What We’re Reading

Over the course of the year, I collect some of my favorite (and least favorite) tech policy essays and put them together in an end-of-year blog post so I will remember notable essays in the future. (Here’s my list from 2013.) Here are some of the best tech policy essays I read in 2014 (in chronological order).

  • Joel Mokyr – “The Next Age of Invention,” City Journal, Winter 2014. (An absolutely beautiful refutation of the technological pessimism that haunts our age. Mokry concludes by noting that, “technology will continue to develop and change human life and society at a rate that may well dwarf even the dazzling developments of the twentieth century. Not everyone will like the disruptions that this progress will bring. The concern that what we gain as consumers, viewers, patients, and citizens, we may lose as workers is fair. The fear that this progress will create problems that no one can envisage is equally realistic. Yet technological progress still beats the alternatives; we cannot do without it.” Mokyr followed it up with a terrific August 8 Wall Street Journal oped, “What Today’s Economic Gloomsayers Are Missing.“)
  • Michael Moynihan – “Can a Tweet Put You in Prison? It Certainly Will in the UK,” The Daily Beast, January 23, 2014. (Great essay on the right and wrong way to fight online hate. Here’s the kicker: “There is a presumption that ugly ideas are contagious and if the already overburdened police force could only disinfect the Internet, racism would dissipate. This is arrant nonsense.”)
  • Hanni Fakhoury - The U.S. Crackdown on Hackers Is Our New War on Drugs,” Wired, January 23, 2014. (“We shouldn’t let the government’s fear of computers justify disproportionate punishment. . . . It’s time for the government to learn from its failed 20th century experiment over-punishing drugs and start making sensible decisions about high-tech punishment in the 21st century.”)
  • Carole Cadwalladr - “Meet Cody Wilson, Creator of the 3D-gun, Anarchist, Libertarian,” Guardian/Observer, February 8, 2014. (Entertaining profile of one of the modern digital age’s most fascinating characters. “There are enough headlines out there which ask: Is Cody Wilson a terrorist? Though my favourite is the one that asks: ‘Cody Wilson: troll, genius, patriot, provocateur, anarchist, attention whore, gun nut or Second Amendment champion.’ Though it could have added, ‘Or b) all of the above?’”)

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book cover (small)I am pleased to announce the release of my latest book, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.” It’s a short manifesto (just under 100 pages) that condenses — and attempts to make more accessible — arguments that I have developed in various law review articles, working papers, and blog posts over the past few years. I have two goals with this book.

First, I attempt to show how the central fault line in almost all modern technology policy debates revolves around “the permission question,” which asks: Must the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations? How that question is answered depends on the disposition one adopts toward new inventions. Two conflicting attitudes are evident.

One disposition is known as the “precautionary principle.” Generally speaking, it 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.

The other vision can be labeled “permissionless innovation.” It refers to the notion that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default. Unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention will bring serious harm to society, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated and problems, if they develop at all, can be addressed later.

I argue that we are witnessing a grand clash of visions between these two mindsets today in almost all major technology policy discussions today. Continue reading →

I didn’t have nearly as much time this year to review the steadily growing stream of information policy books that were released. The end-of-year lists I put together in the past were fairly comprehensive (see 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012), but I got sidetracked this year with 7 law review articles and an eBook project and had almost no time for book reviews, or even general blogging for that matter.

So, I’ve just listed some of the more notable titles from 2013 even though I didn’t find the time to describe them all.  The first couple are the titles that I believe will have the most lasting influence on information technology policy debates. Needless to say, just because I believe that some of these titles will have an impact on policy going forward does not mean I endorse the perspectives or recommendations in any of them. And that would certainly be the case with my choice for most important Net policy book of the year, Ian Brown and Chris Marsden’s Regulating Code. Their book does a wonderful job mapping the unfolding universe of Internet “co-regulation” and “multi-stakeholderism,” but their defense of a more politicized information policy future leaves lovers of liberty like me utterly demoralized.

The same could be said of many other titles on the list. As I noted in concluding several reviews over the past year, liberty is increasingly a loser in Internet policy circles these days. And it’s not just neo-Marxist rants like McChesney’s Digital Disconnect or Lanier’s restatement of the Unibomber Manifesto, Who Owns the Future? The sad reality is that pretty much everybody these days has a pet peeve they want addressed through pure power politics because, you know, something must be done! The very term “Internet freedom” has already been grotesquely contorted into something akin to an open mandate for governments to meticulously plan virtually every facet of economic and social activity in the Information Age.

Anyway, despite that caveat, many interesting books were released in 2013 on an ever-expanding array of specific information policy topics.  Here’s the list of everything that landed on my desk over the past year. Continue reading →

Here are a few Internet policy essays I collected over the past year which I thought were particularly well done and worth highlighting once more. They are listed in chronological order:

  • L. Gordon Crovitz – “Silicon Valley’s ‘Suicide Impulse,’” Wall Street Journal, January 28. (“It’s a measure of how far Silicon Valley has strayed from its entrepreneurial roots that a top regulator is calling on technology companies to do less lobbying and more competing,” Crovitz argued. “Rather than lobby government to go after one another, Silicon Valley lobbyists should unite to go after overreaching government. Instead of the “suicide impulse” of lobbying for more regulation, Silicon Valley should seek deregulation and a long-overdue freedom to return to its entrepreneurial roots.”)
  • John Gruber – “Open and Shut,Daring Fireball, March 1. (An absolutely brutal evisceration of Tim Wu’s recent work.)
  • R. U. Sirius – “Cypherpunk Rising: WikiLeaks, Encryption, and the Coming Surveillance Dystopia,” The Verge, March 7.
  • Julian Sanchez – “A Reply to Epstein & Pilon on NSA’s Metadata Program,Cato at Liberty, June 16. (A meticulous point-by-point takedown of an essay by Roger Pilon & Richard Epstein defending NSA’s online surveillance tactics.)
  • Ethan Zuckerman – “Is Cybertopianism Really Such a Bad Thing?” Slate, June 17 (A “defense of believing that technology can do good.”)

