Throughout the year, I collect some of the more notable tech policy-related essays that I’ve read and then publish an end-of-year list here. (Here, for example, are my end-of-year lists from 2014 and 2013.) So, here are some of my favorite essays and editorials from 2015. (Note: They are just in chronological order. No ranking here.)

  1. Larry Downes –Take note Republicans and Democrats, this is what a pro-innovation platform looks like,” Washington Post, January 7. (Downes explains how governments need to adapt to accommodate and embrace new forms of technological innovation. He notes: “Here at home, the opportunity to wrap themselves in the flag of innovation is knocking for both parties, but so far there are few takers. Republicans and Democrats regularly invoke the rhetoric of innovation, entrepreneurship, and the transformative power of technology. But in reality neither party pursues policies that favor the disruptors. Instead, where lawmakers once took a largely hands-off approach to Silicon Valley, as the Internet revolution enters a new stage of industry transformation, the temptation to intervene, to usurp, to micromanage, to circumscribe the future — becomes irresistible.”) Equally excellent was Larry’s essay later in the year, “Fewer, Faster, Smarter.” (“As the technology revolution proceeds, the concept of government may return to its pre-industrial roots, setting the most basic rules of the economy and standing by as regulator of last resort when markets fail for some or all consumers over an extended period of time. Even then, the solution may simply be to tweak the incentives to encourage better behavior, rather than more full-fledged—and usually ill-fated—micromanagement of fast-changing industries.”)
  2. Bryant Walker Smith –Slow Down That Runaway Ethical Trolley,” CIS Blog, January 12. (Smith, a leading expert on autonomous vehicle systems, notes that, while serious ethical dilemmas will always be present with such technologies, we should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. “The fundamental ethical question, in my opinion, is this: In the United States alone, tens of thousands of people die in motor vehicle crashes every year, and many more are injured. Automated vehicles have great potential to one day reduce this toll, but the path to this point will involve mistakes and crashes and fatalities. Given this stark choice, what is the proper balance between caution and urgency in bringing these systems to the market? How safe is safe enough?”)
  3. Tim Worstall –Google gets my data, I get search and email and that. Help help, I’m being OPPRESSED!” The Register, February 4. (A wicked tongue-lashing of the critics of the data-driven economy.)
  4. Aki Ito –Six Things Technology Has Made Insanely Cheap: Behold the power of American progress,” Bloomberg Business, February 5. (The title says it all.)
  5. Andrew McAfee –Who are the humanists, and why do they dislike technology so much?” Financial Times, July 7, 2015. (A brief but brilliant exploration of the philosophical fight over differing conceptions of “humanism.” McAfee, appropriately in my opinion, calls into question technological critics who self-label themselves “humanists” and then suggest that those who believe in the benefits of technological innovation and progress are somehow opposed to humanity. In reality, of course, nothing could be further from the truth!)
  6. Jocelyn Brewer – “Techno-Fear is Hurting Kids, Not Their Use of Digital Devices,” July 7, 2015. (A beautiful piece that makes it clear why “the Internet… is not addictive. Technology is not a drug.” Brewer continues on to make the case for avoiding fear-based messaging about Internet problems and instead adopting a more sensible approach: “Rather than trotting out interminable lists of the negative consequences of our adoption of technology lets raise awareness of how to avoid the pitfalls of not approaching this new era with solutions and proactive thinking.” Amen, sister!)
  7. Evan Ackerman – “We Should Not Ban ‘Killer Robots,’ and Here’s Why,” IEEE Spectrum, July 29, 2015, (A thought-provoking piece about a controversial subject in which Ackerman argues that “banning the technology is not going to solve the problem if the problem is the willingness of humans to use technology for evil”)
  8. Tim O’Reilly –Networks and the Nature of the Firm,” Medium, August 14, 2015.  (Explores the economics of the sharing economy and “the huge economic shift led by software and connectedness.”)
  9. Joe Queenan –America’s Need for Pointless Updates and Cat Videos,” Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2015. (“The back-to-nature, turn-off-your-cellphone movement is based on a false assumption.  . . .  Time not spent doing dumb stuff would otherwise be wasted doing other dumb stuff. It’s called ‘play,’ without which Jack is a dull boy. It is a variation on the old saying that nature abhors a vacuum. So nature created the Internet.”)
  10. Dominic Basulto –Can we just stop with all these tech dystopia stories?” Washington Post, Dec 8, 2015. (“Yes, a dystopian future is possible, but so is a utopian future. Most likely, the answer is somewhere in the middle, the way it’s been for millennia.”)

