The Supreme Court hears oral arguments today in a case that will decide whether Aereo, an over-the-top video distributor, can retransmit broadcast television signals online without obtaining a copyright license. If the court rules in Aereo’s favor, national programming networks might stop distributing their programming for free over the air, and without prime time programming, local TV stations might go out of business across the country. It’s a make or break case for Aereo, but for broadcasters, it represents only one piece of a broader regulatory puzzle regarding the future of over-the-air television.

If the court rules in favor of the broadcasters, they could still lose at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). At a National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) event earlier this month, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler focused on “the opportunity for broadcast licensees in the 21st century . . . to provide over-the-top services.” According to Chairman Wheeler, TV stations shouldn’t limit themselves to being in the “television” business, because their “business horizons are greater than [their] current product.” Wheeler wants TV stations to become over-the-top “information providers”, and he sees the FCC’s role as helping them redefine themselves as a “growing source of competition” in that market segment. Continue reading →

Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, discusses how Overstock.com became one of the first online retail stores to accept Bitcoin. Byrne provides insight into how Bitcoin lowers transaction costs, making it beneficial to both retailers and consumers, and how governments are attempting to limit access to Bitcoin. Byrne also discusses his project DeepCapture.com, which raises awareness for market manipulation and naked short selling, as well as his philanthropic work and support for education reform.

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Pre-NETmundial Notes

by on April 18, 2014 · 1 comment

Next week I’ll be in São Paulo for the NETmundial meeting, which will discuss “the future of Internet governance.” I’ll blog more while I’m there, but for now I just wanted to make a few quick notes.

  • This is the first meeting of its kind, so it’s difficult to know what to expect, in part because it’s not clear what others’ expectations are. There is a draft outcome document, but no one knows how significant it will be or what weight it will carry in other fora.
  • The draft outcome document is available here. The web-based tool for commenting on individual paragraphs is quite nice. Anyone in the world can submit comments on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. I think this is a good way to lower the barriers to participation and get a lot of feedback.
  • I worry that we won’t have enough time to give due consideration to the feedback being gathered. The meeting is only two days long. If you’ve ever participated in a drafting conference, you know that this is not a lot of time. What this means, unfortunately, is that the draft document may be something of a fait accompli. Undoubtedly it will change a little, but the amount of changes that can be contemplated will be limited due to sheer time constraints.
  • Time will be even more constrained by the absurd amount of time allocated to opening ceremonies and welcome remarks. The opening ceremony begins at 9:30 am and the welcome remarks are not scheduled to conclude until 1 pm on the first day. This is followed by a lunch break, and then a short panel on setting goals for NETmundial, so that the first drafting session doesn’t begin until 2:30 pm. This seems like a mistake.
  • Speaking of the agenda, it was not released until yesterday. While NETmundial has indeed been open to participation by all, it has not been very transparent. An earlier draft outcome document had to be leaked by WikiLeaks on April 8. Not releasing an agenda until a few days before the event is also not very transparent. In addition, the processes by which decisions have been made have not been transparent to outsiders.

See you all next week.

Andrea Castillo and I have a new paper out from the Mercatus Center entitled “Why the Cybersecurity Framework Will Make Us Less Secure.” We contrast emergent, decentralized, dynamic provision of security with centralized, technocratic cybersecurity plans. Money quote:

The Cybersecurity Framework attempts to promote the outcomes of dynamic cybersecurity provision without the critical incentives, experimentation, and processes that undergird dynamism. The framework would replace this creative process with one rigid incentive toward compliance with recommended federal standards. The Cybersecurity Framework primarily seeks to establish defined roles through the Framework Profiles and assign them to specific groups. This is the wrong approach. Security threats are constantly changing and can never be holistically accounted for through even the most sophisticated flowcharts. What’s more, an assessment of DHS critical infrastructure categorizations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that the DHS itself has failed to adequately communicate its internal categories with other government bodies. Adding to the confusion is the proliferating amalgam of committees, agencies, and councils that are necessarily invited to the table as the number of “critical” infrastructures increases. By blindly beating the drums of cyber war and allowing unfocused anxieties to clumsily force a rigid structure onto a complex system, policymakers lose sight of the “far broader range of potentially dangerous occurrences involving cyber-means and targets, including failure due to human error, technical problems, and market failure apart from malicious attacks.” When most infrastructures are considered “critical,” then none of them really are.

