March 2013

Defining “privacy” is a legal and philosophical nightmare. Few concepts engender more definitional controversies and catfights. As someone who is passionate about his own personal privacy — but also highly skeptical of top-down governmental attempts to regulate and/or protect it — I continue to be captivated by the intellectual wrangling that has taken place over the definition of privacy. Here are some thoughts from a wide variety of scholars that make it clear just how frustrating this endeavor can be:

  • Perhaps the most striking thing about the right to privacy is that nobody seems to have any very clear idea what it is.” – Judith Jarvis Thomson, “The Right to Privacy,” in Philosophical Dimensions of Privacy: An Anthology, 272, 272 (Ferdinand David Schoeman ed., 1984).
  • privacy is “exasperatingly vague and evanescent.” – Arthur Miller, The Assault on Privacy: Computers, Data Banks, and Dossiers, 25 (1971).
  • [T]he concept of privacy is infected with pernicious ambiguities.” – Hyman Gross,  The Concept of Privacy, 42 N.Y.U. L. REV. 34, 35 (1967).
  • Attempts to define the concept of ‘privacy’ have generally not met with any success.” – Colin Bennett, Regulating Privacy: Data Protection and Public Policy In Europe and the United States,  25 (1992).
  • When it comes to privacy, there are many inductive rules, but very few universally accepted axioms.” – David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 77 (1998).
  • Privacy is a value so complex, so entangled in competing and contradictory dimensions, so engorged with various and distinct meanings, that I sometimes despair whether it can be usefully addressed at all.” – Robert C. Post, Three Concepts of Privacy, 89 GEO. L.J. 2087, 2087 (2001).
  • [privacy] can mean almost anything to anybody.” – Fred H. Cate & Robert Litan, Constitutional Issues in Information Privacy, 9 Mich. Telecomm. & Tech. L. Rev. 35, 37 (2002).
  • privacy has long been a “conceptual jungle” and a “concept in disarray.” “[T]he attempt to locate the ‘essential’ or ‘core’ characteristics of privacy has led to failure.” – Daniel J. Solove, Understanding Privacy 196, 8 (2008).
  • Privacy has really ceased to be helpful as a term to guide policy in the United States.” – Woodrow Hartzog, quoted in Cord Jefferson, Spies Like Us: We’re All Big Brother Now, Gizmodo, Sept. 27, 2012.
  • for most consumers and policymakers, privacy is not a rational topic. It’s a visceral subject, one on which logical arguments are largely wasted.” – Larry Downes,  A Rational Response to the Privacy “Crisis,” Cato Institute, Policy Analysis No. 716 (Jan. 7, 2013), at 6.

In my new Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy article, “The Pursuit of Privacy in a World Where Information Control is Failing” I build on these insights to argue that: Continue reading →

ARIN is the Internet numbers registry for the North American region. It likes to present itself as a paragon of multistakeholder governance and a staunch opponent of the International Telecommunication Union’s encroachments into Internet governance. Surely, if anyone wants to keep the ITU out of Internet addressing and routing policy, it would be ARIN. And conversely, in past years the ITU has sought to carve away some of the authority over IP addressing from ARIN and other RIRs.

But wait, what is this? March 15 the ITU Secretary-General released a preparatory report for the ITU’s World Telecommunications Policy Forum, which will take place in Geneva May 14-16. The report contains 6 Internet-related policy resolutions “to provide a basis for discussion …focusing on key issues on which it would be desirable to reach conclusions.” Draft Opinion #3 pertains to Internet addressing. Among other things, the draft resolves:

  • “that needs-based address allocation should continue to underpin IP address allocation, irrespective of whether they are IPv6 or IPv4, and in the case of IPv4, irrespective of whether they are legacy or allocated address space;
  • “that all IPv4 transactions be reported to the relevant RIRs, including transactions of legacy addresses that are not necessarily subject to the policies of the RIRs regarding transfers, as supported by the policies developed by the RIR communities;”
  • “that policies of inter-RIR transfer across all RIRs should ensure that such transfers are needs based and be common to all RIRs irrespective of the address space concerned.”

