Articles by Berin Szoka

Berin is the founder and president of TechFreedom, a tech policy think tank based on pragmatic optimism about technology and skepticism about government. Previously, he was a Senior Fellow at The Progress & Freedom Foundation and Director of PFF's Center for Internet Freedom.


Telephone companies have already begun transitioning their networks to Internet Protocol. This could save billions while improving service for consumers and promoting faster broadband, but has raised a host of policy and legal questions. How can we ensure the switch is as smooth and successful as possible? What legal authority do the FCC and other agencies have over the IP Transition and how should they use it?

Join TechFreedom on Monday, May 19, at its Capitol Hill office for a lunch event to discuss this and more with top experts from the field. Two short technical presentations will set the stage for a panel of legal and policy experts, including:

  • Jodie Griffin, Senior Staff Attorney, Public Knowledge
  • Hank Hultquist, VP of Federal Regulatory, AT&T
  • Berin Szoka, President, TechFreedom
  • Christopher Yoo, Professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law
  • David Young, VP of Federal Regulatory Affairs, Verizon

The panel will be livestreamed (available here). Join the conversation on Twitter with the #IPTransition hashtag.

When:
Monday, May 19, 2014
11:30am – 12:00pm — Lunch and registration
12:00pm – 12:20pm — Technical presentations by AT&T and Verizon
12:20pm – 2:00 pm — Panel on legal and policy issues, audience Q&A

Where:
United Methodist Building, Rooms 1 & 2
100 Maryland Avenue NE
Washington, DC 20002

RSVP today!

Questions?
Email mail@techfreedom.org.

Monday, TechFreedom submitted comments urging the White House to apply economic thinking to its inquiry into “Big Data,” also pointing out that the worst abuses of data come not from the private sector, but government. The comments were in response to a request by the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“On the benefits of Big Data, we urge OSTP to keep in mind two cautions. First, Big Data is merely another trend in an ongoing process of disruptive innovation that has characterized the Digital Revolution. Second, cost-benefit analyses generally, and especially in advance of evolving technologies, tend to operate in aggregates which can be useful for providing directional indications of future trade-offs, but should not be mistaken for anything more than that,” writes TF President Berin Szoka.

The comments also highlight the often-overlooked reality that data, big or small, is speech. Therefore, OSTP’s inquiry must address the First Amendment analysis. Historically, policymakers have ignored the First Amendment in regulating new technologies, from film to blogs to video games, but in 2011 the Supreme Court made clear in Sorrell v. IMS Health that data is a form of speech. Any regulation of Big Data should carefully define the government’s interest, narrowly tailor regulations to real problems, and look for less restrictive alternatives to regulation, such as user empowerment, transparency and education. Ultimately, academic debates over how to regulate Big Data are less important than how the Federal Trade Commission currently enforces existing consumer protection laws, a subject that is the focus of the ongoing FTC: Technology & Reform Project led by TechFreedom and the International Center for Law & Economics.

More important than the private sector’s use of Big Data is the government’s abuse of it, the group says, referring to the NSA’s mass surveillance programs and the Administration’s opposition to requiring warrants for searches of Americans’ emails and cloud data. Last December, TechFreedom and its allies garnered over 100,000 signatures on a WhiteHouse.gov petition for ECPA reform. While the Administration has found time to reply to frivolous petitions, such as asking for the construction of a Death Star, it has ignored this serious issue for over three months. Worse, the administration has done nothing to help promote ECPA reform and, instead, appears to be actively orchestrating opposition to it from theoretically independent regulatory agencies, which has stalled reform in the Senate.

“This stubborn opposition to sensible, bi-partisan privacy reform is outrageous and shameful, a hypocrisy outweighed only by the Administration’s defense of its blanket surveillance of ordinary Americans,” said Szoka. “It’s time for the Administration to stop dodging responsibility or trying to divert attention from the government-created problems by pointing its finger at the private sector, by demonizing private companies’ collection and use of data while the government continues to flaunt the Fourth Amendment.”

Szoka is available for comment at media@techfreedom.org. Read the full comments and see TechFreedom’s other work on ECPA reform.

Join TechFreedom on Thursday, December 19, the 100th anniversary of the Kingsbury Commitment, AT&T’s negotiated settlement of antitrust charges brought by the Department of Justice that gave AT&T a legal monopoly in most of the U.S. in exchange for a commitment to provide universal service.

The Commitment is hailed by many not just as a milestone in the public interest but as the bedrock of U.S. communications policy. Others see the settlement as the cynical exploitation of lofty rhetoric to establish a tightly regulated monopoly — and the beginning of decades of cozy regulatory capture that stifled competition and strangled innovation. Continue reading →

How do DC and SF think about the future? Are their visions of how to promote, and adapt to, technological change compatible? Or are America’s policymakers fundamentally in conflict with its innovators? Can technology ultimately trump politics?

