Having 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.
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”.