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.


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 →

I recently did a presentation for Capitol Hill staffers about emerging technology policy issues (driverless cars, the “Internet of Things,” wearable tech, private drones, “biohacking,” etc) and the various policy issues they would give rise to (privacy, safety, security, economic disruptions, etc.). The talk is derived from my new little book on “Permissionless Innovation,” but in coming months I will be releasing big papers on each of the topics discussed here.

Additional Reading:

I’ve spent a lot of time here through the years trying to identify the factors that fuel moral panics and “technopanics.” (Here’s a compendium of the dozens of essays I’ve written here on this topic.) I brought all this thinking together in a big law review article (“Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle”) and then also in my new booklet, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.”

One factor I identify as contributing to panics is the fact that “bad news sells.” As I noted in the book, “Many media outlets and sensationalist authors sometimes use fear-based tactics to gain influence or sell books. Fear mongering and prophecies of doom are always effective media tactics; alarmism helps break through all the noise and get heard.”

In line with that, I want to highly recommend you check out this excellent new oped by John Stossel of Fox Business Network on “Good News vs. ‘Pessimism Porn‘.”  Stossel correctly notes that “the media win by selling pessimism porn.” He says:

Are you worried about the future? It’s hard not to be. If you watch the news, you mostly see violence, disasters, danger. Some in my business call it “fear porn” or “pessimism porn.” People like the stuff; it makes them feel alive and informed.

Of course, it’s our job to tell you about problems. If a plane crashes — or disappears — that’s news. The fact that millions of planes arrive safely is a miracle, but it’s not news. So we soak in disasters — and warnings about the next one: bird flu, global warming, potential terrorism. I won Emmys hyping risks but stopped winning them when I wised up and started reporting on the overhyping of risks. My colleagues didn’t like that as much.

He continues on to note how, even though all the data clearly proves that humanity’s lot is improving, the press relentlessly push the “pessimism porn.” Continue reading →

Few people have been more tireless in their defense of the notion of “permissionless innovation” than Wall Street Journal columnist L. Gordon Crovitz. In his weekly “Information Age” column for the Journal (which appears each Monday), Crovitz has consistently sounded the alarm regarding new threats to Internet freedom, technological freedom, and individual liberties. It was, therefore, a great honor for me to wake up Monday morning and read his latest post, “The End of the Permissionless Web,” which discussed my new book “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.”

“The first generation of the Internet did not go well for regulators,” Crovitz begins his column. “Despite early proposals to register websites and require government approval for business practices, the Internet in the U.S. developed largely without bureaucratic control and became an unstoppable engine of innovation and economic growth.” Unfortunately, he correctly notes:

Regulators don’t plan to make the same mistake with the next generation of innovations. Bureaucrats and prosecutors are moving in to undermine services that use the Internet in new ways to offer everything from getting a taxi to using self-driving cars to finding a place to stay.

This is exactly why I penned my little manifesto. As Crovitz continues on to note in his essay, new regulatory threats to both existing and emerging technologies are popping up on almost a daily basis. He highlights currently battles over Uber, Airbnb, 23andme, commercial drones, and more. And his previous columns have discussed many other efforts to “permission” innovation and force heavy-handed top-down regulatory schemes on fast-paced and rapidly-evolving sectors and technologies. Continue reading →

I spend a lot of time reading books and essays about technology; more specifically, books and essays about technology history and criticism. Yet, I am often struck by how few of the authors of these works even bother defining what they mean by “technology.” I find that frustrating because, if you are going to make an attempt to either study or critique a particular technology or technological practice or development, then you probably should take the time to tell us how broadly or narrowly you are defining the term “technology” or “technological process.”

Photo: David HartsteinOf course, it’s not easy. “In fact, technology is a word we use all of the time, and ordinarily it seems to work well enough as a shorthand, catch-all sort of word,” notes the always-insightful Michael Sacasas in his essay “Traditions of Technological Criticism.” “That same sometimes useful quality, however, makes it inadequate and counter-productive in situations that call for more precise terminology,” he says.

