Technopanics & the Precautionary Principle

Last week, I participated in a program co-sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute, the Lisbon Council, and the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy on “Growing the Transatlantic Digital Economy.”

The complete program, including keynote remarks from EU VP Neelie Kroes and U.S. Under Secretary of State Catherine A. Novelli, is available below.

My remarks reviewed worrying signs of old-style interventionist trade practices creeping into the digital economy in new guises, and urged traditional governments to stay the course (or correct it) on leaving the Internet ecosystem largely to its own organic forms of regulation and market correctives: Continue reading →

According to this article by Julian Hattem in The Hill (“Lawmakers warn in-flight calls could lead to fights“), 77 congressional lawmakers have sent a letter to the heads of four federal agencies warning them not to allow people to have in-flight cellphone conversations on the grounds that it “could lead to heated arguments among passengers that distract officials’ attention and make planes less safe.”  The lawmakers say “arguments in an aircraft cabin already start over mundane issues, like seat selection and overhead bin space, and the volume and pervasiveness of voice communications would only serve to exacerbate and escalate these disputes.” They’re also concerned that it may distract passengers from important in-flight announcements.

Well, I think I speak for a lot of other travelers when I say I find the idea of gabby passengers — whether on a phone or just among themselves — insanely annoying. For those of us who value peace and quiet and find airline travel to be among the most loathsome of experiences to begin with, it might be tempting to sympathize with this letter and just say, “Sure, go ahead and make this a federal problem and solve this for us with an outright ban.”

But isn’t there a case to be made here for differentiation and choice over yet another one-size-fits all mandate? Why must we have federal lawmakers or bureaucrats dictating that every flight be the same? I don’t get that. After all, enough of us would be opposed to in-flight calls that we would likely pressure airlines to not offer many of them. But perhaps a few flights or routes might be “business traveler”-oriented and offer this option to those who do. Or perhaps some airlines would restrict calling to certain areas of the cabin, or limit when the calls could occur. Continue reading →

drone picToday, Ryan Hagemann and I filed comments with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in its proceeding on the “Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft.” This may sound like a somewhat arcane topic but it is related to the ongoing policy debate over the integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs)—more commonly referred to as drones—into the National Airspace System. As part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress required the FAA to come up with a plan by September 2015 to accomplish that goal. As part of that effort, the FAA is currently accepting comments on its enforcement authority over model aircraft. Because the distinction between “drones” and “model aircraft” is blurring rapidly, the outcome of this proceeding could influence the outcome of the broader debate about drone policy in the United States.

In our comment to the agency, Hagemann and I discuss the need for the agency to conduct a thorough review of the benefits and costs associated with this rule. We argue this is essential because airspace is poised to become a major platform for innovation if the agency strikes the right balance between safety and innovation. To achieve that goal, we stress the need for flexibility and humility in interpreting older standards, such as “line of sight” restrictions, as well as increasingly archaic “noncommercial” vs. “commercial” distinctions or “hobbyists” vs. “professional” designations.

We also highlight the growing tension between the agency’s current regulatory approach and the First Amendment rights of the public to engage in peaceful, information-gathering activities using these technologies. (Importantly, on that point, we attached to our comments a new Mercatus Center working paper by Cynthia Love, Sean T. Lawson, and Avery Holton entitled, “News from Above: First Amendment Implications of the Federal Aviation Administration Ban on Commercial Drones.” See my coverage of the paper here.)

Finally, Hagemann and I close by noting the important role that voluntary self-regulation and codes of conduct already play in governing proper use of these technologies. We also argue that other “bottom-up” remedies are available and should be used before the agency imposes additional restrictions on this dynamic, rapidly evolving space.

You can download the complete comment on the Mercatus Center website here. (Note: The Mercatus Center filed comments with the FAA earlier about the prompt integration of drones into the nation’s airspace. You can read those comments here.)

Continue reading →

If there are two general principles that unify my recent work on technology policy and innovation issues, they would be as follows. To the maximum extent possible:

  1. We should avoid preemptive and precautionary-based regulatory regimes for new innovation. Instead, our policy default should be innovation allowed (or “permissionless innovation”) and innovators should be considered “innocent until proven guilty” (unless, that is, a thorough benefit-cost analysis has been conducted that documents the clear need for immediate preemptive restraints).
  2. We should avoid rigid, “top-down” technology-specific or sector-specific regulatory regimes and/or regulatory agencies and instead opt for a broader array of more flexible, “bottom-up” solutions (education, empowerment, social norms, self-regulation, public pressure, etc.) as well as reliance on existing legal systems and standards (torts, product liability, contracts, property rights, etc.).

I was very interested, therefore, to come across two new essays that make opposing arguments and proposals. The first is this recent Slate oped by John Frank Weaver, “We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often.” The second is Ryan Calo’s new Brookings Institution white paper, “The Case for a Federal Robotics Commission.”

Weaver argues that new robot technology “is going to develop fast, almost certainly faster than we can legislate it. That’s why we need to get ahead of it now.” In order to preemptively address concerns about new technologies such as driverless cars or commercial drones, “we need to legislate early and often,” Weaver says. Stated differently, Weaver is proposing “precautionary principle”-based regulation of these technologies. The precautionary principle generally refers to the belief that new innovations should be curtailed or disallowed until their developers can prove that they will not cause any harms to individuals, groups, specific entities, cultural norms, or various existing laws, norms, or traditions.

Calo argues that we need “the establishment of a new federal agency to deal with the novel experiences and harms robotics enables” since there exists “distinct but related challenges that would benefit from being examined and treated together.” These issues, he says, “require special expertise to understand and may require investment and coordination to thrive.

I’ll address both Weaver and Calo’s proposals in turn. Continue reading →

Driverless CarI’m pleased to announce that the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just released my latest working paper, “Removing Roadblocks to Intelligent Vehicles and Driverless Cars.” This paper, which was co-authored with Ryan Hagemann, has been accepted for publication in a forthcoming edition of the Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy.

In the paper, Hagemann and I explore the growing market for both “connected car” technologies as well as autonomous (or “driverless”) vehicle technology. We argue that intelligent-vehicle technology will produce significant benefits. Most notably, these technologies could save many lives. In 2012, 33,561 people were killed and 2,362,000 injured in traffic crashes, largely as a result of human error. Reducing the number of accidents by allowing intelligent vehicle technology to flourish would constitute a major public policy success. As Philip E. Ross noted recently at IEEE Spectrum, thanks to these technologies, “eventually it will be positively hard to use a car to hurt yourself or others.” The sooner that day arrives, the better.

These technologies could also have positive environmental impacts in the form of improved fuel economy, reduced traffic congestion, and reduced parking needs. They might also open up new mobility options for those who are unable to drive, for whatever reason. Any way you cut it, these are exciting technologies that promise to substantially improve human welfare.

Of course, as with any new disruptive technology, connected cars and driverless vehicles raise a variety of economic, social, and ethical concerns. Hagemann and I address some of the early policy concerns about these technologies (safety, security, privacy, liability, etc.) and we outline a variety of “bottom-up” solutions to ensure that innovation continues to flourish in this space. Importantly, we also argue that policymakers should keep in mind that individuals have gradually adapted to similar disruptions in the past and, therefore, patience and humility are needed when considering policy for intelligent-vehicle systems. Continue reading →

There’s a small but influential number of tech reporters and scholars who seem to delight in making the US sound like a broadband and technology backwater. A new Mercatus working paper by Roslyn Layton, a PhD fellow at a research center at Aalborg University, and Michael Horney a researcher at the Free State Foundation, counter that narrative and highlight data from several studies that show the US is at or near the top in important broadband categories.

For example, per Pew and ITU data, the vast majority of Americans use the Internet and the US is second in the world in data consumption per capita, trailing only South Korea. Pew reveals that for those who are not online the leading reasons are lack of usability and the Internet’s perceived lack of benefits. High cost, notably, is not the primary reason for infrequent use.

I’ve noted before some of the methodological problems in studies claiming the US has unusually high broadband prices. In what I consider their biggest contribution to the literature, Layton and Horney highlight another broadband cost frequently omitted in international comparisons: the mandatory media license fees many nations impose on broadband and television subscribers.

These fees can add as much as $44 to the monthly cost of broadband. When these fees are included in comparisons, American prices are frequently an even better value. In two-thirds of European countries and half of Asian countries, households pay a media license fee on top of the subscription fees to use devices such as connected computers and TVs.

…When calculating the real cost of international broadband prices, one needs to take into account media license fees, taxation, and subsidies. …[T]hese inputs can materially affect the cost of broadband, especially in countries where broadband is subject to value-added taxes as high as 27 percent, not to mention media license fees of hundreds of dollars per year.

US broadband providers, the authors point out, have priced broadband relatively efficiently for heterogenous uses–there are low-cost, low-bandwidth connections available as well as more expensive, higher-quality connections for intensive users.

Further, the US is well-positioned for future broadband use. Unlike many wealthy countries, Americans typically have access, at least, to broadband from telephone companies (like AT&T DSL or UVerse) as well as from a local cable provider. Competition between ISPs has meant steady investment in network upgrades, despite the 2008 global recession. The story is very different in much of Europe, where broadband investment, as a percentage of the global total, has fallen noticeably in recent years. US wireless broadband is also a bright spot: 97% of Americans can subscribe to 4G LTE while only 26% in the EU have access (which partially explains, by the way, why Europeans often pay less for mobile subscriptions–they’re using an inferior product).

There’s a lot to praise in the study and it’s necessary reading for anyone looking to understand how US broadband policy compares to other nations’. The fashionable arguments that the US is at risk of falling behind technologically were never convincing–the US is THE place to be if you’re a tech company or startup, for one–but Layton and Horney show the vulnerability of that narrative with data and rigor.

How is it that we humans have again and again figured out how to assimilate new technologies into our lives despite how much those technologies “unsettled” so many well-established personal, social, cultural, and legal norms?

In recent years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking through that question in a variety of blog posts (“Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society”), law review articles (“Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle”), opeds (“Why Do We Always Sell the Next Generation Short?”), and books (See chapter 4 of my new book, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom”).

It’s fair to say that this issue — how individuals, institutions, and cultures adjust to technological change — has become a personal obsession of mine and it is increasingly the unifying theme of much of my ongoing research agenda. The economic ramifications of technological change are part of this inquiry, of course, but those economic concerns have already been the subject of countless books and essays both today and throughout history. I find that the social issues associated with technological change — including safety, security, and privacy considerations — typically get somewhat less attention, but are equally interesting. That’s why my recent work and my new book narrow the focus to those issues. Continue reading →

I recently did a presentation for Capitol Hill staffers about emerging technology policy issues (driverless cars, the “Internet of Things,” wearable tech, private drones, “biohacking,” etc) and the various policy issues they would give rise to (privacy, safety, security, economic disruptions, etc.). The talk is derived from my new little book on “Permissionless Innovation,” but in coming months I will be releasing big papers on each of the topics discussed here.

Additional Reading:

I’ve spent a lot of time here through the years trying to identify the factors that fuel moral panics and “technopanics.” (Here’s a compendium of the dozens of essays I’ve written here on this topic.) I brought all this thinking together in a big law review article (“Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle”) and then also in my new booklet, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.”

One factor I identify as contributing to panics is the fact that “bad news sells.” As I noted in the book, “Many media outlets and sensationalist authors sometimes use fear-based tactics to gain influence or sell books. Fear mongering and prophecies of doom are always effective media tactics; alarmism helps break through all the noise and get heard.”

In line with that, I want to highly recommend you check out this excellent new oped by John Stossel of Fox Business Network on “Good News vs. ‘Pessimism Porn‘.”  Stossel correctly notes that “the media win by selling pessimism porn.” He says:

Are you worried about the future? It’s hard not to be. If you watch the news, you mostly see violence, disasters, danger. Some in my business call it “fear porn” or “pessimism porn.” People like the stuff; it makes them feel alive and informed.

Of course, it’s our job to tell you about problems. If a plane crashes — or disappears — that’s news. The fact that millions of planes arrive safely is a miracle, but it’s not news. So we soak in disasters — and warnings about the next one: bird flu, global warming, potential terrorism. I won Emmys hyping risks but stopped winning them when I wised up and started reporting on the overhyping of risks. My colleagues didn’t like that as much.

He continues on to note how, even though all the data clearly proves that humanity’s lot is improving, the press relentlessly push the “pessimism porn.” Continue reading →

The outrage over the FCC’s attempt to write new open Internet rules has caught many by surprise, and probably Chairman Wheeler as well. The rumored possibility of the FCC authorizing broadband “fast lanes” draws most complaints and animus. Gus Hurwitz points out that the FCC’s actions this week have nothing to do with fast lanes and Larry Downes reminds us that this week’s rules don’t authorize anything. There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation because few understand how administrative law works. Yet many net neutrality proponents fear the worst from the proposed rules because Wheeler takes the consensus position that broadband provision is a two-sided market and prioritized traffic could be pro-consumer.

Fast lanes have been permitted by the FCC for years and they can benefit consumers. Some broadband services–like video and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP)–need to be transmitted faster or with better quality than static webpages, email, and file syncs. Don’t take my word for it. The 2010 Open Internet NPRM, which led to the recently struck-down rules, stated,

As rapid innovation in Internet-related services continues, we recognize that there are and will continue to be Internet-Protocol-based offerings (including voice and subscription video services, and certain business services provided to enterprise customers), often provided over the same networks used for broadband Internet access service, that have not been classified by the Commission. We use the term “managed” or “specialized” services to describe these types of offerings. The existence of these services may provide consumer benefits, including greater competition among voice and subscription video providers, and may lead to increased deployment of broadband networks.

