Articles by Brent Skorup

Brent SkorupBrent is a senior research fellow with the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at GMU. He has an economics degree from Wheaton College and a law degree from George Mason University. Opinions are his own.


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.

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.

On January 7, with the Pai FCC winding down, the agency made an important rule change that gives US households more broadband options. Small, outdoor broadband antennas installed on private property will be shielded from “unreasonable” state and local restrictions and fees, much like satellite TV dishes are protected today. The practical effect is most consumers can install small broadband devices on their rooftops, on their balconies, or on short poles in their yards in order to bring broadband to their home and their neighbors’. The FCC decision was bipartisan and unanimous and will open up tens of millions of new installation sites for certain 5G small cells, WISP systems, outdoor WiFi, mesh network nodes, and other wireless devices.

Previously, satellite dish installation was protected from most fees and restrictions but most small broadband antennas were not.

Disparate treatment.

The rule change involved the FCC’s 20 year-old over-the-air-reception-device (OTARD) rules, which protect consumers from unreasonable local fees and restrictions when installing satellite TV dishes. The rules came about because in the 1990s states and cities often restricted or imposed fees on homeowners installing satellite TV dishes. Congress got involved and, circa 1998, the FCC created the OTARD rules, aka the “pizza box rules,” to protect the installation of TV dishes less than 1 meter diameter.

In recent years, homeowners and tenants increasingly want to install small, outdoor broadband antennas on their property to bring new services and competition to their neighborhood. However, they face many of the same problems satellite dish installers faced in the 1990s. From my comments (pdf) to the FCC in the proceeding:

For instance, a few years ago a woman in the Charlottesville, Virginia, area switched from cable to less expensive satellite TV service in order to save money after being laid off. She had a satellite dish installed in her front yard—the only place the dish could receive an adequate signal. A city zoning official sent her and about 30 neighbors letters informing them that their (OTARD rules-covered) satellite dishes were, per local ordinance, unpermitted accessory structures. Any homeowners who did not remove their dish faced fines of $250 per day.

Fortunately for the homeowners, the woman was familiar with the OTARD rules and informed the local officials of the FCC’s authority.38 After being informed of the FCC’s OTARD regulations, the city officials declined to enforce the local ordinance and agreed to revisit the ordinance for compliance with FCC rules.

Today, WISPs and other broadband providers face similar issues when trying to install antennas on private property. It’s hard to know how much the OTARD rules helped expand satellite TV penetration but it helped. The FCC rules coincided with the installation of 20-30 million small dishes on private property.

With the rules extended to broadband antennas, operators will have millions more low-cost siting options. One provider, Starry, wrote to the FCC that today “it takes on average 100 days to complete the permitting process for a single base station, which accounts for about 80% of the time that it spends in activating a site.” Starry says that with the January 2021 rule change, they’ll likely activate 25-30% more antenna sites in the next year, bringing a broadband option to 1 million additional households. Take projections with a grain of salt, but it’s clear the new rules will improve coverage and competition.

There are some exceptions. States and cities are able to restrict antenna installation if they can show a safety hazard or a historic preservation issue. Generally, however, the rules are protective of homeowners and tenants. The changes faced some opposition from cities, counties, and homeowners associations but it’s great to see a bipartisan and unanimous decision in the final days of Chairman Pai’s broadband expansion-focused tenure to give consumers more protection for installing and self-provisioning small broadband antennas.

My research focus lately has been studying and encouraging markets in airspace. Aviation airspace is valuable but has been assigned to date by regulatory mechanisms, custom, and rationing by industry agreement. This rationing was tolerable decades ago when airspace use was relatively light. Today, regulators need to consider markets in airspace–allowing the demarcation, purchase, and transfer of aerial corridors–in order to give later innovators airspace access, to avoid anticompetitive “route squatting,” and to serve as a revenue stream for governments, much like spectrum auctions and offshore oil leases.

Last month, the FAA came out in favor of “urban air mobility corridors”–point-to-point aerial highways that new eVTOL, helicopter, and passenger drones will use. It’s a great proposal, but the FAA’s plan for allocating and sharing those corridors is largely to let the industry negotiate it among themselves (the “Community Business Rules”):

Operations within UAM Corridors will also be supported by CBRs collaboratively developed by the stakeholder community based on industry standards or FAA guidelines and approved by the FAA.

This won’t end well, much like Congress and the Postmaster General letting the nascent airlines in the 1930s divvy up air routes didn’t end well–we’re still living with the effects of those anticompetitive decisions. Decades later the FAA is still refereeing industry fights over routes and airport access.

Rather, regulators should create airspace markets because otherwise, as McKinsey analysts noted last year about urban air mobility:

first movers will have an advantage by securing the most attractive sites along high-traffic routes.

