Articles by Adam Thierer

Adam ThiererAdam is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He previously served as President of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, Director of Telecom. Studies at the Cato Institute, and Fellow in Economic Policy at the Heritage Foundation.


In a terrific little essay on “Local Economic Revival and The Unpredictability of Technological Innovation,” Michael Mandel, the chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute, makes several important points regarding the fundamental folly for future forecasting efforts as it pertains to new innovations. He notes, for example:

There are plenty of candidates for the “next big thing,” ranging from the Internet of Things to additive manufacturing to artificial organ factories to autonomous cars to space commerce to Elon Musk’s hyperloop. Each of these has the potential to revolutionize an industry, and to create many thousands or even millions of jobs in the process–not just for the highly-educated, but a whole range of workers.

Yet the problem–and the beauty–is that technological innovation is fundamentally unpredictable, even at close range. Consider this: The two most important innovations of the past decade, economically, have been the smartphone and fracking. The smartphone transformed the way that we communicate and hydraulic fracturing has driven down the price of energy, not to mention shifting the geopolitical balance of power.

But few saw the smartphone and fracking revolutions coming, he notes. The pundits and the press were too focused on technologies of the past. Continue reading →

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my latest law review article, “Guns, Limbs, and Toys: What Future for 3D Printing?” The article, which appears in Vol. 17 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, was co-authored with Adam Marcus. Here’s the abstract:

We stand on the cusp of the next great industrial revolution thanks to technological innovations and developments that could significantly enhance the welfare of people across the world. This article will focus on how one of those modern inventions–3D printing–could offer the public significant benefits, but not without some serious economic, social, and legal disruptions along the way. We begin by explaining what 3D printing is and how it works. We also discuss specific applications of this technology and its potential benefits. We then turn to the policy frameworks that could govern 3D printing technologies and itemize a few of the major public policy issues that are either already being discussed, or which could become pertinent in the future. We offer some general guidance for policymakers who might be pondering the governance of 3D printing technologies going forward. Contra to the many other articles and position papers that have already been penned about 3D printing policy, which only selectively defend permissionless innovation in narrow circumstances, we endorse it as the default rule across all categories of 3D printing applications.

More specifically, we do a deep dive into 3 primary public policy “fault lines” for 3D printing: firearms, medical devices, and intellectual property concerns. Read the whole thing for more details.

Elizabeth_WarrenThe folks over at RegBlog are running a series of essays on “Rooting Out Regulatory Capture,” a problem that I’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing here and elsewhere in the past. (See, most notably, my compendium on, “Regulatory Capture: What the Experts Have Found.”) The first major contribution in the RegBlog series is from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and it is entitled, “Corporate Capture of the Rulemaking Process.”

Sen. Warren makes many interesting points about the dangers of regulatory capture, but the heart of her argument about how to deal with the problem can basically be summarized as ‘Let’s Build a Better Breed of Bureaucrat and Give Them More Money.’  In her own words, she says we should “limit opportunities for ‘cultural’ capture'” of government officials and also “give agencies the money that they need to do their jobs.”

It may sound good in theory, but I’m always a bit perplexed by that argument because the implicit claims here are that:

(a) the regulatory officials of the past were somehow less noble-minded and more open to corruption than some hypothetical better breed of bureaucrat that is out there waiting to be found and put into office; and

(b) that the regulatory agencies of the past were somehow starved for resources and lacked “the money that they need to do their jobs.”

Neither of these assumptions is true and yet those arguments seem to animate most of the reform proposals set forth by progressive politicians and scholars for how to deal with the problem of capture. Continue reading →

In theory, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) exists to save lives and improve health outcomes. All too often, however, that goal is hindered by the agency’s highly bureaucratic, top-down, command-and-control orientation toward drug and medical device approval.

