I write about telecom and tech policy and have found that lawmakers and regulators are eager to learn about new technologies. That said, I find that good tech policies usually die of neglect as lawmakers and lobbyists get busy patching up or growing “legacy” policy areas, like public pensions, income taxes, Medicare, school financing, and so forth. So it was a pleasant surprise this spring to see Arizona lawmakers prioritize and pass several laws that anticipate and encourage brand-new technologies and industries.

Flying cars, autonomous vehicles, telehealth–legislating in any one of these novel legal areas is noteworthy. New laws in all of these areas, plus other tech areas, as Arizona did in 2021, is a huge achievement and an invitation to entrepreneurs and industry to build in Arizona.

Re: AVs and telehealth, Arizona was already a national leader in autonomous vehicles and Gov. Ducey in 2015 created the first (to my knowledge) statewide AV task force, something that was imitated nationwide. A new law codifies some of those executive orders and establishes safety rules for testing and commercializing AVs. Another law liberalizes and mainstreams telehealth as an alternative to in-person doctor visits. 

A few highlights about new Arizona laws on legal areas I’ve followed more closely:

  1. Urban air mobility and passenger drones

Arizona lawmakers passed a law (HB 2485) creating an Urban Air Mobility study committee. 26 members of public and private representatives are charged with evaluating current regulations that affect and impede the urban air mobility industry and making recommendations to lawmakers. “Urban air mobility” refers to the growing aviation industry devoted to new, small aircraft designs, including eVTOL and passenger drones, for the air taxi industry. Despite the name, urban air mobility includes intra-city (say, central business district to airport) aviation as well as regional aviation between small cities.

The law is well timed. The US Air Force is giving eVTOL aircraft companies access to military airspace and facilities this year, in part to jumpstart the US commercial eVTOL industry, and NASA recently released a new study (PDF) about regional aviation and technology. NASA and the FAA last year also endorsed the idea of urban air mobility corridors and it’s part of the national strategy for new aviation.

The federal government partnering with cities and state DOTs in the next few years to study air taxis and to test the corridor concept. This Arizona study committee might be to identify possible UAM aerial corridors in the state and cargo missions for experimental UAM flights. They could also identify the regulatory and zoning obstacles to, say, constructing or retrofitting a 2-story air taxi vertiport in downtown Phoenix or Tucson.

Several states have drone advisory committees but this law makes Arizona a trailblazer nationally when it comes to urban air mobility. Very few states have made this a legislative priority: In May 2020 Oklahoma law created a task force to examine autonomous vehicle and passenger drones. Texas joined Oklahoma and Arizona on this front–this week Gov. Abbot signed a similar law creating an urban air mobility committee.

  1. Smart corridor and broadband infrastructure construction

Infrastructure companies nationwide are begging state and local officials to allow them to build along roadways. These “smart road” projects include installing 5G antennas, fiber optics, lidar, GPS nodes, and other technologies for broadband or for connected and autonomous vehicles. To respond to that trend, Arizona passed a law (HB 2596) on May 10 that allows the state DOT–solely or via public-private partnership–to construct and lease out roadside passive infrastructure.

In particular, the new law allows the state DOT to construct, manage, and lease out passive “telecommunication facilities”–not simply conduit, which was allowed under existing law. “Telecommunication facilities” is defined broadly:

Any cable, line, fiber, wire, conduit, innerduct, access manhole, handhole, tower, hut, pedestal, pole, box, transmitting equipment, receiving equipment or power equipment or any other equipment, system or device that is used to transmit, receive, produce or distribute by wireless, wireline, electronic or optical signal for communication purposes.

The new Section 28-7383 also allows the state to enter into an agreement with a public or private entity “for the purpose of using, managing or operating” these state-owned assets. Access to all infrastructure must be non-exclusive, in order to promote competition between telecom and smart city providers. Access to the rights-of-way and infrastructure must also be non-discriminatory, which prevents a public-private partner from favoring its affiliated or favored providers. 

Leasing revenues from private companies using the roadside infrastructure are deposited into a new Smart Corridor Trust Fund, which is used to expand the smart corridor network infrastructure. The project also means it’s easier for multiple providers to access the rights-of-way and roadside infrastructure, making it easier to deploy 5G antennas and extend fiber backhaul and Internet connectivity to rural areas.

