In a recent essay here “On the Line between Technology Ethics vs. Technology Policy,” I made the argument that “We cannot possibly plan for all the ‘bad butterfly-effects’ that might occur, and attempts to do so will result in significant sacrifices in terms of social and economic liberty.” It was a response to a problem I see at work in many tech policy debates today: With increasing regularity, scholars, activists, and policymakers are conjuring up a seemingly endless parade of horribles that will befall humanity unless “steps are taken” to preemptive head-off all the hypothetical harms they can imagine. (This week’s latest examples involve the two hottest technopanic topics du jour: the Internet of Things and commercial delivery drones. Fear and loathing, and plenty of “threat inflation,” are on vivid display.)
I’ve written about this phenomenon at even greater length in my recent law review article, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle,” as well as in two lengthy blog posts asking the questions, “Who Really Believes in ‘Permissionless Innovation’?” and “What Does It Mean to ‘Have a Conversation’ about a New Technology?” The key point I try to get across in those essays is that letting such “precautionary principle” thinking guide policy poses a serious threat to technological progress, economic entrepreneurialism, social adaptation, and long-run prosperity. If public policy is guided at every turn by the precautionary mindset then innovation becomes impossible because of fear of the unknown; hypothetical worst-case scenarios trump all other considerations. Social learning and economic opportunities become far less likely under such a regime. In practical terms, it means fewer services, lower quality goods, higher prices, diminished economic growth, and a decline in the overall standard of living.
Indeed, if we live in constant fear of the future and become paralyzed by every boogeyman scenario that our creative little heads can conjure up, then we’re bound to end up looking as silly as this classic 2005 parody from The Onion, “Everything That Can Go Wrong Listed.” Continue reading →
What works well as an ethical directive might not work equally well as a policy prescription. Stated differently, what one ought to do it certain situations should not always be synonymous with what they must do by force of law.
I’m going to relate this lesson to tech policy debates in a moment, but let’s first think of an example of how this lesson applies more generally. Consider the Ten Commandments. Some of them make excellent ethical guidelines (especially the stuff about not coveting neighbor’s house, wife, or possessions). But most of us would agree that, in a free and tolerant society, only two of the Ten Commandments make good law: Thou shalt not kill and Thou shalt not steal.
In other words, not every sin should be a crime. Perhaps some should be; but most should not. Taking this out of the realm of religion and into the world of moral philosophy, we can apply the lesson more generally as: Not every wise ethical principle makes for wise public policy. Continue reading →
Few modern intellectuals gave more serious thought to forecasting the future than Herman Kahn. He wrote several books and essays imagining what the future might look like. But he was also a profoundly humble man who understood the limits of forecasting the future. On that point, I am reminded of my favorite Herman Kahn quote:
History is likely to write scenarios that most observers would find implausible not only prospectively but sometimes, even in retrospect. Many sequences of events seem plausible now only because they have actually occurred; a man who knew no history might not believe any. Future events may not be drawn from the restricted list of those we have learned are possible; we should expect to go on being surprised.
I have always loved that phrase, “a man who knew no history might not believe any.” Indeed, sometimes the truth (how history actually unfolds) really is stranger than fiction (or the hypothetical forecasts that came before it.)
This insight has profound ramifications for public policy and efforts to “plan progress,” something that typically ends badly. Continue reading →
In June, The Guardian ran a groundbreaking story that divulged a top secret court order forcing Verizon to hand over to the National Security Agency (NSA) all of its subscribers’ telephony metadata—including the phone numbers of both parties to any call involving a person in the United States and the time and duration of each call—on a daily basis. Although media outlets have published several articles in recent years disclosing various aspects the NSA’s domestic surveillance, the leaked court order obtained by The Guardian revealed hard evidence that NSA snooping goes far beyond suspected terrorists and foreign intelligence agents—instead, the agency routinely and indiscriminately targets private information about all Americans who use a major U.S. phone company.
It was only a matter of time before the NSA’s surveillance program—which is purportedly authorized by Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act (50 U.S.C. § 1861)—faced a challenge in federal court. The Electronic Privacy Information Center fired the first salvo on July 8, when the group filed a petition urging the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus nullifying the court orders authorizing the NSA to coerce customer data from phone companies. But as Tim Lee of The Washington Post pointed out in a recent essay, the nation’s highest Court has never before reviewed a decision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, which is responsible for issuing the top secret court order authorizing the NSA’s surveillance program.
