a natural monopoly (just like we discussed... a decade ago). And, thus, it makes sense to have very limited regulation to keep the natural monopoly from getting out of control and more importantly, to stop the natural monopoly from hindering all sorts of other innovation. Heaney's argument goes into a lot more detail, including a discussion of why the FCC was crazy wrong in its 2002 decision to declare cable a Title I "information service" rather than a Title II "telecommunications service," and why now is the time for the FCC to correct that mistake. Either way, he notes, the nature of broadband -- like highways or electricity -- makes it clear that it's a natural monopoly:
That’s because – guess what! – internet service is a market where natural monopolies prevail. Just like with the electric company, most of the cables and most of the network are already purchased and deployed. Adding a new customer often means literally just flipping a switch at HQ, or – at most – laying a few yards of cable to an existing network. In the end, the more the company sells, the less it costs them. Over time, the big companies beat the small ones on cost, gobble them up… then lobby the government to freeze out potential competitors, while jacking up costs and slashing service quality,.
If you have ever interacted with Comcast in any way, you already know about their “service” “quality” – the infinite wait times, the incompetent “help,” the constant upselling, the blatant lies (usually about credits they promise), the desperate measures. Since they are our local monopoly, I don’t hear too much about the other monopolists out there, but I understand Time-Warner isn’t any better. It is a fact that customers despise their ISPs on average:
What you may not realize is that they are overcharging you, too, like textbook monopolists.
From there, he points out that often the best way to deal with natural monopolies is through the threat of a government crackdown, rather than actual regulation. This was actually a position that we supported for a long time as well. I can't seem to find a reference to it now, but I'm pretty sure that this was the suggestion of Professor Ed Felten as well, noting that a sort of "Sword of Damocles" dangling above broadband providers' heads might be the best form of net neutrality as we learned more. However, as Heaney notes, we have learned more and that plan has now failed, thanks to the appeals court ruling in favor of Verizon (Heaney incorrectly says it's Comcast -- possibly confusing it with a different net neutrality lawsuit). And, thus, he notes, without the hovering threat, the playing field is now open for monopoly-power abuse -- which is the kind of thing that Republicans and conservatives should be against:
So now the delay-and-harass strategy has failed. The monopolists have a blank check from the law, and they are exploiting it with tremendous rapacity (as we’ve seen in the series of Netflix stickups, which picked up the moment net neutrality collapsed). Perhaps the next most attractive option is to pull a Reagan and just break up the major ISPs into smaller companies. Unfortunately, there is no obvious legal way to do that. The Bell breakup resulted from a lot of special circumstances, some plain-as-day antitrust violations, and an 8-year court battle. Moreover, breakup would probably not solve the problem: the wee ISPs would still have local monopolies in many areas, and economics 101 would force them to immediately begin reconsolidating into new national monopolies (as the Baby Bells are doing today). In the long run, the consolidation and price gouging of natural monopolies are probably inevitable. It’s a cold, heartless law of economics: the same laws that allow the government to increase revenues by cutting taxes will eventually compel certain telecom markets to become monopolies, no matter how many times we break them up.
Given that, he notes, the next best option is Title II. He notes, correctly, that the early days of the internet saw growth and investment in broadband thrive under Title II (contrary to claims to the contrary) and how the telcos today still beg to be classified under Title II for parts of their infrastructure:
To sum up, the only reason the Internet isn’t protected from monopolies today is because, in 2002, the FCC decided to experiment with not regulating the Internet. Almost immediately thereafter, the telecoms began fighting the core Internet principle of network neutrality, aiming to take control of the Internet for themselves and impose monopoly prices on consumers. All attempts to restrain them outside of Title II have failed. The Wall Street Journal regularly argues that the Internet has thrived because ISPs have never been regulated like phone companies. This is false, and the Journal should know better. Indeed, the years of the Web’s most explosive growth and development happened under the auspices of strict common carrier regulation, identical to those of phone companies. (Heck, even today, limited portions of Verizon’s high-speed fiber network, FiOS, fall under Title II!)
