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Posts Tagged ‘Policy’

Media & Tech firms on corporate governance and shareholder responsibility

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In this post we’ll be looking at a variety of firms in the media and tech sector as we examine how their vision impacts on the broader economy.

  • Short-termism and misdirection (Amazon and legacy players)

In March, Zeitgeist was privileged enough to attend an intimate dinner (well, fifty guests or so-type intimate), hosted by the CEO of a major media company. Much of his speech during our meal was focused on his relatively pessimistic outlook for global growth. One of the key causes of this, he noted, was firms and their fanatical focus on what is known as “short-termism”.

Much editorial ink has been spilled on this concept, one which is hardly new. The argument being that, because of a public company’s fiduciary responsibility to shareholders – who are becoming increasingly activist in nature – the C-suite in turn must increasingly focus on quarterly activities that deliver fat returns for said shareholders. This, at the expense of a longer-term vision or strategy that creates, for example, more sustained competitive differentiation, better margins or improved products. Indeed, in Zeitgeist’s view, many organisations, particularly those in legacy industries, are caught in a difficult Catch 22 situation; they need to maintain investor confidence in order to keep share prices stable while simultaneously investing heavily for the medium term in order to reinvent their business and avoid disintermediation from start-ups. Sony is a great example of this We won’t mention any names here of particular examples, of course…

However, what was interesting was that in February, The Economist published an editorial in its Schumpeter section, detailing how “short-termism” was not only a vague term but also misdiagnosed the root cause of the problem. One symptom of short-termism is share buybacks; the article argues that this is more to do with the fact that larger companies are growing more successful (a worrying trend we have touched on before, which puts paid to the idea that digital disruptors are in themselves value-laden orgs). As a consequence of their increasing success, they have more cash than they know what to do with (look at Apple), and so don’t spend it in a constructive way (look at Apple’s acquisition of Beats). These profits, as the article puts it, are “put to no use”. This won’t change unless competition policy improves; that is unbelievably unlikely to happen in a Trump administration.

Of course there are outliers to every argument. Thankfully there is one to be found here in the shape of Amazon. We mentioned The Economist earlier; the company appeared on the cover of last week’s issue, depicted as a fleet of enormous drones from some future time and place. Amazon’s investors seem to be made of an unusual crowd of people with an exclusively long-term outlook. As the article points out: “Never before has a company been worth so much for so long while making so little money: 92% of its value is due to profits expected after 2020“. While nothing seems to be getting in the way of Amazon’s approach for now, regulation will inevitably come into play (though, as mentioned above, perhaps less so in the US), as it becomes an ever more dominant, global force.

  • Accountability and Purpose (BuzzFeed, Snap)

While incumbents are hammering out an approach, newer firms are trying to wind their way to going public. News of an IPO for BuzzFeed recently has raised many eyebrows. As the Financial Times pointed out last year, the company has “missed revenue targets in 2015 and halved its projections for 2016 from $500m to $250m”. Not a shining endorsement. Even without its prior performance taken into consideration, its business model is not guaranteed to woo investors, who are not usually won over by ad-supported models, or by firms that make viral videos, which rely on the fickle interests of the masses to make them profitable.

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At the other end of the spectrum was the frothiness and exuberance that greeted Snap’s recent, enormous, IPO (albeit, as above, with some skeptical heads). This despite its existential challenges as platforms like Instagram et al seek to emulate what currently sets it apart from its rivals. In addition to this, there has been concern over the opacity of the company’s structure and shareholding rights, indicative of what the FT called a “21st century governance vacuum”. Snap’s IPO was the first ever in the US to issue shares with no voting rights at all. The newspaper elaborated,

By any standard Snap’s governance arrangements are flawed and its directors minimally accountable. Anne Simpson, a leading governance expert at the California pension fund Calpers, dubs this “a banana republic approach” to corporate governance.

Though the worst sinner, it is also indicative of a larger, worrying trend that is particularly common at tech companies (see Google, Facebook and Alibaba). The reason for going public has changed. As the FT points out, the principle reason for doing so now is so that “fresh equity fills the yawning gap between revenue and expenditure”. A lack of investor oversight means that accountability is less prevalent than ever.

