December 2011

Yesterday, TechFreedom, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Americans for Job Security, and Americans for Limited Goverment sent a joint letter (pdf) to U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and Ranking Member John Conyers urging them not to rush deliberations on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The Committee is set to hold markup on the bill on Thursday, December 15, less than three days after SOPA’s sponsors released a manager’s amendment containing major changes to the lengthy bill.

In their letter, the free market groups note that members have yet to hear testimony from experts versed in the bill’s implications for cybersecurity, free speech, due process, Internet governance, innovation, and job creation. The letter follows in its entirety:


Dear Chairman Smith and Ranking Member Conyers:

As public interest groups dedicated to free enterprise and property rights, we strongly support legislative efforts to ensure the meaningful protection of copyrights and trademarks. Yet we have also raised serious concerns about the unintended consequences of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), consistent with our general skepticism of all Internet regulation. While we applaud the manager’s amendment proposed by Chairman Smith, there simply has not been time to properly evaluate its real-world consequences. Although the proposed changes would indeed improve the bill, they leave several legitimate objections unaddressed. Thus, we urge Members of the Committee not to report the bill to the full House until these concerns have been resolved through further hearings and a second markup.

Enforcing copyrights online is an extremely provocative issue: witness the massive grassroots campaign mounted in recent weeks against so-called “Internet censorship,” as allegedly provided for by SOPA. Underlying this opposition to the bill is profound public skepticism about the unintended consequences of enhanced copyright enforcement in terms of collateral damage to legitimate expression and innovation. This skepticism has been galvanized by recent high-profile mistakes involving the improper seizure of innocent websites by federal officials in “Operation In Our Sites.”

If SOPA is ultimately enacted, any public perception that Congress failed to carefully balance the competing interests of copyright enforcement, free speech, due process, and Internet freedom will further erode public support not only for Congress, but also for copyright itself. The erosion of public respect for copyright is a primary factor behind the dramatic increase in infringement in recent years. Even a perfect bill cannot cure this cultural problem, to be sure, but ill-considered legislation can exacerbate it. If the widespread conflation of copyright enforcement with censorship is to be dispelled, SOPA must be refined carefully through a transparent process, with ample time for deliberation and consideration of all relevant expertise. Continue reading →

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee is slated to take up the misleadingly named Stop Online Piracy Act, an Internet censorship bill that will do little to actually stop piracy. In response to an outpouring of opposition from cybersecurity professionals, First Amendment scholars, technology entrepreneurs, and ordinary Internet users, the bill’s sponsors have cooked up an amended version that trims or softens a few of the most egregious provisions of the original proposal, bringing it closer to its Senate counterpart, PROTECT-IP. But the fundamental problem with SOPA has never been these details; it’s the core idea. The core idea is still to create an Internet blacklist, which means everything I say in this video still holds true.
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The National Transportation Safety Board recommended yesterday that states ban all non-emergency use of portable electronic devices while driving, except for devices that assist the driver in driving (such as GPS). The recommendation followed the NTSB’s investigation of a tragic accident in Missouri triggered by a driver who was texting.

Personally I don’t see how someone can pay attention to the road while texting. (I’m having a hard enough time paying attention to a conference presentation while I’m typing this!) But the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation is a classic example of regulatory overreach based on anecdote.  The NTSB wants to use one tired driver’s indefensible and extreme texting (which led to horrific results) as an excuse to ban all use of portable electronic devices while driving – including hands-free phone conversations.  Before states act on this recommendation, they should carefully examine systematic evidence – not just anecdotes — to determine whether different uses of handheld devices pose different risks. They should also consider whether bans on some uses would expose drivers to risks greater than the risk the ban would prevent.

Jim Adler, Chief Privacy Officer and General Manager of Data Systems at Intelius, always has interesting and thoughtful things to say about online privacy debates. I recommend following him on Twitter (@jim_adler). Today, he posted an interesting essay on his blog entitled “Creepy Is As Creepy Does, which begins by noting that “with increasing volume, ‘creepy’ has snuck its way in to the privacy lexicon and become a mainstay in conversations around online sharing and social networking. How is it possible that we use the same word to describe Frankenstein and Facebook?” Good question. Better question: Why is “creepiness” the standard by which we are judging privacy matters? I posted a comment to his blog post elaborating on that point that I thought I would also post here:

I think we’d be better served by moving privacy deliberations — at least the legal ones — away from “creepiness” and toward a serious discussion about what constitutes actual harm in these contexts.  While there will be plenty of subjective squabbles over the definition of “harm” as it relates to online privacy / reputation, I believe we can be more concrete about it than continuing these silly debates about “creepiness,” which could not possibly be any more open-ended and subjective.

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The FCC Goes Steampunk

by on December 13, 2011 · 4 comments

I’ve written several articles in the last few weeks critical of the dangerously unprincipled turn at the Federal Communications Commission toward a quixotic, political agenda.  But as I reflect more broadly on the agency’s behavior over the last few years, I find something deeper and even more disturbing is at work.  The agency’s unreconstructed view of communications, embedded deep in the Communications Act and codified in every one of hundreds of color changes on the spectrum map, has become dangerously anachronistic.

The FCC is required by law to see separate communications technologies delivering specific kinds of content over incompatible channels requiring distinct bands of protected spectrum.  But that world ceased to exist, and it’s not coming back.  It is as if regulators from the Victorian Age were deciding the future of communications in the 21st century.  The FCC is moving from rogue to steampunk.