The fix to the growing monopoly problem is very, very easy, and several courts have pointed to it over the past several years: simply revisit the obviously nonsensical ruling of 2002. Overturn it, and (correctly) decide this time that Internet Service Providers are “telecommunications providers”. Instantly, every ISP in America would go back to common carrier status, and net neutrality regulation wouldn’t just become easy; in many ways, neutrality is baked into Title II. The FCC would gain many tools to reduce the risk of natural monopoly where it doesn’t exist, or its effects where it does. The market would be saved, the consumer freed from the tyranny of monopoly.
His full piece is much longer and well worth reading, but I have one further quibble with it, which gets back to the underlying claim about all of this that Title II is somehow "regulating the internet." It's not. It's never been about that at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. It's about choosing which form of regulation internet infrastructure will be ruled by. The anti-net neutrality crew like to make this mistake (and they make it often), trying to pretend that internet infrastructure is the internet. It's not. And internet infrastructure has always been heavily regulated, often out of necessity. In order to allow a cable company or a telco to install broadband infrastructure, local cities and towns often did special deals, handing over subsidies, rights of way, pole rights, tax breaks, franchise agreements and other such things to the broadband players. The idea that internet infrastructure has ever been "a free market" is laughable. No matter what kind of infrastructure was being installed, it's always relied on some sort of deal with government in exchange for access. As such, it's entirely sensible to argue that there should be certain requirements in exchange for such public support for their network, and that includes keeping the network itself free and open to use.
And that's really what net neutrality is all about. It's not about "regulating the internet," but making sure that the big broadband players don't "regulate" the internet themselves, by setting up toll booths and other limitations, allowing them to pick the winners and losers. It's about blocking monopolistic powers from putting in place systems to extract monopoly rents that harm the public and limit innovation and consumer surplus. Net neutrality frees the internet from such monopolistic regulations by putting common carrier rules at the infrastructure level to make sure that there's true competition and freedom at the service level. And that makes total sense, because you don't want competition of natural monopolies, you want to make sure natural monopolies don't block competition.
Given that Republicans like to claim that they're pro-innovation, pro-business and pro-competition, they should absolutely be in favor of net neutrality as well because it creates the environment where there will be real competition and innovation at the service level. The argument that they're using against it is to pretend that Title II regulates "the internet" when it really just changes the existing style of regulation for internet infrastructure, preventing a few monopolistic powers from squeezing monopoly rents from everyone else. Normally stopping monopolies is supposed to be a key tenant of conservative economics. It honestly seems like the only reason that isn't the case here is because big broadband lobbyists have carefully spun this tale (and heavily funded some campaigns) to pretend that what they're trying to stop is "regulation of the internet."
One of the less well-known projects of the West is to convince developing countries that they need to convert traditional approaches to agriculture, which have functioned well for hundreds of years, into a system of intellectual monopolies for seeds -- the implicit and patronizing message being that this is the "modern" way to do things. Last year we wrote about how this was happening in Africa, and an article on bilaterals.org reports on similar moves in Guatemala:
On 10 June, the Congress of Guatemala approved Decree 19-2014 or the "Law for the Protection of New Plant Varieties" which led to an outpouring of criticism from various sectors of civil society.
This law, published on 26 June, protects the intellectual property of plant breeders deemed to have "created" or "discovered" new plant varieties, or genetically modified existing ones.
This way, the beneficiaries of the law -- "breeders", which are typically companies producing transgenic seeds like the transnational corporation Monsanto -- obtain property rights over the use of such varieties, in the form of plants or seeds.
Here's how that is likely to impact Guatemalan farmers:
In a publication, the Rural Studies Collective (Cer-Ixim) warned about the consequences of this "Monsanto Law".
They explained that under this law the possession or exchange of seeds of protected varieties without the breeder's authorisation will be illegal and punishable by imprisonment.
It will also be illegal, and punishable by prison, to posses the harvest from such seeds or to save them for future plantings.
