You, me, the FCC, and seven million books

This week the FCC passed its net neutrality rules and opinions on it are absolutely polarized. But there is absolutely no consensus. Some, like John Fund at the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), see this as an overreach by the current administration and clear evidence that they have influenced by liberal lobbyists rather than a grass roots movement. On the other side Senator Al Franken (whose SNL skits can be streamed from Netflix) holds the opposite view: the new rules are worse than doing nothing at all and show that the FCC is in the pockets of big media. Quite a gap between the two opinions! This debate, however, will affect all of us who consider the web a primary and public platform for commerce and communications, which is, actually, all of us.

I may not be a grass root, but I don’t think I am alone in not wanting to be the battleground for bandwidth arguments between Comcast and Netflix.  Anyone seen this before?

Does Net Neutrality fix this?

Most of us are willing to pay for our usage if it means higher quality of service. And most of us understand volume delays; we drive on highways at rush hour and know what traffic means. There was a time when even analog telephone lines were shared, as I understand it, party lines were never any party. We consumers will put up with inconvenience (think dropped cellular phone connections and every release of Windows) but we demand fairness and transparency.

One wants to see that one is not paying twice or three times for the same basic privileged content. One wants to know that the degradation in Netflix streaming is legitimate and not the consequence of selective and competitive shunting of capacity.

 The FCC is proposing greater transparency, this is good. Perhaps we need even more. Perhaps we also need some way to monitor and report our bandwidth usage in the same way we measure water and electricity utilization. There has to be a difference between an MD using the ”public”  Internet to connect to a healthcare insurance payer to become credentialed on the plan and my daughter streaming the latest Soul Eater episode to her iPhone on the bus on the way home from school. One is a tidy little XML packet, and the other is several gigabytes worth of Japanese anime. Should one have priority over the other?

Google and Amazon have been successful partly because they have basically and effectively created their own parallel Internets and used massive quantities of disk storage and processing power to give us the illusion of freedom of browsing and movement. We want to think it is ‘the’ Internet, but in fact it is ‘their’ Internet, our rather our public Internet complemented, extended and enhanced, by theirs.

Right on queue Google has finally released its digital book services together with public access to over seven million public domain and library books they have scanned. A highly contentious undertaking, it is certainly impressive. The Google digital book file format will support all the platforms except…the Amazon Kindle. This is a shame, since the Kindle still has the best form factor for reading in bright sunlight with the longest running battery life. (If you were trapped on a treeless and powerless tropical island, your digital book reader would be the Kindle.) I think the only practical solution would be for Google to support the Kindle, and include the Amazon printed book purchase and delivery service while Amazon abandons its proprietary digital file format. That would be too easy.

In the meantime,   still fails my personal acid test of when to leap into digital books. I still cannot download to iPad, Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, anything by Simon Hopkinson, Jamie Oliver or Marcella Hazan.  You can get Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food” and “The Joy of Cooking”. You can get the second volume but not the first of Fergus Henderson’s “Nose to Tail” series for $19.25; but then you can get the print version from Amazon for $23.10. Throw in free shipping and Amazon wins. So where’s the “buy the print edition and get your digital copy for playback on any device offer”? That sounds like an opportunity for Google and Amazon to cooperate in the midst of competition, and become an example for us all.

The bigger story, aside from my personal need for ubiquitous digital access to my favorite cookbooks, is the 7-10 million books that Google scanned into its system and made available after a long discussion with the copyright holders. The increased ease with which you can scan academic journals and bookmark citations will transform academic research and indeed academic publishing.  (However it is not complete, and my casual searches got the “where’s the rest of the book?” result, showing that Google had yet to obtain permissions.) This breakthrough is yet another sign of the dramatic changes to our culture, and shows again why customer expectations and sophistication continue to escalate.