With the unprecedented release of the staff’s draft report on the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, a turning point seems to have been reached.  I wrote on CNET  (see “FCC:  Ready for Reform Yet?”) that the clumsy decision to release the draft report without the Commissioners having reviewed or voted on it, for a deal that had been withdrawn, was at the very least ill-timed, coming in the midst of Congressional debate on reforming the agency.  Pending bills in the House and Senate, for example, are especially critical of how the agency has recently handled its reports, records, and merger reviews.  And each new draft of a spectrum auction bill expresses increased concern about giving the agency “flexibility” to define conditions and terms for the auctions.

The release of the draft report, which edges the independent agency that much closer to doing the unconstitutional bidding not of Congress but the White House, won’t help the agency convince anyone that it can be trusted with any new powers.   Let alone the novel authority to hold voluntary incentive auctions to free up underutilized broadcast spectrum.

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Over at TIME.com, [I write](http://techland.time.com/2011/12/12/face-recognition-technology-comes-to-malls-and-nightclubs/) about face detection technology and how privacy concerns around the tracking of consumers and targeted advertising online may be coming to the physical world.

>As Congress and the FTC balance the public interest in privacy with the advantages of new tools, let’s hope they take Sen. Rockefeller’s insight to heart: Public policy does indeed have a tough time keeping up with technology. That should be a signal to policy-makers that they shouldn’t be too hasty, lest they strangle a nascent technology while it’s in the cradle.

>Smart sign and face detection technology is very new—so new that we don’t really know how consumers will react to it. It’s tempting to want to get out in front privacy concerns, but it would be better to allow the technology to develop and mature a bit before we make any judgments.

Read [the whole thing here](http://techland.time.com/2011/12/12/face-recognition-technology-comes-to-malls-and-nightclubs/).

It’s time again to look back at the major cyberlaw and information tech policy books of the year. I’ve decided to drop the top 10 list approach I’ve used in past years (see 2008, 2009, 2010) and just use a more thematic listing of major titles released in 2011.  This thematic approach gets me out of hot water since I have found that people take numeric lists very seriously, especially when they are the author of one of the books and their title isn’t #1 on the list! Nonetheless, at the end, I will name what I regard as the most important Net policy book of the year.

I hope I’ve included all the major titles released during the year, but I ask readers to please let me know what I have missed that belongs on this list. I want this to be a useful resource to future scholars and students in the field. [Reminder: Here's my compilation of major Internet policy books from the past decade.] Where relevant, I’ve added links to my reviews as well as discussions with the authors that Jerry Brito conducted as part of his “Surprisingly Free” podcast series. Finally, as always, I apologize to international readers for the somewhat U.S.-centric focus of this list.

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Earlier this year I read Scott Cleland’s new book, Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google, Inc., after he was kind enough to send me an advance copy. I didn’t have time to review it at the time and just jotted down a few notes for use later. Because the year is winding down, I figured I should get my thoughts on it out now before I publish my end of year compendium of important tech policy books.

Cleland is President of Precursor LLC and a noted Beltway commentator on information policy issues, especially Net neutrality regulation, which he has vociferously railed against for many years. On a personal note, I’ve known Scott for many years and always enjoyed his analysis and wit, even when I disagree with the thrust of some of it.

And I’m sad to report that I disagree with most of it in Search & Destroy, a book that is nominally about Google but which is really a profoundly skeptical look at the modern information economy as we know it. Indeed, Cleland’s book might have been more appropriately titled, “Second Thoughts about Cyberspace.” In a sense, it represents an outline for an emerging “cyber-conservative” vision that aims to counter both “cyber-progressive” and “cyber-libertarian” schools of thinking.

After years of having Scott’s patented bullet-point mini-manifestos land in my mailbox, I think it’s only appropriate I write this review in the form of a bulleted list! So, here it goes.. Continue reading →

When Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) proposed and passed the Fair Credit Reporting Act forty years ago, he almost certainly believed that the law would fix the problems he cited in introducing it. It hasn’t. The bulk of the difficulties he saw in credit reporting still exist today, at least to hear consumer advocates tell it.

Advocates of sweeping privacy legislation and other regulation of the information economy would do well to heed the lessons offered by the FCRA. Top-down federal regulation isn’t up to the task of designing the information society. That’s the upshot of my new Cato Policy Analysis, “Reputation under Regulation: The Fair Credit Reporting Act at 40 and Lessons for the Internet Privacy Debate.” In it, I compare Senator Proxmire’s goals for the credit reporting industry when he introduced the FCRA in 1969 against the results of the law today. Most of the problems that existed then persist today. Some problems with credit reporting have abated and some new problems have emerged.

Credit reporting is a complicated information business. Challenges come from identity issues, judgments about biography, and the many nuances of fairness. But credit reporting is simple compared to today’s expanding and shifting information environment.

“Experience with the Fair Credit Reporting Act counsels caution with respect to regulating information businesses,” I write in the paper. “The federal legislators, regulators, and consumer advocates who echo Senator Proxmire’s earnest desire to help do not necessarily know how to solve these problems any better than he did.”

Management of the information economy should be left to the people who are together building it and using it, not to government authorities. This is not because information collection, processing, and use are free of problems, but because regulation is ill-equipped to solve them.

On the podcast this week, Michael Froomkin, the Laurie Silvers & Mitchell Rubenstein Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Miami, discusses his new paper prepared for the Oxford Internet Institute entitled, Lessons Learned Too Well: The Evolution of Internet Regulation. Froomkin begins by talking about anonymity, why it is important, and the different political and social components involved. The discussion then turns to Froomkin’s categorization of Internet regulation, how it can be seen in three different waves, and how it relates to anonymity. He ends the discussion by talking about the third wave of Internet regulation, and he predicts that online anonymity will become practically impossible. Froomkin also discusses the constitutional implications of a complete ban on online anonymity, as well as what he would deem an ideal balance between the right to anonymous speech and protection from online crimes like fraud and security breeches.

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