Outta My Mind

A Joneser's rants and riffs, ideas and trends, musings and innovations - all for your perusal and reuse. Steal it. Use it. Tell others.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Aereo and our confused Justices confuse me

“Your technological model,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told Aereo’s lawyer, “is based solely on circumventing legal prohibitions that you don’t want to comply with.”

“What disturbs me on the other side,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said, “is I don’t understand what the decision for you or against you when I write it is going to do to all kinds of other technologies.”

And so it went during yesterday's Supreme Court hearing of the case, ABC vs. Aereo, in which the presumable fate of the entire free-to-air television broadcast industry will be decided. The background of this case has been well covered by the media (and not just TV media) in the months and weeks leading up to yesterday's hearing. At issue is whether tech startup Aereo has the right to capture free-to-air tv signals and store them for later use by its subscribers, who pay a monthly fee of $8. The cable companies and the "big 3" tv networks are all crying foul, saying that Aereo's practice constitutes theft of copyrighted material, and if they want to rebroadcast this content they must pay the content owners.

For its part, Aereo says it is not violating anything. It is simply leasing an antenna and a DVR to willing subscribers, who will gladly pay the $8/month fee in order to get the local broadcast signals delivered to their home without the hassle of installing and managing their own antenna on their roof.

And the justices are confused as all getout because to them it looks like a flimflam scam aimed at exploiting a loophole in order to mine the airwaves for free and sell the resulting product. And they're worried about the implications this case may have for other technology innovations, particularly in the area of cloud computing (which they obviously don't understand, either - but more on that in a minute).

So here's my take on Aereo's business model and this case: Aereo wouldn't even exist were it not for the fact that most households do not have adequate access to the free signals that the broadcasters are required to provide. By failing to provide a signal that can be easily received by many households, the television broadcasters are able to package and resell their "free" local broadcasts to cable television carriers, who then charge their subscribers to view these broadcasts. It is the broadcasters, not Aereo, who are exploiting a legal loophole by appearing to comply with the letter of the law by airing their broadcasts for free, yet still managing to charge the majority of households to view them. 

Free means free, right?

The basic premise of broadcast TV is based on a covenant between the government, the broadcasters and the American public. The federal government owns the rights to the entire radio spectrum, which is considered a public good. The FCC manages access to the airwaves, making portions of the radio spectrum available for commercial, public, and private use. Because it is a public good, and because it has value, the FCC charges for access to some portions of the spectrum, including the part used for television broadcasts. It made a deal with the major tv networks way back when, basically saying the networks could have free access to the broadcast spectrum if they in turn made their broadcasts freely available to the public. As a result we got to watch All In The Family, Ed Sullivan and Bonanza for "free" - along with an unending barrage of content from Madison Avenue's finest (i.e., commercials).

Theoretically you can still put an antenna on your roof, run a wire from it to your television, and watch for free whatever shows your local tv stations are broadcasting. I say theoretically because the ability to do this in the digital tv era has become a bit challenging. TV signals require line of sight access, and residents living in the canyons of large urban areas like New York City often cannot get the line of sight access needed to receive these free signals. As a result if they want to watch local tv news they need to pay their friendly cable provider an additional fee for the local station package. Same thing goes for a large number of the tv-watching households across the US (did you happen to notice the rabbit ears sitting on top of your friend's 60" plasma when you were over watching the Superbowl? Me neither).

When broadcasters were forced to dump analog signal broadcasts and go 100% digital a few years ago it made matters worse because unlike analog signals, digital is a one or zero - you either have the signal or you don't (remember watching those "snowy" black and white shows?). And many households, particularly in suburban areas located several miles from the broadcaster or otherwise obscured due to buildings or geography, cannot in practice receive the free signals they are supposedly entitled to.

Enter Aereo

Aereo came up with a way to leverage some interesting advances in antenna technology, giving them a way to build a very capable, low-cost, dime-sized antenna, that they could use to pull down these free-to-air broadcast signals for customers who wanted to view their local stations' signals, but didn't have access to them. Aereo determined it could set up an antenna farm with thousands of individual antennas, each hooked up to a DVR, and use these to capture the local tv broadcasts, store them, and then give its customers access to the stored content via the internet using TCP/IP transmission. So now, instead of me having to figure out how to get an antenna on top of my apartment building's roof in Manhattan, I could just lease an antenna from Aereo, and skip having to put one on top of my building and running a wire from there to my tv, or having to deal with my landlord at all. Cool.

So: by the convenant between the US federal government and the tv broadcasters, everyone should have the ability to freely receive via an antenna in their home the complete suite of content broadcast by local television broadcasters, and, via a wire connecting their antenna to their tv set, watch this content on their tv for free. They should furthermore be able to save this broadcast content for viewing later on a DVR if they so choose. The broadcasters, for their part, have the right to include a specified number of minutes of advertising in their broadcasts; and can charge advertisers whatever the market will bear for inserting these ads in the broadcasts.