Today, another crucial lawsuit challenging the NSA’s domestic surveillance program was brought by a diverse coalition of nineteen public interest groups, religious organizations, and other associations. The coalition, represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, includes TechFreedom, Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, among many other groups. The lawsuit, brought in the U.S. district court in northern California, argues that the NSA’s program—aptly described as the “Assocational Tracking Program” in the complaint—violates the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution, along with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
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I was honored to be asked by the editors at Reason magazine to be a part of their “Revolutionary Reading” roundup of “The 9 Most Transformative Books of the Last 45 Years.” Reason is celebrating its 45th anniversary and running a wide variety of essays looking back at how liberty has fared over the past half-century. The magazine notes that “Statism has hardly gone away, but the movement to roll it back is stronger than ever.” For this particular feature, Reason’s editors “asked seven libertarians to recommend some of the books in different fields that made [the anti-statist] cultural and intellectual revolution possible.”
When Jesse Walker of Reason first contacted me about contributing my thoughts about which technology policy books made the biggest difference, I told him I knew exactly what my choices would be: Ithiel de Sola Pool’s Technologies of Freedom (1983) and Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies (1998). Faithful readers of this blog know all too well how much I love these two books and how I am constantly reminding people of their intellectual importance all these years later. (See, for example, this and this.) All my thinking and writing about tech policy over the past two decades has been shaped by the bold vision and recommendations set forth by Pool and Postrel in these beautiful books.
As I note in my Reason write-up of the books: Continue reading →
Patrick Ruffini, political strategist, author, and President of Engage, a digital agency in Washington, DC, discusses his latest book with coauthors David Segal and David Moon: Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, the Tea Party, Gamers, Anarchists, and Suits Teamed Up to Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet. Ruffini covers the history behind SOPA, its implications for Internet freedom, the “Internet blackout” in January of 2012, and how the threat of SOPA united activists, technology companies, and the broader Internet community.
W. Patrick McCray, author of The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future, tells the story of these modern utopians who predicted that their technologies could transform society as humans mastered the ability to create new worlds.
Believing that the term “futurist” was too broad, McCray coined the term visioneers to describe those who not only had ambitious visions for future technology, but who carried out detailed and extensive scientific and engineering work to bring those visions into fruition, and who actively worked to promote their ideas to a wider public.
McCray focuses on the works of Gerard O’Neil and Eric Drexler, detailing their early contributions as visioneers and their continuing impact particularly in the fields of space colonization and nanotechnology. He also identifies modern-day visioneers and their work.
Marc Hochstein, Executive Editor of American Banker, a leading media outlet covering the banking and financial services community, discusses bitcoin.
According to Hochstein, bitcoin has made its name as a digital currency, but the truly revolutionary aspect of the technology is its dual function as a payment system competing against companies like PayPal and Western Union. While bitcoin has been in the news for its soaring exchange rate lately, Hochstein says the actual price of bitcoin is really only relevant for speculators in the short-term; in the long-term, however, the anonymous, decentralized nature of bitcoin has far-reaching implications.
Hochstein goes on to talk about the new market in bitcoin futures and some of bitcoin’s weaknesses—including the volatility of the bitcoin market.
Andy Greenberg, technology writer for Forbes and author of the new book “This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information,” discusses the rise of the cypherpunk movement, how it led to WikiLeaks, and what the future looks like for cryptography.
Greenberg describes cypherpunks as radical techie libertarians who dreamt about using encryption to shift the balance of power from the government to individuals. He shares the rich history of the movement, contrasting one of t the movement’s founders—hardcore libertarian Tim May—with the movement’s hero—Phil Zimmerman, an applied cryptographer and developer of PGP (the first tool that allowed regular people to encrypt), a non-libertarian who was weary of cypherpunks, despite advocating crypto as a tool for combating the power of government.
According to Greenberg, the cypherpunk movement did not fade away, but rather grew into a larger hacker movement, citing the Tor network, bitcoin, and WikiLeaks as example’s of its continuing influence. Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, belonged to a listserv followed by early cypherpunks, though he was not very active at the time, he says.
Greenberg is excited for the future of information leaks, suggesting that the more decentralized process becomes, the faster cryptography will evolve.
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 →