It’s the most ambitious smart corridor and telecom infrastructure deployment program I’ve seen. There have been some smaller projects involving the competitive leasing of roadside conduit and poles, like in Lincoln, Nebraska and a proposal in Michigan, but I don’t know of any state encouraging this statewide.

For more about this topic of public-private partnerships and open-access smart corridors, you can read my law review article with Prof. Korok Ray: Smart Cities, Dumb Infrastructure.

  1. Legal protections for residents to install broadband infrastructure on their property

Finally, in May, Gov. Ducey signed a law (HB 2711) sponsored by Rep. Nutt that protects that resembles and supplements the FCC’s “over-the-air-reception-device” rules that protect homeowner installations of wireless broadband antennas. Many renters and landowners–especially in rural areas where wireless home Internet makes more sense–want to install wireless broadband antennas on their property, and this Arizona law protects them from local zoning and permitting regulations that would “unreasonably” delay or raise the cost of installation of antennas. (This is sometimes called the “pizza box rule”–the antenna is protected if it’s smaller than 1 meter diameter.) Without this state law and the FCC rules, towns and counties could and would prohibit antennas or fine residents and broadband companies for installing small broadband and TV antennas on the grounds that the antennas are an unpermitted accessory structure or zoning violation.

The FCC’s new 2021 rules are broader and protect certain types of outdoor 5G and WiFi antennas that serve multiple households. The Arizona law doesn’t extend to these “one-to-many” antennas but its protections supplement those FCC rules and clearer than FCC rules, which can directly regulate antennas but not town and city officials. Between the FCC rules and the Arizona law, Arizona households and renters have new, substantial freedom to install 5G and other wireless antennas on their rooftops, balconies, and yard poles. In rural areas especially this will help get infrastructure and small broadband antennas installed quickly on private property.

Too often, policy debates by state lawmakers and agencies are dominated by incremental reforms of longstanding issues and established industries. Very few states plant the seeds–via policy and law–for promotion of new industries. Passenger drones, smart corridors, autonomous vehicles, and drone delivery are maturing as technologies. Preparing for those industries signals to companies and their investors that innovation, legal clarity, and investment is a priority for the state. Hopefully other states will take Arizona’s lead and look to encouraging the industries and services of the future.

I was my pleasure to appear on the latest episode of the Dissed podcast to discuss economic liberty and the right to earn a living. The show was hosted by Anastasia Boden and Elizabeth Slattery of the Pacific Legal Foundation and it included legal scholars Hadley Arkes, Timothy Sandefur, and Clark Neily. I appear in the second half of the program.

I’ve spent many years writing about the relationship between innovation, entrepreneurialism, economic liberty, and the right to earn a living. My latest book (Evasive Entrepreneurs) and previous one (Permissionless Innovation) devoted considerable attention to this. But I tried to bring it all down to just a few hundred words in my 2018 essay, “The Right to Pursue Happiness, Earn a Living, and Innovate.”

I’ve reprinted that down below, but please make sure to click over to the Dissed page and listen to that excellent podcast.

Continue reading →

Over at Discourse magazine I’ve posted my latest essay on how conservatives are increasingly flirting with the idea of greatly expanding regulatory control of private speech platforms via some sort of common carriage regulation or new Fairness Doctrine for the internet. It begins:

Conservatives have traditionally viewed the administrative state with suspicion and worried about their values and policy prescriptions getting a fair shake within regulatory bureaucracies. This makes their newfound embrace of common carriage regulation and media access theory (i.e., the notion that government should act to force access to private media platforms because they provide an essential public service) somewhat confusing. Recent opinions from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as well as various comments and proposals of Sen. Josh Hawley and former President Trump signal a remarkable openness to greater administrative control of private speech platforms.

Given the takedown actions some large tech companies have employed recently against some conservative leaders and viewpoints, the frustration of many on the right is understandable. But why would conservatives think they are going to get a better shake from state-regulated monopolists than they would from today’s constellation of players or, more importantly, from a future market with other players and platforms?