We argue that instead of adopting a technocratic approach, the government should take steps to improve the existing emergent security apparatus. This means declassifying information about potential vulnerabilities and kickstarting the cybersecurity insurance market by buying insurance for federal agencies, which experienced 22,000 breaches in 2012. Read the whole thing, as they say.

[The following essay is a guest post from Dan Rothschild, director of state projects and a senior fellow with the R Street Institute.]

As anyone who’s lived in a major coastal American city knows, apartment renting is about as far from an unregulated free market as you can get. Legal and regulatory stipulations govern rents and rent increases, what can and cannot be included in a lease, even what constitutes a bedroom. And while the costs and benefits of most housing policies can be debated and deliberated, it’s generally well known that housing rentals are subject to extensive regulation.

But some San Francisco tenants have recently learned that, in addition to their civil responsibilities under the law, their failure to live up to some parts of the city’s housing code may trigger harsh criminal penalties as well. To wit: tenants who have been subletting out part or all of their apartments on a short-term basis, usually through web sites like Airbnb, are finding themselves being given 72 hours to vacate their (often rent-controlled) homes.

San Francisco’s housing stock is one of the most highly regulated in the country. The city uses a number of tools to preserve affordable housing and control rents, while at the same time largely prohibiting higher buildings that would bring more units online, increasing supply and lowering prices. California’s Ellis Act provides virtually the only legal and effective means of getting tenants (especially those benefiting from rent control) out of their units — but it has the perverse incentive of causing landlords to demolish otherwise useable housing stock.

Again, the efficiency and equity ramifications of these policies can be discussed; the fact that demand curves slope downward, however, is really not up for debate.

Under San Francisco’s municipal code it may be a crime punishable by jail time to rent an apartment on a short-term basis. More importantly, it gives landlords the excuse they need to evict tenants they otherwise can’t under the city’s and state’s rigorous tenant protection laws. After all, they’re criminals!

Here’s the relevant section of the code:

Any owner who rents an apartment unit for tourist or transient use as defined in this Chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor. Any person convicted of a misdemeanor hereunder shall be punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 or by imprisonment in the County Jail for a period of not more than six months, or by both. Each apartment unit rented for tourist or transient use shall constitute a separate offense.

Here lies the rub. There are certainly legitimate reasons to prohibit the short-term rental of a unit in an apartment or condo building — some people want to know who their neighbors are, and a rotating cast of people coming and going could potentially be a nuisance.

But that’s a matter for contracts and condo by-laws to sort out. If people value living in units that they can list on Airbnb or sublet to tourists when they’re on vacation, that’s a feature like a gas stove or walk-in closet that can come part-and-parcel of the rental through contractual stipulation. Similarly, if people want to live in a building where overnight guests are verboten, that’s something landlords or condo boards can adjudicate. The Coase Theorem can be a powerful tool, if the law will allow it.

The fact that, so far as I can tell, there’s no prohibition on having friends or family stay a night — or even a week — under San Francisco code, it seems that the underlying issue isn’t a legitimate concern about other tenants’ rights but an aversion to commerce. From the perspective of my neighbor, there’s no difference between letting my friend from college crash in my spare bedroom for a week or allowing someone I’ve never laid eyes on before do the same in exchange for cash.