In the near-term, are traditional left/right divides breaking down? What are the real fault lines in technology policy? Where might a divided Congress reach consensus on tech policy issues like privacy, immigration, copyright, censorship, Internet freedom and biotech?

For answers and more questions, join moderator Declan McCullagh (Chief Political Correspondent for CNET), and a panel of technology policy experts: Berin Szoka (President, TechFreedom), Larry Downes (author, Laws of Disruption), and Mike McGeary (Co-Founder and Chief Political Strategist, Engine Advocacy). This event will include a complimentary lunch and is co-sponsored by TechFreedom, Reason Foundation, and the Charles Koch Institute.

Continue reading →

The suicide of Aaron Swartz earlier this year has sparked a national debate about reforming the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Most notably, in June, Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Jim Sensenbrenner joined Sen. Ron Wyden to introduce Aaron’s Law, which aims to rein in the excesses of the federal computer fraud law and ensure it targets real criminals, rather than researchers or tinkerers.

Would this bipartisan reform go far enough — or too far? Would Aaron’s Law preserve the government’s ability to prosecute harmful hacking? What can activists do to promote CFAA reform in Congress?

These are some of the questions that will be explored in a panel discussion hosted by TechFreedom and the Electronic Frontier Foundation at CNET’s San Francisco Headquarters on July 22. RSVP here. Continue reading →

Robert McDowell, one of the two Republican Commissioners on the Federal Communications Commission, announced on Wednesday that he would soon resign. In his seven years on the FCC, Commissioner McDowell has been a consistent critic of over-regulation and a champion of both Internet freedom and the rule of law. He’s earned a uniquely loyal following among policymakers and thought leaders alike in the free market tech policy community, not only in the U.S. but around the world.  Here are just a few tributes to this remarkably humble and personable regulator—the regulator who, again and again, cried, in the most mild-mannered-but-firm way possible: “Hold on a minute, have we really thought this one through?”

  • Sen. John Thune (R-SD): “As we have seen with his recent leadership on efforts to prevent foreign government intervention in the operation and use of the Internet, Rob has been a consistent voice cautioning against unnecessary governmental regulations. I hope the president’s nominee to replace him will approach the job with the same passion and energy that Rob exhibited and will be similarly committed to finding market-based solutions to our nation’s communications challenges whenever possible.”

  • Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI): “At a time when broadband and wireless technology are transforming voice, video, audio and data communications, we could not have asked for a better steward than Commissioner McDowell. With every decision, he has fought to ensure we are creating an environment for investment, innovation, and growth. And he has done so with both eloquence and good humor. No question that he has left the communications landscape better than he found it. We thank him for his service.”

  • Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR): “For more than a half decade, Robert McDowell has embodied the consummate FCC commissioner. He has kept a steadfast eye on how to foster a vibrant communications marketplace for the American people and the American economy. He has always stood up to protect the freedom of the Internet for all, and at every turn he has made sure to respect good process, good policy, and the rule of law. The country is all the better for his service. With much gratitude, we wish him all the best wherever his path may take him.” Continue reading →

Obama’s talked a big game about online privacy. He promised reform during the 2008 campaign. A year ago, the White House proposed a “Privacy Bill of Rights.” But so far, the Administration’s delivered little more than fine words. Worse, they’ve focused on the wrong problems.

Government has an important role to play in protecting consumer privacy, but its snooping and surveillance are far bigger problems—which have only grown worse. While Washington talks of a new commercial privacy “Bill of Rights,” the real Bill of Rights is in peril.

The American Revolution erupted, in large part, out of seething resentment at British privacy intrusions—without judicial supervision. Virginia adopted its own Bill of Rights shortly before the Declaration of Independence, including what later became Madison’s Fourth Amendment to the Constitution: “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Law enforcement must generally obtain a warrant before conducting a search—which means convincing a judge that probable cause exists to believe a crime has been committed. Continue reading →

By Berin Szoka and Ben Sperry

You’d think it would be harder for government to justify regulating the Internet than the offline world, right? Wrong—sadly. And Congress just missed a chance to fix that problem.

For decades, regulators have been required to issue a cost-benefit analysis when issuing new regulations.  Some agencies are specifically required to do so by statute, but for most agencies, the requirement comes from executive orders issued by each new President—varying somewhat but each continuing the general principle that regulators bear the burden of showing that each regulation’s benefits outweigh its costs.