On the bright side, some companies are looking beyond simply maximising shareholder returns to see how they can benefit society. Last year, Boston Consulting Group wrote an unusually whimsical thought piece on the impact businesses could have if they imbued themselves with purpose, acknowledging that with globalisation and technology trends, there are sometimes losers. Deloitte worked with the UK government to publish a report (also last year), detailing how businesses with a purpose beyond traditional financial returns – aka “Mission-led” – were more successful than those without.

  • Next steps

Such thinking and work needs scaling, and needs to be evangelised beyond the traditional boundaries of Davos seminars. Without it, increasing deregulation and opaque public offerings are likely to hasten the end of an already long-ish period of global economic growth. Media and technology firms of today tend to provide products that are mostly services, i.e. intangible to the end-user but imbued with value. It would be prudent for them to think about where transparency and accountability adds purpose to their vision, structure, strategy and communication.

 

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Regulating in the face of digital disruption

April 30, 2014 1 comment

peter-c-vey--these-new-regulations-will-fundamentally-change-the-way-we-get-around-the…-new-yorker-cartoon_i-G-65-6596-IDO2100ZHaving studied policy and regulation at university, Zeitgeist is often compelled to look at many issues facing companies today through a regulatory lens. But even the most dispassionate fan of rules and laws would have to concede that as digital innovation disrupts multiple sectors around the world, the way these new innovations and businesses are governed is an important consideration. In this piece we’ll be looking at regulatory concerns for disruptors like Uber and Netflix, as well as how regulation effects legacy companies like Microsoft and Comcast. As with many of our articles on this blog, we’ll be taking a particular look at the TMT sector. (Bitcoin will have to wait for another article).

Regulators often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Should the emphasis be placed ex-ante, to ensure compliance, or ex-post to apply punitive measures and fix problems once they have become apparent? The former seems wise as it sets initial goals for companies. But it also risks opening loopholes, as well as being overly prescriptive and thus failing to adapt. It can also lead to the development of overly-familiar relations between regulator and industry, leading to what is known as ‘capture’. Currently, the US favours an ex-ante approach, but as Edward Luce detailed recently in the Financial Times, this has led to a “creeping impulse to micro-regulate“. The FDA’s recent announcement that they would regulate e-cigarettes, despite no proof it encourages the take-up of smoking tobacco, is such an example. Ex-post – regulating after an event – seems just as bad, mostly because the damage has already been done at that point. While it means that all problems addressed are real-world and practical, they can also be applied with too much emphasis. Above all, regulation ultimately risks stifling innovation; Edison moved to the West coast because he was fed up of the stringent regulations in the East. A recent lead article in The Economist asserted that, far from too little regulation, the global recession was caused by too much state involvement in the wrong places. Too little oversight though, and companies can be allowed to run wild.

Earlier this month, The New York Times featured an op-ed on regulating the online world. It is written by New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman. As might be expected, he quickly attacks online start-ups saying it is “amazing” that they think just because their business is online, that “somehow makes them immune from regulation”. This is all well and good, but it masks the fact that clear regulations have not been established. Schneiderman is right to point out that just because a business now has an app instead of a high street store doesn’t mean its responsibilities to the law have changed. It is an apt analogy. But in practice the story is different. As with most innovations, from film to Napster and Airbnb, regulators must constantly be playing catch-up. The complaints of new businesses are not that they should be subject to regulation, rather that those rules are onerous or outdated, applying to a different time. The sharing economy works because it has found cheaper, more efficient ways of offering services that hitherto were more restricted; regulations need to be appropriately dispensed. Sadly, many cities in the US have simply blocked allowing such services to operate. Uber – a car pickup service – is probably not wholly repulsed by the thought of regulation, but they are resistant to rules put in place by entrenched interests and unions. Airbnb might violate the letter of the law, but not the spirit surely. People have always let out their living space to others. The only thing that has changed is scale. Why does scale suddenly make something legally problematic? Schneiderman points out that some lettings are so large, with multiple rooms let at once, that they are essentially hotels. True enough, perhaps, but Zeitgeist has certainly never come across such a property, and they are certainly small in number, and no more represent Airbnb’s ethos than any hotel violating its own (regulated) terms. A recent article in The Economist argued for “adaptation, not prohibition“. Schneiderman’s sentiment is that these start-ups need to work more closely and proactively with regulators, but this fails to recognise that regulators need to also fundamentally change their approach.