Quite right, and for a more detailed and critical discussion of how earlier scholars, historians, and intellectuals have defined or thought about the term “technology,” you’ll want to check out Michael’s other recent essay, “What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Technology?” which preceded the one cited above. We don’t always agree on things — in fact, I am quite certain that most of my comparatively amateurish work must make his blood boil at times! — but you won’t find a more thoughtful technology scholar alive today than Michael Sacasas. If you’re serious about studying technology history and criticism, you should follow his blog and check out his book, The Tourist and The Pilgrim: Essays on Life and Technology in the Digital Age, which is a collection of some of his finest essays.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I figured I would create this post to list some of the more interesting definitions of “technology” that I have uncovered in my own research. I suspect I will add to it in coming months and years, so please feel free to suggest other additions since I would like this to be a useful resource to others. Continue reading →

This past week I posted two new essays related to my new book, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.” Just thought I would post quick links here.

First, my old colleague Dan Rothschild was kind enough to ask me to contribute a post to the R Street Blog entitled, “Bucking the ‘Mother, May I?’ Mentality.” In it, I offered this definition and defense of permissionless innovation as a policy norm:

Permissionless innovation is about the creativity of the human mind to run wild in its inherent curiosity and inventiveness, even when it disrupts certain cultural norms or economic business models. It is that unhindered freedom to experiment that ushered in many of the remarkable technological advances of modern times. In particular, all the digital devices, systems and networks that we now take for granted came about because innovators were at liberty to let their minds run wild.

Steve Jobs and Apple didn’t need a permit to produce the first iPhone. Jeff Bezos and Amazon didn’t need to ask anyone for the right to create a massive online marketplace. When Sergey Brin and Larry Page wanted to release Google’s innovative search engine into the wild, they didn’t need to get a license first. And Mark Zuckerberg never had to get anyone’s blessing to launch Facebook or let people freely create their own profile pages.

All of these digital tools and services were creatively disruptive technologies that altered the fortunes of existing companies and challenged various social norms. Luckily, however, nothing preemptively stopped that innovation from happening. Today, the world is better off because of it, with more and better information choices than ever before.

I also posted an essay over on Medium entitled, “Why Permissionless Innovation Matters.” It’s a longer essay that seeks to answer the question: Why does economic growth occur in some societies & not in others? I build on the recent comments of venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures noted during recent testimony: “If you look at the countries around the world where the most innovation happens, you will see a very high, I would argue a direct, correlation between innovation and freedom. They are two sides of the same coin.” Continue reading →

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.

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.

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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 →

Last December, it was my pleasure to take part in a great event, “The Disruptive Competition Policy Forum,” sponsored by Project DisCo (or The Disruptive Competition Project). It featured several excellent panels and keynotes and they’ve just posted the video of the panel I was on here and I have embedded it below. In my remarks, I discussed:

  • benefit-cost analysis in digital privacy debates (building on this law review article);
  • the contrast between Europe and America’s approach to data & privacy issues (referencing this testimony of mine);
  • the problem of “technopanics” in information policy debates (building on this law review article);
  • the difficulty of information control efforts in various tech policy debates (which I wrote about in this law review article and these two blog posts: 1, 2);
  • the possibility of less-restrictive approaches to privacy & security concerns (which I have written about here as well in those other law review articles);
  • the rise of the Internet of Things and the unique challenges it creates (see this and this as well as my new book); and,
  • the possibility of a splintering of the Internet or the rise of “federated Internets.”

The panel was expertly moderated by Ross Schulman, Public Policy & Regulatory Counsel for CCIA, and also included remarks from John Boswell, SVP & Chief Legal Officer at SAS, and Josh Galper, Chief Policy Officer and General Counsel of Personal, Inc. (By the way, you should check out some of the cool things Personal is doing in this space to help consumers. Very innovative stuff.) The video lasts one hour. Here it is: