Friday, December 18, 2009

Norms, mechanisms and policy imperatives

As I stumble towards a paper about changes in governance required by changing technology (part of the Silicon Flatirons New Models of Governance project) I’ve found Peter Cowhey and Jonathan Aronson’s magisterial new book on the political economy of global communications [1] very useful.

In the Summary and Conclusions, co-written with Don Abelson, they introduce four “principles” for market governance in the light of current conditions, and ten “norms” needed to implement the principles (see Appendix 1 below). They define market governance as “the mixture of formal and informal rules and the expectations about how markets should logically operate.”

When I look at their norms, I see a set of choices for the set-points of a small number of governance mechanisms:
  • Subsidy (Norm 2)
  • Competition policy (Norms 3, 5)
  • Regulatory “touch” (Norms 1, 4, 6)
  • Property rights (Norms 8, 9, 10)
As one might expect from a work devoted to the governance of markets, the norms (and the governance mechanisms they imply) do not address some non-economic public policy imperatives. [2] For contrast, consider the “permanent policy imperatives” I introduced in my paper “Internet Governance as Forestry” [3]
  1. Public Safety. Protecting citizens is a primary responsibility of government.
  2. Consumer Protection. Policy makers take action when lawmakers conclude that commercial activity needs to be circumscribed in the public interest.
  3. Culture and Values. In order to protect and express a culture’s values, policy makers seek to limit some kinds of speech and promote others.
  4. Government Revenue. Money needs to be raised and redistributed by federal, state and local treasuries; this includes taxes, fees, levies, subsidies, and tax breaks.
  5. Economic Vitality. A healthy market produces goods and services that citizens value.
Now, these two lists are different in kind; Cowhey & Aronson’s norms and implied mechanisms are means, and my policy imperatives are ends. However, the mismatches are revealing.

My list of policy imperatives does not include subsidy, which is implied by Cowhey & Aronson’s Norm 2, “Invest in virtual common capabilities”. In the light of their work, I now realize that this is an omission; distributing government largesse is a permanent policy imperative.

The mechanisms of competition policy and property rights are means to the end of economic vitality, my fifth policy imperative. The mechanism of regulatory “touch” is a means that I address in my paper under the heading of Principles (see Appendix 2, below); as it happens, I concur with their recommendations for light touch regulation.

The difference in emphasis is perhaps most noticeable in the absence of norms/mechanism that speak to the “soft” policy imperatives. While Cowhey & Aronson’s Norm 7 addresses media content, and thus recognizes some value in “culture and values”, my third policy imperative, it is not implementable in the way the others are; it merely recommends a balance between encouraging trade and protecting cultural values. The “public safety” imperative is completely absent. While one may argue that Imperative 2, “consumer protection”, is to be achieved through competition policy (Norms 3 and 5), Cowhey & Aronson do not explicit mention of consumers.


[1] Cowhey, Peter F. and Jonathan D. Aronson, Transforming Global Information and Communication Markets: The Political Economy of Innovation, MIT Press (February 15, 2009). Softcopy available at (look for the “Download free under Creative Commons license” link)

[2] It is telling that Cowhey and Aronson seem to equate the public interest with consumer welfare, an economic construct. For example, on p. 17 they write: “The main challenge for governance is creating appropriate new spaces for market competition that allow the most important potential for innovation to play out in a manner that enhances consumer welfare (the public interest).”

[3] De Vries, Pierre, “Internet Governance as Forestry: Deriving Policy Principles from Managed Complex Adaptive Systems”, TPRC 2008. Available at SSRN:

Appendix 1: Four guiding principles and ten norms to help implement them
(Cowhey & Aronson (2009) Table S.1, p. 265

  1. Enable transactions among modular ICT building blocks.
  2. Facilitate interconnection of modular capabilities.
  3. Facilitate supply chain efficiency, reduce transaction costs.
  4. Reform domestically to help reorganize global governance.
  1. Delegate authority flexibly.
  2. Invest in virtual common capabilities; be competitively neutral.
  3. Use competition policy to reinforce competitive supply chains.
  4. Intervene lightly to promote broadband networks.
  5. Narrow and reset network competition policy. All networks must accept all traffic from other networks. Narrow scope of rules to assure network neutrality. Separate peering and interconnection for provision of VANs.
  6. Government should allow experiments with new applications.
  7. Create rules for globalization of multimedia audiovisual content services that encourage international trade and foster localism, pluralism, and diversity.
  8. Tip practices toward new markets for digital rights.
  9. Promote commercial exchanges that enhance property rights for personal data and mechanisms to do so.
  10. Users own their information and may freely transfer it.
Appendix 2: Four ecosystem management principles
De Vries (2008), Table 3, p. 26
  1. Flexibility: Determine ends, not means.
  2. Delegation: Most problems should be solved by the market and civil society.
  3. Big Picture: Take a broad view of the problem and solution space.
  4. Diversity: Multiple solutions are possible and desirable.

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