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East and West shook up a regulatory framework with the recent release of “300: Rise of an Empire” via China’s Tencent website

Regulation in China has been a hot topic for a while now. This is principally because the region has a low tolerance of free speech. But it extends to cultural concerns as well; the Google Play store, Twitter, and most of Hollywood’s annual product do not make it onto Chinese shores (legally, anyway). What this creates is a secondary tier of companies who take Western business models and run with it. That’s why there are multiple Chinese Android app stores, why Sina Weibo is a fantastically successful service, and why many poor remakes of US films flood the Chinese market. It has been pleasing then to see two recent developments in the way China regulates the TMT sector that should be good news for consumers and Western companies. Today saw the announcement that Microsoft’s Xbox One is to be sold in China. It will be the first foreign games console to go on sale in the country, lifting a fourteen year ban. This would open up the company to the half billion active gamers in China. Additionally, as Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Securities pointed out,

“The middle class in China is pretty large, and positioning the box as an over-the-top TV receiver gives it a lot of appeal to wealthier Chinese.”

Earlier this week, Warner Bros was the latest film studio to partner with Chinese site Tencent. The film 300: Rise of an Empire, is available to rent through the site, while it is still in cinemas in territories like the US. The points of the deal were very interesting. Zeitgeist has for a number of years now advocated an increased flexibility to film platform release windows. Such a rigid structure as the industry has in the US is not as apparent in China. This could help alleviate piracy in the country and separately could pave the way for a relaxing of the quota of US films that are let into the Chinese market every year. Hopefully this will be a precursor to more such moves in Western markets. As someone commented on the news when it was published on the Financial Times website,

“Maybe they can do the same in the rest of the world as well?
Or I could wait 2 months for something to come out on Bluray in the UK compared to the US. Or just pirate it when the US version is available since they won’t let me buy it in my country, but will let other people buy it in other countries.”

While China is taking steps forward, the US seems to be faltering in its regulatory approach. We mentioned the impending restrictions on e-cigarettes earlier, and let’s not even go into then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crusade against sugar. We’ve written about net neutrality before. The issue has been of interest to Zeitgeist since university days. It was thrust into the spotlight this year when a US court ruled that the FCC had “overstepped its authority” after a legal challenge from Verizon. Last week, new rules were proposed that will undermine the original purpose of the policy of treating all traffic the same, allowing ISPs to charge companies like Netflix more in order to reach consumer with greater quantity or quality, but only on “commercially reasonable” terms. These terms have yet to be defined. These moves touch on a related matter that has also been greeted with consternation by those who favour fairness. This is Comcast‘s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. Netflix recently publicly came out against the move. It is easy to see why. As The Economist recently elaborated, such a deal would limit competition and reduce any incentive to innovate. It is also one more example of the assumption companies have that their problems can be solved with size. Comcast have admitted they will raise prices for the end user, while as much as conceding there will no be no discernible benefit to them. One might argue there is little more for such companies to do, but average internet speeds in Tokyo and Singapore are ten times as fast on average as in the US. Even the Financial Times, which can often be counted on to be a bastion of support for capitalists, compared Comcast to the Railway Barons of the past.

The sharing economy is creating difficulty for many sectors, and regulatory agencies have not escaped this. Such forces have been to slow to adapt to fundamental changes in the TMT sector, particularly in print, music and film industries. There certainly seems to be a tendency for over-regulation today, particularly in the US. Returning to an article we mentioned at the beginning of our piece, Edward Luce laments that America “no longer feels unusually free”. Perhaps this is part of a cyclical trend. Like the causes of the recession, perhaps the problem is a stifling caused by over-regulation in the wrong places, coupled with a lack of innovation in areas where sensible rules that do not cater to the established are in dire need. It is good to see rules and regulations around consoles and release windows are being relaxed in China, but the furore around regulating the sharing economy needs a similar dose of innovative thinking.

