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.


Farhad Manjoo’s latest New York Times column, “Giving the Drone Industry the Leeway to Innovate,” discusses how the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) current regulatory morass continues to thwart many potentially beneficial drone innovations. I particularly appreciated this point:

But perhaps the most interesting applications for drones are the ones we can’t predict. Imposing broad limitations on drone use now would be squashing a promising new area of innovation just as it’s getting started, and before we’ve seen many of the potential uses. “In the 1980s, the Internet was good for some specific military applications, but some of the most important things haven’t really come about until the last decade,” said Michael Perry, a spokesman for DJI [maker of Phantom drones]. . . . He added, “Opening the technology to more people allows for the kind of innovation that nobody can predict.”

That is exactly right and it reflects the general notion of “permissionless innovation” that I have written about extensively here in recent years. As I summarized in a recent essay: “Permissionless innovation refers to the notion that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default. Unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention or business model will bring serious harm to individuals, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated and problems, if they develop at all, can be addressed later.” Continue reading →

I suppose it was inevitable that the DRM wars would come to the world of drones. Reporting for the Wall Street Journal today, Jack Nicas notes that:

In response to the drone crash at the White House this week, the Chinese maker of the device that crashed said it is updating its drones to disable them from flying over much of Washington, D.C.SZ DJI Technology Co. of Shenzhen, China, plans to send a firmware update in the next week that, if downloaded, would prevent DJI drones from taking off within the restricted flight zone that covers much of the U.S. capital, company spokesman Michael Perry said.

Washington Post reporter Brian Fung explains what this means technologically:

The [DJI firmware] update will add a list of GPS coordinates to the drone’s computer telling it where it can and can’t go. Here’s how that system works generally: When a drone comes within five miles of an airport, Perry explained, an altitude restriction gets applied to the drone so that it doesn’t interfere with manned aircraft. Within 1.5 miles, the drone will be automatically grounded and won’t be able to fly at all, requiring the user to either pull away from the no-fly zone or personally retrieve the device from where it landed. The concept of triggering certain actions when reaching a specific geographic area is called “geofencing,” and it’s a common technology in smartphones. Since 2011, iPhone owners have been able to create reminders that alert them when they arrive at specific locations, such as the office.

This is complete overkill and it almost certainly will not work in practice. First, this is just DRM for drones, and just as DRM has failed in most other cases, it will fail here as well. If you sell somebody a drone that doesn’t work within a 15-mile radius of a major metropolitan area, they’ll be online minutes later looking for a hack to get it working properly. And you better believe they will find one. Continue reading →

Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its long-awaited report on “The Internet of Things: Privacy and Security in a Connected World.” The 55-page report is the result of a lengthy staff exploration of the issue, which kicked off with an FTC workshop on the issue that was held on November 19, 2013.

I’m still digesting all the details in the report, but I thought I’d offer a few quick thoughts on some of the major findings and recommendations from it. As I’ve noted here before, I’ve made the Internet of Things my top priority over the past year and have penned several essays about it here, as well as in a big new white paper (“The Internet of Things and Wearable Technology: Addressing Privacy and Security Concerns without Derailing Innovation”) that will be published in the Richmond Journal of Law & Technology shortly. (Also, here’s a compendium of most of what I’ve done on the issue thus far.)

I’ll begin with a few general thoughts on the FTC’s report and its overall approach to the Internet of Things and then discuss a few specific issues that I believe deserve attention. Continue reading →

FPF logoThis week, the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) released a new white paper entitled, “A Practical Privacy Paradigm for Wearables,” which I believe can help us find policy consensus regarding the privacy and security concerns associated with the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearable technologies. I’ve been monitoring IoT policy developments closely and I recently published a big working paper (“The Internet of Things and Wearable Technology: Addressing Privacy and Security Concerns without Derailing Innovation”) that will appear shortly in the Richmond Journal of Law & Technology. I have also penned several other essays on IoT issues. So, I will be relating the FPF report to some of my own work.

The new FPF report, which was penned by Christopher Wolf, Jules Polonetsky, and Kelsey Finch, aims to accomplish the same goal I had in my own recent paper: sketching out constructive and practical solutions to the privacy and security issues associated with the IoT and wearable tech so as not to discourage the amazing, life-enriching innovations that could flow from this space. Flexibility is the key, they argue. “Premature regulation at an early stage in wearable technological development may freeze or warp the technology before it achieves its potential, and may not be able to account for technologies still to come,” the authors note. “Given that some uses are inherently more sensitive than others, and that there may be many new uses still to come, flexibility will be critical going forward.” (p. 3)

That flexible approach is at the heart of how the FPF authors want to see Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPPs) applied in this space. The FIPPs generally include: (1) notice, (2) choice, (3) purpose specification, (4) use limitation, and (5) data minimization. The FPF authors correctly note that, Continue reading →

Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times posted an interesting story yesterday noting how, “Technology Has Made Life Different, but Not Necessarily More Stressful.” Her essay builds on a new study by researchers at the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University on “Social Media and the Cost of Caring.” Miller’s essay and this new Pew/Rutgers study indirectly make a point that I am always discussing in my own work, but that is often ignored or downplayed by many technological critics, namely: We humans have repeatedly proven quite good at adapting to technological change, even when it entails some heartburn along the way.