I continue on to explain why conservatives should be skeptical of the administrative state being their friend when it comes to the control of free speech. I end by reminding conservatives what President Ronald Reagan said in his 1987 veto of legislation to reestablish the Fairness Doctrine: “History has shown that the dangers of an overly timid or biased press cannot be averted through bureaucratic regulation, but only through the freedom and competition that the First Amendment sought to guarantee.”

Read more at Discourse, and down below you will find several other recent essays I’ve written on the topic.

Is it a time for the return of the trustbusters? Some politicians seem to imply that today’s tech giants have become modern day robber barons taking advantage of the American consumer and, as a result, they argue that it is time for a return of aggressive antitrust enforcement and for dramatic changes to existing antitrust interpretations to address the concerns associated with today’s big business.

This criticism is not limited to one side of the aisle, with Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) both proposing their own dramatic overhauls of antitrust laws and the House Judiciary Committee majority issuing a report that greatly criticizes the current technology market. In both cases these new proposals create presumptive bans on mergers for companies of certain size and lower the burdens on the government for intervening and proving its case. I have previously analyzed the potential impact of Senator Klobuchar’s proposal, and Senator Hawley’s proposal raises many similar concerns when it comes to its merger ban and shift away from existing objective standards.

Proponents on both sides of the aisle argue changing current antitrust standards is needed to fight big business, but sadly these modern-day trustbusters may not be the heroes they see themselves as. In fact, such a shift would harm American consumers and small businesses well beyond the tech sector.

Continue reading →

Over at Discourse magazine, my Mercatus Center colleague Matt Mitchell and I have a new essay on, “Industrial Policy is a Very Old, New Idea.” We argue that, despite having a long history of disappointments and failures, that isn’t stopping many policymakers from proposing it industrial policies again. We compare national industrial policy efforts alongside state-based economic development policies, noting their many similarities. In both cases, the crucial issue comes down to targeting versus generality in terms of how policymakers go about encouraging innovation and economic growth. We note how:

The building blocks of the general approach—a mix of broadly applicable tax, spending, regulatory and legal rules—are often rejected because they seem less exciting than targeting specific companies or industries for help. Pundits and policymakers are fond of using machine-like metaphors to suggest they can “fine-tune” innovation or “dial-in” economic development according to a precise formula they believe they have concocted. They also savor the attention that goes along with ribbon-cutting ceremonies and the big headlines often generated by political targeting efforts.

We discuss the spectrum of economic development options (depicted in chart below) in more detail and explain the many pitfalls associated with some of the most highly targeted efforts. “The predicament for policymakers is that, while it is wiser to focus on the generalized approaches, the temptation will remain strong to jump to targeted gambles that may grab headlines but are far more risky and costly,” we argue. Head over to Discourse to read the entire thing.

Post image for Another NFT Explainer

Another NFT Explainer

by on March 29, 2021 · 0 comments

I don’t understand the hype surrounding Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). As someone who has studied copyright and technology issues for years, maybe because it doesn’t seem very new to me. It’s just a remixing of some ideas and technologies that have been around for decades. Let me explain.

For at least 100 years, “ownership” of real property has been thought of as a “bundle of rights.” As a simple example, you may “own” the land your house sits on, but the city probably has a right to build and maintain a sidewalk across your yard and the general public has a right to walk across your property on that sidewalk. The gas company has the right to walk into your side yard to read your gas meter. Pilots have a right to fly over your house. Some other company or companies may have rights to any water and minerals in the ground below your house. Your homeowners association may even have a right to dictate what color you paint the exterior of your house.

This same “bundle of rights” concept also applies to copyright. Unless explicitly granted by contract, buying an original painting doesn’t mean you have the right to take a photograph of the painting and sell prints of the photograph. If you buy a DVD, you have the right to watch the DVD privately and you have the right to sell the DVD when you’re no longer interested in it. (That second right is called the “first sale doctrine” and there have been numerous Supreme Court cases and laws defining it’s exact boundaries.) But unless explicitly granted by contract, purchasing a DVD doesn’t mean you have the right to set up a projector and big screen and charge members of the public to watch it. That requires a “public performance” right.