UPDATE (17/9/14): We’ve included some nice examples in this post of innovative thinking paired with light touch regulation going on in China’s entertainment sector. Sadly the pendulum swings both ways; though shows like BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ were made available with authorised translations mere hours after their original broadcast in Blighty, the state is cracking down hard in other ways. The Economist reports that last week, China’s TV regulator said that, from April, any foreign series or film would need approval before being shown online. It is looking for “health, well-made works” that “showcase good values”. This sounds like a vague excuse to arbitrarily censor content it doesn’t like. Explicitly, banned subject matter includes, according to The Economist, “superstition, espionage and—bizarrely—time travel”.

“Lots and lots of files” – Privacy, data and a new currency

December 28, 2013 1 comment

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One of the seminal television shows of the 1990s, The X-Files played on myths, legends and government paranoia to worldwide critical and popular acclaim. One of the key episodes of the series found the lead characters, FBI agents Mulder and Scully, happening upon an abandoned mining facility. Contained inside were row upon row of filing cabinets. Inside, thousands of names spilled forth. The sheer number of file drawers is a visual feast for the viewer. But there is more; one of the agent’s names is in those files. Personal data on her (in the form of a tissue sample) has been taken without consent. Down the rabbit hole we go…

We have always operated under the assumption that governments must surveil in order to protect its citizens. The difference today, as Edward Snowden has so plainly shown, is firstly that you are the one being watched, and secondly that the sheer extent of the surveillance and the pervasive nature of its collection is staggering. The pervasiveness of all this is a key point. Not much in the way of policy has changed really in the past fifty years, it’s just that spying on swathes of the world’s population has become increasingly easier and cheaper. Back in 2006, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office warned that the country was moving “towards pervasive surveillance”. Such a prophecy seems to have turned into reality. It creates an uncomfortable feeling that those in charge do not have our best interests at heart, or at least that the ends do not justify the means.

Some of the finest publications in the world have been struggling to make sense of what all this means; Zeitgeist is using this post to highlight some of those key thoughts and issues covered. Back in September, The New York Times reported, paradoxically,

“Even agency programs ostensibly intended to guard American communications are sometimes used to weaken protections. The N.S.A.’s Commercial Solutions Center, for instance, invites the makers of encryption technologies to present their products to the agency with the goal of improving American cybersecurity. But a top-secret N.S.A. document suggests that the agency’s hacking division uses that same program to develop and ‘leverage sensitive, cooperative relationships with specific industry partners’ to insert vulnerabilities into Internet security products.”

Zeitgeist remembers dining alone in New York in September poring over the news. The NSA tried to ask for permission to legally insert a ‘backdoor’ into all digital encryption, but were denied. So they went ahead and did it anyway. They influenced government policy that led to fundamental weaknesses in encryption software. Last week, a federal judge considered the constitutionality of the US’s surveillance programmes. He called the technology used by the NSA “almost Orwellian” and ordered it to stop collecting the telephone records of two plaintiffs. It is one of several cases currently underway.

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Click to see The New Yorker’s infographic on what personal data is made available to social networks and their advertisers

Of course, such spying would have not have been possible without the consent – tacit or otherwise – of companies in the private sector. There is clamor in the US, UK, Brazil and other countries for more restrictive regulation that makes it harder to collect consumer data. Such policy could make data analysis and collection onerous and might have a significant impact for those businesses that make a living out of using such data. As The Economist puts it,

“Should all this make it harder and costlier for companies to gather information, that would hurt the likes of Facebook and Google, which depend on knowing enough about their customers to ping them with ads that match their tastes.”

