August 2013

Much of my recent research and writing has been focused on the contrast between “permissionless innovation” (the notion that innovation should generally be allowed by default) versus its antithesis, the “precautionary principle” (the idea that new innovations should be discouraged or even disallowed until their developers can prove that they won’t cause any harms).  I have discussed this dichotomy in three recent law review articles, a couple of major agency filings, and several blog posts. Those essays are listed at the end of this post.

In this essay, I want to discuss a recent speech by Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and show how precautionary principle thinking is increasingly creeping into modern information technology policy discussions, prompted by the various privacy concerns surrounding “big data” and the “Internet of Things” among other information innovations and digital developments.

First, let me recap the core argument I make in my recent articles and filings. It can be summarized as follows: Continue reading →

A new article by Peter Caranicas and Rachel Abrams in Variety entitled, “Runaway Production: The United States of Tax Incentives,” notes how “[Motion picture] Producers looking for a location weigh many factors — screenplay, crew base, availability of stages, travel and lodging — but these days, first and foremost, they consider the local incentives and tax breaks that can reduce a production’s budget.” In other words, when every state and local government dreams of being “the next Hollywood,” they are willing to shower the entertainment industry with some pretty nice inducements at taxpayers expense.

But these programs are growing more controversial and some state and local governments are reconsidering the wisdom of these efforts. The article cites my Mercatus Center colleague Eileen Norcross, who points out the most serious problem with these programs:

Other arguments against incentives hold that they don’t help the states that offer them. In March, the Massachusetts revenue commission issued a scathing report on the state’s tax credit program, which stated that two-thirds of the total $175 million awarded in 2011 went to out-of-state spending. “The critique is that while they appear to bring in short-term temporary activity to a state or community, a lot of those benefits flow to the production companies,” says Eileen Norcross, a senior research fellow at George Mason U. “The people who are hired locally tend to be (in) more low-wage service industry jobs. It provides a temporary economic blip on the radar, and then it’s sort of fleeting.”

Eileen is exactly right.  I have previously covered this issue here in an essay entitled, “State Film Industry Incentives: A Growing Cronyism Fiasco,” which was later expanded and included as a section in my 73-page forthcoming law review article with Brent Skorup, “A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector.” Continue reading →

Last week, the Mercatus Center released “Bitcoin: A Primer for Policymakers” by yours truly and Andrea Castillo. In it we describe how the digital currency works and address many of the common misconceptions about it. We also analyze current laws and regulations that may already cover digital currencies and warn against preemptively placing regulatory restrictions on Bitcoin that could stifle the new technology before it has a chance to evolve. In addition, we give several recommendations about how to treat Bitcoin in future.

As I say in the video that accompanies the paper, Bitcoin is still very experimental and it might yet fail for any number of reasons. But, one of those reasons should not be that policymakers failed to understand it. Unfortunately, signs of misunderstanding abound, and that is why we wrote the primer.

Continue reading →

Electronic Silk Road book coverAs I’ve noted before, I didn’t start my professional life in the early 1990s as a tech policy wonk. My real passion 20 years ago was free trade policy. Unfortunately for me, as my boss rudely informed me at the time, the world was already brimming with aspiring trade analysts and probably didn’t need another. This was the time of NAFTA and WTO negotiations and seemingly everybody was lining up to get into the world of trade policy during that period.

And so, while I was finishing a master’s degree with trade theory applications and patiently hoping for opportunities to open up, I decided to take what I thought was going to be a brief detour into the strange new world of the Internet and information technology policy. Of course, I never looked backed. I was hooked on Net policy from Day 1.  But I never stopped caring about trade theory and I have always remained passionate about the essential role that free trade plays in expanding commerce, improving human welfare, and facilitating more peaceful interactions among the diverse cultures and countries of this planet.

I only tell you this part of my own backstory so that you understand why I was so excited to receive a copy of Anupam Chander’s new book, The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World Together in Commerce. Chander’s book weaves together trade theory and modern information technology policy issues. His over-arching goal is to sketch out and defend “a middle ground between isolation and unregulated trade, embracing free trade and also its regulation.” (p. 209) Continue reading →

GMLR coverI’m pleased to announce the release of my latest law review article, “A Framework for Benefit-Cost Analysis in Digital Privacy Debates.” It appears in the new edition of the George Mason University Law Review. (Vol. 20, No. 4, Summer 2013)

This is the second of two complimentary law review articles I am releasing this year dealing with privacy policy. The first, “The Pursuit of Privacy in a World Where Information Control is Failing,” was published in Vol. 36 of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy this Spring. (FYI: Both articles focus on privacy claims made against private actors — namely, efforts to limit private data collection — and not on privacy rights against governments.)

