Articles by Jerry Brito

Jerry is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and director of its Technology Policy Program. He also serves as adjunct professor of law at GMU. His web site is jerrybrito.com.


Sens. Lamar Alexander and Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill that would ban cellphone calls on planes today, just before the FCC votes on the issue. Alexander, a small government conservative, had this to say in a statement:

Keeping phone conversations private on commercial flights may not be enshrined in the Constitution, but it is certainly enshrined in common sense. This legislation is about avoiding something nobody wants: nearly 2 million passengers a day, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch-wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts.

As I pointed out in Reason last week, the fear that if airlines are given the option of allowing cellphones in-flight then we’ll have millions of “yapping” passengers is contrary to all evidence. First of all, not all airlines will allow in-flight phone use, giving folks who fear “yapping” a choice.

If [demand for phone-free flights] is there, as it certainly seems to be, airlines will respond with private rules and bans on cellphone use without government’s help. And private rules have the advantage of being much more varied and flexible than the difficult-to-change, one-size-fits-all rules we can get from government. We can see this at work in Europe and Asia, which already allow cellphone use in-flight. According to the New York Times, “Virgin Atlantic allows unlimited data connections, but it lets only six people talk on a cellphone at once. Some Lufthansa flights allow data connections through a cellphone, but no phone calls.”

By introducing this legislation, Alexander is essentially saying that he doesn’t trust markets to meet consumer demand, and that a government edict is the better course. More to the point:

Even on flights that do allow cell phone use, it won’t be “chaos” as Rep. DeFazio predicts. Humans have a pretty good history of eliciting good behavior from each other through the development of norms without the need for codified rules–public or private. According to the FAA, civil authorities in countries were in-flight cellphone use is permitted reported no “cases of air rage or flight attendant interference related to passengers using cell phones on aircraft equipped with on-board cellular telephone base stations.”

Having the government tell airlines what services they can and can’t offer their customers is not “commons sense” as Alexander puts it; it’s big-government paternalism. Perhaps I have a higher opinion of my fellow Americans, including travelers from Tennessee, but I really doubt that if an airline allows cellphone use, then we will necessarily see endless mindless “yapping.” Americans would probably behave like the Europeans and Asians who already have this choice, being judicious about using their phone and courteous when they do.

bitcoin transaction

A common question among smart Bitcoin skeptics is, “Why would one use Bitcoin when you can use dollars or euros, which are more common and more widely accepted?” It’s a fair question, and one I’ve tried to answer by pointing out that if Bitcoin were just a currency (except new and untested), then yes, there would be little reason why one should prefer it to dollars. The fact, however, is that Bitcoin is more than money, as I recently explained in Reason. Bitcoin is better thought of as a payments system, or as a distributed ledger, that (for technical reasons) happens to use a new currency called the bitcoin as the unit of account. As Tim Lee has pointed out, Bitcoin is therefore a platform for innovation, and it is this potential that makes it so valuable.

Eric Posner is one of these smart skeptics. Writing in Slate in April he rejected Bitcoin as a “fantasy” because he felt it didn’t make sense as a currency. Since then it’s been pointed out to him that Bitcoin is more than a currency, and today at the New Republic he asks the question, “Why would you use Bitcoin when you can use PayPal or Visa, which are more common and widely accepted?”

He answers his own question, in part, by acknowledging that Bitcoin is censorship-resistant. As he puts it, “If you live in a country with capital controls, you can avoid those[.]” So right there, it seems to me, is one good reason why one might want to use Bitcoin instead of PayPal or Visa. Another smart skeptic, Tyler Cowen, acknowledges this as well, even if only to suggest that the price of bitcoins will fall “if/when China fully liberalizes capital flows[.]”

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Alice Marwick, assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, discusses her newly-released book, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age. Marwick reflects on her interviews with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, technology journalists, and venture capitalists to show how social media affects social dynamics and digital culture. Marwick answers questions such as: Does “status conscious” take on a new meaning in the age of social media? Is the public using social media the way the platforms’ creators intended? How do you quantify the value of online social interactions? Are social media users becoming more self-censoring or more transparent about what they share? What’s the difference between self-branding and becoming a micro-celebrity? She also shares her advice for how to make Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and other platforms more beneficial for you.

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soviet-beerIt’s been way too long since the Tech Liberation Front hosted an IRL meetup, more than a year in fact, so we’re looking to make amends next week. You’re invited to the 15th Alcohol Liberation Front happy hour, which we’ll hold at Churchkey on 14th Street at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, December 4th.

Lots of us from the TLF gang will be there, including quite a few of our out-of-town contributors. So please come by and have a beer with us, and bring a friend!

In my Reason column this week I took inspiration from the fact that I will soon be sporting a Narrative Clip life-logging camera, and I wrote about our coming sousveillance future when everyone will be recording everyone else with wearable cameras. Lo and behold, looks like our good friend Fred Smith of CEI last night lived that future.

That’s a video posted by a biker who apparently wears a camera on his helmet and records his rides. He was calling the police to report a car blocking the bike lane when Fred and his wife Fran asked him not to. One thing I find fascinating is that being recorded, their instinct was to record back with the cameras on their phones.

As wearables become mainstream we’re going to begin to see many more videos like this, and I leave it to the reader to decide whether that’s a good thing. Sousveillance, whether we like it or not, will be a giant accountability machine. Obviously, recording the behavior of police and other government agents will help keep them accountable, but we’ll also be recording each other. Indeed, this biker wears a camera in part, I’m sure, to hold others accountable should anything happen to him on the road. What’s interesting is that what we will be held accountable for will be not just traffic accidents, but also sidewalk interactions that until now would have remained private and anonymous. Do check out my column in which I go into much more detail about the coming mainstreaming of sousveillance.

“Selfie” was selected today as the word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary’s editors, beating both “twerking” and “bitcoin.” Bitcoin’s company in that word list makes me appreciate the fact that others may be as sick of hearing about Bitcoin as I am about twerking. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty important week for Bitcoin, an I wanted to highlight some of the work I’ve been doing.

Yesterday the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on the promises and challenges that virtual currencies hold for consumers and law enforcement respectively. I testified at that hearing and video of my testimony is below. You can also check out the written testimony, which is an updated version of the Bitcoin primer for policymakers I wrote with Andrea Castillo earlier this year. And ahead of the hearing I published an op-ed in The Guardian arguing that if the U.S. doesn’t foster a sane regulatory environment for Bitcoin, entrepreneurs will go to other jurisdictions that do.

All in all the hearing was hearteningly positive. The federal regulators and law enforcement representatives all agreed that Bitcoin is a lawful and legitimate payments system and that it holds great promise. They also agreed that plain old cash and centralized virtual currencies (contra Bitcoin’s decentralized design) are much greater magnets for money laundering, and that they needed no new laws or authority to deal with illegal uses of Bitcoin. I discuss the hearing and its implications on today’s Cato Daily Podcast with Caleb Brown.

Finally, I think there are lots of folks, especially in the wonkosphere, who think they know what Bitcoin is, but really don’t, and so the opinions they offer about its viability or significance are based on misunderstanding. For example, Neil Irwin at Wonkblog today wrote a 700-word post to suggest that what Bitcoin needs is a central bank. Now, if he’s trolling, kudos to him. But I really think he’s innocently ignorant of the fact that Bitcoin’s seminal design feature is that it is a decentralized payments system, and that the moment you add a central banker (which would in any case be impossible) you would no longer have Bitcoin, but Facebook Credits or Microsoft Points or airline miles.

So, if you think you have an inkling about what Bitcoin is, but you’re not too sure, or you don’t know why it’s so significant, please check out my cover story in the December issue of Reason, which was just made available online. Apart from explaining the basics, I go into detail about the little understood fact that Bitcoin is much more than just money. Value transmission is just the most obvious use case for Bitcoin, and thus the one that’s being built out first, but the Bitcoin platform is essentially a decentralized ledger, so it is also able to support property registrations, decentralized futures markets, and much more.

And truly finally, if you want to keep up with all the happenings in Bitcoin, including the Senate Banking Committee hearing later today, check out MostlyBitcoin.com, a site a built for myself but that I hope is useful to others that tracks Bitcoin stories in the mainstream media.

Anupam Chander, Director of the California International Law Center and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at the UC Davis School of Law, discusses his recent paper with co-author Uyen P. Lee titled The Free Speech Foundations of Cyberlaw. Chander addresses how the first amendment promotes innovation on the Internet; how limitations to free speech vary between the US and Europe; the role of online intermediaries in promoting and protecting the first amendment; the Communications Decency Act; technology, piracy, and copyright protection; and the tension between privacy and free speech.

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Deep Web Time CoverToday is a bit of a banner day for Bitcoin. It was five years ago today that Bitcoin was first described in a paper by Satoshi Nakamoto. And today the New York Times has finally run a profile of the cryptocurrency in its “paper of record” pages. In addition, TIME’s cover story this week is about the “deep web” and how Tor and Bitcoin facilitate it.

The fact is that Bitcoin is inching its way into the mainstream. Indeed, the NYT’s headline is “Bitcoin Pursues the Mainstream,” and this month’s issue of WIRED includes an article titled, “Bitcoin’s Radical Days Are Over. Here’s How to Take It Mainstream.

The radicals, however, are not taking this sitting down. Also today, Cody Wilson and Unsystem have launched a crowdfunding campaign to build an anonymizing wallet. In their explanatory video, they criticize the Bitcoin Foundation as “helping the United States” regulate Bitcon, presumably to hasten its mainstream adoption. “Their mission is a performance to both agree with, and maintain an independence from, regulatory power,” Wilson says. “But you can’t have it both ways.”

This is an internecine battle that I’ve observed in the Bitcoin community for years. That of the cypherpunks who see Bitcoin as an escape hatch from state control versus the entrepreneurs who are more interested in the network’s disruptive (and thus profitable) potential. While it might be a fool’s errand, I’d like to make the case that not only is the work of the two groups not in conflict, they actually benefit from each other.

I’ve been following Bitcoin since early 2011, and in April of that year I penned the first (yes) mainstream article about Bitcoin. It was in TIME.com, and it’s been credited with kicking off the first bubble. Since then my work has focused on the regulatory policy around Bitcoin and other crypto currencies, especially looking to educate policymakers about the workings and potential benefits of decentralized payments systems. Why am I so interested in this? My reasons are twofold and they track both the entrepreneurial and cypherpunk ideals, and yet I don’t think I’m bipolar.

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Ryan Radia is one of the few people in the world with whom it is a true pleasure to discuss copyright issues. We see eye to eye on almost everything, but there is enough difference in our perspectives to make things interesting. More importantly, Ryan’s only religious fealty is to logic and the economic way of thinking, which makes for reasoned and respectful conversations. So I am delighted that he took the time to conduct one of his patented Radianalysis™ reviews of the issues raised by PiracyData.org. As is very often the case, I agree from top to bottom with what Ryan has laid out, and it has prompted some thoughts that I’d like to share.

What Ryan is addressing in his piece is the question of whether shortening or eliminating release windows would reduce piracy. He concludes that yes, “Hollywood probably could make a dent in piracy if it put every new movie on iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Amazon, and Netflix the day of release. Were these lawful options available from the get-go, they’d likely attract some people who would otherwise pirate a hit new film by grabbing a torrent on The Pirate Bay.” That said, Ryan points out quite rightly that “even if Hollywood could better compete with piracy by vastly expanding online options for viewing new release films, this might not be a sound money-making strategy. Each major film studio is owned by a publicly-held corporation that operates for the benefit of its shareholders. In other words, the studios are in the business of earning profits, not maximizing their audiences.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

One thing that caught me off guard when we launched PiracyData.org (but that in retrospect should not have), is that many people interpreted our attempt to create a dataset as a statement that Hollywood is to blame for its own piracy problem. As I’ve explained, I think it’s dumb to blame Hollywood for piracy, and doing so was not what motivated the project. What motivated the project was Hollywood’s claim that private third parties, such as search engines, have an obligation to do everything in their power to reduce piracy, and that companies like Google are not doing “enough” today.

As Ryan points out, the studios could probably curb piracy by changing their business model, but doing so might very well mean taking a cut in revenue. And as he also points out, the studios are not audience maximizers; they are profit maximizers. This is why they are not about to drastically change their business model anytime soon, which is their prerogative and one I understand. But then the question is, how many resources should we expect taxpayers and private third parties to spend to ensure that the studios can maximize their profits?

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Christopher Wolf, director of the law firm Hogan Lovells’ Privacy and Information Management group, addresses his new book with co-author Abraham Foxman, Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet. To what extent do hateful or mean-spirited Internet users hide behind anonymity? How do we balance the protection of the First Amendment online while addressing the spread of hate speech? Wolf discusses how to define hate speech on the Internet; whether online hate speech leads to real-world violence; how news sites like the Huffington Post and New York Times have dealt with anonymity; lessons we should impart on the next generation of Internet users to discourage hate speech; and cases where anonymity has proved particularly beneficial or valuable.

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