Articles by Adam Thierer

Adam ThiererAdam is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He previously served as President of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, Director of Telecom. Studies at the Cato Institute, and Fellow in Economic Policy at the Heritage Foundation.


The sharing economy is growing faster than ever and becoming a hot policy topic these days. I’ve been fielding a lot of media calls lately about the nature of the sharing economy and how it should be regulated. (See latest clip below from the Stossel show on Fox Business Network.) Thus, I sketched out some general thoughts about the issue and thought I would share them here, along with some helpful additional reading I have come across while researching the issue. I’d welcome comments on this outline as well as suggestions for additional reading. (Note: I’ve also embedded some useful images from Jeremiah Owyang of Crowd Companies.)

1) Just because policymakers claim that regulation is meant to protect consumers does not mean it actually does so.

  1. Cronyism/ Rent-seeking: Regulation is often “captured” by powerful and politically well-connected incumbents and used to their own benefit. (+ Lobbying activity creates deadweight losses for society.)
  2. Innovation-killing: Regulations become a formidable barrier to new innovation, entry, and entrepreneurism.
  3. Unintended consequences: Instead of resulting in lower prices & better service, the opposite often happens: Higher prices & lower quality service. (Example: Painting all cabs same color destroying branding & ability to differentiate).

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According to this article by Julian Hattem in The Hill (“Lawmakers warn in-flight calls could lead to fights“), 77 congressional lawmakers have sent a letter to the heads of four federal agencies warning them not to allow people to have in-flight cellphone conversations on the grounds that it “could lead to heated arguments among passengers that distract officials’ attention and make planes less safe.”  The lawmakers say “arguments in an aircraft cabin already start over mundane issues, like seat selection and overhead bin space, and the volume and pervasiveness of voice communications would only serve to exacerbate and escalate these disputes.” They’re also concerned that it may distract passengers from important in-flight announcements.

Well, I think I speak for a lot of other travelers when I say I find the idea of gabby passengers — whether on a phone or just among themselves — insanely annoying. For those of us who value peace and quiet and find airline travel to be among the most loathsome of experiences to begin with, it might be tempting to sympathize with this letter and just say, “Sure, go ahead and make this a federal problem and solve this for us with an outright ban.”

But isn’t there a case to be made here for differentiation and choice over yet another one-size-fits all mandate? Why must we have federal lawmakers or bureaucrats dictating that every flight be the same? I don’t get that. After all, enough of us would be opposed to in-flight calls that we would likely pressure airlines to not offer many of them. But perhaps a few flights or routes might be “business traveler”-oriented and offer this option to those who do. Or perhaps some airlines would restrict calling to certain areas of the cabin, or limit when the calls could occur. Continue reading →

drone picToday, Ryan Hagemann and I filed comments with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in its proceeding on the “Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft.” This may sound like a somewhat arcane topic but it is related to the ongoing policy debate over the integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs)—more commonly referred to as drones—into the National Airspace System. As part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress required the FAA to come up with a plan by September 2015 to accomplish that goal. As part of that effort, the FAA is currently accepting comments on its enforcement authority over model aircraft. Because the distinction between “drones” and “model aircraft” is blurring rapidly, the outcome of this proceeding could influence the outcome of the broader debate about drone policy in the United States.

In our comment to the agency, Hagemann and I discuss the need for the agency to conduct a thorough review of the benefits and costs associated with this rule. We argue this is essential because airspace is poised to become a major platform for innovation if the agency strikes the right balance between safety and innovation. To achieve that goal, we stress the need for flexibility and humility in interpreting older standards, such as “line of sight” restrictions, as well as increasingly archaic “noncommercial” vs. “commercial” distinctions or “hobbyists” vs. “professional” designations.

We also highlight the growing tension between the agency’s current regulatory approach and the First Amendment rights of the public to engage in peaceful, information-gathering activities using these technologies. (Importantly, on that point, we attached to our comments a new Mercatus Center working paper by Cynthia Love, Sean T. Lawson, and Avery Holton entitled, “News from Above: First Amendment Implications of the Federal Aviation Administration Ban on Commercial Drones.” See my coverage of the paper here.)

Finally, Hagemann and I close by noting the important role that voluntary self-regulation and codes of conduct already play in governing proper use of these technologies. We also argue that other “bottom-up” remedies are available and should be used before the agency imposes additional restrictions on this dynamic, rapidly evolving space.

You can download the complete comment on the Mercatus Center website here. (Note: The Mercatus Center filed comments with the FAA earlier about the prompt integration of drones into the nation’s airspace. You can read those comments here.)

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If there are two general principles that unify my recent work on technology policy and innovation issues, they would be as follows. To the maximum extent possible:

  1. We should avoid preemptive and precautionary-based regulatory regimes for new innovation. Instead, our policy default should be innovation allowed (or “permissionless innovation”) and innovators should be considered “innocent until proven guilty” (unless, that is, a thorough benefit-cost analysis has been conducted that documents the clear need for immediate preemptive restraints).
  2. We should avoid rigid, “top-down” technology-specific or sector-specific regulatory regimes and/or regulatory agencies and instead opt for a broader array of more flexible, “bottom-up” solutions (education, empowerment, social norms, self-regulation, public pressure, etc.) as well as reliance on existing legal systems and standards (torts, product liability, contracts, property rights, etc.).

