Archives For technology

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Please join us at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC on December 16th for a conference launching the year-long project, “FTC: Technology and Reform.” With complex technological issues increasingly on the FTC’s docket, we will consider what it means that the FTC is fast becoming the Federal Technology Commission.

The FTC: Technology & Reform Project brings together a unique collection of experts on the law, economics, and technology of competition and consumer protection to consider challenges facing the FTC in general, and especially regarding its regulation of technology.

For many, new technologies represent “challenges” to the agency, a continuous stream of complex threats to consumers that can be mitigated only by ongoing regulatory vigilance. We view technology differently, as an overwhelmingly positive force for consumers. To us, the FTC’s role is to promote the consumer benefits of new technology — not to “tame the beast” but to intervene only with caution, when the likely consumer benefits of regulation outweigh the risk of regulatory error. This conference is the start of a year-long project that will recommend concrete reforms to ensure that the FTC’s treatment of technology works to make consumers better off. Continue Reading…

Larry Downes (who, like me, is a senior fellow at TechFreedom and a contributor to the excellent book, The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet) and I taped an episode of Jim Glassman’s talking head show, Ideas in Action, a couple months ago, and it is airing this week on PBS stations around the country.  Except in Portland, where I live.  But have no fear–because the Internet remains sufficiently unregulated, you can get it right here.  The topic is “The Next Digital Decade: How Will the Internet Change by 2020?”  It’s a narrow topic.  In the 27 minutes allotted, we manage to cover telecom regulation, antitrust, net neutrality, privacy, IP, standards, public choice theory, culture, political repression, technological innovation and a few more topics for good measure.  Not to spoil the ending, but asked at the end what we thought the biggest danger to the Internet is in the coming decade, I answered errant antitrust enforcement (when the only tool you have is a hammer . . .); Larry answered privacy.  Enjoy.

Today comes news that Senator Kohl has sent a letter to the DOJ urging “careful review” of the proposed Google/ITA merger.  Underlying his concerns (or rather the “concerns raised by a number of industry participants and consumer advocates that I believe warrant careful review”) is this:

Many of ITA’s customers believe that access to ITA’s technology is critical to competition in online air travel search because it cannot be matched by other players in the travel search industry.  They claim that ITA’s superior access to information and superior technology enables it to provide faster and better results to consumers.  As a result, some of these industry participants and independent experts fear that the current high level of competition among online travel agents and metasearch providers could be undermined if Google were to acquire ITA and start its own OTA or metasearch service.  If this were to happen, they argue, consumers would lose the benefits of a robustly competitive online air travel market.

For several reasons, these complaints are without merit and a challenge to the Google/ITA merger would be premature at best—and a costly mistake at worst.

The high-tech market is innovative and dynamic. Goods and services that were once inconceivable are now indispensable, and competition has improved the quality of technology while driving down its costs. But as the market continues to change, antitrust interventions are stuck using a static regulatory framework. As the government develops a strategy for regulating competition in the digital marketplace, it must tread carefully—excessive intervention will stifle innovation, harm consumers, and prevent growth.  And given the link between innovation and economic growth, the stakes of “getting it right” are high. The individual nature of every decision, however, makes errors in antitrust enforcement inevitable. Some conduct that is bad for competition will be allowed to go on while some conduct that is good for competition will be blocked by intervention.

But prosecuting pro-competitive conduct is almost certainly more costly than mistakenly allowing anticompetitive conduct because mechanisms are in place to mitigate the latter but not the former. The cost of erroneous intervention is the loss to consumers directly and a deterrent effect on innovation—for fear of intervention, companies may not take large risks. Meanwhile, allowing conduct to persist amidst uncertainty allows the potential benefits of conduct to materialize while maintaining checks against practices that are bad for consumers: both the competitive marketplace and future enforcers have the power to mitigate specific anticompetitive outcomes that may arise. Unfortunately, current antitrust enforcement—abetted by influential congressmen like Senator Kohl—is more, rather than less, aggressive against innovative companies in high-tech industries. This aggression threatens to stifle growth and deter future innovation in a market with incredible potential.

Google has become a primary target of this scrutiny, and the company’s proposed acquisition of ITA, a software company that compiles and processes travel data, is a good example of aggressive scrutiny threatening to stifle growth.

Google’s acquisition of ITA is a straightforward merger where one company has decided to purchase another outright (instead of merely purchasing its services through contract). There are good reasons for integration. Most notably, Google gets to exercise direct control over ITA’s talented engineers if it owns ITA—influence that it would not have if the company simply signed a contract with ITA. If Google is correct that it can manage ITA’s resources better than ITA’s current management, then integration makes sense and is valuable for consumers.

