June 2010

“Don’t turn COPPA into a sweeping age verification mandate for the Internet!” That was essentially the core message of joint comments (below) Adam Thierer and I today filed with the Center for Democracy & Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation on the FTC’s Implementation Review of the rules that implement the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (which requires verifiable parental consent for kids under 13 to use most interactive sites and services if those sites are “directed to” them or if the site has “actual knowledge” it might be collecting personal information from such kids or allowing them to share such information through the site).

Specifically, we counsel the Commission against expanding COPPA beyond its original, limited purposes and scope, or calling on Congress to enact an expansion. In a techno-functional sense, COPPA is already “expansive,” since it is essentially device- and technology- neutral—essentially applying to any site or service that uses the Internet. That flexibility should allow the FTC to apply the statute in a changing landscape without further legislative changes. But we explain why COPPA is necessarily narrow in its age scope and the “directed to” and “actual knowledge” concepts that actually trigger COPPA’s requirements—and why changing any one of these three critical parts would inevitably lead to unconstitutional restrictions on the speech rights of adults, minors, and site operators, while actually reducing online privacy but without enhancing the online safety of children.

We call instead for the agency (i) to use the breadth and flexibility already given to it by Congress in the COPPA statute to enforce the statute in a manner consistent with the rapidly changing technical landscape and (ii) to supplement enforcement of that existing law with increased educational efforts and promotion of parental empowerment solutions.

Adam and I certainly have our differences with CDT and EFF on some issues, but this is not one of them! I’m deeply proud to join with these organizations in pointing out the unintended consequences of expanding regulation in an area where all too many people stop thinking carefully about the effects of regulation because, they seem to think, “We can never do enough for the children!” As we point out in our comments, the trade-offs here aren’t just between “The Children” and anyone’s narrow economic interests, but run far, far deeper. Adam & I did our best to succinctly capture the true, complex cluster of issues at stake with the title of the paper we released last summer about COPPA expansion: “COPPA 2.0: The New Battle over Privacy, Age Verification, Online Safety & Free Speech.”

The stakes here for our digital future could hardly be higher, yet more subtle. Continue reading →

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Politics and extortion share a similar logic: Give to the one who can hurt you the most.

National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers made a major policy speech yesterday at the New America Foundation, announcing the adminstration’s plan to find an additional 500 megaherz of spectrum for wireless broadband service by the end of the decade. The spectrum will come from two places: federal agencies who currently under-utilize their spectrum, and commercial users who volunteer to participate in “incentive auctions.”

In an incentive auction, the current spectrum user receives part of the proceeds in exchange for making the spectrum available for reallocation. Within the current US system of spectrum allocation, it’s about as close as we can come to allowing spectrum holders to sell their spectrum licenses to someone else who can put the spectrum to a more valuable use. 

Summers even mentioned broadcasters specifically, noting that a local television station with a few hundred millions of dollars of revenue may currently control spectrum worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Federal agencies would get to use some of the proceeds to adopt “state-of-the-art communications.” Presumably this would include new equipment that doesn’t use so much spectrum.

In his speech, Summers gave appropriate credit to the Federal Communications Commission, which surfaced many of these ideas in its National Broadband Plan. Even more appropriately, the former Harvard University president and academic economist assigned proper credit for the original source of the idea: 

Most of the freed-up spectrum will be auctioned off for use by mobile broadband providers. As the great law and economics scholar Ronald Coase originally pointed out, auctions ensure that spectrum is devoted to its most productive uses because it is determined by investors’ willingness to pay for it.

There are, of course, a few unanswered questions. How much of the spectrum will actually get auctioned for mobile broadband, rather than reserved for unlicensed use? Will the buyers have to use the spectrum for mobile broadband, or will the license be sufficiently broad that they could use it for other forms of personal communication that perhaps haven’t even been invented yet? Do we really have to wait ten years for this? Will the Ronald Coase Institute get any royalties for the government’s use of its namesake’s intellectual property? (Academics will recognize the joke in the last question.)

For now I’ll just say, “Bravo, Dr. Summers!”

I dashed off a quick analysis of the Bilski decision for CNET yesterday (see “Supreme Court Hedges on Business Method Patents”), a follow-up to a piece I wrote for The Big Money when the case was argued last fall.  (See “Not with my Digital Economy, You Don’t.”)

The decision was a surprise for me.  I had fully expected the Court to reject outright the experiment in granting patents to paper-and-pencil business methods launched by the Federal Circuit in 1998 with the State Street decision.  Especially since the Federal Circuit itself, in its rejection of Bilski’s application, had all but dismissed State Street as the disaster most businesses—even businesses who have benefited from business method patents–know it to be.

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Over the weekend, the always-terrific Lenore Skenazy published a provocative editorial in Forbes entitled, “Shred Your Sex Offender Map.”  (For more on Skenazy, see my review of her amazing book Free-Range Kids here last year). In her Forbes essay, Skenazy argues that, as currently constructed, America’s sex offender registries “are making our kids LESS safe.”  How can that possibly be?  I explained why in a lengthy essay on this topic I penned last summer entitled, Rethinking ‘Sex Crimes’ and Sex Offender Registries.” In it, I made an argument similar to Lenore’s. In a nutshell, if we really want to keep kids safe from real sex offenders, we need to completely rethink the way we define and punish sex offenses in this country because a significant percentage of the people listed on sex offender registries pose almost no threat to children, making it difficult for us to know who really does pose a threat to our kids and what we should do about them.