But the FCC, FTC and many other regulatory agencies aren’t required to do cost-benefit analysis at all.  Because these are “independent agencies”—creatures of Congress rather than part of the Executive Branch (like the Department of Justice)—only Congress can impose cost-benefit analysis on agencies.  A bipartisan bill, the Independent Agency Regulatory Analysis Act (S. 3486), would have allowed the President to impose the same kind of cost-benefit analysis on independent regulatory agencies as on Executive Branch agencies, including review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for “significant” rulemakings (those with $100 million or more in economic impact, that adversely affect sectors of the economy in a material way, or that create “serious inconsistency” with other agencies’ actions).

Republican Senators Rob Portman and Susan Collins joined with Democrat Mark Warner in this important cause—yet the bill has apparently died during this lame duck Congress. While some public interest groups have attempted to couch their objection on separation-of-powers grounds, their ultimate objection seems to be with subjecting the regulatory state’s rulemaking process to systematic economic analysis—because, after all, rigor makes regulation harder.  But what’s so wrong with a cost-benefit analysis?  Continue reading →

By Geoffrey Manne, Matt Starr & Berin Szoka

“Real lawyers read the footnotes!”—thus did Harold Feld chastise Geoff and Berin in a recent blog post about our CNET piece on the Verizon/SpectrumCo transaction. We argued, as did Commissioner Pai in his concurrence, that the FCC provided no legal basis for its claims of authority to review the Commercial Agreements that accompanied Verizon’s purchase of spectrum licenses—and that these agreements for joint marketing, etc. were properly subject only to DOJ review (under antitrust).

Harold insists that the FCC provided “actual analysis of its authority” in footnote 349 of its Order. But real lawyers read the footnotes carefully. That footnote doesn’t provide any legal basis for the FTC to review agreements beyond a license transfer; indeed, the footnote doesn’t even assert such authority. In short, we didn’t cite the footnote because it is irrelevant, not because we forgot to read it.

First, a reminder of what we said:

The FCC’s review of the Commercial Agreements accompanying the spectrum deal exceeded the limits of Section 310(d) of the Communications Act. As Commissioner Pai noted in his concurring statement, “Congress limited the scope of our review to the proposed transfer of spectrum licenses, not to other business agreements that may involve the same parties.” We (and others) raised this concern in public comments filed with the Commission. Here’s the agency’s own legal analysis — in full: “The Commission has authority to review the Commercial Agreements and to impose conditions to protect the public interest.” There’s not even an accompanying footnote.

Even if Harold were correct that footnote 349 provides citations to possible sources of authority for the FCC to review the Commercial Agreements, it remains irrelevant to our claim: The FCC exceeded its authority under 310(d) and asserted its authority under 310(d) without any analysis or citation. Footnote 349 begins with the phrase, “[a]side from Section 310(d)….” It is no surprise, then, that the footnote contains no analysis of the agency’s authority under that section. Continue reading →

The privacy debate has been increasingly shaped by an apparent consensus that de-identifying sets of personally identifying information doesn’t work.  In particular, this has led the FTC to abandon the PII/non-PII distinction on the assumption that re-identification is too easy.  But a new paper shatters this supposed consensus by rebutting the methodology of Latanya Sweeney’s seminal 1997 study of re-identification risks, which in turn, shaped the HIPAA’s rules for de-identification of health data and the larger privacy debate ever since.

This new critical paper, “The ‘Re-Identification’ of Governor William Weld’s Medical Information: A Critical Re-Examination of Health Data Identification Risks and Privacy Protections, Then and Now” was published by Daniel Barth-Jones, an epidemiologist and statistician at Columbia University. After carefully re-examining the methodology of Sweeney’s 1997 study, he concludes that re-identification attempts will face “far-reaching systemic challenges” that are inherent in the statistical methods used to re-identify. In short, re-identification turns out to be harder than it seemed—so our identity can more easily be obscured in large data sets. This more nuanced story must be understood by privacy law scholars and public policy-makers if they want to realistically assess current privacy risks posed by de-identified data—not just for health data, but for all data.

The importance of Barth-Jones’s paper is underscored by the example of Vioxx, which stayed on the market years longer than it should have because of HIPAA’s privacy rules, thus resulting in  88,000 and 139,000 unnecessary heart attacks, and 27,000-55,000 avoidable deaths—as University of Arizona Law Professor Jane Yakowitz Bambauer explained in a recent Huffington Post piece.

Ultimately, overstating the risk of re-identification causes policymakers to strike the wrong balance in the trade-off of privacy with other competing values.  As Barth-Jones and Yakowitz have suggested, policymakers should instead focus on setting standards for proper de-identification of data that are grounded in a rigorous statistical analysis of re-identification risks.  A safe harbor for proper de-identification, combined with legal limitations on re-identification, could protect consumers against real privacy harms while still allowing the free flow of data that drives research and innovation throughout the economy.

Unfortunately, the Barth-Jones paper has not received the attention it deserves.  So I encourage you consider writing about this, or just take a moment to share this with your friends on Twitter or Facebook.