When you buy most NFTs, you get very few of the rights that typically come with ownership. You might only get the right to privately exhibit the underlying work. And if you decide to later resell the NFT, the contract (which is embedded in digital code of the NFT) may stipulate that the original artist gets a 10% royalty on every future sale of the work.

The second thing you need to understand is the concept of “artificial scarcity.” As a simple example, in the art world, it’s common for photographers and painters to sell numbered, “limited edition” prints of their works. There’s no technological reason why they couldn’t print 1,000 copies of their work, or even register the print with a “print on demand” service that will continue making and selling prints as long as there are people who want to buy them. But limiting the number of prints made (even if each print is identical to any other print), is likely to raise the price. This is artificial scarcity. Most NFTs are an edition of one. Even if there are other exact copies of the underlying artwork sold as NFTs, each NFT is unique. This is like an artist selling numbered prints but not putting a limit on how many numbered prints they make. Each numbered print is technically unique because each has a different number. But without some artificial scarcity, the value of any one print may stay very low.

So if buying a NFT doesn’t get you any real rights and the scarcity is purely artificial, why are NFTs selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars? Here’s where all the technology really makes a difference. If you spend millions on a Picasso painting, you’re taking a lot of risks. First, you’re taking the risk that it’s a forgery, which would drop the value to near-zero. Second is the risk that the painting will be stolen from you. Insurance can help deal with both problems, but that adds more complications. If you’re buying the painting as an investment, these complications reduce the “liquidity” of the asset. Liquidity is the ease with which an asset can be converted into cash without affecting the market value of the asset. Put more simply, liquidity is how easily the asset can be sold. Cash has long been considered the most liquid asset, but NFTs are arguably much /more/ liquid than cash. NFTs don’t require anything physical to trade hands. And even electronic currency transfers take time and are subject to government oversight. NFTs are so new, they’re barely regulated. But by using blockchain technology, they can be easily and safely bought and sold anonymously. NFTs are a money launderers dream. It’s unclear if NFTs are actually being used to launder money, but it’s a concern.

The other reason I think NFTs are so popular is speculation. Because NFTs are so liquid and because there basically doesn’t even need to be an underlying work, the initial cost to “mint” (create) a NFT is near zero. And by using blockchain systems, NFTs can be resold with little overhead. (Though they can also be configured to ensure a certain overhead, e.g. that 10% of every resale goes to the original artist.) These characteristics, along with the newness of NFTs make it a popular marketplace for speculators, people who purchase assets with the intent of holding them for only a short time and then selling them for a profit.

NFTs started to enter the public consciousness in February 2021, after the 10-year old “Nyan cat” animation sold for over half a million dollars. This is also just a few weeks after the Gamestop stock short squeeze made a compelling case that average investors, working in concert, could upset the stock market and make millions. So it’s no wonder that there is rampant speculation in NFTs.

In conclusion, NFTs will be a tremendous benefit to digital artists, who did not previously have a way to easily prove the authenticity of their works (which is of tremendous importance to investors) or to provide a digital equivalent to numbered prints in the physical art world. But the hype about NFTs is just that. It’s driven by speculators and you’d be crazy to think of this as a worthy investment opportunity.

Content moderation online is a newsworthy and heated political topic. In the past year, social media companies and Internet infrastructure companies have gotten much more aggressive about banning and suspending users and organizations from their platforms. Today, Congress is holding another hearing for tech CEOs to explain and defend their content moderation standards. Relatedly, Ben Thompson at Stratechery recently had interesting interviews with Patrick Collison (Stripe), Brad Smith (Microsoft), Thomas Kurian (Google Cloud), and Matthew Prince (Cloudflare) about the difficult road ahead re: content moderation by Internet infrastructure companies.

I’m unconvinced of the need to rewrite Section 230 but like the rest of the Telecom Act—which turned 25 last month–the law is showing its age. There are legal questions about Internet content moderation that would benefit from clarifications from courts or legal scholars.

(One note: Social media common carriage, which some advocates on the left, right, and center have proposed, won’t work well, largely for the same reason ISP common carriage won’t work well—heterogeneous customer demands and a complex technical interface to regulate—a topic for another essay.)

