Online Education

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) have reintroduced their “Do Not Track Kids Act,” which, according to this press release, “amends the historic Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA), will extend, enhance and update the provisions relating to the collection, use and disclosure of children’s personal information and establishes new protections for personal information of children and teens.” I quickly scanned the new bill and it looks very similar to their previous bill of the same name that they introduced in 2011 and which I wrote about here and then critiqued at much greater length in a subsequent Mercatus Center working paper (“Kids, Privacy, Free Speech & the Internet: Finding The Right Balance”).

Since not much appears to have changed, I would just encourage you to check out my old working paper for a discussion of why this legislation raises a variety of technical and constitutional issues. But I remain perplexed by how supporters of this bill think they can devise age-stratified online privacy protections without requiring full-blown age verification for all Internet users. And once you go down that path, as I note in my paper, you open up a huge Pandora’s Box of problems that we have already grappled with for many years now. As I noted in my paper, the real irony here is that the “problem with these efforts is that expanding COPPA would require the collection of more personal information about kids and parents. For age verification to be effective at the scale of the Internet, the collection of massive amounts of additional data is necessary.” Continue reading →

California’s continuing effort to make the Internet their own digital fiefdom continued this week with Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that creates an online “Eraser Button” just for minors. The law isn’t quite as sweeping as the seriously misguided “right to be forgotten” notion I’ve critique here (1, 2, 3, 4) and elsewhere (5, 6) before. In any event, the new California law will:

require the operator of an Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application to permit a minor, who is a registered user of the operator’s Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application, to remove, or to request and obtain removal of, content or information posted on the operator’s Internet Web site, service, or application by the minor, unless the content or information was posted by a 3rd party, any other provision of state or federal law requires the operator or 3rd party to maintain the content or information, or the operator anonymizes the content or information. The bill would require the operator to provide notice to a minor that the minor may remove the content or information, as specified.

As always, the very best of intentions motivate this proposal. There’s no doubt that some digital footprints left online by minors could come back to haunt them in the future, and that concern for their future reputation and privacy is the primary motivation for the measure. Alas, noble-minded laws like these often lead to many unintended consequences, and even some thorny constitutional issues. I’d be hard-pressed to do a better job of itemizing those potential problems than Eric Goldman, of Santa Clara University School of Law, and Stephen Balkam, Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, have done in recent essays on the issue. Continue reading →

Are we as globalized and interconnected as we think we are? Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and author of the new book, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, argues that America was likely more globalized before World War I than it is today. Zuckerman discusses how we’re more focused on what’s going on in our own backyards; how this affects creativity; the role the Internet plays in making us less connected with the rest of the world; and, how we can broaden our information universe to consume a more healthy “media diet.”

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Alex Tabarrok

Alex Tabarrok, author of the ebook Launching The Innovation Renaissance: A New Path to Bring Smart Ideas to Market Fast discusses America’s declining growth rate in total factor productivity, what this means for the future of innovation, and what can be done to improve the situation.

Accroding to Tabarrok, patents, which were designed to promote the progress of science and the useful arts, have instead become weapons in a war for competitive advantage with innovation as collateral damage. College, once a foundation for innovation, has been oversold. And regulations, passed with the best of intentions, have spread like kudzu and now impede progress to everyone’s detriment. Tabarrok outs forth simple reforms in each of these areas and also explains the role immigration plays in innovation and national productivity.

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Defining “privacy” is a legal and philosophical nightmare. Few concepts engender more definitional controversies and catfights. As someone who is passionate about his own personal privacy — but also highly skeptical of top-down governmental attempts to regulate and/or protect it — I continue to be captivated by the intellectual wrangling that has taken place over the definition of privacy. Here are some thoughts from a wide variety of scholars that make it clear just how frustrating this endeavor can be:

  • Perhaps the most striking thing about the right to privacy is that nobody seems to have any very clear idea what it is.” – Judith Jarvis Thomson, “The Right to Privacy,” in Philosophical Dimensions of Privacy: An Anthology, 272, 272 (Ferdinand David Schoeman ed., 1984).
  • privacy is “exasperatingly vague and evanescent.” – Arthur Miller, The Assault on Privacy: Computers, Data Banks, and Dossiers, 25 (1971).
  • [T]he concept of privacy is infected with pernicious ambiguities.” – Hyman Gross,  The Concept of Privacy, 42 N.Y.U. L. REV. 34, 35 (1967).
  • Attempts to define the concept of ‘privacy’ have generally not met with any success.” – Colin Bennett, Regulating Privacy: Data Protection and Public Policy In Europe and the United States,  25 (1992).
  • When it comes to privacy, there are many inductive rules, but very few universally accepted axioms.” - David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 77 (1998).
  • Privacy is a value so complex, so entangled in competing and contradictory dimensions, so engorged with various and distinct meanings, that I sometimes despair whether it can be usefully addressed at all.” – Robert C. Post, Three Concepts of Privacy, 89 GEO. L.J. 2087, 2087 (2001).
  • [privacy] can mean almost anything to anybody.” – Fred H. Cate & Robert Litan, Constitutional Issues in Information Privacy, 9 Mich. Telecomm. & Tech. L. Rev. 35, 37 (2002).
  • privacy has long been a “conceptual jungle” and a “concept in disarray.” “[T]he attempt to locate the ‘essential’ or ‘core’ characteristics of privacy has led to failure.” – Daniel J. Solove, Understanding Privacy 196, 8 (2008).
  • Privacy has really ceased to be helpful as a term to guide policy in the United States.” - Woodrow Hartzog, quoted in Cord Jefferson, Spies Like Us: We’re All Big Brother Now, Gizmodo, Sept. 27, 2012.
  • for most consumers and policymakers, privacy is not a rational topic. It’s a visceral subject, one on which logical arguments are largely wasted.” – Larry Downes,  A Rational Response to the Privacy “Crisis,” Cato Institute, Policy Analysis No. 716 (Jan. 7, 2013), at 6.

In my new Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy article, “The Pursuit of Privacy in a World Where Information Control is Failing” I build on these insights to argue that: Continue reading →