Today’s case in point involves families of children with diabetes, many of whom are increasingly frustrated with the FDA’s foot-dragging when it comes to approval of medical devices that could help their kids. Writing today in The Wall Street Journal, Kate Linebaugh discusses how “Tech-Savvy Families Use Home-Built Diabetes Device” to help their kids when FDA regulations limit the availability of commercial options. She documents how families of diabetic children are taking matters into their own hands and creating their own home-crafted insulin pumps, which can automatically dose the proper amount of proper amount of the hormone in response to their child’s blood-sugar levels. Families are building, calibrating, and troubleshooting these devices on their own. And the movement is growing. Linebaugh reports that:

More than 50 people have soldered, tinkered and written software to make such devices for themselves or their children. The systems—known in the industry as artificial pancreases or closed loop systems—have been studied for decades, but improvements to sensor technology for real-time glucose monitoring have made them possible.

The Food and Drug Administration has made approving such devices a priority and several companies are working on them. But the yearslong process of commercial development and regulatory approval is longer than many patients want, and some are technologically savvy enough to do it on their own.

Linebaugh notes that this particular home-built medical project (known as OpenAPS), was created by Dana Lewis, a 27-year-old with Type 1 diabetes in Seattle. Linebaugh says that: Continue reading →

DM coverOn May 3rd, I’m excited to be participating in a discussion with Yale University bioethicist Wendell Wallach at the Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center in Washington, DC. (RSVP here.) Wallach and I will be discussing issues we write about in our new books, both of which focus on possible governance models for emerging technologies and the question of how much preemptive control society should exercise over new innovations.

Wallach’s latest book is entitled, A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology from Slipping beyond Our Control. And, as I’ve noted here recently, the greatly expanded second edition of my latest book, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom, has just been released.

Of all the books of technological criticism or skepticism that I’ve read in recent years—and I have read stacks of them!—A Dangerous Master is by far the most thoughtful and interesting. I have grown accustomed to major works of technological criticism being caustic, angry affairs. Most of them are just dripping with dystopian dread and a sense of utter exasperation and outright disgust at the pace of modern technological change.

Although he is certainly concerned about a wide variety of modern technologies—drones, robotics, nanotech, and more—Wallach isn’t a purveyor of the politics of panic. There are some moments in the book when he resorts to some hyperbolic rhetoric, such as when he frets about an impending “techstorm” and the potential, as the book’s title suggests, for technology to become a “dangerous master” of humanity. For the most part, however, his approach is deeper and more dispassionate than what is found in the leading tracts of other modern techno-critics.

Continue reading →

Permissionless Innovation 2nd edition book cover -1I am pleased to announce the release of the second edition of my book, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom. As with the first edition, the book represents a short manifesto 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. The book attempts to accomplish two major goals.

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 →

retainerAs “software eats the world,” the reach of the Digital Revolution continues to expand to far-flung fields and sectors. The ramifications of this are tremendously exciting but at times can also be a little bit frightening.

Consider this recent Washington Post headline: “A College Kid Spends $60 to Straighten His Own Teeth. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” Matt McFarland of the Post reports that, “A college student has received a wealth of interest in his dental work after publishing an account of straightening his own teeth for $60.” The student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, “had no dentistry experience when he decided to create plastic aligners to improve his smile,” but was able to use a 3D printer and laser scanner on campus to accomplish the job. “After publishing before-and-after pictures of his teeth this month, [the student] has received hundreds of requests from strangers, asking him to straighten their teeth.”

McFarland cites many medical professionals who are horrified at the prospect of patients taking their health decisions into own hands and engaging in practices that could be dangerous to themselves and others. Some of the licensed practitioners cited in the story come across as just being bitter losers as they face the potential for the widespread disintermediation of their profession. After all, they currently charge thousands of dollars for various dental procedures and equipment. Thanks to technological innovations, however, those costs could soon plummet, which could significantly undercut their healthy margins on dental services and equipment. On the other hand, these professionals have a fair point about untrained citizens doing their own dental work or giving others the ability to do so. Things certainly could go horribly wrong.