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org

WASHINGTON D.C. — Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission announced that it had reached a settlement with Wyndham Hotels over charges that the company had “unreasonable” data security. In 2009, Russian hackers stole customer information, including credit card numbers, from Wyndham hotel systems. The company initially refused to settle an FTC enforcement action, becoming the first to challenge the FTC’s approach to data security in federal court. The FTC has used a decade of settlements with dozens of companies to establish fuzzy de facto standards for data security. In August, the Third Circuit denied Wyndham’s appeal of the district court’s decision to let the case proceed.

The FTC has, once again, avoided having a federal court definitively answer fundamental questions about the constitutionality of the FTC’s approach to data security,” said Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom, which joined an amicus brief in the case. “The FTC will no doubt claim the Third Circuit vindicated its approach, but all the court really said was that Wyndham’s specific practices may have been unfair. Indeed, the appeals court agreed with Wyndham that the FTC’s so-called ‘common law of consent decrees’ cannot provide the ‘fair notice’ required by the Constitution’s Due Process clause. This implied that the FTC needs to do much more to guide companies on what ‘reasonable’ data security would be. By settling the case, the FTC avoided having the district court resolve those questions.”

It’ll take years for another case to work its way through the courts,” explained Szoka. “LabMD’srecent victory before the FTC’s chief administrative law judge is encouraging, and may allow a federal court to weigh in on the requirements of Section 5’s amorphous unfairness standard, if the full Commission overrules the ALJ. But that case focuses more on how the FTC weighs costs and benefits in each enforcement action than on the issue of how much guidance it provides guidance to industry.”

It’s high time Congress reasserted itself here,” concluded Szoka. “The FTC has demonstrated little willingness to change from within, and we can’t wait for the courts to address these questions. Congress needs to put the FTC on sounder footing across the board — from data security to privacy and other consumer protection issues. Far from hamstringing the agency, requiring better explanation of what the law requires and weighing of costs and benefits would actually help consumers — both by promoting better business practices and by avoiding FTC actions that end up harming consumers. Such common sense reforms should be bipartisan, just as they were back in 1980, the last time Congress really checked the FTC’s vast discretion.”

Szoka is co-author, along with Geoffrey Manne and Gus Hurwitz, of the FTC: Technology & Reform Project’s initial report, “Consumer Protection & Competition Regulation in a High-Tech World: Discussing the Future of the Federal Trade Commission,” which critiques the FTC’s processes and suggests areas where the FTC, the courts and Congress could improve how the FTC applies its sweeping unfairness and deception powers in data security, privacy and other cases, especially related to technology.

The FCC’s Open Internet Order is long and complex and the challenge to it is likewise difficult to untangle. The agency regularly engages in ad hoc rulemaking that results, per Judge Posner, in “unprincipled compromises of Rube Goldberg complexity among contending interest groups viewed merely as clamoring suppliants who have somehow to be conciliated.” The Open Internet Order is no exception and therefore faces several legal vulnerabilities.

In my view, the soft underbelly of the Order is the agency’s position that ISPs are not First Amendment speakers. While courts are generally very deferential to agencies, they are not deferential on constitutional questions. Further, the court panel (two Democrat appointees, one Republican appointee), unfortunately, was not in the carriers’ favor. The major carriers, however, have focused their arguments on whether the agency should receive deference in classifying Internet access as a telecommunications service.

That said, it’s possible the major carriers could get at least a partial win with their arguments. That likelihood is increased because Alamo Broadband and Dan Berninger raised the First Amendment problems with the Order. Given the strength of the First Amendment arguments, the Court might shy away from reaching the issue of whether ISPs are speakers. Below, some thoughts on the moments during oral arguments that surprised me and what went according to predictions.

The Unexpected

A receptive ear in Judge Williams re: the First Amendment arguments. (Good for: ISPs) The First Amendment arguments went better than I’d expected. Alamo and Berninger’s counsel, Brett Shumate, argued the First Amendment issues well and had good responses for skeptical questions. Shumate found a receptive ear in Judge Williams, who seemed to understand the serious First Amendment risks posed by the Order. Williams repeatedly brought up the fact that MetroPCS a few years ago tried to curate the Internet and provide its customers free YouTube, only to face resistance from the FCC and net neutrality activists.

The other two judges were more skeptical but Shumate corrected some misconceptions. The biggest substantive objection from Srinivasan, who sounded the most skeptical of the First Amendment arguments, was that if the Court reaches the First Amendment issues, it has determined that the FCC has reasonably classified Internet access as a common carrier service. He suggested that this means the First Amendment issues mostly disappear. No, Shumate explained. Congress and the FCC can call services whatever they want. They could declare Google Search or Twitter feeds a common carrier service tomorrow and that would have zero effect on whether filtering by Google and Twitter is protected by the First Amendment. Tatel asked whether Section 230’s liability protections suggest ISPs are common carriers and Shumate corrected that misconception, a subject I have written on before.

A major FCC concession that ISPs have to option to change their offerings and escape common carrier regulation. (Good for: ISPs) Title II advocates are spinning the terse First Amendment exchanges as a victory. I’m not convinced. The reason the arguments didn’t generate more heat was because the FCC lawyer made a huge concession at the outset: ISPs that choose to filter the Internet are not covered by the Open Internet Order.

FCC lawyer: “If [ISPs] want to curate the Internet…that would drop them out of the definition of Broadband Internet Access Service.”

Judge Williams: “They have that option under the Order?”

FCC lawyer: “Absolutely, your Honor. …If they filter the Internet and don’t provide access to all or substantially all endpoints, then they drop out of the definition of [BIAS] and the rules don’t apply to them.”

This admission seriously undermines the purposes of the Order. The FCC is stating outright that ISPs have the option to filter and to avoid the rules. That seems to mean that Comcast’s Stream Internet protocol television service, where it is curating streaming TV programs, is not covered by the rules. If Facebook’s Free Basics or a similar service launched in the US giving free, limited access to the Web, that is not covered by the Order. Finally, this means that the many broadband packages that offer family-friendly filtering are outside of the FCC’s rules. It’s not clear how much remains to be regulated since all ISPs reserve the right to filter content and each filters at least some content.

Judge Tatel directing most questioning. (Good for: wash) Many view Judge Tatel as the “swing vote” but I was surprised at the relative quiet from Williams and Srinivasan. Tatel was the most inquisitive, by my listening. He was much more skeptical of some of the FCC’s arguments regarding interconnection than I expected but also more skeptical of the First Amendment arguments than I expected.

Little discussion of Chevron Step 0. (Good for: FCC) Many on the free-market side wanted to make this case about Chevron Step 0 and the notion that Title II is too economically and socially significant to warrant deference. Unfortunately, at oral argument there was very little discussion of Chevron Step 0.

The Expected

Focus on agency discretion. (Good for: FCC) The judges generally seem to see this as a straightforward Chevron case and the questions focused on Chevron Step 1, whether there is ambiguity in the statute about “offering telecommunications” for the FCC to interpret. As expected, the FCC did fairly well in their arguments because these technical issues are very hard to untangle.

On Chevron Step 2, whether the reinterpretation of “telecommunications service” to include Internet access was reasonable, the US Telecom attorney was strong. He leaned heavily on the fact that in Section 230, which amends the Communications Act, Congress announces a national policy that the Internet and specifically Internet access services, should remain “unfettered by Federal regulation.” That would seem to preclude the FCC from using, at the very least, its most powerful regulatory weapon–common carriage–against Internet access providers. Even if “telecommunications service” is ambiguous, he stated, it was unreasonable to include Internet access in that definition.

Focus on whether mobile broadband can be properly classified under Title II. (Benefit: ISPs) As many commentators have noted, the idea that the traditional phone network and the mobile broadband network can be classified as the same interconnected network is far-fetched. Each judge seemed very skeptical of the FCC’s argument and Tatel suggested there was a lack of adequate notice.

Srinivasan pointed out that striking down the wireless rules and maintaining the wireline rules would mean that using the same tablet in different areas of your house would lead to different regulatory treatment, depending on whether you’re on the cellular broadband network or Wifi. Title II supporters think this is pretty clever gotcha but communications law already abounds with seemingly absurd FCC- and court-created legal distinctions. (The FCC invents its own absurd distinction and offers vastly different regulatory treatment for DNS operated by an ISP v. DNS operated by literally anyone else.)

Conclusion

Predictions about major regulatory cases are notoriously difficult. I’ve read (and made) enough predictions about big court cases to know that prognosticators almost always get it wrong. If that’s the case, at least consider one thought-provoking outcome: the rules are largely struck down because the FCC provided inadequate notice on most of the major issues of classification.

If the rules, in contrast, were sustained under Chevron and judged to have had adequate notice, the Court would likely need to confront the First Amendment issues. I don’t think Tatel and Srinivasan, especially, want to rule on these hard constitutional questions. The judges must know the Supreme Court has, as Prof. Susan Crawford says, an “absolutist approach” to the First Amendment that protects speakers of all kinds. Sustaining the rules means the FCC risks a loss on First Amendment grounds on appeal that would nearly eliminate the ability of the FCC to regulate the Internet. For that reason, and because of the notice problems, the Court may strike down the rules on notice and comment grounds, thereby preserving the ability of the FCC to take a fourth bite at the apple.