According to the law, the breeder's right extends to "varieties essentially derived from the protected variety." In this sense, a hybrid produced from a protected variety crossed with an unprotected variety would automatically belong to the breeder of the patented variety.
The law thus promotes privatisation and monopolies over seeds, endangering food sovereignty, especially that of indigenous peoples, said Cer-Ixim. It also warned that Guatemala's biodiversity will fall "under the control of domestic and foreign companies."
The new law was brought in as part of the process of complying with the 2005 CAFTA-DR free trade agreement between Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and the US. Under its terms, signatories are obliged to sign up to the International Convention for the Protection of New Plant Varieties -- exactly the same one that was being foisted on Africa last year. However, as bilaterals.org reports, despite that obligation, there is mounting resistance to handing over the country's seed sovereignty in this way:
The growing opposition to the "Monsanto Law" comes from diverse sectors of civil society such as indigenous organisations, environmental groups, scientists, artists and members of Congress.
Artists and television celebrities have joined an online signature campaign to reject the law.
Their petition is addressed to the President, Otto Perez Molina, via the Avaaz website, and argues that the law is unconstitutional.
"This law violates articles of the Constitution relating to the Protection of Individuals, Cultural Identity, Natural Heritage, Right to Health, the principles of the Economic and Social Regime, in addition to the obligation of the state to protect consumers," the petition states.
Just recently, the Constitutional Court, Guatemala's highest legal body, provisionally suspended the entry into force of the law, giving 15 days for the various parties to to present their arguments. Despite the broad-based support for repealing or modifying the law, it is not clear what options the government has. After all, passing the law is a requirement of CAFTA-DR, and if Guatemala refuses to comply, we can expect the US to apply considerable pressure to encourage it to toe the line. Ultimately, the US can refuse to bring into force the agreement; given the presence of corporate sovereignty (pdf) and other onerous provisions in CAFTA-DR, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing for the people of Guatemala.
When antitrust stories make headlines—as the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger has—even well-intentioned analysis often confuses harm to competitors with harm to competition. Viewing antitrust law through a "competition" lens, as opposed to a "competitors" lens, is not intuitive: consumers are harmed not by being denied access to existing services, but by being denied new ones.
In antitrust law there is a debate, known as Schumpeter-Arrow—based on the initial intellectual adversaries, Joseph Schumpeter and Kenneth Arrow—which concerns whether monopoly power leads to innovation. On the pro-monopoly side, Schumpeter believed that companies with market power have economies of scale and financial stability, which allow them to invest more capital into R&D. By contrast, more competitive firms have to focus their energy—and money—into maintaining their competitiveness. On the other side of the debate, Arrow argued that monopolists have no incentive to innovate. Anti-monopolists preach the gospel that competition begets innovation. Consumers will gravitate towards companies that are offering new and better services.
In reality, each view holds some validity, depending on the specific market at issue. In some markets, market power might have a more positive effect on innovation. For example, in certain markets—usually referring to patents—many believe that monopolies are sometimes necessary. The most commonly mentioned market of this nature is the development of new pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceutical companies claim they need the promise of a monopoly on their work if they are going to invest enormous research dollars into a new drug (whether or not this is actually true is another discussion for another day).
In most other markets, however, monopoly power is likely to do more harm than good. For example, in the market for Internet
services, the Schumpeterian view that companies with dominant market power will invest their profits into innovation is both implausible and disproven. As Brendan Greeley wrote in Business Insider:
The utterly consistent position from the ISPs has been this: Guarantee us a higher income stream from a more concentrated market, and we'll build out new infrastructure to reach more Americans with high-speed Internet. A decade ago, this argument had at least the benefit of being untested.
A graph published by the National Communications and Telecommunications Association confirms that consolidation has not resulted in increased infrastructure expenditures.
Using inflation-adjusted dollars, it is clear that infrastructure investment has actually declined:
In sum, with experience as a guide, we know that monopoly power is harmful in the broadband industry.