These policy positions thrust the ITU and its intergovernmental machinery directly into the realm of IP addressing policy. But that is quite predictable; the ITU has always wanted to do that. What is unusual about these resolutions is that they bear an uncanny resemblance to the policy positions currently advocated by ARIN and the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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If you haven’t seen Edward Hasbrouck’s talk on government surveillance of travel IT systems, you should.

It’s startling to learn just how much access people other than your airline have to your air travel plans.

Here’s just one image that Hasbrouck put together to illustrate what the system looks like.

He’ll be presenting his travel surveillance talk at the Cato Institute at noon on April 2nd. We’ll also be discussing the new public notice on airport strip-search machines issued by the TSA earlier this week.

Register now for Travel Surveillance, Traveler Intrusion.

travel surveillance

Today Reason has published my policy paper addressing privacy concerns created by search, social networking and Web-based e-commerce in general.

These web sites have been in regulatory crosshairs for some time, although Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have been hesitant to push forward with restrictive legislation such as “Do Not Track” and mandatory opt-in or top-down mandates such as the White House drafted “Privacy Bill of Rights.” An the U.S. seems unwilling to go to the lengths Europe is, contemplating such unworkable rules like demanding an “Internet eraser button”—a sort of online memory hole that would scrub any information about you that is accessible on the Web, even if it is part of the public record.

In my paper, It’s Not Personal: The Dangers of Misapplied Policies to Search, Social Media and Other Web Content, I discuss the difficulty of regulating personal disclosure because different people have different thresholds for privacy. We all know people who refuse to go on Facebook because they are wary of allowing too much information about themselves to circulate. Where it gets dicey is when authority figures take a paternalistic attitude and start deciding what information I will not be allowed to share, for what they claim is my own good.

Top down mandates really don’t work, mainly because popular attitudes are always in flux. Offer me 50 percent off on a hotel room, and I may be willing to tell you where I’m vacationing. Find me interesting books and movies, and I may be happy to let you know my favorite titles.

Instead, ground-up guidelines that arise as users become more comfortable with the medium, and sites work to establish trust, work better. True, Google and Facebook often push the envelope in trying to determine where user boundaries are, but pull back when run into user protest. And when the FTC took up Google’s and Facebook’s practices, while the agency shook a metaphorical finger at both companies’ aggressiveness, it assessed no fines or penalties, essentially finding that no consumer harm was done.

This course has been wise. The willingness of users to exchange information about themselves in return for value is an important element of e-commerce. It is worth considering some likely consequences if the government pushes too hard to prevent sites from gathering information about users.

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Free Press is holding its National Conference for Media Reform next week. The conference agenda describes the Internet as “central” to freedom of expression, which is how all mass media technologies have been described since the invention of the printing press ushered in the mass communications era. Despite recognizing that the Internet is a mass media technology, Free Press does not believe the Internet should be accorded the same constitutional protections as other mass media technologies. Like so many others, Free Press has forgotten that the dangers posed by government control of the Internet are similar to those posed by earlier mass media technologies. In a stunning reversal of the concepts embodied in the Bill of Rights, Free Press believes the executive and legislative branches of government are the source of protection for the freedom of expression. In their view, “Internet freedom means net neutrality.Continue reading →

Sean Flaim, an attorney focusing on antitrust, intellectual property, cyberlaw, and privacy, discusses his new paper “Copyright Conspiracy: How the New Copyright Alert System May Violate the Sherman Act,” recently published in the New York University Journal of Intellectual Property and Entertainment Law.

Flaim describes content owners early attempts to enforce copyright through lawsuit as a “public relations nightmare” that humanized piracy and created outrage over large fines imposed on casual downloaders. According to Flaim, the Copyright Alert System is a more nuanced approach by the content industry to crack down on copyright infringement online, which arose in response to a government failure to update copyright law to reflect the nature of modern information exchange.

