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.


Give us our drone-delivered beer!

That’s how the conversation got started between John Stossel and me on his show this week. I appeared on Stossel’s Fox Business TV show to discuss the many beneficial uses of private drones. The problem is that drones — which are more appropriately called unmanned aircraft systems — have an image problem. When we think about drones today, they often conjure up images of nefarious military machines dealing death and destruction from above in a far-off land. And certainly plenty of that happens today (far, far too much in my personal opinion, but that’s a rant best left for another day!).

But any technology can be put to both good and bad uses, and drones are merely the latest in a long list of “dual-use technologies,” which have both military uses and peaceful private uses. Other examples of dual-use technologies include: automobiles, airplanes, ships, rockets and propulsion systems, chemicals, computers and electronic systems, lasers, sensors, and so on. Put simply, almost any technology that can be used to wage war can also be used to wage peace and commerce. And that’s equally true for drones, which come in many sizes and have many peaceful, non-military uses. Thus, it would be wrong to judge them based upon their early military history or how they are currently perceived. (After all, let’s not forget that the Internet’s early origins were militaristic in character, too!)

Some of the other beneficial uses and applications of unmanned aircraft systems include: agricultural (crop inspection & management, surveying); environmental (geological, forest management, tornado & hurricane research); industrial (site & service inspection, surveying); infrastructure management (traffic and accident monitoring); public safety (search & rescue, post-natural disaster services, other law enforcement); and delivery services (goods & parcels, food & beverages, flowers, medicines, etc.), just to name a few.


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book cover (small)I am pleased to announce the release of my latest book, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.” It’s a short manifesto (just under 100 pages) that condenses — and attempts to make more accessible — arguments that I have developed in various law review articles, working papers, and blog posts over the past few years. I have two goals with this book.

First, I attempt to show how the central fault line in almost all modern technology policy debates revolves around “the permission question,” which asks: Must the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations? How that question is answered depends on the disposition one adopts toward new inventions. Two conflicting attitudes are evident.

One disposition is known as the “precautionary principle.” Generally speaking, it 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.

The other vision can be labeled “permissionless innovation.” It 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 will bring serious harm to society, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated and problems, if they develop at all, can be addressed later.

I argue that we are witnessing a grand clash of visions between these two mindsets today in almost all major technology policy discussions today. Continue reading →

The war among the states to see who can lavish the film industry with more generous tax credits in their attempt to become “the next Hollywood” continues, and it is quickly descending into a classic race to the bottom. A front-page article in today’s Wall Street Journal notes that the tax incentive bidding war has gotten so intense that it is hollowing out the old Hollywood labor pool and sending it on a road trip across the America in search of tax-induced job activity:

As film and TV production scatters around the country, more workers…  are packing up from California and moving to where the jobs are. Driving this exodus of lower-wage workers — stunt doubles, makeup artists, production assistants and others who keep movie sets humming — are successful efforts by a host of states to use tax incentives to poach production business from California. [...] 

Only two movies with production budgets higher than $100 million filmed in Los Angeles in 2013, according to Film L.A. Inc., the city’s movie office. In 1997, the year “Titanic” was released, every big-budget film but one filmed at least partially in the city. The number of feature-film production days in Los Angeles peaked in 1996 and fell by 50% through last year, according to Film L.A. Projects such as reality television and student films have picked up some of the slack. But overall entertainment-industry employment has slid. About 120,000 Californians worked in the industry in 2012, down from 136,000 in 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The labor migration has arisen in part because California hasn’t competed aggressively on the tax-break front, officials and executives say, while states like Georgia have made efforts to grab a sizable chunk of the industry. More than 40 states and 30 foreign countries are offering increasingly generous and creative tax incentives to lure entertainment producers.

On one hand, hooray for labor mobility! But seriously, this stinks because this labor shift is taking place in a wholly unnatural way, with a complex and growing web of tax inducements leading to massive distortions in this marketplace. Continue reading →

Last week, it was my great pleasure to be invited on NPR’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook,” to debate Jeffrey Rosen, a leading privacy scholar and the president and chief executive of the National Constitution Center. In an editorial in the previous Sunday’s New York Times (“Madison’s Privacy Blind Spot”), Rosen proposed “constitutional amendment to prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures of our persons and electronic effects, whether by the government or by private corporations like Google and AT&T.” He said his proposed amendment would limit “outrageous and unreasonable” collection practices and would even disallow consumers from sharing their personal information with private actors even if they saw an advantage in doing so.