I was very interested, therefore, to come across two new essays that make opposing arguments and proposals. The first is this recent Slate oped by John Frank Weaver, “We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often.” The second is Ryan Calo’s new Brookings Institution white paper, “The Case for a Federal Robotics Commission.”

Weaver argues that new robot technology “is going to develop fast, almost certainly faster than we can legislate it. That’s why we need to get ahead of it now.” In order to preemptively address concerns about new technologies such as driverless cars or commercial drones, “we need to legislate early and often,” Weaver says. Stated differently, Weaver is proposing “precautionary principle”-based regulation of these technologies. The precautionary principle generally refers to the belief that new innovations should be curtailed or disallowed until their developers can prove that they will not cause any harms to individuals, groups, specific entities, cultural norms, or various existing laws, norms, or traditions.

Calo argues that we need “the establishment of a new federal agency to deal with the novel experiences and harms robotics enables” since there exists “distinct but related challenges that would benefit from being examined and treated together.” These issues, he says, “require special expertise to understand and may require investment and coordination to thrive.

I’ll address both Weaver and Calo’s proposals in turn. Continue reading →

DroneThe use of unmanned aircraft systems, or “drones,” for private and commercial uses remains the subject of much debate. The issue has been heating up lately after Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to integrate UASs into the nation’s airspace system by 2015 as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

The debate has thus far centered mostly around the safety and privacy-related concerns associated with private use of drones. The FAA continues to move slowly on this front based on a fear that private drones could jeopardize air safety or the safety of others on the ground. Meanwhile, some privacy advocates are worried that private drones might be used in ways that invade private spaces or even public areas where citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy. For these and other reasons, the FAA’s current ban on private operation of drones in the nation’s airspace remains in place.

But what about the speech-related implications of this debate? After all, private and commercial UASs can have many peaceful, speech-related uses. Indeed, to borrow Ithiel de Sola Pool’s term, private drones can be thought of as “technologies or freedom” that expand and enhance the ability of humans to gather and share information, thus in turn expanding the range of human knowledge and freedom.

A new Mercatus Center at George Mason University working paper, “News from Above: First Amendment Implications of the Federal Aviation Administration Ban on Commercial Drones,” deals with these questions.  This 59-page working paper was authored by Cynthia Love, Sean T. Lawson, and Avery Holton. (Love is currently a Law Clerk for Judge Carolyn B. McHugh in 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Lawson and Holton are affliated with the Department of Communication at the University of Utah.)

“To date, little attention has been paid to the First Amendment implications of the [FAA] ban,” note Love, Lawson, and Holton. Their article argues that “aerial photography with UASs, whether commercial or not, is protected First Amendment activity, particularly for news-gathering purposes. The FAA must take First Amendment-protected uses of this technology into account as it proceeds with meeting its congressional mandate to promulgate rules for domestic UASs.” They conclude by noting that “The dangers of [the FAA's] regulatory approach are no mere matter of esoteric administrative law. Rather, as we have demonstrated, use of threats to enforce illegally promulgated rules, in particular a ban on journalistic use of UASs, infringes upon perhaps our most cherished constitutional right, that of free speech and a free press.” Continue reading →

Driverless CarI’m pleased to announce that the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just released my latest working paper, “Removing Roadblocks to Intelligent Vehicles and Driverless Cars.” This paper, which was co-authored with Ryan Hagemann, has been accepted for publication in a forthcoming edition of the Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy.

In the paper, Hagemann and I explore the growing market for both “connected car” technologies as well as autonomous (or “driverless”) vehicle technology. We argue that intelligent-vehicle technology will produce significant benefits. Most notably, these technologies could save many lives. In 2012, 33,561 people were killed and 2,362,000 injured in traffic crashes, largely as a result of human error. Reducing the number of accidents by allowing intelligent vehicle technology to flourish would constitute a major public policy success. As Philip E. Ross noted recently at IEEE Spectrum, thanks to these technologies, “eventually it will be positively hard to use a car to hurt yourself or others.” The sooner that day arrives, the better.

These technologies could also have positive environmental impacts in the form of improved fuel economy, reduced traffic congestion, and reduced parking needs. They might also open up new mobility options for those who are unable to drive, for whatever reason. Any way you cut it, these are exciting technologies that promise to substantially improve human welfare.