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Electronic Silk Road book coverAs I’ve noted before, I didn’t start my professional life in the early 1990s as a tech policy wonk. My real passion 20 years ago was free trade policy. Unfortunately for me, as my boss rudely informed me at the time, the world was already brimming with aspiring trade analysts and probably didn’t need another. This was the time of NAFTA and WTO negotiations and seemingly everybody was lining up to get into the world of trade policy during that period.

And so, while I was finishing a master’s degree with trade theory applications and patiently hoping for opportunities to open up, I decided to take what I thought was going to be a brief detour into the strange new world of the Internet and information technology policy. Of course, I never looked backed. I was hooked on Net policy from Day 1.  But I never stopped caring about trade theory and I have always remained passionate about the essential role that free trade plays in expanding commerce, improving human welfare, and facilitating more peaceful interactions among the diverse cultures and countries of this planet.

I only tell you this part of my own backstory so that you understand why I was so excited to receive a copy of Anupam Chander’s new book, The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World Together in Commerce. Chander’s book weaves together trade theory and modern information technology policy issues. His over-arching goal is to sketch out and defend “a middle ground between isolation and unregulated trade, embracing free trade and also its regulation.” (p. 209) Continue reading →

Black Code coverRonald J. Deibert is the director of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and the author of an important new book, Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, an in-depth look at the growing insecurity of the Internet. Specifically, Deibert’s book is a meticulous examination of the “malicious threats that are growing from the inside out” and which “threaten to destroy the fragile ecosystem we have come to take for granted.” (p. 14) It is also a remarkably timely book in light of the recent revelations about NSA surveillance and how it is being facilitated with the assistance of various tech and telecom giants.

The clear and colloquial tone that Deibert employs in the text helps make arcane Internet security issues interesting and accessible. Indeed, some chapters of the book almost feel like they were pulled from the pages of techno-thriller, complete with villainous characters, unexpected plot twists, and shocking conclusions. “Cyber crime has become one of the world’s largest growth businesses,” Deibert notes (p. 144) and his chapters focus on many prominent recent examples, including cyber-crime syndicates like Koobface, government cyber-spying schemes like GhostNet, state-sanctioned sabotage like Stuxnet, and the vexing issue of zero-day exploit sales.

Deibert is uniquely qualified to narrate this tale not just because he is a gifted story-teller but also because he has had a front row seat in the unfolding play that we might refer to as “How Cyberspace Grew Less Secure.” Continue reading →

Future and Its Enemies coverTechnologies of FreedomI 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 →

Regulating Code book coverIan Brown and Christopher T. Marsden’s new book, Regulating Code: Good Governance and Better Regulation in the Information Age, will go down as one of the most important Internet policy books of 2013 for two reasons. First, their book offers an excellent overview of how Internet regulation has unfolded on five different fronts: privacy and data protection; copyright; content censorship; social networks and user-generated content issues; and net neutrality regulation. They craft detailed case studies that incorporate important insights about how countries across the globe are dealing with these issues. Second, the authors endorse a specific normative approach to Net governance that they argue is taking hold across these policy arenas. They call their preferred policy paradigm “prosumer law” and it envisions an active role for governments, which they think should pursue “smarter regulation” of code.

In terms of organization, Brown and Marsden’s book follows the same format found in Milton Mueller’s important 2010 book Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance; both books feature meaty case studies in the middle bookended by chapters that endorse a specific approach to Internet policymaking. (Incidentally, both books were published by MIT Press.) And, also like Mueller’s book, Brown and Marsden’s Regulating Code does a somewhat better job using case studies to explore the forces shaping Internet policy across the globe than it does making the normative case for their preferred approach to these issues. Continue reading →

Richard Brandt, technology journalist and author, discusses his new book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.Com. Brandt discusses Bezos’ entrepreneurial drive, his business philosophy, and how he’s grown Amazon to become the biggest retailer in the world. This episode also covers the biggest mistake Bezos ever made, how Amazon uses patent laws to its advantage, whether Amazon will soon become a publishing house, Bezos’ idea for privately-funded space exploration and his plan to revolutionize technology with quantum computing.

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Viral Hate coverThe Internet’s greatest blessing — its general openness to all speech and speakers — is also sometimes its biggest curse. That is, you cannot expect to have the most widely accessible, unrestricted communications platform the world has ever known and not also have some imbeciles who use it to spew insulting, vile, and hateful comments.

It is important to put things in perspective, however. Hate speech is not the norm online. The louts who spew hatred represent a small minority of all online speakers. The vast majority of online speech is of a socially acceptable — even beneficial — nature.

Still, the problem of hate speech remains very real and a diverse array of strategies are needed to deal with it. The sensible path forward in this regard is charted by Abraham H. Foxman and Christopher Wolf in their new book, Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet. Their book explains why the best approach to online hate is a combination of education, digital literacy, user empowerment, industry best practices and self-regulation, increased watchdog / press oversight, social pressure and, most importantly, counter-speech. Foxman and Wolf also explain why — no matter how well-intentioned — legal solutions aimed at eradicating online hate will not work and would raise serious unintended consequences if imposed.

In striking this sensible balance, Foxman and Wolf have penned the definitive book on how to constructively combat viral hate in an age of ubiquitous information flows. Continue reading →