Flaim explains the six stages of the Copyright Alert System in action, noting his own suspicions about the program’s states intent as a education tool for repeat violators of copyright law online. In addition to antitrust concerns, Flaim worries that appropriate cost-benefit analysis has not been applied to this private regulation system, and, ultimately, that private companies are being granted a government-like power to punish individuals for breaking the law.


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Last week I attended an event on software patents at GW Law School. The event made me uncomfortable because it was—as one would expect at a law school event—dominated by lawyers. The concerns of the legal academics, practitioners, and lobbyists participating in the round table discussion were very different from those one would expect for a policy audience. For example, the participants agreed that there is no elegant way to partition software patents from other patents under current law and that current Supreme Court jurisprudence is unsophisticated, relying on the wrong sections of the U.S. Code.

Missing from the discussion was the single most important fact about patents: that they are negatively correlated with economic growth.

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Robert McDowell, one of the two Republican Commissioners on the Federal Communications Commission, announced on Wednesday that he would soon resign. In his seven years on the FCC, Commissioner McDowell has been a consistent critic of over-regulation and a champion of both Internet freedom and the rule of law. He’s earned a uniquely loyal following among policymakers and thought leaders alike in the free market tech policy community, not only in the U.S. but around the world.  Here are just a few tributes to this remarkably humble and personable regulator—the regulator who, again and again, cried, in the most mild-mannered-but-firm way possible: “Hold on a minute, have we really thought this one through?”

  • Sen. John Thune (R-SD): “As we have seen with his recent leadership on efforts to prevent foreign government intervention in the operation and use of the Internet, Rob has been a consistent voice cautioning against unnecessary governmental regulations. I hope the president’s nominee to replace him will approach the job with the same passion and energy that Rob exhibited and will be similarly committed to finding market-based solutions to our nation’s communications challenges whenever possible.”

  • Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI): “At a time when broadband and wireless technology are transforming voice, video, audio and data communications, we could not have asked for a better steward than Commissioner McDowell. With every decision, he has fought to ensure we are creating an environment for investment, innovation, and growth. And he has done so with both eloquence and good humor. No question that he has left the communications landscape better than he found it. We thank him for his service.”

  • Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR): “For more than a half decade, Robert McDowell has embodied the consummate FCC commissioner. He has kept a steadfast eye on how to foster a vibrant communications marketplace for the American people and the American economy. He has always stood up to protect the freedom of the Internet for all, and at every turn he has made sure to respect good process, good policy, and the rule of law. The country is all the better for his service. With much gratitude, we wish him all the best wherever his path may take him.” Continue reading →

As noted here last week, as part of their Marginal Revolution University online courses, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have been rolling out several classes on “Economics of the Media.” I think TLF readers will be interested in checking out their lessons on “Bundling” and “Cable TV Regulation” since these are topics we have frequently discussed here over the years. I’ve embedded those two presentations below, but please go the MRU site and watch all the videos in their media economics course when you get a chance. They are excellent.

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Robert_M_McDowellWe learned today that Robert M. McDowell, who has served as a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission for almost seven years, will be leaving the agency shortly. I’m sad to hear it. Commissioner McDowell has been a great champion of freedom across the board, from traditional communications and media reform to cutting-edge Internet policy issues. On one issue after another, fans of liberty could count on Rob McDowell to perfectly articulate and defend the pro-freedom position on high-tech policy matters whenever and wherever he wrote or spoke.

I can’t even begin to list all the things we’ve written here over the years at the TLF about McDowell and his excellent body of work while he served at the FCC, but a quick custom search of this blog yields dozens of columns all gushing with praise for the seemingly endless string of outstanding speeches and statements that he made since joining the agency in 2006.  But I just want to highlight two of McDowell’s most eloquent speeches and strongly encourage you to go read or re-read them because they will inspire you to keep up the good fight to expand the sphere of liberty in this field:

Here a few choice passages from these amazing speeches: Continue reading →