In the event that an individual doesn't wish to install and maintain their own antenna and dvr, or their viewing location is unfavorable for receiving the free-to-air signal from the broadcasters, why shouldn't that invidiual be permitted to lease an antenna and dvr from someone who is in a favorable location for receiving the signal? In effect that is what Aereo is doing. And instead of running a physical wire from the antenna farm to each subscriber's residence, Aereo is using the near ubiquitous TCP/IP data transmission capability of the internet to move the stored programming to a subscriber's home.

The US Supreme Court Justices are confused - but why?

The "other technologies" referenced by Justice Stephen Breyer include vague references to cloud computing, and some nebulous concern that the popular business models in use by other existing companies like Apple and Amazon could somehow be disrupted by this case if it ends up in favor of Aereo.

The network broadcasters and the cable companies both claim that what Aereo is doing amounts to theft of copyrighted material, and a violation of the laws restricting retransmission of broadcast content to public audiences. If you look at this closely, however, it doesn't quite add up.

Apple's iTunes and cloud-based music collections are not apt comparisons to what Aereo is doing. Sony and other owners of copyrighted music never intended to make their content available for free. You pay Apple for the music in your iTunes collection, and Apple pays the owner.

Radio stations pay a small fee to the copyright holder of every song they play over the air. And technically if you're in a bar (a "public place") listening to a song on a jukebox or over the air the bar is supposed to pay for making that song available to you because it is rebroadcasting the content for profit (I say "technically," because policing this has historically been a challenge).

All Aereo is doing is making available to the consumer a signal that:
a) the broadcasters had intended for the consumer to have for free; and
b) the consumer either cannot access due to physical inability to get the signal; or choose not to access for whatever reason
They are doing this by setting up a dedicated antenna, dvr and wire, for each of their customers, and leasing access to this equipment. That's it. The end result is exactly the same as it would have been had the customer been willing to set up their own antenna and DVR - assuming that they are in an area where their antenna would be able to receive the signal that they are supposed to be able to receive.

The revenue model from the broadcaster's position is not affected at all - they still have the right to charge advertisers whatever the market will bear for including ads in their free broadcasts. If anything, Aereo's model could end up increasing the number of viewers of free-to-air television, by capturing viewers who do not have cable tv, and are otherwise unable to receive the signal in their homes.


What Aereo is doing does not violate any copyright or rebroadcast agreements. It also seems to me that if Supreme court holds for Aereo in this case it could have quite a disruptive effect on the broadcast television industry. But it's the right thing to do, since it is consistent with current laws, and would benefit consumers.

As for the Justices and their comments, in my opinion the tenor of yesterday's discussion had more to do with positioning, and less to do with the actual facts and merits of Aereo's argument. At least, that's what I hope. Otherwise, I have great concerns about the ability of our highest court to understand and correctly evaluate the implications of other more complex technological developments that are surely coming their way. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

On Jaron Lanier's new book and luddism

@Jaron Lanier's new book, "Who Owns the Future", is getting quite a bit of play of late. This NYTimes article did a nice job of hitting some of the high notes:
Web businesses exploit a peasant class, that users of social media may not realize how entrapped they are, that a thriving middle class is essential to keeping the Internet sustainable. When “ordinary people ‘share,’ while elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes,” even that elite will eventually be undermined.
 Well, I don't know about the undermined bit, but the rest rang true. The rant is basically that companies like Facebook are exploiting all of us by getting us to basically create content for free, which they then use to draw millions of viewers to their site, providing a juicy platform and trove of data for advertisers. Google does the same thing. So, why don't *we* start charging FB each time we post something there? After all, we're contributing content, and without content FB would be worthless. Then at least there would be some equity in terms of them making billions off of our contributions.

It would be an interesting argument, except that we've been doing something similar for a hundred years. We buy stuff using money that we worked for instead of making the stuff our selves. We're trading a resource that has value for an item that we want, that we either don't want to make, or couldn't possibly begin to make, by ourselves. Take your car, for instance. The auto makers and their chiefs make enormous sums of money which we gladly provide every time we walk into a dealership and fork over a huge amount of money that may represent half a year's wage for some people. In exchange we get a car - and we don't seem to mind that someone else is getting quite rich off of us.

So why should FB be any different? We contribute a small amount of time to make a post, knowing that we're also handing over a tiny scrap of information that by itself is nearly without value to anyone, but in aggregate is worth - well - a lot.  In exchange we get to stay in touch with family, friends, and high school buddies we had long lost touch with. Should we begrudge FB their billions because they are exploiting our desire to stay in touch with our social networks? Could we just go build our own platform and do it ourselves without them?

Each epoch of human technological progress has brought with it significant social disruption. The dawn of industrialization led to armed conflicts in Europe, as weavers began vandalizing the new knitting mills. They invoked their mythical leader, Ned Ludd, as the inspiration for their attacks, which were motivated by a desire to retain the rural, country life of individual artisans that allowed them to band together in small towns. Industrialization would eventually sweep it all aside, moving people into cities to work in large factories, and do away with much of what was then known as "the way things are" in terms of small towns and vernacular society.

What we are seeing now is some of that same disruption again. The drivers are similar, and so is the bargain we all make - every time we decide to buy something we could have made ourselves, or done without.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012


I am not a liberal, I am not a conservative - I am a citizen.

I think having a strong military makes sense; I think sticking our nose in other countries' business doesn't. I don't like oppressive regimes - at home or overseas.

Hunters should have the right to own and bear guns for hunting; and should be required to keep those guns in zip codes where it's legal to hunt.

Women should have the right to choose.

I believe access to quality health care should be provided for all citizens of our country. And if you're not a citizen or otherwise here legally, quit the free ride and and go back to where you came from.

I think overtly demonstrative public displays of religious preference, sexual orientation, and affection for one's partner should all be looked upon the same way - keep it to yourself, kids, because we're really not interested. Really.

Everyone has the right to work for a fair wage. And employers should be required to treat all employees fairly. This should include a company's leaders. And investors should be the ones who decide what's fair.

Corporations and other large institutions are not individuals, and should not be treated like them, because you can't send a corporation to prison (if you could, most of the Fortune 500 would be behind bars), and no individual can cross swords with a corporation on a level playing field.

I believe in science, facts, physics, and the mystery of the universe.

I believe we were once a truly great nation. And I believe we have allowed ourselves to fall into a state of disrepair.

I believe one of the things that made us great was the strong sense of individualism, ingenuity, and boldness that our European founders embodied. They enshrined this attitude in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

I believe in the potential of every human being, and in doing what one can to help others realize their full potential.

I believe in the potential for our country to prevail as one of the world's greatest, but to do it we're going to have to take better care of our citizens.
It's time for each of us to think about what it means to be a good citizen, and to actively seek a change in our attitude about what it means to be an American, and what constitutes living a successful life here.

I believe that unless we do this or something else that drives a change in direction, in 100 years time we will not be the country our founders risked their lives to create.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Newspapers biting the dust....

Today's headlines includes news that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer would be publishing its final issue in the coming days, and its staff of 180 would be reduced to 20 or so. This is the lastest casualty in the newspaper business, which is seeing many of its century-old icons bite the dust. Then again, if you think about it, it really does sorta make sense. I mean, how many people does it take to capture any given image? Or document any given story?

There is too much capacity chasing too few data points. There are so many cameras deployed on cellphones and hanging around people's necks; and there are so many twittering bloggers now - does the "official" media ever get a scoop before it hits the internet anymore?

There is certainly a need for professional news organizations - objectivity, fact checking, the ability to cover a story in its proper context. All of these have merit. But the idea of coverage has to change. It is no longer necessary for dozens of news agencies to have their own unique coverage of major events. That is redundant. Seems to me that has something to do with the problem newspapers are facing. Along with lowered readership (because readers are getting their news off the web).

Monday, January 26, 2009

Another letter to the NYTimes - Jonesers are in charge, damn it!

To the Editor:

How in the world anyone could argue that someone like President Obama, who was seven years old during the Summer of Love, has anything in common generationally with a bunch of grey-haired, tie-dyed, social-security-collecting retirees is beyond me (a 49-year-old). There is a new generation assuming its position of economic and political power. Generation Jones includes anyone born between 1955 and 1965, a generation with more people in it than the Boomers born between 1946 and 1955. We Jonesers danced to disco, knew no "free love", and remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when the space shuttle Challenger exploded (not when JFK was assassinated). The Boomers had their run, and now it's just about over. I wish they would do us all a favor and get over it - and themselves.

- In response to They Warned You About Us, NYTimes Style Section, 1/25/2009

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Obama's inauguration speech (fantasy version)

Greetings, fellow Americans! Here we are, the change you said you wanted, the change we all need - is here, and it starts now. For the last six administrations the Boomers or their elders have been in the Whitehouse. While great changes came from these administrations, they also brought with them great excesses. Two years ago the first of the Boomers became eligible to retire, creating a flurry of news and concerns about how our country was going to cover the exodus of wisdom these new retirees created; and more importantly, how our nation was going to pay for social security benefits as the retiring hoards left the workforce and tax rolls, to become a burden on their children and those of us left behind them in the workforce.

Well, it turns out that 60 million boomers did not all retire at once - we knew that would not happen. It turns out that there is actually a larger, silent contingent of us, born between 1955 and 1965, who are not Boomers, who are going to be in the workforce for another 15 or 20 years. We are the Jonesers. We are in charge. And it is we who are going to make things right again in America.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Oooh - I like this: News as a public service

In today's NYTimes:

“Information is now a public service as much as it’s a commodity,” he said. “It should be thought of the same way as education, health care. It’s one of the things you need to operate a civil society, and the market isn’t doing it very well.”
- from NYT, 11/19/2008, Web Sites That Dig for News Rise as Watchdogs
Laid off journos are being redeployed by guerrilla startup news services aimed at covering very local news in order to keep corrupt local pols and businesses in the community spotlight.