I wanted to draw your attention to this important address on online platform regulation by Alex Chisholm, the head of UK’s Competition and Markets Authority. That’s the non-ministerial department in the UK responsible for competition policy issues. Chisholm delivered the address on October 27th at the Bundesnetzagentur conference in Bonn. It’s a terrific speech that other policymakers would be wise to read and mimic to ensure that antitrust and competition policy decisions don’t derail the many benefits of the Information Revolution.

“Today, as regulators, we have the responsibility but also the great historical privilege of playing an influential role in the deployment throughout the economy of the latest of these defining technological eras,” Chisholm began. “As regulators, we must try to minimise the inevitable mismatch between how we’ve done things before and the opportunities and risks of the new,” he argued.

He continued on to specify three recommendations for those crafting policy on this front: Continue reading →

On October 7th I appeared on a webinar hosted by Prof. Barry Umansky and Ball State’s Digital Policy Institute about the FCC’s Title II case before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, US Telecom Association v. FCC. The other panelists were Andrew Schwartzman of Georgetown University and Stuart Brotman of Harvard Law School and the Brookings Institution. Check it out, but here’s a brief summary of our hour-long discussion. Continue reading →

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org

Today, the House voted to extend key, but narrow, privacy rights to citizens of “covered countries.” The Judicial Redress Act, passed by a voice vote, would allow the Attorney General to work with other federal agencies to determine countries whose citizens can enforce their data protection rights in U.S. courts under the Privacy Act of 1974. Since that statute specifically exempts sensitive issues regarding law enforcement and national security, extending Privacy Act rights to citizens of selected countries poses no significant concerns.

Today, the House took one small step toward repairing America’s tarnished image on data privacy,” said Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom. “Since the Snowden disclosures, our government’s inaction on surveillance reform has provoked an international crisis — one that could lead to a European blockade of American Internet companies.”

Two weeks ago, in the Schrems case, the European Court of Justice struck down the Safe Harbor agreement that has, since 2000, allowed U.S. companies to receive and use data about European citizens. Lack of redress rights for Europeans is among the chief reasons why the ECJ found that the Commission had failed to update its finding that U.S. privacy protections were “adequate.”

Without a new agreement, U.S. companies will be at the mercy of each and every European Data Protection Authority, which, under Schrems, can now decide how to regulate cross-border data flows. This burden will likely fall heaviest on U.S. tech startups, who can ill afford this risk. If the Digital Protection Authorities (DPAs) start cracking down, American companies may simply decide to forego the European market, or to split their services into two pieces that don’t allow users to interact — especially new companies that haven’t yet launched their services. That, in turn, could mean a regionalization of what has, until now, been an inherently global medium.

Passage of the Judicial Redress Act is ‘table stakes’ for the U.S.,” continued Szoka. “Without it, the State Department will have no credibility at the bargaining table in negotiating with the Europeans over a replacement for Safe Harbor. However, Privacy Act rights are necessary but not sufficient: Congress will need to move on to other privacy reforms immediately, starting with ensuring that law enforcement must obtain a warrant before accessing stored data of both American and European citizens. Congress will also need to finish the surveillance reforms it started with USA FREEDOM, specifically regarding Section 702.”

###

We can be reached for comment at media@techfreedom.org. See more of our work on privacy, especially:

  • “Only Congressional Privacy Reforms Can Prevent  EU Internet Blockade of US,” a statement from TechFreedom on the ECJ striking down Safe Harbor

DroneToday, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it will soon require Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or private drones, used for both personal and commercial purposes, to be registered in a national database. To facilitate this process, the agencies announced the creation of a new federal task force that will develop recommendations for a UAS registration process. Rules are to be published by November 20th (presumably to cover new devices sold before Christmas).

Here are some quick initial reactions on the proposed registration rules: Continue reading →

Last Friday I attended a fascinating conference hosted by the Duke Law School’s Center for Innovation Policy about television regulation and competition. It’s remarkable how quickly television competition has changed and how online video providers are putting pressure on old business models.

I’ve been working on a project about competition in technology, communications, and media and one chart that stands out is one that shows increasing competition in pay television, below. Namely, that cable providers have lost nearly 15 million subscribers since 2002. Cable was essentially the only game in town in 1990 for pay television (about 100% market share). Yet today, cable’s market share approaches 50%. This competitive pressure accounts for some cable companies trying to merge in recent years.