I responded to Rosen’s proposal in an essay posted on the IAPP Privacy Perspectives blog, “Do We Need A Constitutional Amendment Restricting Private-Sector Data Collection?” In my essay, I argued that there are several legal, economic, and practical problems with Rosen’s proposal. You can head over to the IAPP blog to read my entire response but the gist of it is that “a constitutional amendment [governing private data collection] would be too sweeping in effect and that better alternatives exist to deal with the privacy concerns he identifies.” There are very good reasons we treat public and private actors differently under the law and there “are all far more practical and less-restrictive steps that can be taken without resorting to the sort of constitutional sledgehammer that Jeff Rosen favors. We can protect privacy without rewriting the Constitution or upending the information economy,” I concluded.

But I wanted to elaborate on one particular thing I found particularly interesting about Rosen’s comments when we were on NPR together. During the show, Rosen kept stressing how we needed to adopt a more European construction of privacy as “dignity rights” and he even said his proposed privacy amendment would even disallow individuals from surrendering their private data or their privacy because he viewed these rights as “unalienable.” In other words, from Rosen’s perspective, privacy pretty much trumps everything, even if you want to trade it off against other values.  Continue reading →

Last night, I appeared on a short segment on the PBS News Hour discussing, “What’s the future of privacy in a big data world?” I was also joined by Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum. If you’re interested, here’s the video. Transcript is here. Finally, down below the fold, I’ve listed a few law review articles and other essays of mine on this same subject.

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When Google announced it was acquiring digital thermostat company Nest yesterday, it set off another round of privacy and security-related technopanic talk on Twitter and elsewhere. Fear and loathing seemed to be the order of the day. It seems that each new product launch or business announcement in the “Internet of Things” space is destined to set off another round of Chicken Little hand-wringing. We are typically told that the digital sky will soon fall on our collective heads unless we act preemptively to somehow head-off some sort of pending privacy or security apocalypse.

Meanwhile, however, a whole heck of lot of people are demanding more and more of these technologies, and American entrepreneurs are already engaged in heated competition with European and Asian rivals to be at the forefront of the next round Internet innovation to satisfy those consumer demands. So, how is this going to play out?

This gets to what becoming the defining policy issue of our time, not just for the Internet but for technology policy more generally: To what extent should the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations? We can think of this as “the permission question” and it is creating a massive rift between those who desire more preemptive, precautionary safeguards for a variety of reasons (safety, security, privacy, copyright, etc.) and those of us who continue to believe that permissionless innovation should be the guiding ethos of our age. The chasm between these two worldviews is only going to deepen in coming years as the pace of innovation around new technologies (the Internet of Things, wearable tech, driverless cars, 3D printing, commercial drones, etc) continues to accelerate.

Sarah Kessler of Fast Company was kind enough to call me last night and ask for some general comments about Google buying Nest and she also sought out the comments of Marc Rotenberg of EPIC about privacy in the Internet of Things era more generally. Our comments provide a useful example of the divide between these two worldviews and foreshadow debates to come: Continue reading →

With each booth I pass and presentation I listen to at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it becomes increasingly evident that the “Internet of Things” era has arrived. In just a few short years, the Internet of Things (IoT) has gone from industry buzzword to marketplace reality. Countless new IoT devices are on display throughout the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center this week, including various wearable technologies, smart appliances, remote monitoring services, autonomous vehicles, and much more.

This isn’t vaporware; these are devices or services that are already on the market or will launch shortly. Some will fail, of course, just as many other earlier technologies on display at past CES shows didn’t pan out. But many of these IoT technologies will succeed, driven by growing consumer demand for highly personalized, ubiquitous, and instantaneous services.

But will policymakers let the Internet of Things revolution continue or will they stop it dead in its tracks? Interestingly, not too many people out here in Vegas at the CES seem all that worried about the latter outcome. Indeed, what I find most striking about the conversation out here at CES this week versus the one about IoT that has been taking place in Washington over the past year is that there is a large and growing disconnect between consumers and policymakers about what the Internet of Things means for the future.

When every device has a sensor, a chip, and some sort of networking capability, amazing opportunities become available to consumers. And that’s what has them so excited and ready to embrace these new technologies. But those same capabilities are exactly what raise the blood pressure of many policymakers and policy activists who fear the safety, security, or privacy-related problems that might creep up in a world filled with such technologies.

