App Stores and “Editorial Discretion”

There’s an important link between my app store and network management posts from last week: they’re both examples of filtering processes that don’t scale. There’s a fundamental difference between an recommendation process, in which a variety of firms offer competing recommendations to users, and a filtering process in which a single firm unilaterally prevents users from accessing certain content or applications. There’s a sense in which these are both exercises of “editorial discretion,” but as the set of items being reviewed increases, they behave in a divergent fashion. Recommendation processes scale gracefully, because there’s room for lots of competing recommendations, with each supplementing the failures of the others. One firm’s failure to include a particular item on its list doesn’t preclude others from correcting the oversight. The system as a whole works better than any one of the participating firms.

In contrast, top-down filtering scales poorly because a single firm has to make a correct decision about every item. No single firm can possibly understand every item in a complex technological ecosystem, and the constraints of bureaucratic management make it unlikely that they’ll even do an especially good job of it. So top-down filtering will lead to mistakes, and those mistakes will directly harm users, who can’t easily choose a different filter.

Indeed, I suspect that an ISP’s effort to behave as an “editorial filter” in a significant way would fail so swiftly and spectacularly that the experiment wouldn’t be repeated. The app store fiasco hasn’t sunk the iPhone because the iPhone is still a relatively simple platform, and because iPhone users have never known an alternative. The Internet is a vastly more complex ecosystem, and its users are used to being able to run the applications of their choice. If, for example, Verizon or Comcast tried to create a whitelist of approved applications and block the rest, they’d make so many mistakes that a large fraction of their customers would revolt.

Broadband ISPs can’t control content or applications on the Internet any more than Microsoft could impose an “app store”-style review process on Windows developers: the ecosystem has become far too complex for any one firm to control, and trying to exert that kind of control would destroy most of the value embedded in the platform. This isn’t to say that they won’t engage in small-scale filtering (like the Comcast/BitTorrent incident), but efforts at more comprehensive censorship aren’t likely to work very well.

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One Response to App Stores and “Editorial Discretion”

  1. Jay says:

    On the one hand, I really have no pleorbm with them giving a game like GTA an AO rating because, quite frankly, if that game shouldn’t have it, what game should? I do think, however, that it goes a step too far to compare video games to alcohol and tobacco. I mean, the comparison should stop at television and movies. And the way those things are regulated is to have a rating system and to expect the people who provide those things to adhere to that rating system. Seems to me that the rating system is already in place for video games, so what’s the pleorbm? If they want to impose stiffer fines, I don’t really have a pleorbm with that, either. What I don’t understand is what exactly are these crusaders crusading for? A ratings system? BUT THAT ALREADY EXISTS! So, fine stiffer penalties. Go for it. I mean, what difference does that make, anyway? It really only reinforces something that is supposed to be already happening, anyway. And if it’s NOT happening, then there is a certain amount of blame that falls upon the retailers and not just on the parents (which is where, I agree, most of the blame should fall). So in that case, I don’t really see what Clinton and others are doing as so wrong. It’s simply their intense moral stance and comparison of video games to things such as the Holocaust (well, not yet, but soon) that bothers me.

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