In addition to monopolization of Internet service, ISPs can also exert market influence over the content that flows over those networks. But the Arrow-Schumpeter model is limited. It simply answers the question of whether less pipe manufacturers results in better or worse pipes. It does not take into account whether there will be less or more water, or what the quality of the water will be. In the network infrastructure industry, where monopoly power means control of networks which operate the Internet, monopoly harm is amplified.
In addition to residential broadband, the other crucially important network is wireless. They are not mutually exclusive. Verizon is both. And it has been reported that Comcast "might try its hand at mobile phone service." Verizon and Comcast have been able to use not just their existing monopoly in Internet service and wireless data to obtain and to maintain monopolies in television, phone service, and other content markets.
Competition would disrupt the incumbents' monopolies in all of these markets. These markets all exist on the Internet, and yet, the status quo allows Comcast and Verizon to charge separately for these markets. In other words, the Internet is, or could
be, people's television and phone service as well. There already are Internet-based video and phone service alternatives. For phone service, Skype, Google Voice, and other free alternatives already exist. For "television," there are also numerous services available. YouTube, Hulu,
Netflix, and Amazon Prime all have a vast array of content, with different pricing models and delivery methods.
Despite the fact that free or low-cost services are available for video, phone calls, and texting, consumers are still forced to pay individually for cable television, data plans, and calling/texting service. The Internet, in addition to being a gigantic market on its own, hosts the market for everything else. Advertising, banking, and mail are all done online. And entire industries like social media, servers, and coding have been created as a result of the Internet.
Perhaps the best example of the Internet's ability to transfer data for free is WhatsApp. Originally valued
at 1.5 billion dollars, Facebook
purchased the app for a total of $19 billion. In 2013, WhatsApp saved
consumers $33 billion that they would have otherwise had to pay their cell phone carrier. In addition to ISPs and wireless companies, television networks and phone companies profit from the existing business model, where television, land line phone service, and cell phone service takes place without the aid of the Internet.
Having people pay for each individual thing they do online, in addition to diminishing the incredible power of the Internet, also
costs consumers. And harm from monopolization—in all industries, not just network infrastructure—is often underestimated. Rutgers Law Professor Michael Carrier calls this "innovation asymmetry," where existing businesses and business-models are over-valued at the expense of yet-to-be-developed technologies.
Carrier notes that new, innovative technologies are often undervalued because they
tangible, less obvious at the onset of a technology, and not advanced by an
army of motivated advocates. First, they are less tangible. [Moreover, the
value of new technologies is] difficult to quantify. How do we put a dollar
figure on the benefits of enhanced communication and interaction? . . . Second,
they are more fully developed over time. When a new technology is introduced,
no one, including the inventor, knows all of the beneficial uses to which it
will eventually be put.
The essential problem is that monopolies prevent innovative technologies from reaching the market. The value of the technologies lost cannot be quantified. Carrier notes examples of new technologies initially being undervalued:
Alexander Graham Bell thought the telephone would be used primarily to broadcast the daily news.
Thomas Edison thought the phonograph would be used "to record the wishes of old men on their death beds."
Railroads were originally considered to be feeders to canals.
IBM envisioned only 10 to 15 orders for the computer in 1949.
In the Internet context, Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia are just some examples of companies that disrupted the existing marketplace.
With Internet service, we have ample evidence of what a more competitive market looks like, and what sort of service consumers could expect with a more open Internet. Many Europeans get Internet at substantially faster speeds for a fraction of the price. In the few cities that are lucky
enough to get Google Fiber, users get Internet at exponentially higher speeds at much lower costs.
The existing business model is based on the dearth of competition in the high-speed residential broadband market and in the market for wireless data plans. In the former, Comcast-TWC dominates; in the latter, Verizon and AT&T dominate. In both of these industries, the incumbents have a substantial infrastructure advantage over their rivals, which creates an insurmountable barrier to entry, preventing significant competitors from entering the marketplace. The incumbents further solidify their position through frivolous litigation. As Ars Technica documented, potential new ISPs face a blizzard of lawsuits.