This is another interesting case study related to the subject of a forthcoming Mercatus paper as well as an upcoming law review article on 3D printing of mine, both of which pose the following question: What happens when radically decentralized technological innovation (such as 3D printing) gives people a de facto “right to try” new medicines and medical devices? Continue reading →

Christopher GiancarloU.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) Commissioner J. Christopher Giancarlo delivered an amazing address this week before the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation 2016 Blockchain Symposium. The title of his speech was “Regulators and the Blockchain: First, Do No Harm,” and it will go down as the definitive early statement about how policymakers can apply a principled, innovation-enhancing policy paradigm to distributed ledger technology (DLT) or “blockchain” applications.

“The potential applications of this technology are being widely imagined and explored in ways that will benefit market participants, consumers and governments alike,” Giancarlo noted in his address. But in order for that to happen, he said, we have to get policy right. “It is time again to remind regulators to ‘do no harm,'” he argued, and he continued on to note that

The United States’ global leadership in technological innovation of the Internet was built hand-in-hand with its enlightened “do no harm” regulatory framework. Yet, when the Internet developed in the mid-1990s, none of us could have imagined its capabilities that we take for granted today. Fortunately, policymakers had the foresight to create a regulatory environment that served as a catalyst rather than a choke point for innovation. Thanks to their forethought and restraint, Internet-based applications have revolutionized nearly every aspect of human life, created millions of jobs and increased productivity and consumer choice. Regulators must show that same forethought and restraint now [for the blockchain].

What Giancarlo is referring to is the approach that the U.S. government adopted toward the Internet and digital networks in the mid-1990s. You can think of this vision as “permissionless innovation.” As I explain in my recent book of the same title, permissionless innovation refers to the notion that we should generally be free to experiment and learn new and better ways of doing things through ongoing trial-and-error. Continue reading →

[This is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of the forthcoming 2nd edition of my book, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom,” due out later this month. I was presenting on these issues at today’s New America Foundation “Cybersecurity for a New America” event, so I thought I would post this now.  To learn more about the contrast between “permissionless innovation” and “precautionary principle” thinking, please consult the earlier edition of my book or see this blog post.]


 

Viruses, malware, spam, data breeches, and critical system intrusions are just some of the security-related concerns that often motivate precautionary thinking and policy proposals.[1] But as with privacy- and safety-related worries, the panicky rhetoric surrounding these issues is usually unfocused and counterproductive.

In today’s cybersecurity debates, for example, it is not uncommon to hear frequent allusions to the potential for a “digital Pearl Harbor,”[2] a “cyber cold war,”[3] or even a “cyber 9/11.”[4] These analogies are made even though these historical incidents resulted in death and destruction of a sort not comparable to attacks on digital networks. Others refer to “cyber bombs” or technological “time bombs,” even though no one can be “bombed” with binary code.[5] Michael McConnell, a former director of national intelligence, went so far as to say that this “threat is so intrusive, it’s so serious, it could literally suck the life’s blood out of this country.”[6]

Such outrageous statements reflect the frequent use of “threat inflation” rhetoric in debates about online security.[7] Threat inflation has been defined as “the attempt by elites to create concern for a threat that goes beyond the scope and urgency that a disinterested analysis would justify.”[8] Unfortunately, such bombastic rhetoric often conflates minor cybersecurity risks with major ones. For example, dramatic doomsday stories about hackers pushing planes out of the sky misdirects policymakers’ attention from the more immediate, but less gripping, risks of data extraction and foreign surveillance. Well-meaning skeptics might then conclude that our real cybersecurity risks are also not a problem. In the meantime, outdated legislation and inappropriate legal norms continue to impede beneficial defensive measures that could truly improve security. Continue reading →

The success of the Internet and the modern digital economy was due to its open, generative nature, driven by the ethos of “permissionless innovation.” A “light-touch” policy regime helped make this possible. Of particular legal importance was the immunization of online intermediaries from punishing forms of liability associated with the actions of third parties.

As “software eats the world” and the digital revolution extends its reach to the physical world, policymakers should extend similar legal protections to other “generative” tools and platforms, such as robotics, 3D printing, and virtual reality.

In other words, we need a Section 230 for the “maker” movement. Continue reading →