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.


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 →

Earlier this week I posted an essay entitled, “Global Innovation Arbitrage: Commercial Drones & Sharing Economy Edition,” in which I noted how:

Capital moves like quicksilver around the globe today as investors and entrepreneurs look for more hospitable tax and regulatory environments. The same is increasingly true for innovation. Innovators can, and increasingly will, move to those countries and continents that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity.

That essay focused on how actions by U.S. policymakers and regulatory agencies threatened to disincentivize homegrown innovation in the commercial drone and sharing economy sectors. But there are many other troubling examples of how America risks losing its competitive advantage in sectors where we should be global leaders as innovators looks offshore. We can think of this as “global innovation arbitrage,” as venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has aptly explained:

Think of it as a sort of “global arbitrage” around permissionless innovation — the freedom to create new technologies without having to ask the powers that be for their blessing. Entrepreneurs can take advantage of the difference between opportunities in different regions, where innovation in a particular domain of interest may be restricted in one region, allowed and encouraged in another, or completely legal in still another.

One of the more vivid recent examples of global innovation arbitrage involves the well-known example of 23andMe, which sells mail-order DNA-testing kits to allow people to learn more about their genetic history and predisposition to various diseases. Continue reading →

What sort of public policy vision should govern the Internet of Things? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that question in essays here over the past year, as well as in a 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 early next year.

But I recently heard three policymakers articulate their recommended vision for the Internet of Things (IoT) and I found their approach so inspiring that I wanted to discuss it here in the hopes that it will become the foundation for future policy in this arena.

Last Thursday, it was my pleasure to attend a Center for Data Innovation (CDI) event on “How Can Policymakers Help Build the Internet of Things?” As the title implied, the goal of the event was to discuss how to achieve the vision of a more fully-connected world and, more specifically, how public policymakers can help facilitate that objective. It was a terrific event with many excellent panel discussions and keynote addresses.

Two of those keynotes were delivered by Senators Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). Below I will offer some highlights from their remarks and then relate them to the vision set forth by Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Maureen K. Ohlhausen in some of her recent speeches. I will conclude by discussing how the Ayotte-Fischer-Ohlhausen vision can be seen as the logical extension of the Clinton Administration’s excellent 1997 Framework for Global Electronic Commerce, which proposed a similar policy paradigm for the Internet more generally. This shows how crafting policy for the IoT can and should be a nonpartisan affair. Continue reading →

Capital moves like quicksilver around the globe today as investors and entrepreneurs look for more hospitable tax and regulatory environments. The same is increasingly true for innovation. Innovators can, and increasingly will, move to those countries and continents that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity. I was reminded of that fact today while reading two different reports about commercial drones and the sharing economy and the global competition to attract investment on both fronts. First, on commercial drone policy, a new Wall Street Journal article notes that:

Amazon.com Inc., which recently began testing delivery drones in the U.K., is warning American officials it plans to move even more of its drone research abroad if it doesn’t get permission to test-fly in the U.S. soon. The statement is the latest sign that the burgeoning drone industry is shifting overseas in response to the Federal Aviation Administration’s cautious approach to regulating unmanned aircraft.

According to the Journal reporters, Amazon has sent a letter to the FAA warning that, “Without the ability to test outdoors in the United States soon, we will have no choice but to divert even more of our [drone] research and development resources abroad.” And another report in the U.K. Telegraph notes that other countries are ready and willing to open their skies to the same innovation that the FAA is thwarting in America. Both the UK and Australia have been more welcoming to drone innovators recently. Here’s a report from an Australian newspaper about Google drone services testing there. (For more details, see this excellent piece by Alan McQuinn, a research assistant with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation: “Commercial Drone Companies Fly Away from FAA Regulations, Go Abroad.”) None of this should be a surprise, as I’ve noted in recent essays and filings. With the FAA adopting such a highly precautionary regulatory approach, innovation has been actively disincentivized. America runs the risk of driving still more private drone innovation offshore in coming months since all signs are that the FAA intends to drag its feet on this front as long as it can, even though Congress has told to agency to take steps to integrate these technologies into national airspace.  Continue reading →