The recent increase in content moderation and user bans raises questions–for lawmakers in both parties–about how these practices interact with existing federal laws and court precedents. Some legal issues that need industry, scholar, and court attention:

Public Officials’ Social Media and Designated Public Forums

Does Knight Institute v. Trump prevent social media companies’ censorship on public officials’ social media pages?

The 2nd Circuit, in Knight Institute v. Trump, deemed the “interactive space” beneath Pres. Trump’s tweets a “designated public forum,” which meant that “he may not selectively exclude those whose views he disagrees with.” For the 2nd Circuit and any courts that follow that decision, the “interactive space” of most public officials’ Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and YouTube pages seem to be designated public forums.

I read the Knight Institute decision when it came out and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the decision had some unsettling implications. The reason the decision seems amiss struck me recently:

Can it be lawful for a private party (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to censor members of the public who are using a designated public forum (like replying to President Trump’s tweets)? 

That can’t be right. We have designated public forums in the physical world, like when a city council rents out a church auditorium or Lions Club hall for a public meeting. All speech in a designated public forum is accorded the strong First Amendment rights found in traditional public forums. I’m unaware of a case on the subject but a court is unlikely to allow the private owner of a designated public forum, like a church, to censor or dictate who can speak when its facilities are used as a designated public forum.

The straightforward implication from Knight Institute v. Trump seems to be that neither politicians nor social media companies can make viewpoint-based decisions about who can comment on or access an official’s social media account.

Knight Institute creates more First Amendment problems than it solves, and could be reversed someday. [Ed. update: In April 2021, the Supreme Court vacated the 2nd Circuit decision as moot since Trump is no longer president. However, a federal district court in Florida concluded, in Attwood v. Clemons, that public officials’ “social media accounts are designated public forums.” The Knight Institute has likewise sued Texas Attorney General Paxton for blocking user and claimed that his social media feed is a designated public forum. It’s clear more courts will adopt this rule.] But to the extent Knight Institute v. Trump is good law, it seems to limit how social media companies moderate public officials’ pages and feeds.

Cloud neutrality

How should tech companies, lawmakers, and courts interpret Sec. 512?

Wired recently published a piece about “cloud neutrality,” which draws on net neutrality norms of nondiscrimination towards content and applies them to Internet infrastructure companies. I’m skeptical of the need or constitutionality of the idea but, arguably, the US has a soft version of cloud neutrality embedded in Section 512 of the DMCA.

The law conditions the copyright liability safe harbor for Internet infrastructure companies only if: 

the transmission, routing, provision of connections, or storage is carried out through an automatic technical process without selection of the material by the service provider.

17 USC § 512(a).

Perhaps a copyright lawyer can clarify, but it appears that Internet infrastructure companies may lose their copyright safe harbor if they handpick material to censor. To my knowledge, there is no scholarship or court decision on this question.

State Action

What evidence would a user-plaintiff need to show that their account or content was removed due to state action?

Most complaints of state action for social media companies’ content moderation are dubious. And while showing state action is hard to prove, in narrow circumstances it may apply. The Supreme Court test has said that when there is a “sufficiently close nexus between the State and [a] challenged action,” the action of a private company will be treated as state action. For that reason, content removals made after non-public pressure or demands from federal and state officials to social media moderators likely aren’t protected by the First Amendment or Section 230.

Most examples of federal and state officials privately jawboning social media companies will never see the light of day. However, it probably occurs. Based on Politico reporting, for instance, it appears that state officials in a few states leaned on social media companies to remove anti-lockdown protest events last April. It’s hard to know exactly what occurred in those private conversations, and Politico has updated the story a few times, but examples like that may qualify as state action.

Any public official who engages in non-public jawboning resulting in content moderation could also be liable to a Section 1983 claim–civil liability for deprivation of an affected user’s constitutional rights.

Finally, what should Congress do about foreign state action that results in tech censorship in the US? A major theme of the Stretechery interviews ist that many tech companies feel pressure to set their moderation standards based on what foreign governments censor and prohibit. Content removal from online services because of foreign influence isn’t a First Amendment problem, but it is a serious free speech problem for Americans.

Many Republicans and Democrats want to punish large tech companies for real or perceived unfairness in content moderation. That’s politics, I suppose, but it’s a damaging instinct. For one thing, the Section 230 fixation distract free-market and free-speech advocates from, among other things, alarming proposals for changes to the FEC that empower it to criminalize more political speech. The singular focus on Section 230 repeal-reform distracts from these other legal questions about content moderation. Hopefully the Biden DOJ or congressional hearings will take some of these up.

Here’s a new animated explainer video that I narrated for the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project. The 3-minute video discusses how earlier “tech giants” rose and fell as technological innovation and new competition sent them off to what the New York Times once appropriately called “The Hall of Fallen Giants.” It’s a continuing testament to the power of “creative destruction” to upend and reorder markets, even as many pundits insist that there’s no possibility change can happen.

This is an important lesson for us to remember today, as I noted in the recent editorial for The Hill about why, “Open-ended antitrust is an innovation killer“: Continue reading →

[Last updated 6/16/21]

Industrial Policy is a red-hot topic once again with many policymakers and pundits of different ideological leanings lining up to support ambitious new state planning for various sectors — especially 5G, artificial intelligence, and semiconductors. A remarkably bipartisan array of people and organizations are advocating for government to flex its muscle and begin directing more spending and decision-making in various technological areas. They all suggest some sort of big plan is needed, and it is not uncommon for these industrial policy advocates to suggest that hundreds of billions will need to be spent in pursuit of those plans.

Others disagree, however, and I’ll be using this post to catalog some of their concerns on an ongoing basis. Some of the criticisms listed here are portions of longer essays, many of which highlight other types of steps that governments can take to spur innovative activities. Industrial policy is an amorphous term with many definitions of a broad spectrum of possible proposals. Almost everyone believes in some form of industrial policy if you define the term broadly enough. But, as I argued in a September 2020 essay “On Defining ‘Industrial Policy,” I believe it is important to narrow the focus of the term such that we can continue to use the term in a rational way. Toward that end, I believe a proper understanding of industrial policy refers to targeted and directed efforts to plan for specific future industrial outputs and outcomes.

The collection of essays below is merely an attempt to highlight some of the general concerns about the most ambitious calls for expansive industrial policy, many of which harken back to debates I was covering in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I first started a career in policy analysis. During that time, Japan and South Korea were the primary countries of concern cited by industrial policy advocates. Today, it is China’s growing economic standing that is fueling calls for ambitious state-led targeted investments in “strategic” sectors and technologies. To a lesser extent, grandiose European industrial policy proposals are also prompting new US counter-proposals.

All this activity is what has given rise to many of the critiques listed below. If you have suggestions for other essays I might add to this list, please feel free to pass them along. FYI: There’s no particular order here.

Continue reading →

In our latest feature for Discourse magazine, Connor Haaland and I explore the question, “Should the U.S. Copy China’s Industrial Policy?” We begin by noting that:

Calls for revitalizing American industrial policy have multiplied in recent years, with many pundits and policymakers suggesting that the U.S. should consider taking on Europe and China by emulating their approaches to technological development. The goal would be to have Washington formulate a set of strategic innovation goals and mobilize government planning and spending around them.

We continue on to argue that what most of these advocates miss is that:

China’s targeting efforts are often antithetical to both innovation and liberty, and involve plenty of red tape and bureaucracy. China has become a remarkably innovative country for many reasons, including its greater tolerance for risk-taking, even as the Chinese Communist Party continues to pump resources into strategic sectors. But most Chinese innovation is permissible only insomuch as it furthers the party’s objectives, a strategy the U.S. obviously wouldn’t want to copy.

We discuss the problems associated with some of those Chinese efforts as well as proposed US responses, like the recently released 756 page report from the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. The report takes an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to state direction for new AI-related efforts and spending. While that report says the government now must “drive change through top-down leadership” in order to “win the AI competition that is intensifying strategic competition with China,” we argue that there could be some serious pitfalls with top-down, high price tag approaches.

Jump over to the Discourse site to read the full essay, as well as our previous essay, which asked, “Can European-Style Industrial Policies Create Tech Supremacy?” These two essay build on the research Connor and I have been doing on global artificial intelligence policies in the US, China, and the EU. In a much longer forthcoming white paper, we explore both the regulatory and industrial policy approaches for AI being adopted in the US, China, and the EU. Stay tuned for more.