Much of this churn by subscribers was to satellite providers but it’s the “telephone” companies providing TV that’s really had a competitive impact in recent years. Telcos went from about 0% market share in 2005 to 13% in 2014. This new competition can be tied to Congress finally allowing telephone companies to provide TV in 1996. However, these new services didn’t really get started until a decade ago when 1) digital and IP technology improved, and 2) the FCC made it clear by deregulating DSL ISPs that telephone companies could expect a market return for investing in fiber broadband nationwide.

Pay TV Market Share TLF

UPDATE:

And below is market share data going back ten more years to 1994 using FCC data, which uses a slightly different measurement methodology (hence the kink around 2003-2004). I’ve also omitted market share of Home Satellite Dish (those large dishes you sometimes see in rural areas). Though HSD has negligible market share today, it had a few million subscribers in the mid-1990s. I may add HSD later.

Pay TV Market Share TLF 1994-2014

Those of us with deep reservations about the push for ever more unlicensed spectrum are having many of our fears realized with the new resistance to novel technologies using unlicensed spectrum. By law unlicensed spectrum users have no rights to their spectrum; unlicensed spectrum is a managed commons. In practice, however, existing users frequently act as if they own their spectrum and they can exclude others. By entertaining these complaints, the FCC simply encourages NIMBYism in unlicensed spectrum.

The general idea behind unlicensed spectrum is that by providing a free spectrum commons to any device maker who complies with certain simple rules (namely, Part 15’s low power operation requirement), device makers will develop wireless services that would never have developed if the device makers had to shell out millions for licensed spectrum. For decades, unlicensed spectrum has stimulated development and sale of millions of consumer devices, including cordless phones, Bluetooth devices, wifi access points, RC cars, and microwave ovens.

Now, however, many device makers are getting nervous about new entrants. For instance, Globalstar is developing a technology, TLPS, based on wifi standards that will use some unlicensed spectrum at 2.4 GHz and mobile carriers would like to market an unlicensed spectrum technology, LTE-U, based on 4G LTE standards that will use spectrum at 5 GHz.

This resistance from various groups and spectrum incumbents, who fear interference in “their” spectrum if these new technologies catch on, was foreseeable, which makes these intractable conflicts even more regrettable. As Prof. Tom Hazlett wrote in a 2003 essay, long before today’s conflicts, when it comes to unlicensed devices, “economic success spells its own demise.” Hazlett noted, “Where an unlicensed firm successfully innovates, open access guarantees imitation. This not only results in competition…but may degrade wireless emissions — perhaps severely.”

On the other hand, the many technical filings about potential interference to existing unlicensed devices are red herrings. Prospective device makers in these unlicensed bands have no duty to protect existing users. Part 15 rules say that unlicensed users like wifi and Bluetooth “shall not be deemed to have any vested or recognizable right to continued use of any given frequency by virtue of prior registration or certification of equipment” and that “interference must be accepted.” These rules, however, put the FCC in a self-created double bind: the agency provides no interference protection to existing users but its open access policy makes interference conflicts likely. Continue reading →

One of my favorite themes, and not just in the field of tech policy, is the “Unintended Consequences of Well-Intentioned Regulations.” I believe that all laws and regulations have dynamic effects and that to fully appreciate the true impact of any particular public policy, you must always closely investigate the potential opportunity costs and unintended consequences associated with those policies. Because all too often laws and regulations are hastily put on the books with the very best of intentions in mind, only to later be shown to produce the opposite of what was intended.

Today’s case in point comes from Wall Street Journal article by Rachel Bachman and it involves how the growing wave of cycling helmet laws are having a net negative impact on public health because they discourage ridership in the aggregate. Thus, those potential riders are then either (a) just less active overall or (b) driving their cars to get where they need to go. And both of those results are, ultimately, riskier than cycling without a helmet. For that reason, Bachman reports, cycling advocates “are pushing back against mandatory bike-helmet laws in the U.S. and elsewhere. They say mandatory helmet laws, particularly for adults, make cycling less convenient and seem less safe, thus hindering the larger public-health gains of more people riding bikes.” Supporting evidence comes from this 2012 paper in the journal Risk Analysis by Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Sydney’s Macquarie University. His paper included an empirical model that showed how mandatory bike-helmet laws “have a net negative health impact.”

This strikes me as one of the very best examples of how to do dynamic benefit-cost analysis and show the full range of societal impacts associated with well-intentioned regulations. And it reminds me of the playground example I use in several of my papers: Laws and liability threats discouraged tall playground climbing structures in the ’80s and ’90s. Continue reading →