The major takeaway of the Pew/Rutgers study was that, “social media users are not any more likely to feel stress than others, but there is a subgroup of social media users who are more aware of stressful events in their friends’ lives and this subgroup of social media users does feel more stress.” Commenting on the study, Miller of the Times notes:

Fear of technology is nothing new. Telephones, watches and televisions were similarly believed to interrupt people’s lives and pressure them to be more productive. In some ways they did, but the benefits offset the stressors. New technology is making our lives different, but not necessarily more stressful than they would have been otherwise. “It’s yet another example of how we overestimate the effect these technologies are having in our lives,” said Keith Hampton, a sociologist at Rutgers and an author of the study.  . . .  Just as the telephone made it easier to maintain in-person relationships but neither replaced nor ruined them, this recent research suggests that digital technology can become a tool to augment the relationships humans already have.

I found this of great interest because I have written about how humans assimilate new technologies into their lives and become more resilient in the process as they learn various coping techniques. Continue reading →

FAA sealRegular readers know that I can get a little feisty when it comes to the topic of “regulatory capture,” which occurs when special interests co-opt policymakers or political bodies (regulatory agencies, in particular) to further their own ends. As I noted in my big compendium, “Regulatory Capture: What the Experts Have Found“:

While capture theory cannot explain all regulatory policies or developments, it does provide an explanation for the actions of political actors with dismaying regularity.  Because regulatory capture theory conflicts mightily with romanticized notions of “independent” regulatory agencies or “scientific” bureaucracy, it often evokes a visceral reaction and a fair bit of denialism.

Indeed, the more I highlight the problem of regulatory capture and offer concrete examples of it in practice, the more push-back I get from true believers in the idea of “independent” agencies. Even if I can get them to admit that history offers countless examples of capture in action, and that a huge number of scholars of all persuasions have documented this problem, they will continue to persist that, WE CAN DO BETTER! and that it is just a matter of having THE RIGHT PEOPLE! who will TRY HARDER!

Well, maybe. But I am a realist and a believer in historical evidence. And the evidence shows, again and again, that when Congress (a) delegates broad, ambiguous authority to regulatory agencies, (b) exercises very limited oversight over that agency, and then, worse yet, (c) allows that agency’s budget to grow without any meaningful constraint, then the situation is ripe for abuse. Specifically, where unchecked power exists, interests will look to exploit it for their own ends.

In any event, all I can do is to continue to document the problem of regulatory capture in action and try to bring it to the attention of pundits and policymakers in the hope that we can start the push for real agency oversight and reform. Today’s case in point comes from a field I have been covering here a lot over the past year: commercial drone innovation. Continue reading →

Over at the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) Privacy Perspectives blog, I have two “Dispatches from CES 2015″ up. (#1 & #2) While I was out in Vegas for the big show, I had a chance to speak on a panel entitled, “Privacy and the IoT: Navigating Policy Issues.” (Video can be found here. It’s the second one on the video playlist.) Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairwoman Edith Ramirez kicked off that session and stressed some of the concerns she and others share about the Internet of Things and wearable technologies in terms of the privacy and security issues they raise.

Before and after our panel discussion, I had a chance to walk the show floor and take a look at the amazing array of new gadgets and services that will soon hitting the market. A huge percentage of the show floor space was dedicated to IoT technologies, and wearable tech in particular. But the show also featured many other amazing technologies that promise to bring consumers a wealth of new benefits in coming years. Of course, many of those technologies will also raise privacy and security concerns, as I noted in my two essays for IAPP. Continue reading →

I want to highlight an important new blog post (“Slow Down That Runaway Ethical Trolley“) on the ethical trade-offs at work with autonomous vehicle systems by Bryant Walker Smith, a leading expert on these issues. Writing over at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society blog, Smith notes that, while serious ethical dilemmas will always be present with such technologies, “we should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” He notes that many ethical philosophers, legal theorists, and media pundits have recently been actively debating variations of the classic “Trolley Problem,” and its ramifications for the development of autonomous or semi-autonomous systems. (Here’s some quick background on the Trolley Problem, a thought experiment involving the choices made during various no-win accident scenarios.) Commenting on the increased prevalence of the Trolley Problem in these debates, Smith observes that:

Unfortunately, the reality that automated vehicles will eventually kill people has morphed into the illusion that a paramount challenge for or to these vehicles is deciding who precisely to kill in any given crash. This was probably not the intent of the thoughtful proponents of this thought experiment, but it seems to be the result. Late last year, I was asked the “who to kill” question more than any other — by journalists, regulators, and academics. An influential working group to which I belong even (briefly) identified the trolley problem as one of the most significant barriers to fully automated motor vehicles.

