More Freedom or Less?


Without any question, the single most influential book I ever have read, dealing with regulatory policy, was Prof. Ithiel de Sola Pool’s “Technologies of Freedom.” The gist: In the United States, regulators have applied different frameworks to different industries.

The implication: As it becomes possible for all forms of content and communications to be provided by contestants in different industries, regulators and policymakers face a fundamental question.

Should they apply the most-restrictive rules to formerly more-free industries, or, under entirely new circumstances, extend more freedom to all industries? That has been the key challenge, for decades.

The quick summary is that there has been fullest freedom in the print sphere, restricted freedom in the broadcast domain, and a degree of freedom in between print and broadcast for the cable TV medium.

Common carrier has been the least-free model of regulation, having been applied to telcos.

With the advent of the Internet, application providers have been regulated on the “most free” print model.

All of that has become more complicated. Apps offer voice and messaging features, while both cable and telcos sell identical services, including content, under distinctly-different and unequal regulatory regimes.

Dr. Pool’s approach always was to argue for extending “press” style freedoms--the print media being the “most free” of all media--to all electronic media.

And that remains the basic conundrum: when creating a hopefully fair and new regime, fostering innovation and cognizant of robust competition, should freedom be taken away, or should freedom be extended?

Either way arguably would create rules that are “fair” in the sense of regulating all like providers the same way. But most observers might agree that innovation is fastest when suppliers are free to move quickly, in a climate of freedom, and especially when markets are undergoing fundamental change.

Allowing more freedom is one approach. Less freedom is the other. Some of us would vote for freedom.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

Contributing Editor

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