Of course, as with any new disruptive technology, connected cars and driverless vehicles raise a variety of economic, social, and ethical concerns. Hagemann and I address some of the early policy concerns about these technologies (safety, security, privacy, liability, etc.) and we outline a variety of “bottom-up” solutions to ensure that innovation continues to flourish in this space. Importantly, we also argue that policymakers should keep in mind that individuals have gradually adapted to similar disruptions in the past and, therefore, patience and humility are needed when considering policy for intelligent-vehicle systems. Continue reading →

On Thursday, it was my great pleasure to present a draft of my forthcoming paper, “The Internet of Things & Wearable Technology: Addressing Privacy & Security Concerns without Derailing Innovation,” at a conference that took place at the Federal Communications Commission on “Regulating the Evolving Broadband Ecosystem.” The 3-day event was co-sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and the University of Nebraska College of Law.

The 65-page working paper I presented is still going through final peer review and copyediting, but I posted a very rough first draft on SSRN for conference participants. I expect the paper to be released as a Mercatus Center working paper in October and then I hope to find a home for it in a law review. I will post the final version once it is released.

In the meantime, however, I thought I would post the 46 slides I presented at the conference, which offer an overview of the nature of the Internet of Things and wearable technology, the potential economic opportunities that exist in this space, and the various privacy and security challenges that could hold this technological revolution back. I also outlined some constructive solutions to those concerns. I plan to be very active on these issues in coming months.

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If there is one thing I have learned in almost 23 years of covering communications and media regulation it is this: No matter how well-intentioned, regulation often has unintended consequences that hurt the very consumers the rules are meant to protect. Case in point: “universal service” mandates that require a company to serve an entire area as a condition of offering service at all. The intention is noble: Get service out to everyone in the community, preferably at a very cheap rate. Alas, the result of mandating that result is clear: You get less competition, less investment, less innovation, and less consumer choice. And often you don’t even get everyone served.

Consider this Wall Street Journal article today, “Google Fiber Is Fast, but Is It Fair? The Company Provides Neighborhoods With Faster and Cheaper Service, but Are Some Being Left Behind?” In the story, Alistair Barr notes that:

U.S. policy long favored extending service to all. AT&T touted its “universal service” in advertisements more than a century ago. The concept was codified in a 1934 law requiring nationwide “wire and radio services” to reach everyone at “reasonable charges.” In exchange for wiring a community, telecommunications providers often gained a monopoly. Cities made similar deals with cable-TV providers beginning in the 1960s.

The problem, of course, is that while this model allowed for the slow spread of service to most communities, it came at a very steep cost: Monopoly and plain vanilla service. I documented this in a 1994 essay entitled, “Unnatural Monopoly: Critical Moments in the Development of the Bell System Monopoly.” As well-intentioned regulatory mandates started piling up, competition slowly disappeared. And a devil’s deal was eventually cut between regulators and AT&T to adopt the company’s advertising motto — “One Policy, One System, Universal Service” — as the de facto law of the land. Continue reading →

How is it that we humans have again and again figured out how to assimilate new technologies into our lives despite how much those technologies “unsettled” so many well-established personal, social, cultural, and legal norms?

In recent years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking through that question in a variety of blog posts (“Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society”), law review articles (“Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle”), opeds (“Why Do We Always Sell the Next Generation Short?”), and books (See chapter 4 of my new book, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom”).

It’s fair to say that this issue — how individuals, institutions, and cultures adjust to technological change — has become a personal obsession of mine and it is increasingly the unifying theme of much of my ongoing research agenda. The economic ramifications of technological change are part of this inquiry, of course, but those economic concerns have already been the subject of countless books and essays both today and throughout history. I find that the social issues associated with technological change — including safety, security, and privacy considerations — typically get somewhat less attention, but are equally interesting. That’s why my recent work and my new book narrow the focus to those issues. Continue reading →

My latest law review article is entitled, “Privacy Law’s Precautionary Principle Problem,” and it appears in Vol. 66, No. 2 of the Maine Law Review. You can download the article on my Mercatus Center page, on the Maine Law Review website, or via SSRN. Here’s the abstract for the article:

Privacy law today faces two interrelated problems. The first is an information control problem. Like so many other fields of modern cyberlaw—intellectual property, online safety, cybersecurity, etc.—privacy law is being challenged by intractable Information Age realities. Specifically, it is easier than ever before for information to circulate freely and harder than ever to bottle it up once it is released.

This has not slowed efforts to fashion new rules aimed at bottling up those information flows. If anything, the pace of privacy-related regulatory proposals has been steadily increasing in recent years even as these information control challenges multiply.

This has led to privacy law’s second major problem: the precautionary principle problem. The precautionary principle generally holds that new innovations should be curbed or even forbidden until they are proven safe. Fashioning privacy rules based on precautionary principle reasoning necessitates prophylactic regulation that makes new forms of digital innovation guilty until proven innocent.

This puts privacy law on a collision course with the general freedom to innovate that has thus far powered the Internet revolution, and privacy law threatens to limit innovations consumers have come to expect or even raise prices for services consumers currently receive free of charge. As a result, even if new regulations are pursued or imposed, there will likely be formidable push-back not just from affected industries but also from their consumers.

In light of both these information control and precautionary principle problems, new approaches to privacy protection are necessary. Continue reading →