David Weinberger does a great job summarizing a paywalled report by Benoît Felten and Herman Wagter, who investigated ISP usage patterns in five-minute-increments to see if "bandwidth hogs" were really a problem for ISPs.
They found that there is indeed a set of users who download a whole lot: “The top 1% of data consumers…account for 20% of the overall consumption.” But half of these “Very Heavy consumers” are doing so on plans that give them only 3Mbps, as opposed to the highest tier of this particular ISP, which is 6Mbps. So, even with their heavy consumption, their bandwidth usage is already limited. Further, if you look at who is using the most bandwidth during peak hours, 85.3% of the bandwidth is being used by those are not Very Heavy users.
Here’s the point. ISP assumes that Very Heavy users (= “data hogs” = “people who use the bandwidth they’re paying for”) are responsible for clogging the digital arteries. So, the ISPs measure data consumption in order to preserve bandwidth. But, according to Benoît and Herman’s data, the vast bulk of bandwidth during the times when bandwidth is scarce (= peak hours) is not taken up by the Very Heavy users. Thus, punishing people for downloading too much inhibits the wrong people. Data consumption is not a good measure of critical broadband usage.
Put differently: “42% of all customers (and nearly 48% of active customers) are amongst the top 10% of bandwidth users at one point or another during peak hours.” The problem therefore is not “data hogs.” It’s people going about their normal business of using the Net during the most convenient hours.
Are “data hogs” the problem?
In a New Scientist op-ed, Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi take aim at the trendy idea of "nudging" people towards healthy, socially beneficial choices. The authors find the evidence for the effectiveness of nudging isn't supported by the literature, and policy-by-nudging misses the key to good governance: an informed citizenry who are part of the solution, not the problem to be solved.
This points to the key problem with "nudge" style paternalism: presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves. There is no reason to think technocrats know better, especially since Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats' prescriptions. This leaves the technocrats with no systematic way of detecting their own errors, correcting them, or learning from them. And technocracy is bound to blunder, especially when it is not democratically accountable.
As political scientist Suzanne Mettler, from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, argues, libertarian paternalism treats people as consumers rather than citizens. It either fails to tell people why choices are set up in particular ways, or actively seeks to conceal the rationale. When, for example, Obama's administration temporarily cut taxes to stimulate the economy, it did so semi-surreptitiously to encourage people to spend rather than save.
Mettler uses experiments to show how ordinary people can understand complicated policy questions and reach considered conclusions, as long as they get enough information. This suggests a far stronger role for democratic decision-making than libertarian paternalism allows. People should be given information, and allowed to reach conclusions about their own interests, and how to structure choices to protect those interests. By all means consult experts, but the dialogue should go both ways.
'Nudge' policies are another name for coercion
You know how we hear so much about piracy destroying the entertainment industry? Well, not according to the industry itself. The Intellectual Property Alliance's report on the health of the industry paints a rosy picture, which begs the question: why are we prepared to sacrifice free speech, free assembly, privacy, and human rights for an industry that outperforms the US economy overall, nets more foreign profits than the pharmaceutical industry or the food sector, and is enjoying year-on-year growth?
The International Intellectual Property Alliance unveiled the new report today in association with the Congressional International Anti-Piracy Caucus at an event in Washington, DC. The report doesn't even try to quantify losses to piracy anymore--last year, an official US government report concluded that such estimates were all deeply unreliable. Instead, it simply asserts without evidence that "piracy inhibits… growth in the US and around the world."
"Inhibits growth" doesn't quite equal "causes staggering job losses," the traditional anti-piracy rallying cry. Indeed, copyright industries are being "hard hit" by piracy in the way that plenty of other US industries are desperate to get "hit." (In this sense, the report is bit like the MPAA's routine announcements of record-setting box office revenues even as the movie studios conjure visions of apocalypse.)
During the recession of the last few years, the report shows that copyright-based businesses have far exceeded the US economy as a whole.
Piracy problems? US copyright industries show terrific health