The New Yorker recently featured a fascinating article complete with unnerving infographic (excerpted image above) showing just how much information we display on our various social networks is then shared with the platform and its advertisers. This month, a new film, Her, arrives in cinemas, from the director of Being John Malkovich. The heroine is a disembodied voice – acted by Scarlett Johansson – who serves as operating system. The line between her servitude and rapid consumption of all her user’s data quickly becomes blurred. As the reviewer Anthony Lane puts it, also for The New Yorker,

“Who would have guessed, after a year of headlines about the N.S.A. and about the porousness of life online, that our worries on that score—not so much the political unease as a basic ontological fear that our inmost self is possibly up for grabs—would be best enshrined in a weird little [film]?”

Unsurprisingly, the results of a recent YouGov poll in the UK showed consumers were now far less willing to part with their own data. Almost half would be less willing to share their personal data with companies in the next five years. A mere 2% said they would be more willing to do so. Part of the problem lies in a lack of transparency: who is using my data, which piece of information exactly, and how does it benefit them? More importantly, what am I getting in return for surrendering my data? Steve Wilkinson of Ernst & Young offered little in the way of cheering news, “Many customers have recognised that businesses are using their personal information to help increase revenues, and are starting to withdraw access to their private data… In spite of this, there is a reluctance to adopt incentives that encourage consumers to part with personal data”.

Writing in the FT yesterday, Evgeny Morozov penned an excellent article claiming the media was spending far too much time on the intricacies of government involvement rather than how the whole cocktail mixes together. The overreach, according to the author, is being treated as an aberration, that will disappear in the face of tighter controls and the harsh light of day. It should instead, Morozov argues, be treated as part of a worrying trend in which “personal information – rather than money – becomes the chief way in which we pay for services – and soon, perhaps, everyday objects”. The article continues,

“Now that every piece of data, no matter how trivial, is also an asset in disguise, they just need to find the right buyer. Or the buyer might find them, offering to create a convenient service paid for by their data – which seems to be Google’s model with Gmail, its email service… [W]e might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not. As markets in personal information proliferate, so do the externalities – with democracy the main victim. This ongoing transition from money to data is unlikely to weaken the clout of the NSA; on the contrary, it might create more and stronger intermediaries that can indulge its data obsession.”
Morozov also questions the meaning behind such data, as Zeitgeist has done in a previous article. Such information risks becoming seen as an objective answer without providing a solution or insight.
“Should we not be more critical of the rationale, advanced by the NSA and other agencies, that they need this data to engage in pre-emptive problem-solving? We should not allow the falling costs of pre-emption to crowd out more systemic attempts to pinpoint the origins of the problems that we are trying to solve. Just because US intelligence agencies hope to one day rank all Yemeni kids based on their propensity to blow up aircraft does not obviate the need to address the sources of their discontent – one of which might be the excessive use of drones to target their fathers. Unfortunately, these issues are not on today’s agenda, in part because many of us have bought into the simplistic narrative – convenient to both Washington and Silicon Valley – that we just need more laws, more tools, more transparency.”
Touching on similar points and themes, the most enjoyable recent article on the subject was written by famed author Margaret Atwood for The New York Times earlier this month. It had recently emerged that intelligence agencies had been using MMO games like World of Warcraft in an attempt to discover terrorists and other less enjoyable parts of the internet. Atwood has predicted just such a thing in her books, written some twelve years ago. Atwood struggles to make sense of her thoughts coming to life, wondering whether to treat it as comedy or tragedy. She elaborates, crystallising all our fears about the empty truth behind data,

“I hope for the comedy… I suspect the horror. Possibly in the future you’ll no longer be permitted to be who you think you are, or even who you’re pretending to be: You will be who they say you are, based on your data-mined, snooped-upon online presence. You’ll be stuck with that definition of yourself. You won’t be able to take off the mask.”

Such disconcerting thoughts on having your own personality dictated to you might once have been the stuff of science-fiction, apt for an episode of The X-Files. Besides adages of truth being stranger than fiction, the clarion call of these publications appears to be that people should be sitting up and taking notice of what has been going on over the last ten years with extensive policy / data / consumerism creep. It is not just the NSA, but the way society intertwines information for monetisation that must be scrutinised if we are to avoid having to worry about trivial things like playing videogames in peace.