The peer production economy is still in its infancy, and there’s a lot that needs to be worked out. Laws like those in San Francisco’s that circumvent the discovery process of markets prevent landlords, tenants, condos, homeowners, and regulators from leaning from experience and experimentation — and lock in a mediocre system that threatens to put people in jail for renting out a room.

opengraphI’m thrilled to make available today a discussion draft of a new paper I’ve written with Houman Shadab and Andrea Castillo looking at what will likely be the next wave of Bitcoin regulation, which we think will be aimed at financial instruments, including securities and derivatives, as well as prediction markets and even gambling. You can grab the draft paper from SSRN, and we very much hope you will give us your feedback and help us correct any errors. This is a complicated issue area and we welcome all the help we can get.

While there are many easily regulated intermediaries when it comes to traditional securities and derivatives, emerging bitcoin-denominated instruments rely much less on traditional intermediaries. Additionally, the block chain technology that Bitcoin introduced for the first time makes completely decentralized markets and exchanges possible, thus eliminating the need for intermediaries in complex financial transactions. In the article we survey the type of financial instruments and transactions that will most likely be of interest to regulators, including traditional securities and derivatives, new bitcoin-denominated instruments, and completely decentralized markets and exchanges.

We find that bitcoin derivatives would likely not be subject to the full scope of regulation under the Commodities and Exchange Act because such derivatives would likely involve physical delivery (as opposed to cash settlement) and would not be capable of being centrally cleared. We also find that some laws, including those aimed at online gambling, do not contemplate a payment method like Bitcoin, thus placing many transactions in a legal gray area.

Following the approach to Bitcoin taken by FinCEN, we conclude that other financial regulators should consider exempting or excluding certain financial transactions denominated in Bitcoin from the full scope of the regulations, much like private securities offerings and forward contracts are treated. We also suggest that to the extent that regulation and enforcement becomes more costly than its benefits, policymakers should consider and pursue strategies consistent with that new reality, such as efforts to encourage resilience and adaptation.

I look forward to your comments!

It was my great pleasure to join Jasmine McNealy last week on the “New Books in Technology” podcast to discuss my new book, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom. (A description of my book can be found here.)

My conversation with Jasmine was wide-ranging and lasted 47 minutes. The entire show can be heard here if you’re interested.

By the way, if you don’t follow Jasmine, you should begin doing so immediately. She’s on Twitter and here’s her page at the University of Kentucky School of Library and Information Science.  She’s doing some terrifically interesting work. For example, check out her excellent essay on “Online Privacy & The Right To Be Forgotten,” which I commented on here.

Recent reports highlight that the telephone meta-data collection efforts of the National Security Agency are being undermined by the proliferation of flat-rate, unlimited voice calling plans.  The agency is collecting data for less than a third of domestic voice traffic, according to one estimate.

It’s been clear for the past couple months that officials want to fix this, and President Obama’s plan for leaving meta-data in the hands of telecom companies—for NSA to access with a court order—might provide a back door opportunity to expand collection to include all calling data.  There was a potential new twist last week, when Reuters seemed to imply that carriers could be forced to collect data for all voice traffic pursuant to a reinterpretation of the current rule.

While the Federal Communications Commission requires phone companies to retain for 18 months records on “toll” or long-distance calls, the rule’s application is vague (emphasis added) for subscribers of unlimited phone plans because they do not get billed for individual calls.

The current FCC rule (47 C.F.R. § 42.6) requires carriers to retain billing information for “toll telephone service,” but the FCC doesn’t define this familiar term.  There is a statutory definition, but you have to go to the Internal Revenue Code to find it.  According to 26 U.S.C. § 4252(b),

the term “toll telephone service” means—

(1) a telephonic quality communication for which

(A) there is a toll charge which varies in amount with the distance and elapsed transmission time of each individual communication… Continue reading →

What follows is a response to Michael Sacasas, who recently posted an interesting short essay on his blog The Frailest Thing, entitled, “10 Points of Unsolicited Advice for Tech Writers.” As with everything Michael writes, it is very much worth reading and offers a great deal of useful advice about how to be a more thoughtful tech writer. Even though I occasionally find myself disagreeing with Michael’s perspectives, I always learn a great deal from his writing and appreciate the tone and approach he uses in all his work. Anyway, you’ll need to bounce over to his site and read his essay first before my response will make sense.