Although dilemma situations are relevant to the field, they have been overhyped in comparison to other issues implicated by vehicle automation. The fundamental ethical question, in my opinion, is this: In the United States alone, tens of thousands of people die in motor vehicle crashes every year, and many more are injured. Automated vehicles have great potential to one day reduce this toll, but the path to this point will involve mistakes and crashes and fatalities. Given this stark choice, what is the proper balance between caution and urgency in bringing these systems to the market? How safe is safe enough?

That’s a great question and one that Ryan Hagemann and put some thought into as part of our recent Mercatus Center working paper, “Removing Roadblocks to Intelligent Vehicles and Driverless Cars.Continue reading →

I’ve spent much of the past year studying the potential public policy ramifications associated with the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT). As I was preparing some notes for my Jan. 6th panel discussing on “Privacy and the IoT: Navigating Policy Issues” at this year’s 2015 CES show, I went back and collected all my writing on IoT issues so that I would have everything in one place. Thus, down below I have listed most of what I’ve done over the past year or so. Most of this writing is focused on the privacy and security implications of the Internet of Things, and wearable technologies in particular.

I plan to stay on top of these issues in 2015 and beyond because, as I noted when I spoke on a previous CES panel on these issues, the Internet of Things finds itself at the center of what we might think of a perfect storm of public policy concerns: Privacy, safety, security, intellectual property, economic / labor disruptions, automation concerns, wireless spectrum issues, technical standards, and more. When a new technology raises one or two of these policy concerns, innovators in those sectors can expect some interest and inquiries from lawmakers or regulators. But when a new technology potentially touches all of these issues, then it means innovators in that space can expect an avalanche of attention and a potential world of regulatory trouble. Moreover, it sets the stage for a grand “clash of visions” about the future of IoT technologies that will continue to intensify in coming months and years.

That’s why I’ll be monitoring developments closely in this field going forward. For now, here’s what I’ve done on this issue as I prepare to head out to Las Vegas for another CES extravaganza that promises to showcase so many exciting IoT technologies. Continue reading →

Over the course of the year, I collect some of my favorite (and least favorite) tech policy essays and put them together in an end-of-year blog post so I will remember notable essays in the future. (Here’s my list from 2013.) Here are some of the best tech policy essays I read in 2014 (in chronological order).

  • Joel Mokyr – “The Next Age of Invention,” City Journal, Winter 2014. (An absolutely beautiful refutation of the technological pessimism that haunts our age. Mokry concludes by noting that, “technology will continue to develop and change human life and society at a rate that may well dwarf even the dazzling developments of the twentieth century. Not everyone will like the disruptions that this progress will bring. The concern that what we gain as consumers, viewers, patients, and citizens, we may lose as workers is fair. The fear that this progress will create problems that no one can envisage is equally realistic. Yet technological progress still beats the alternatives; we cannot do without it.” Mokyr followed it up with a terrific August 8 Wall Street Journal oped, “What Today’s Economic Gloomsayers Are Missing.“)
  • Michael Moynihan – “Can a Tweet Put You in Prison? It Certainly Will in the UK,” The Daily Beast, January 23, 2014. (Great essay on the right and wrong way to fight online hate. Here’s the kicker: “There is a presumption that ugly ideas are contagious and if the already overburdened police force could only disinfect the Internet, racism would dissipate. This is arrant nonsense.”)
  • Hanni Fakhoury – The U.S. Crackdown on Hackers Is Our New War on Drugs,” Wired, January 23, 2014. (“We shouldn’t let the government’s fear of computers justify disproportionate punishment. . . . It’s time for the government to learn from its failed 20th century experiment over-punishing drugs and start making sensible decisions about high-tech punishment in the 21st century.”)
  • Carole Cadwalladr – “Meet Cody Wilson, Creator of the 3D-gun, Anarchist, Libertarian,” Guardian/Observer, February 8, 2014. (Entertaining profile of one of the modern digital age’s most fascinating characters. “There are enough headlines out there which ask: Is Cody Wilson a terrorist? Though my favourite is the one that asks: ‘Cody Wilson: troll, genius, patriot, provocateur, anarchist, attention whore, gun nut or Second Amendment champion.’ Though it could have added, ‘Or b) all of the above?'”)

Continue reading →