My new article on benefit-cost analysis in privacy debates makes a seemingly contradictory argument: benefit-cost analysis (“BCA”) is extremely challenging in online child safety and digital privacy debates, yet it remains essential that analysts and policymakers attempt to conduct such reviews. While we will never be able to perfectly determine either the benefits or costs of online safety or privacy controls, the very act of conducting a regulatory impact analysis (“RIA”) will help us to better understand the trade-offs associated with various regulatory proposals. Continue reading →

Timothy B. Lee, founder of The Washington Post’s blog The Switch discusses his approach to reporting at the intersection of technology and policy. He covers how to make tech concepts more accessible; the difference between blogs and the news; the importance of investigative journalism in the tech space; whether paywalls are here to stay; Jeff Bezos’ recent purchase of The Washington Post; and the future of print news.


Related Links

On Sunday, the New York Times ran a story by Natasha Singer on the ongoing generic top-level domain (gTLD) expansion. Singer correctly notes that there is a great deal of skepticism that the new gTLDs will add social value. After all, what is the social value of .book when there is already

Singer also raises cultural, expression, and competition concerns:

There’s a larger issue at stake, however. Advocates of Internet freedom contend that such an expanded address system effectively places online control over powerful commercial and cultural interests in the hands of individual companies, challenging the very idea of an open Internet. Existing generic domains, like .net and .com, overseen by Verisign Inc., a domain registry, have an open-use policy; that means consumers can buy domain names ending in .com directly from retail registrars like GoDaddy. With a new crop of applicants, however, Icann initially accepted proposals for closed or restricted generic domains, a practice that could limit competing views and businesses.

It’s true that there is concern over “closed generics,” but I think there is a deeper problem than anti-competitiveness that could emerge from TLD expansion. Continue reading →

Last week on The Diane Rehm Show, Susan Crawford, former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology, and innovation policy, claimed that China “makes us look like a backwater when it comes to [broadband] connectivity.” When she was asked how this could be, Ms. Crawford responded:

It happened because of [Chinese industrial] policy. You can call that overregulation. It’s the way we make innovation happen in America.

Ms. Crawford is wrong on the facts and the philosophy. Continue reading →

Aereo LogoThere are few things more likely to get constituents to call their representative than TV programming blackouts, and the increase in broadcasting disruptions arising from licensing disputes in recent years means Congress may be forced to once again fix television and copyright laws. As Jerry Brito explains at Reason, the current standoff between CBS and Time Warner Cable is the result of bad regulations, which contribute to more frequent broadcaster blackouts. While each type of TV distributor (cable, satellite, broadcasters, telcos) is both disadvantaged and advantaged through regulation, broadcasters are particularly favored. As the US Copyright Office has said, the rule at issue in CBS-TWC is “part of a thicket of communications law requirements aimed at protecting and supporting the broadcast industry.”

But as we approach a damaging tipping point of rising programming costs and blackouts, Congress’ potential rescuer–Aereo–appears on the horizon, possibly buying more time before a major regulatory rewrite. Aereo, for the uninitiated, is a small online company that sets up tiny antennas in certain cities to capture broadcast television station signals–like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the CW, and Univision–and streams those signals online to paying customers, who can watch live or record the local signals captured by their own “rented” Aereo antenna. Broadcasters hate this because the service deprives them of lucrative retransmission fees and unsuccessfully sued to get Aereo to cease operations. Continue reading →


Over at, I write today about the ongoing Time Warner-CBS blackout and point out that Congress and the FCC have tipped the scales in favor of broadcasters with, inter alia, free spectrum, must-carry power, retrans consent rights, network non-duplication rules, and my personal favorite, syndicated exclusivity privileges. It’s just not a fair negotiating environment. But, and this is important, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Trying to plan the market got us into this mess, and making new rules to try to “even out” the playing field is only further distorting the market. As I say,

Congress should completely deregulate the video distribution marketplace by repealing broadcaster’s special rights. While the they’re at it they should also end compulsory copyright licensing that allows video distributors like cable companies to pay regulated rates for the programs they retransmit, rather than negotiate. And they should privatize the spectrum, rather than continue to give it away to broadcasters in the name of the “public interest.”

You can read the whole thing here. And after you’re done, you can listen to my colleague Adam Thierer make much the same case opposite Susan Crawford on the Diane Rehm Show earlier today. Audio is available here.

Plugs out of the way, I want to take a moment to address a small point that really grinds my gears, as Home Simpson would say. It’s the constant refrain I hear about blackouts that consumers are being “victimized” by the impasse in negotiations. Some examples,

Continue reading →