______________________________

Michael:

Lots of good advice here. I think tech scholars and pundits of all dispositions would be wise to follow your recommendations. But let me offer some friendly pushback on points #2 & #10, because I spend much of my time thinking and writing about those very things.

In those two recommendations you say that those who write about technology “[should] not cite apparent historical parallels to contemporary concerns about technology as if they invalidated those concerns. That people before us experienced similar problems does not mean that they magically cease being problems today.” And you also warn “That people eventually acclimate to changes precipitated by the advent of a new technology does not prove that the changes were inconsequential or benign.”

I think these two recommendations are born of a certain frustration with the tenor of much modern technology writing; the sort of Pollyanna-ish writing that too casually dismisses legitimate concerns about the technological disruptions and usually ends with the insulting phrase, “just get over it.” Such writing and punditry is rarely helpful, and you and others have rightly pointed out the deficiencies in that approach.

That being said, I believe it would be highly unfortunate to dismiss any inquiry into the nature of individual and societal acclimation to technological change. Because adaptation obviously does happen! Certainly there must be much we can learn from it. In particular, what I hope to better understand is the process by which we humans have again and again figured out how to assimilate new technologies into their lives despite how much those technologies “unsettled” well-established personal, social, cultural, and legal norms. Continue reading →

Monday, TechFreedom submitted comments urging the White House to apply economic thinking to its inquiry into “Big Data,” also pointing out that the worst abuses of data come not from the private sector, but government. The comments were in response to a request by the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“On the benefits of Big Data, we urge OSTP to keep in mind two cautions. First, Big Data is merely another trend in an ongoing process of disruptive innovation that has characterized the Digital Revolution. Second, cost-benefit analyses generally, and especially in advance of evolving technologies, tend to operate in aggregates which can be useful for providing directional indications of future trade-offs, but should not be mistaken for anything more than that,” writes TF President Berin Szoka.

The comments also highlight the often-overlooked reality that data, big or small, is speech. Therefore, OSTP’s inquiry must address the First Amendment analysis. Historically, policymakers have ignored the First Amendment in regulating new technologies, from film to blogs to video games, but in 2011 the Supreme Court made clear in Sorrell v. IMS Health that data is a form of speech. Any regulation of Big Data should carefully define the government’s interest, narrowly tailor regulations to real problems, and look for less restrictive alternatives to regulation, such as user empowerment, transparency and education. Ultimately, academic debates over how to regulate Big Data are less important than how the Federal Trade Commission currently enforces existing consumer protection laws, a subject that is the focus of the ongoing FTC: Technology & Reform Project led by TechFreedom and the International Center for Law & Economics.

More important than the private sector’s use of Big Data is the government’s abuse of it, the group says, referring to the NSA’s mass surveillance programs and the Administration’s opposition to requiring warrants for searches of Americans’ emails and cloud data. Last December, TechFreedom and its allies garnered over 100,000 signatures on a WhiteHouse.gov petition for ECPA reform. While the Administration has found time to reply to frivolous petitions, such as asking for the construction of a Death Star, it has ignored this serious issue for over three months. Worse, the administration has done nothing to help promote ECPA reform and, instead, appears to be actively orchestrating opposition to it from theoretically independent regulatory agencies, which has stalled reform in the Senate.

“This stubborn opposition to sensible, bi-partisan privacy reform is outrageous and shameful, a hypocrisy outweighed only by the Administration’s defense of its blanket surveillance of ordinary Americans,” said Szoka. “It’s time for the Administration to stop dodging responsibility or trying to divert attention from the government-created problems by pointing its finger at the private sector, by demonizing private companies’ collection and use of data while the government continues to flaunt the Fourth Amendment.”

Szoka is available for comment at media@techfreedom.org. Read the full comments and see TechFreedom’s other work on ECPA reform.