Another area of litigation which solidifies incumbents' market power is copyright litigation. Copyright is a form of artificial monopoly, which allows the owner to exclude others. The paradigmatic example of copyright in action is professional sports. Football and baseball broadcasts are "blacked out" nationally when a game is available in a local market. Comcast profits from sports both directly, through Comcast Spectacor, and indirectly, through NBC's licensing agreements.
When the sword of copyright law is given to companies with market power, the result is that incumbents' market power is solidified and compounded. For example, in June, the Supreme Court essentially ruled that TV-streaming service Aereo had an illegal business model because it violated copyrights. Because copyright damages can be exorbitant, the likely result of the Aereo decision is that investment in new technology
companies will be chilled. As Carrier put it, "harms from ambiguous standards used as a litigation hammer are exacerbated by statutory damages and personal liability."
The result of the competitive landscape is that both wired and wireless companies can exploit their monopoly on the network to receive royalty payments from the content which the network hosts. There is a two-fold result: innovation in content markets is stifled and costs of entering the network market become insurmountable. We have ample evidence that consolidation in network infrastructure has harmed innovation, and that
further consolidation will result in greater harms.
A random factoid about my past that some people don't know is that I have a degree in "industrial and labor relations," which involved an awful lot of learning about the history of unions, collective bargaining and the like. While I firmly believe that most unions today are counterproductive (frequently holding back innovation and flexibility), the idea certainly made quite a lot of sense in the early days, in which you had parties (giant employers) with near total market power over employees who had absolutely no market power. Basically, many companies were market abusers, and they abused freely. Organizing workers for collective bargaining was a way to even the playing field slightly. That it later resulted in vast amounts of corruption and cronyism, let alone hindering the way in which companies could innovate and adapt, are certainly big issues to be concerned about -- but there were reasons why that happened as well (driven by leadership on both sides).
But, still, when you have a vast mismatch in market power, with one side being an effective monopoly, and the other side being dispersed among many people, there is a certain appeal to collective bargaining. And that appears to be the root appeal of an idea percolating over on Reddit right now for an ISP Consumers Union, inspired by a Reddit comment from a few days ago. The basic thinking is that if the FCC and Congress aren't all that interested in preventing big broadband company fuckery, then perhaps the consumers should take it into their own hands, join forces, and negotiate as a unified force with the ISPs. A bunch of folks have jumped into the discussion and are talking about a variety of different facets, from what the "union" would have the power to do to the legal issues to the administrative aspects of the whole thing.
There's something profoundly interesting about this from a few different angles. I have no idea if something like this will actually come together for real, let alone work, but the effective "market conditions" do match those that led to the rise of organized labor, with a few "monopolists" abusing their power to treat people (in that case, workers, in this case, broadband subscribers) poorly. The situation is certainly not identical, but there are parallels. Broadband access today is certainly considered by many to be as important as a job a century ago. In fact, many consider it essential to having a job. And, yet, there remain very few broadband providers and the big ones all have pretty long histories of abusive practices. That said, the "abuses" certainly pale in comparison to the way that big oil and steel companies treated workers in the late 19th century, but it's not a completely crazy concept.
Would people care enough to make a difference? And what legitimate bargaining power would they have? People could "strike" by cancelling their service. Or they could organize to move en masse to a competitor -- if there is a competitor. The whole concept is undeniably fascinating. While I'd still worry about the same ills that later plagued (and still plague, though not always to the same levels) organized labor, one would hope that with some knowledge of what went wrong there, an ISP Consumers Union could avoid some of those pitfalls. Frankly, the biggest problem with unions (and, again, this was often driven by company management) was viewing "management" and "labor" as being diametrically opposed forces, rather than different parties with different needs but an overall focus on a similar goal. That is, even when labor hated management, driving a big company out of business entirely was certainly worse than figuring out ways to get things done. The problem was that the two sides were often so antagonistic, that bargaining itself became a war of spite, rather than each side understanding the overall issues, and working out compromises so that everyone could be better off.