The primary concern raised over Google’s proposed acquisition of ITA is that acquisition would “leverage” Google’s alleged dominance into another market—the online travel search market—and permit Google to prevent its competitors from accessing ITA’s high-quality analysis of flights and fares.

There are a few problems with this.

  • First, ITA does not provide or own the underlying data (this comes from the airlines themselves); rather it works only to analyze and process it—processing that other companies can and do undertake.  It may have developed superior technology to engage in this processing, but that is precisely why it (and consumers) should not be penalized by its competitors’ efforts to hamstring it.  Remember—although most of the hand-wringing surrounding this deal concerns Google, it is first and foremost the innovative entrepreneurs at ITA who would be prevented from capitalizing on their success if the deal is stopped.
  • Second, it is hard to see why, under the facts as alleged by the deal’s naysayers, consumers would be worse off if Google owns ITA than if ITA stands on its own.  The claims seem to turn on ITA’s indispensability to the online travel industry.  But if ITA is so indispensable—if it possesses such market power, in other words—it’s hard to see how its incentives to capitalize on that market power would change simply by virtue of a change in its management.  Either ITA possesses market power and is already taking advantage of it (or else its managers are leaving money on the table and it most certainly should be taken over by another set of managers) or else it does not actually possess this market power and its combination with Google, even if Google were to keep all of ITA’s technology for itself, will do little to harm the rest of the industry as its competitors step up and step in to take its place.
  • Third and related to these is the simple repugnance of hamstringing successful entrepreneurs because of the exhortations of their competitors, and the implication that a successful company’s work product (like ITA’s “superior technology”) must be rendered widely-available, by government force if necessary.
  • Meanwhile, Google does not seem to have any interest in selling airline tickets or making airline reservations (just as it doesn’t sell the retail goods one can search for using its site). Instead, its interest is in providing its users easy access to airline flight and pricing data and giving online travel agencies the ability to bid on the sale of tickets to Google users looking to buy. The availability of this information via Google search will lower search costs for consumers and the expected bidding should increase competition and drive down travel costs for consumers.  It is easy to see why companies like Kayak and Bing Travel and Expedia and Travelocity might be unhappy about this, but far more difficult to see how their woes should be a problem for the antitrust enforcers (or Congress, for that matter).

The point is not that we know that Google—or any other high-tech company’s—conduct is pro-competitive, but rather that the very uncertainty surrounding it counsels caution, not aggression. As the technology, usage and market structure change, so do the strategies of the various businesses that build up around them. These new strategies present unknown and unprecedented challenges to regulators, and these new challenges call for a deferential approach. New conduct is not necessarily anticompetitive conduct, and if our antitrust regulation does not accept this, we all lose.

On November 9, the en banc US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit heard oral arguments in an extremely important patent infringement case (mp3 of oral argument here). Hanging in the balance are the very incentives for technological innovation and the seeds of economic progress. The arguments made in the case by the infringer, EchoStar, would have the effect of reducing the certainty and thus the efficacy of patent rights by weakening the ability of the courts to define and enforce patents clearly, quickly and efficiently. While for some commentators this is probably a feature, and not a bug, of EchoStar’s position, I find its stance and its claims to be extremely troublesome.

The litigation, TiVo v. EchoStar, has been raging for more than six years, in which time TiVo has, in fact, prevailed at every turn. In brief, the substantive and procedural history of the case is as follows: The case revolves around TiVo’s valuable patent for digital video recorder (DVR) technology. In April 2006, a jury found that EchoStar had infringed TiVo’s patents and awarded TiVo close to $74 million in damages. The jury also found that EchoStar had acted willfully in infringing the patent. The District Court granted TiVo’s motion for an injunction, which required EchoStar to disable all DVR units for which it had not paid compensatory damages. In the ongoing litigation, EchoStar does not challenge the initial finding of infringement, the initial damage award, or the initial order for injunctive relief. Instead, it seeks to avoid a contempt citation issued by the District Court, in exercise of its continuing jurisdiction over the case, after EchoStar introduced a second device which purported to “design around” the original TiVo patent. After noting the similarity between EchoStar’s original and modified devices, the court conducted a short trial on the question of infringement, after which the court held that EchoStar’s modified device still infringed TiVo’s patent.

Upon examining the technology, the District Court found that EchoStar’s purported design workaround did not embody a new and independent device. Instead EchoStar consciously modified its original infringing device in small ways that it may have believed would preserve its desired functionality without violating TiVo’s ‘389 patent, but failed instead to remove itself from the reach of either TiVo’s patent or the court’s earlier order.

