Technopanics & the Precautionary Principle

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.

It was my great pleasure to join Jasmine McNealy last week on the “New Books in Technology” podcast to discuss my new book, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom. (A description of my book can be found here.)

My conversation with Jasmine was wide-ranging and lasted 47 minutes. The entire show can be heard here if you’re interested.

By the way, if you don’t follow Jasmine, you should begin doing so immediately. She’s on Twitter and here’s her page at the University of Kentucky School of Library and Information Science.  She’s doing some terrifically interesting work. For example, check out her excellent essay on “Online Privacy & The Right To Be Forgotten,” which I commented on here.

Last December, it was my pleasure to take part in a great event, “The Disruptive Competition Policy Forum,” sponsored by Project DisCo (or The Disruptive Competition Project). It featured several excellent panels and keynotes and they’ve just posted the video of the panel I was on here and I have embedded it below. In my remarks, I discussed:

  • benefit-cost analysis in digital privacy debates (building on this law review article);
  • the contrast between Europe and America’s approach to data & privacy issues (referencing this testimony of mine);
  • the problem of “technopanics” in information policy debates (building on this law review article);
  • the difficulty of information control efforts in various tech policy debates (which I wrote about in this law review article and these two blog posts: 1, 2);
  • the possibility of less-restrictive approaches to privacy & security concerns (which I have written about here as well in those other law review articles);
  • the rise of the Internet of Things and the unique challenges it creates (see this and this as well as my new book); and,
  • the possibility of a splintering of the Internet or the rise of “federated Internets.”

The panel was expertly moderated by Ross Schulman, Public Policy & Regulatory Counsel for CCIA, and also included remarks from John Boswell, SVP & Chief Legal Officer at SAS, and Josh Galper, Chief Policy Officer and General Counsel of Personal, Inc. (By the way, you should check out some of the cool things Personal is doing in this space to help consumers. Very innovative stuff.) The video lasts one hour. Here it is:

When Google announced it was acquiring digital thermostat company Nest yesterday, it set off another round of privacy and security-related technopanic talk on Twitter and elsewhere. Fear and loathing seemed to be the order of the day. It seems that each new product launch or business announcement in the “Internet of Things” space is destined to set off another round of Chicken Little hand-wringing. We are typically told that the digital sky will soon fall on our collective heads unless we act preemptively to somehow head-off some sort of pending privacy or security apocalypse.

Meanwhile, however, a whole heck of lot of people are demanding more and more of these technologies, and American entrepreneurs are already engaged in heated competition with European and Asian rivals to be at the forefront of the next round Internet innovation to satisfy those consumer demands. So, how is this going to play out?

This gets to what becoming the defining policy issue of our time, not just for the Internet but for technology policy more generally: To what extent should the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations? We can think of this as “the permission question” and it is creating a massive rift between those who desire more preemptive, precautionary safeguards for a variety of reasons (safety, security, privacy, copyright, etc.) and those of us who continue to believe that permissionless innovation should be the guiding ethos of our age. The chasm between these two worldviews is only going to deepen in coming years as the pace of innovation around new technologies (the Internet of Things, wearable tech, driverless cars, 3D printing, commercial drones, etc) continues to accelerate.

Sarah Kessler of Fast Company was kind enough to call me last night and ask for some general comments about Google buying Nest and she also sought out the comments of Marc Rotenberg of EPIC about privacy in the Internet of Things era more generally. Our comments provide a useful example of the divide between these two worldviews and foreshadow debates to come: Continue reading →

With each booth I pass and presentation I listen to at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it becomes increasingly evident that the “Internet of Things” era has arrived. In just a few short years, the Internet of Things (IoT) has gone from industry buzzword to marketplace reality. Countless new IoT devices are on display throughout the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center this week, including various wearable technologies, smart appliances, remote monitoring services, autonomous vehicles, and much more.

This isn’t vaporware; these are devices or services that are already on the market or will launch shortly. Some will fail, of course, just as many other earlier technologies on display at past CES shows didn’t pan out. But many of these IoT technologies will succeed, driven by growing consumer demand for highly personalized, ubiquitous, and instantaneous services.

But will policymakers let the Internet of Things revolution continue or will they stop it dead in its tracks? Interestingly, not too many people out here in Vegas at the CES seem all that worried about the latter outcome. Indeed, what I find most striking about the conversation out here at CES this week versus the one about IoT that has been taking place in Washington over the past year is that there is a large and growing disconnect between consumers and policymakers about what the Internet of Things means for the future.

