Permission to Innovate

In response to Wall Street Journal’s published opinion-piece The End of the Permissionless Web, I had mixed reactions.

The title alone got my attention.   I read it as the encroachment of more regulation of what we can do with the Internet.    Although the article did address some specifics, they were not of the nature I was thinking.

I was more paranoid that they are coming after what I’m doing here.   Without asking anyone’s permission, I have a blog that I publish whatever I want without anyone’s permission.   I’m old enough to find this actually kind of remarkable.    I have stated a number of times that I am comfortable with the obscurity and lack of attention toward my ramblings, but I’m doing this on purpose to expose my thoughts for discovery by someone.

A couple decades ago, I wanted to express my opinion by writing a letter to the editor to a newspaper.   I wrote a longish diatribe and sent it in to New York Times letters to the editor.   I don’t think I really expected it to be published.  I just wanted the editor to read it.   Although they contacted me to get my permission to publish it, this implicitly informed me that they gave me permission to be published in their paper.    I realize there is a big difference between a blog with hardly any circulation and the New York Times of two decades ago, but I’m betting I wouldn’t even have sent that contribution in if I had a blog at the time.  I just wanted to say my piece.

In this particular example there were actually two levels of permission involved.   The first was to be granted some space on the printed page.   The second was what words would show up.   I worked with the editor to pare the message down to fit the limited space allowed.    In hindsight, I appreciated the editor’s suggestions and I was reasonably happy with the result.     I think the original letter had two paragraphs and the published version was just one.   It is reasonable that a competent editor could condense that and kept be basic message.    However, I’m pretty sure the printed letter left out a key piece of information that the excess wordage was trying to hint at.   If so, I fault myself for not making the point more concise in the first place.

My point again is that if I had a blog at the time, I would have posted the entire unedited version on my blog and probably would have been just as satisfied with myself.    I’m sure more people read that letter to the editor that all who have read anything on my blog but I doubt if it had any more impact than one of blog postings.  Certainly I heard from no one who might have read the newspaper.   In any case, I just wanted to put something out to say “this is how I feel”.    A blog does that quite nicely.

Back to the above article on permissionless web, my first reaction was that there will be more regulation of the web in the form of having to get permission to start blogs and to publish content to blogs.    Although, that is not the point of the above article about permissions, I do think it is something that will eventually happen in some form.    Frequently there is discussion about better regulating blogs for their content.   This usually comes up in context to blogs that compete with journalism.    The concept is that there should be some third-party editorial discretion to approve content unless the author has already earned the trust to be his own editor.

I think it is unlikely that I would be blogging if I had to work through an editor.   The first problem is that the editor will edit.   It will take longer to produce content to get past the editor with multiple drafts etc.   The second problem is that the editor needs to get paid.  Either I would have to pay out of pocket to get published, or the content must meet some standard to attract subscribers or readers who can be exposed to advertisements.     I’d have to try a lot harder to be popular, compelling, entertaining, engaging, or whatever.   With this blog I do pay attention to be respectful to the possibility of a reader, but I am not going out of my way to attract or keep readers or even keep a reader’s attention to get to the end of a single post.    That would change dramatically with an editor, I’m sure.

As an aside, I note that although I am able to start my own blog and add content without getting prior permission, there is still a form of regulation going on in terms of search engines.   For a variety of factors, my blog posts do not show up prominently in search engine results.   If no one can find my posts, then effectively I am not really publishing anything.   As I mentioned, this suits me fine.   However, if I want to be noticed, I need to be doing more work to promote the search engine scores of the site.   This is a form of regulation, in as sense.   Search engine optimization is following certain rules to get more prominent positions in search engine results.    This is not required in the same way government regulation would be.  I am free to choose to not be discovered prominently in searches.

Recently, I have become more sensitive to the possibility of more government regulation on blogging because of my investigation into what it takes to start my own business.    Today, virtually any conceivable way to go into business for oneself requires permission from the government.   It probably requires multiple permissions in terms of registrations, licenses, certifications, etc.    There was a time and there are probably still places where one can start a business just by putting a sign in front of ones house or stapling a hand-written notice on a light pole.    They may get away with it doing similar things in this town, but I’m pretty sure they should be registered to do business.   In any case, I have been thinking of starting something very minimal with just a business name in the unlikely chance I find a customer.    Even such a low-ambition business requires government permission at least in the form of a registration.

In many ways, a blog is a small business.    Certainly, many blogs are operated as businesses.   They have their own revenue from advertisements or subscriptions.    Many are very professionally presented and probably well capitalized.    A simple blog like this one falls in the spectrum of blogs that could very well be businesses.

In analogy to starting a business where there is a need to declare the nature of the business some basic plan for the business, I can see that there would be similar requests for future blogs.   A proposed blog will have to declare which of several kinds of blogs it will be, and it will have to present some statement about how it will be governed.   An application would be sent in and after a couple weeks an approval may be received to permit one to start blogging.    I can see something like that eventually happening.   That was my first reaction when seeing the title of the above article.

The article itself actually discussed a completely different problem of businesses providing real-world services (rentals, rides, deliveries, etc) but using the Internet as a way to bypass the needs for the providers to register as businesses.    One example is an Internet service that matches riders to drivers as an alternative to registered taxi services.

The social networking concepts for the modern Internet is all about connecting people, often strangers.  Initially, this connection was for social interactions, meeting people, exchanging ideas, etc.   Now, there is a trend to use the same technologies to connect customers with providers, allowing people to exchange goods and services as businesses but to do so as an extension of social networking instead of formal business arrangements.    The article suggests that this type of innovative business model is what is at risk for increasing regulation.   These new businesses directly compete with pre-existing regulated businesses that are not based on the social-networking of Internet.

I tend to think that we over-regulate many basic services.   I would rather we have a government that allows ad hoc services between people without subjecting them to registration or licensing as businesses.    Many such businesses probably don’t really need to be registered but remain registered only because they have already been regulated and it is too difficult to remove those rules.   Perhaps the innovation in finding new ways to connect people to services through the Internet provides an opportunity for us to escape these excessive regulations.    It may be good to have the new Internet ride-for-pay arrangement applications put legacy taxis out of business.   There will still be drivers who take passengers for fares and they may even be allowed to make more money.  These services will be freed from the previously excessive regulation.

On the other hand, we do regulate these businesses.   We may do it to provide some oversight for appropriate skills and safety.  We may even do it to protect established businesses.   Offering a competing service arranged through the Internet should not somehow negate the needs to follow the regulations that the existing businesses have to follow.     Although I think some of these regulations should be reduced or eliminated, the wrong way to do this is by exploiting the unanticipated capabilities of social networking of Internet (smart phones in particular) that effectively find a loophole in existing regulations.

But this returns me to my discussion about the regulation of blogging.   How is blogging any different than these other services?   Using Internet to match riders to drivers in order to bypass the regulated taxi services is a lot like using blogs to bypass publishers and editors of regulated publications.

If we start regulating these social-network arranged transactions for rides across town, overnight accommodations, or deliveries, then eventually we will regulate all social-network arranged transactions down to blogs, twitters, and photo-shares, etc.   The evidence of this is the government’s exhaustive regulation of virtually any conceivable pre-Internet business.

My initial concern may be justified in that this luxury of being able to publish without permission may be a short lived phenomena.   In the future, we will have to ask permission to start a blog, and ask permission again to publish something to it.

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