TOC How to get something for nothing Your Turn

June 24, 2008

Philippe's fillips helped its readers grasp Google's greed eighteen months ago. In their third week, they had already shown how unintended harm could arise from services such as those proposed by Google. It has been a constant drumbeat ever since (1). Is Drake Bennett's recent article on the same subject (*) nothing then but a convenient and thoughtful summary? Beyond first impressions, read its tips on how to "fight [Google's] influence". The only available solutions listed by the author are Scroogle, to mask the user's identity behind proxies (2), and TrackMeNot to hide the real search among decoy flares (3). Short of taking the long road we advocate and the media would rather not, Drake Bennett implicitly suggests one better resorts to the dulling edge of deception.

Not for nothing do these fillips propose "the studied blandness of the spy" as a role model. Deception is her trade. In novels at least, she picks the noisiest public places to hold private conversations, drowning good data in bad data. Noise of course better be free of charge. What would Internet service providers (ISP's) do if search-related traffic were suddenly multiplied by one hundred? For the answer, read what Brian Stelter wrote on "Charging by the Byte to Curb Internet Traffic" (**). Granted, this documented push by ISP's to penalize heavy users is designed to tame the rising tide of video downloads and communications. The same principle would apply, though, and video searches would soon conflate the two issues.

Whenever a resource deemed to be free satisfies some human desire, demand will overtake the offer. For a free resource has a cost, however small. To burgeon into an unbearable burden, this non zero figure needs but to be multiplied by a large enough volume unbounded desire is bound to produce. Thus what could be blissfully ignored as a negligible factor threatens the best business model. Innovation, the classical answer to Malthusian pessimism, is always possible. In the case of Internet bandwidth, listen for instance to John Roese's program (***). Yet, zero multiplied by any number being zero still, where to find financing when facing a total absence of revenues?

We have encountered this deadly combination of economics and mathematics before. The only way out of its trap is to set a price, however small, on the free resource. For Internet bandwidth, metering and capping can certainly do the trick. But how come law does not force ISP's to divest themselves of all media-related activities? I am glad to hear that Comcast now supports content neutrality but, without more radical solutions, built-in conflicts of interest feed suspicion. And if cable bandwidth is at the mercy of a few heavy users, why do cable operators continue to advertize unsustainable performance? By such shady behavior, telephone and cable companies contribute to a climate of consumer rational paranoia.

As far as resource management is concerned, Internet bandwidth is a simple issue for the reason the ISP's, which bear the cost, are also in a position to reset the price. More problematic are the cases where costs are borne by parties powerless to set a price other than zero. This is the case today with consumer time and privacy as well as physician prescription patterns. But wait, the healthcare industry provides us with an even more insidious situation.

Physicians' compensation is based on the number of patients they see and what actions they take during each encounter but not on the inevitable overhead these visits generate, the so-called paperwork. In the US however, modern medecine has evolved into a double adversarial practice. One, Eric Berkman reminds us (****), against patients, who may turn into litigants, the other, Sandeep Jauhar reports (*****), against insurers, who profit from denying payments. Withhold judgment on the system itself and focus on the result. "Documentation, documentation and documentation". Such an unhealthy lifestyle.

Entrenched by historical practice, many economic transactions bundle together something for a price with something for nothing. What if control over the relative proportion between the two bundled components escapes the supplying party? One has in essence created a free resource, such as doctor-generated paperwork above Medicare outdated models. Predictable economic ills must ensue and, considering the medical needs of many aging Floridian voters, US presidential candidates may want to say a word or two on the growing shortage of primary physicians.

Might makes Right. It too can extract many things for nothing until, that is, something has to give.

In the end, as Brian Stelter so shrewdly spotted (******), even minute amounts of after-hours Blackberry minutes may matter.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) .............. Stopping Google, by Drake Bennett (Boston Globe) - June 22, 2008
  • (**) ........... Charging by the Byte to Curb Internet Traffic, by Brian Stelter (New-York Times) - June 15, 2008
  • (***) ......... Satisfying the bandwidth monster in all of us, by John Roese (Financial Times) - June 18, 2008
  • (****) ....... Risk managers offer tips for working with difficult patients, by Eric Berkman (Massachusetts Medical Law Report) - Summer 2008
  • (*****) ..... Eyes Bloodshot, Doctors Vent Their Discontent, by Sandeep Jauhar. M.D. (New-York Times) - June 17, 2008
  • (******) .. ABC and Writers Skirmish Over After-Hours E-Mail, by Brian Stelter (New-York Times) - June 23, 2008
  • (1) for the complete list, check "Google" in the Company Reference index for these fillips
  • (2) see Scroogle in the wikipedia
  • (3) see TrackMeNot
June 2008
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