But at least so far, most consumers don’t seem to share the same worries. Continue reading →

I didn’t have nearly as much time this year to review the steadily growing stream of information policy books that were released. The end-of-year lists I put together in the past were fairly comprehensive (see 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012), but I got sidetracked this year with 7 law review articles and an eBook project and had almost no time for book reviews, or even general blogging for that matter.

So, I’ve just listed some of the more notable titles from 2013 even though I didn’t find the time to describe them all.  The first couple are the titles that I believe will have the most lasting influence on information technology policy debates. Needless to say, just because I believe that some of these titles will have an impact on policy going forward does not mean I endorse the perspectives or recommendations in any of them. And that would certainly be the case with my choice for most important Net policy book of the year, Ian Brown and Chris Marsden’s Regulating Code. Their book does a wonderful job mapping the unfolding universe of Internet “co-regulation” and “multi-stakeholderism,” but their defense of a more politicized information policy future leaves lovers of liberty like me utterly demoralized.

The same could be said of many other titles on the list. As I noted in concluding several reviews over the past year, liberty is increasingly a loser in Internet policy circles these days. And it’s not just neo-Marxist rants like McChesney’s Digital Disconnect or Lanier’s restatement of the Unibomber Manifesto, Who Owns the Future? The sad reality is that pretty much everybody these days has a pet peeve they want addressed through pure power politics because, you know, something must be done! The very term “Internet freedom” has already been grotesquely contorted into something akin to an open mandate for governments to meticulously plan virtually every facet of economic and social activity in the Information Age.

Anyway, despite that caveat, many interesting books were released in 2013 on an ever-expanding array of specific information policy topics.  Here’s the list of everything that landed on my desk over the past year. Continue reading →

Here are a few Internet policy essays I collected over the past year which I thought were particularly well done and worth highlighting once more. They are listed in chronological order:

  • L. Gordon Crovitz – “Silicon Valley’s ‘Suicide Impulse,’” Wall Street Journal, January 28. (“It’s a measure of how far Silicon Valley has strayed from its entrepreneurial roots that a top regulator is calling on technology companies to do less lobbying and more competing,” Crovitz argued. “Rather than lobby government to go after one another, Silicon Valley lobbyists should unite to go after overreaching government. Instead of the “suicide impulse” of lobbying for more regulation, Silicon Valley should seek deregulation and a long-overdue freedom to return to its entrepreneurial roots.”)
  • John Gruber – “Open and Shut,Daring Fireball, March 1. (An absolutely brutal evisceration of Tim Wu’s recent work.)
  • R. U. Sirius – “Cypherpunk Rising: WikiLeaks, Encryption, and the Coming Surveillance Dystopia,” The Verge, March 7.
  • Julian Sanchez – “A Reply to Epstein & Pilon on NSA’s Metadata Program,Cato at Liberty, June 16. (A meticulous point-by-point takedown of an essay by Roger Pilon & Richard Epstein defending NSA’s online surveillance tactics.)
  • Ethan Zuckerman – “Is Cybertopianism Really Such a Bad Thing?” Slate, June 17 (A “defense of believing that technology can do good.”)

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Just a quick reminder to join us this Wednesday night (Dec. 4) for the next “Alcohol Liberation Front” happy hour featuring many Tech Liberation Front contributors and friends. The happy hour will be held at Churchkey (1337 14th St., NW) at 6 p.m.  Churchkey is one of the very best beer bars not just in D.C. but in all of America.  If you’ve never been there before, you are in for a real treat.

In addition to mixing and mingling with the witty and wacky TLF crew, we have a special surprise for attendees: Our guests will be given an early preview of our prototype TLF drone! Our Advanced Robotics Division here at the TLF has been hard at work on the “FreedomCopter” and we look forward to showing guests how we plan to use it coming years to spread the good word of tech liberty!  We plan on doing special fly-bys during the evening and buzzing past EPIC and CDT headquarters to have our autonomous agent inquire about our general freedom to tinker, innovate, and gather information freely. We look forward to their response.

No word yet if our Advanced Robotics Division will have the new driverless “TLF-Mobiles” ready in time to give inebriated guests a free ride home, but we will do our best.

Hope to see you on Wednesday night.