It's entirely possible that an ISP Consumer Union could eventually be plagued by similar issues -- making unwarranted demands on broadband providers that make it impossible for them to remain in business. But, as a way to hack around the current (failed) politics of net neutrality, and present an alternative option, one that is much more bottom up than top down, is absolutely fascinating.
At the same time, it's also profoundly depressing that broadband consumers of today have that much in common with laborers at the dawn of the industrial revolution...
Much of the focus on consolidation in the broadband industry has focused on national market share. The problem is focusing solely on national
market share implies that large companies are competing, when they don't. Just because there are multiple companies in an industry doesn't mean those companies compete. This is especially true in the broadband and wireless industries. As Susan Crawford explained
These companies don't have to agree in writing to carry this out or even raise their prices; they can simply, within their separate geographic and product territories, bundle and tie their services, buy up inputs that a competitor might need, and refuse to connect to competitors — among many other potential tactics. It's in their interest for these local monopolists to cooperate, because any defection would make the whole system crumble.
What Crawford is
describing is parallel conduct, which is when companies that would otherwise
compete create a monopoly-like setting without having to merge or coordinate
operations. Parallel conduct in the broadband industry is not hypothetical. In 2011, Comcast and Time-Warner Cable sold
parts of the wireless spectrum they owned in exchange for an agreement that
Verizon would stop expanding its fiber optic network. Essentially, Comcast and Time-Warner Cable
paid Verizon to stop offering new high-speed broadband service. (As part of the deal, Comcast and Time-Warner
Cable also further divided up the United States geographically, foreshadowing
the merger between the two companies.)
The 2011 agreement also resulted in Comcast and
Verizon's "joint marketing campaign," where they are charging identical prices for
Internet, television and phone service.
In addition to charging the same price for the same service, Comcast and
Verizon also would strongly encourage customers to buy service "bundles," of
Internet, cable TV, and phone service. The
bundles themselves are a potentially anti-competitive form of product tying. In
antitrust law, tying is presumptively illegal when tied with market power.
Parallel conduct is
not, by itself, harmful. In fact,
companies imitating one another often benefits consumers. Google, for example, which is widely
considered one of the most innovative tech companies of the last decade, has largely
offered new services which are already offered by other companies, such as
search (Yahoo), email (Hotmail), and driving directions (MapQuest).
There are two forms of
parallel conduct: parallel pricing and parallel exclusion. With parallel pricing, companies can mimic
monopoly behavior by pricing their products at the same level. Parallel
exclusion is where companies can enter into similar agreements with suppliers
or customers. For both parallel pricing
and parallel exclusion, it is much more likely to occur in industries where
there are fewer competitors, and where those competitors compete less within
geographic markets. The result of
parallel conduct is that a market with a small number of competitors, an
oligopoly, acts as one firm, which is referred to—perhaps euphemistically—as a perfect monopoly.
Tim Wu and C. Scott
an article arguing that parallel exclusion provides a
better metric for antitrust enforcement than parallel pricing. In competitive markets, with lots of
competitors and low profit margins, companies are forced to price their goods
and services at the same price. However,
in consolidated, noncompetitive markets, companies may also price goods
similarly, through an agreement, explicit or implicit, to reduce competition. If companies are pricing similarly, there is
no way to know if that is the result of a competitive marketplace or collusion.
Punishing companies that are pricing similarly as a result of competition would be counterproductive.
The deal between Comcast, Time-Warner Cable and
Verizon is the most pernicious form of parallel conduct: an exclusionary price
control agreement between corporate behemoths. Granted, the agreement
isn't exactly news. It happened in 2012. But the Comcast-Time Warner Cable
merger has changed the competitive landscape in the industry. Absent the
agreement between Comcast, Time-Warner Cable and Verizon, the number of truly
national high-speed broadband providers would have gone from two to three.
Post-merger, it will go from two to one.