Measuring the Impact of Digital Technology

Many of the topics in copyright policy research require measuring some aspect of the transition to a digital age. The measurement questions are central in some cases, secondary in others; but measuring the emergence of digital technology is an underdeveloped field attracting a level of effort woefully small in comparison to its social and economic importance. A very large scale government enterprise measures GDP, the flow of pecuniary goods and services. The shifts toward digital goods and digital distribution command attention nothing like it in scale or sophistication.

The symptoms of underdevelopment are apparent in many aspects of U.S. policy. For example, the recently issued 360-page National Broadband Plan contains information from only a few statistical studies authored by neutral third-parties, primarily academics. It contains little in the way of statistical analysis of the consequences of various policy options. This is not attributable to inadequate staff effort but reflects the inchoate state of economic research about digital infrastructure and digitization more broadly, in particular, the absence of an organized community of researchers with a large and well developed body of knowledge.

So incomplete a data foundation would be unthinkable in other infrastructure contexts. Every congressional bill supporting transportation infrastructure, for example, is accompanied by a forecast for the economic growth it will generate and the number of jobs it will create. Nothing comparable can be done for legislation shaping the information infrastructure because there is not even a simple measure of the size of the digital economy nor any apparatus in place to project its growth.

Many initiatives to improve measurement of the digital economy were launched in the 1990s—at the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. A few of these have survived, for example, a survey about the labor market for information technology workers, and an estimate of the scale of electronic commerce, called E-Stats. Others did not survive, however—for example, household and business surveys of broadband supply, adoption, and use.

Unlike in other developed countries, the best information about the online behavior of the U.S. population came not from a government-sponsored survey but instead from a private foundation, the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Although the Pew survey has been useful, especially in tracking social behavior online, its scale is limited, ranging from a little more than one thousand to several thousand households at a time. With these sample sizes the survey could only gauge general trends and gain some insight into their variance. It is incapable of achieving what the BLS survey, involving 80,000-100,000 households, does well—providing a



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement