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.


Ladar Levison on Lavabit

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by on February 4, 2014 · 0 comments

Ladar Levison, founder of encrypted email service Lavabit, discusses recent government action that led him to shut down his firm. When it was suspected that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden used Lavabit’s email service, the FBI issued a National Security Letter ordering Levison to hand over SSL keys, jeopardizing the privacy of Lavabit’s 410,000 users. Levison discusses his inspiration for founding Lavabit and why he chose to suspend the service; how Lavabit was different from email services like Gmail; developments in his case and how the Fourth Amendment has come into play; and his involvement with the recently-formed Dark Mail Technical Alliance.

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Jack Schinasi discusses his recent working paper, Practicing Privacy Online: Examining Data Protection Regulations Through Google’s Global Expansion published in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. Schinasi takes an in-depth look at how online privacy laws differ across the world’s biggest Internet markets — specifically the United States, the European Union and China. Schinasi discusses how we exchange data for services and whether users are aware they’re making this exchange. And, if not, should intermediaries like Google be mandated to make its data tracking more apparent? Or should we better educate Internet users about data sharing and privacy? Schinasi also covers whether privacy laws currently in place in the US and EU are effective, what types of privacy concerns necessitate regulation in these markets, and whether we’ll see China take online privacy more seriously in the future.

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If you’re looking to pursue an econ graduate degree, you should know that the Mercatus Center offers several amazing fellowships for both masters and PhD students. And while they’re mostly for econ students, the Adam Smith fellowship is open to students in other fields as well. In addition to money and a great education, you could get the chance to work with me, Adam, Eli, and Brent. Application deadlines are in March, so get going…

The PhD Fellowship is a three-year, competitive, full-time fellowship program for students who are pursuing a doctoral degree in economics at George Mason University. It includes full tuition support, a stipend, and experience as a research assistant working closely with Mercatus-affiliated Mason faculty. It is a total award of up to $120,000 over three years. The application deadline is February 1, 2014.

The MA Fellowship is a two-year, competitive, full-time fellowship program for students pursuing a master’s degree in economics at George Mason University who are interested in gaining advanced training in applied economics in preparation for a career in public policy. It includes full tuition support, a stipend, and practical experience as a research assistant working with Mercatus scholars. It is a total award of up to $80,000 over two years. The application deadline is March 1, 2014.

The Adam Smith Fellowship is a one-year, competitive fellowship for graduate students attending PhD programs at any university, in a variety of fields, including economics, philosophy, political science, and sociology. Smith Fellows receive a stipend and attend workshops and seminars on the Austrian, Virginia, and Bloomington schools of political economy. It is a total award of up to $10,000 for the year. The application deadline is March 15, 2014.

James Barrat, author of Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, discusses the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Barrat takes a look at how to create friendly AI with human characteristics, which other countries are developing AI, and what we could expect with the arrival of the Singularity. He also touches on the evolution of AI and how companies like Google and IBM and government entities like DARPA and the NSA are developing artificial general intelligence devices right now.

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Over a month ago I testified at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Bitcoin. I’ve been asked by the committee to submit answers to additional questions, and I thought I’d try to tap into the Bitcoin community’s wisdom by posting here the questions and my draft answers and inviting you to post in the comments any suggestions you might have. I’d especially appreciate examples of innovative uses of Bitcoin or interesting potential business cases. Thanks for your help! Continue reading →

Robert Scoble, Startup Liaison Officer at Rackspace discusses his recent book, Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy, co-authored by Shel Israel. Scoble believes that over the next five years we’ll see a tremendous rise in wearable computers, building on interest we’ve already seen in devices like Google Glass. Much like the desktop, laptop, and smartphone before it, Scoble predicts wearable computers represent the next wave in groundbreaking innovation. Scoble answers questions such as: How will wearable computers help us live our lives? Will they become as common as the cellphone is today? Will we have to sacrifice privacy for these devices to better understand our preferences? How will sensors in everyday products help companies improve the customer experience?

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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!