I have no special knowledge about what ISPs will or won’t do. I wouldn’t predict in the short term the widespread development of prioritized traffic under even minimal regulation. I think the carriers haven’t looked too closely at additional services because net neutrality regulations have precariously hung over them for a decade. But some of net neutrality proponents’ talking points (like insinuating or predicting ISPs will block political speech they disagree with) are not based in reality.

We run a serious risk of derailing research and development into broadband services if the FCC is cowed by uninformed and extreme net neutrality views. As Adam eloquently said, “Living in constant fear of hypothetical worst-case scenarios — and premising public policy upon them — means that best-case scenarios will never come about.” Many net neutrality proponents would like to smear all priority traffic as unjust and exploitative. This is unfortunate and a bit ironic because one of the most transformative communications developments, cable VoIP, is a prioritized IP service.

There are other IP services that are only economically feasible if jitter, latency, and slow speed are minimized. Prioritized traffic takes several forms, but it could enhance these services:

VoIP. This prioritized service has actually been around for several years and has completely revolutionized the phone industry. Something unthinkable for decades–facilities-based local telephone service–became commonplace in the last few years and undermined much of the careful industrial planning in the 1996 Telecom Act. If you subscribe to voice service from your cable provider, you are benefiting from fast lane treatment. Your “phone” service is carried over your broadband cable, segregated from your television and Internet streams. Smaller ISPs could conceivably make their phone service more attractive by pairing up with a Skype- or Vonage-type voice provider, and there are other possibilities that make local phone service more competitive.

Cloud-hosted virtual desktops. This is not a new idea, but it’s possible to have most or all of your computing done in a secure cloud, not on your PC, via a prioritized data stream. With a virtual desktop, your laptop or desktop PC functions mainly as a dumb portal. No more annoying software updates. Fewer security risks. IT and security departments everywhere would rejoice. Google Chromebooks are a stripped-down version of this but truly functional virtual desktops would be valued by corporations, reporters, or government agencies that don’t want sensitive data saved on a bunch of laptops in their organization that they can’t constantly monitor. Virtual desktops could also transform the device market, putting the focus on a great cloud and (priority) broadband service and less on the power and speed of the device. Unfortunately, at present, virtual desktops are not in widespread use because even small lag frustrates users.

TV. The future of TV is IP-based and the distinction between “TV” and “the Internet” is increasingly blurring, with Netflix leading the way. In a fast lane future, you could imagine ISPs launching pared-down TV bundles–say, Netflix, HBO Go, and some sports channels–over a broadband connection. Most ISPs wouldn’t do it, but an over-the-top package might interest smaller ISPs who find acquiring TV content and bundling their own cable packages time-consuming and expensive.

Gaming. Computer gamers hate jitter and latency. (My experience with a roommate who had unprintable outbursts when Diablo III or World of Warcraft lagged is not uncommon.) Game lag means you die quite frequently because of your data connection and this depresses your interest in a game. There might be gaming companies out there who would like to partner with ISPs and other network operators to ensure smooth gameplay. Priority gaming services could also lead the way to more realistic, beautiful, and graphics-intensive games.

Teleconferencing, telemedicine, teleteaching, etc. Any real-time, video-based service could reach critical mass of subscribers and become economical with priority treatment. Any lag absolutely kills consumer interest in these video-based applications. By favoring applications like telemedicine, providing remote services could become attractive to enough people for ISPS to offer stand-alone broadband products.

This is just a sampling of the possible consumer benefits of pay-for-priority IP services we possibly sacrifice in the name of strict neutrality enforcement. There are other services we can’t even conceive of yet that will never develop. Generally, net neutrality proponents don’t admit these possible benefits and are trying to poison the well against all priority deals, including many of these services.

Most troubling, net neutrality turns the regulatory process on its head. Rather than identify a market failure and then take steps to correct the failure, the FCC may prevent commercial agreements that would be unobjectionable in nearly any other industry. The FCC has many experts who are familiar with the possible benefits of broadband fast lanes, which is why the FCC has consistently blessed priority treatment in some circumstances.

Unfortunately, the orchestrated reaction in recent weeks might leave us with onerous rules, delaying or making impossible new broadband services. Hopefully, in the ensuing months, reason wins out and FCC staff are persuaded by competitive analysis and possible innovations, not t-shirt slogans.