At no point prior to its deployment of its altered technology did EchoStar ask the District Court, which had continuing jurisdiction over the case, to review the new design for patent infringement. EchoStar announced the re-design in a January 2008 press release and in the following months, two years after the original jury verdict of infringement, the District Court learned of the use of the modified EchoStar device.

In light of its finding of near identity between EchoStar’s original and modified DVRs, the District Court relied on KSM Fastening Systems, Inc. v. H.A. Jones Co., Inc., 776 F.2d 1522 (Fed. Cir. 1985), to enter a contempt order against EchoStar for its violation of the original injunctive decree (first finding the two devices to be substantially similar and then assessing in a contempt hearing whether EchoStar’s unilateral deployment of the second device violated the Court’s injunction). EchoStar then sought a stay of the injunction pending appeal. The Federal Circuit granted a stay, but earlier this year it upheld the district court’s contempt finding. The matter was then rescheduled for an en banc hearing. During this entire time, EchoStar has continued to market and use its infringing devices to its immense profit. The question before the en banc Court is whether the District Court’s contempt decree was proper under the controlling precedent.

In essence, every federal judge who has heard this case (save the lone dissenter in the appeal from which the Federal Circuit rehearing was brought) has determined that TiVo was wronged and is owed significant monetary and equitable compensation from EchoStar, as well as the disablement of the adjudicated DVR devices. However, EchoStar has yet to curtail its infringing activity. EchoStar now argues that it should be allowed to continue to evade the judgments against it by forcing TiVo and the courts to endure yet another full trial—to start anew down an almost identical path assessing the propriety of EchoStar’s slightly-modified technology—rather than enforce the existing injunction.

EchoStar is seemingly within the reasonable bounds of due process to suggest that such an outcome might be required if its new technology is sufficiently different than its old. But the question is really one of process: who gets to decide if the technology is sufficiently similar—the District Court that heard the original case and issued the original injunction, or EchoStar? Seen this way, it is evident that the costly, strategic behavior lurking just under the surface of this case and that pervades EchoStar’s conduct belies the innocence of its arguments and points out the enormous cost that establishing such precedent could impose on innovation and the economy more broadly.

At root, this case tests whether courts can realistically enforce their judgments, including, as in this case, the judgment that a patentee has been denied the right to control the use of its patent. The central legal question presented is when a court may enforce its own injunction against an infringer who makes small tweaks to its infringing technology in an effort to avoid the reach of the injunction. Certainly, we want to encourage so-called “work-arounds” that add to the stock of innovation in our economy. But proponents of EchoStar’s view ignore or underweigh the effect on the original innovation itself, as well as the courts. If, by virtue of small tweaks, an infringer can tie up a patent in court for so long that it has the potential to run out the patent’s term, render its exclusivity period worthless, and all the while steal business from the patent-holder in violation of the patentee’s Constitutionally-empowered protection, then initial innovation will be sharply discouraged, to the public’s detriment. The courts should not (and the KSM case seems to me to make clear that they need not) abet this process.

And EchoStar is indeed stealing business from TiVo. The trial judge issued an injunction in this case precisely because EchoStar cannot compensate TiVo for the harm done once EchoStar had built its customer base on the back of TiVo’s unlicensed technology. Since the injunction was issued more than four years ago, EchoStar has continued to build and service its customer base, and has even gone so far as to argue that the lower court’s decision should not be upheld because doing so would harm EchoStar’s customers. These are the very customers who, if EchoStar had not violated TiVo’s intellectual property rights or if the injunction had been enforced, would never have been EchoStar’s customers at all!

Meanwhile, the uncertainty engendered by delayed enforcement and the curtailment of injunctive relief further erodes the value of patents and complicates, rather than eases, the process of economic development. In this case as in others, a potential licensee has chosen to misappropriate patented technology (and take its chances in court) rather than pay for it or forebear from its use. If EchoStar prevails, similarly-situated companies will have even less incentive to seek out deals with patent-holders, instead relying on the courts to carve out for them an extended period of unlicensed use with a bill that comes due years later—assuming the patent holder can afford to litigate for years—and in an amount almost certainly far below the actual benefit conferred.

It is difficult to see how either due process or economic efficiency is furthered by EchoStar’s position. This case demonstrates that a determined infringer can make minor changes, drag out judicial proceedings, and seek to run out the clock on a patent, thereby squandering both judicial resources as well as incentives for innovation. This is particularly true for devices that involve software or other complex products where inconsequential changes can be exaggerated. An EchoStar victory in this case will dim technological progress and diminish the role of the courts in enforcing the property rights that facilitate that progress.