When every device has a sensor, a chip, and some sort of networking capability, amazing opportunities become available to consumers. And that’s what has them so excited and ready to embrace these new technologies. But those same capabilities are exactly what raise the blood pressure of many policymakers and policy activists who fear the safety, security, or privacy-related problems that might creep up in a world filled with such technologies.

But at least so far, most consumers don’t seem to share the same worries. Continue reading →

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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Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson published an astonishing essay today entitled, “Beware the Internet and the Danger of Cyberattacks.” In the print edition of today’s Post, the essay actually carries a different title: “Is the Internet Worth It?” Samuelson’s answer is clear: It isn’t. He begins his breathless attack on the Internet by proclaiming:

If I could, I would repeal the Internet. It is the technological marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities: the instant access to vast amounts of information, the pleasures of YouTube and iTunes, the convenience of GPS and much more. But the Internet’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous transformative technologies, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: cyberwar.

And then, after walking through a couple of worst-case hypothetical scenarios, he concludes the piece by saying:

the Internet’s social impact is shallow. Imagine life without it. Would the loss of e-mail, Facebook or Wikipedia inflict fundamental change? Now imagine life without some earlier breakthroughs: electricity, cars, antibiotics. Life would be radically different. The Internet’s virtues are overstated, its vices understated. It’s a mixed blessing — and the mix may be moving against us.

What I found most troubling about this is that Samuelson has serious intellectual chops and usually sweats the details in his analysis of other issues. He understands economic and social trade-offs and usually does a nice job weighing the facts on the ground instead of engaging in the sort of shallow navel-gazing and anecdotal reasoning that many other weekly newspaper columnist engage in on a regular basis.

But that’s not what he does here. His essay comes across as a poorly researched, angry-old-man-shouting-at-the-sky sort of rant. There’s no serious cost-benefit analysis at work here; just the banal assertion that a new technology has created new vulnerabilities.  Really, that’s the extent of the logic at work here. Samuelson could have just as well substituted the automobile, airplanes, or any other modern technology for the Internet and drawn the same conclusion: It opens the door to new vulnerabilities (especially national security vulnerabilities) and, therefore, we would be better off without it in our lives. Continue reading →

Today, Jerry Brito, Adam Thierer and I filed comments on the FAA’s proposed privacy rules for “test sites” for the integration of commercial drones into domestic airspace. I’ve been excited about this development ever since I learned that Congress had ordered the FAA to complete the integration by September 2015. Airspace is a vastly underutilized resource, and new technologies are just now becoming available that will enable us to make the most of it.

In our comments, we argue that airspace, like the Internet, could be a revolutionary platform for innovation:

Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the Internet,” credits “permissionless innovation” for the economic benefits that the Internet has generated. As an open platform, the Internet allows entrepreneurs to try new business models and offer new services without seeking the approval of regulators beforehand.

Like the Internet, airspace is a platform for commercial and social innovation. We cannot accurately predict to what uses it will be put when restrictions on commercial use of UASs are lifted. Nevertheless, experience shows that it is vital that innovation and entrepreneurship be allowed to proceed without ex ante barriers imposed by regulators.

And in Wired today, I argue that preemptive privacy regulation is unnecessary and unwise:

Regulation at this juncture requires our over-speculating about which types of privacy violations might arise. Since many of these harms may never materialize, pre-emptive regulation is likely to overprotect privacy at the expense of innovation.

Frankly, it wouldn’t even work. Imagine if we had tried to comprehensively regulate online privacy before allowing commercial use of the internet. We wouldn’t have even known how to. We wouldn’t have had the benefit of understanding how online commerce works, nor could we have anticipated the rise of social networking and related phenomena.

I expect us all to hear more about commercial drones in the near future. See Jerry’s piece in Reason last month or Larry Downes’s great post at the HBR blog for more.

Marvin Ammori, a fellow at the New American Foundation and author of the new book On Internet Freedom explains his view of how the First Amendment applies the Internet through the lens of constitutional law and real world case studies.

According to Ammori, Internet freedom is a foundational issue for democracy, equivalent to the right to vote or freedom of speech. In fact, he says, the First Amendment can be used as a design principle for how we think about the challenges we face as Internet technology increasingly becomes a part of our lives.

Ammori’s belief in a positive right to speech—that everyone should have access to the most important speech tools in society and be able to speak with and listen to any other speaker without having to seek permission— translates to a belief that Internet should be made available for everybody, without restrictions aside from those placed on offlinet speech.

Ammori goes on to explain why he thinks SOPA threatened to infringe upon free speech while net neutrality protects it, suggesting that allowing ISPs to control bandwidth usage is tantamount to forcing internet users to become passive consumers of information, rather than creators and content-spreaders.

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