Consider two groups of people. Let’s call Group #1 the “petty sex crime crowd.” This would include anyone convicted of  indecent exposure (streaking / public nudity / public urination); a 19-year-old teen who gets caught having sex with a 17-year-old girlfriend; two gay men who had consensual sex in a state where sodomy was previously illegal; etc, etc.  The crucial distinction for this group is that their actions were consensual and non-violent. No serious harm came from their actions, even if some of these activities are less than socially desirable.  Now, let’s talk about Group #2: violent rapists, child molesters, child pornographers, and other creeps who sexually abused people (or even animals!) These people are the wretched scum of the Earth.

Anyway, here’s the first problem with the current sex offender registries: Group 1 and Group 2 are all mixed together! There’s a word for this: Insanity.  How in the hell did it ever come to pass that non-violent, consensual sex “offenders” got stuck on the same list as sadists, pedophiles, rapists, and other violent, evil scum?  Honestly, I don’t know and I don’t care. I just want that nonsense to end and end right now because as I noted in my earlier essay and Lenore argues in her’s, this means current sex offender lists / maps are largely worthless to parents like me unless I take the time to drill down into the details of who was guilty of what.  (Even when you do, it can still be confusing since some crimes aren’t made clear).  But the public is basically being subjected to a panic attack when they hear sex offender registry numbers or see maps of sex offenders in their neighborhood because the overall number of “offenders on the lists,” or dots on the offender maps, is being artificially raised by the presence of Group 1 “offenders.”

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I’ve been so busy trying to cover breaking developments related to Washington’s new efforts to “save journalism” (FTC) and steer the “future of media” (FCC) — see all my recent essays & papers here – that I forgot to do a formal book review of the book that is partially responsible for whipping policymakers into a lather about this issue: The Death and Life of American Journalism, the media-takeover manifesto by the neo-Marxist media scholar Robert W. McChesney and Nation editor John Nichols. Their book is horrifying in its imperial ambitions since it invites the government become the High Lord and Protector of the Fourth Estate. [For an in-depth look at all of McChesney's disturbing views on these issues, see: "Free Press, Robert McChesney & the “Struggle” for Media."] Anyway, I put together a formal review of the book for City Journal.  It’s online here and I’ve also pasted it down below.

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A Media Welfare State?

by Adam Thierer

Imagine a world of “post-corporate” newsrooms, where the state serves as the primary benefactor of the Fourth Estate. Billions flow from bureaucracies to media entities and individual journalists in the name of sustaining a “free press.” And this new media welfare state is funded by steep taxes on our mobile phones, broadband connections, and digital gadgets.

Sound Orwellian? Well, it’s the blueprint for a press takeover drawn up by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols in their new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism. McChesney, the prolific neo-Marxist media scholar who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Nichols, a journalist with The Nation, aren’t shy about their intentions. Along with Free Press, the absurdly misnamed regulatory activist group they co-founded, McChesney and Nichols outline a self-described “radical” agenda for what they hope will become a media “revolution.” And, shockingly, some folks in the Obama administration are listening. Continue reading →

Toy Story 3 offers many pleasures and not a little wisdom. I absorbed them with a shocking output of tears, both the laughing kind and otherwise. At one point, too, I raised my fist in solidarity, moved by the political philosophy voiced by Barbie (brilliantly played by Barbie). I liked Barbie’s quote so much that I put it on a t-shirt:

Pop Political Philosophy shirt

Nice, huh? Click on the picture to customize the shirt for your build and style.

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On the podcast this week, Tim Stevens, PhD candidate in the Dept. of War Studies, King’s College London, where he researches the politics of cybersecurity and cyberwarfare, and regular contributor to The Guardian, Forbes’ cybersecurity blog The Firewall, and Current Intelligence discusses cyberwar.  Stevens talks about the current cybersecurity climate; nuances between cyberespionage, cybercrime, and cyberwar; the balance between roles of government and private sector; and differences in cybersecurity attitudes in the U.K. and the U.S.

Related Readings

Do check out the interview, and consider subscribing to the show on iTunes. Past guests have included Clay Shirky on cognitive surplus, Nick Carr on what the internet is doing to our brains, Gina Trapani and Anil Dash on crowdsourcing, James Grimmelman on online harassment and the Google Books case, Michael Geist on ACTA, Tom Hazlett on spectrum reform, and Tyler Cowen on just about everything.

So what are you waiting for? Subscribe!

I’m late to the party, but I wanted to say a few things about the District Court’s decision in the Viacom v. YouTube case this week and.  This will be a four-part post, covering:

1.  The holding

2.  The economic principle behind it

3.  The next steps in the case

4.  A review of the errors in legal analysis and procedure committed by reporters covering the case

Continue reading →