Airspace today is a common-pool resource rationed via regulation and custom. But with drones, eVTOL, and urban air mobility, congestion will increase and centralized air traffic control will need to give way to a more federated and privately-managed airspace system. As happened with spectrum: a demand shock to an Ostrom-ian common pool resource should lead to enclosure and “propertization.”

Markets in airspace probably should have been created decades ago once airline routes became fixed and airports became congested. Instead, the centralized, regulatory rationing led to large economic distortions:

For example, in 1968, nearly one-third of peak-time New York City air traffic–the busiest region in the US–was general aviation (that is, small, personal) aircraft. To combat severe congestion, local authorities raised minimum landing fees by a mere $20 (1968 dollars) on sub 25-seat aircraft. General aviation traffic at peak times immediately fell over 30%—suggesting that a massive amount of pre-July 1968 air traffic in the region was low-value. The share of aircraft delayed by 30 or more minutes fell from 17% to about 8%.

This pricing of airspace and airport access was half-hearted and resisted by incumbents. Regulators fell back on rationing via the creation of “slots” at busy airports, which were given mostly to dominant airlines. Slots have the attributes of property–they can be defined, valued, sold, transferred, borrowed against. But the federal government refuses to call it property, partly because of the embarrassing implications. The GAO said in 2008:

[the] argument that slots are property proves too much—it suggests that the agency [FAA] has been improperly giving away potentially millions of dollars of federal property, for no compensation, since it created the slot system in 1968.

It may be too late to have airspace and route markets for traditional airlines–but it’s not too late for drones and urban air mobility. Demarcating aerial corridors should proceed quickly to bring the drone industry and services to the US. As Adam has pointed out, this is a global race of “innovation arbitrage”–drone firms will go where regulators are responsive and flexible. Federal and state aviation officials should not give away valuable drone routes, which will end up going to first-movers and the politically powerful. Airspace markets, in contrast, avoid anticompetitive lock-in effects and give drone innovators a chance to gain access to valuable routes in the future.

Research and Commentary on Airspace Markets

Law journal article. The North Carolina JOLT published my article, “Auctioning Airspace,” in October 2019. I argued for the FAA to demarcate and auction urban air mobility corridors (SSRN).

Mercatus white paper. In March 2020 Connor Haaland and I explained that federal and state transportation officials could demarcate and lease airspace to drone operators above public roads because many state laws allow local and state authorities to lease such airspace.

Law journal article. A student note in a 2020 Indiana Law Journal issue discusses airspace leasing for drone operations (pdf).

FAA report. The FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee in March 2018 took up the idea of auctioning or leasing airspace to drone operators as a way to finance the increased costs of drone regulations (pdf).

GAO report. The GAO reviewed the idea of auctioning or leasing airspace to drone operators in a December 2019 report (pdf).

Airbus UTM white paper. The Airbus UTM team reviewed the idea of auctioning or leasing airspace to UAM operators in a March 2020 report, “Fairness in Decentralized Strategic Deconfliction in UTM” (pdf).

Federalist Society video. I narrated a video for the Federalist Society in July 2020 about airspace design and drone federalism (YouTube).

Mercatus Center essay. Adam Thierer, Michael Koutrous, and Connor Haaland wrote about drone industry red tape how the US can’t have “innovation by regulatory waiver,” and how to accelerate widespread drone services.

I’ve discussed the idea in several outlets and events, including:

Podcast Episodes about Drones and Airspace Markets

  • In a Federalist Society podcast episode, Adam Thierer and I discussed airspace markets and drone regulation with US Sen. Mike Lee. (Sen. Lee has introduced a bill to draw a line in the sky at 200 feet in order to clarify and formalize federal, state, and local powers over low-altitude airspace.)
  • Tech Policy Institute podcast episode with Sarah Oh, Eli Dourado, and Tom Lenard.
  • Macro Musings podcast episode with David Beckworth.
  • Drone Radio Show podcast episode with Randy Goers.
  • Drones in America podcast episode with Grant Guillot.
  • Uncommon Knowledge podcast episode with Juliette Sellgren.
  • Building Tomorrow podcast episode with Paul Matzko and Matthew Feeney.
  • sUAS News podcast episode and interview.

By Brent Skorup & Connor Haaland

We think drones are exciting technology with the potential to improve medical logistics, agriculture, transportation, and other industries. But drones fly at low altitudes and, to many Americans, drones represent a nuisance, trespasser, or privacy invasion when they fly over private property. This is why we think the FAA and states should work together to lease airspace above public roads—it would free up millions of miles of low-altitude airspace for operations while avoiding many lawsuits from public and private landowners.

In the meantime, states and landowners are pushing back on certain drone activities. Per Prof. Stephen Migala, about 10 states have created “no-fly zones” for drones, prohibiting flights over government property, state forests, or sensitive areas. Most state airspace rules prohibit drones at low-altitudes over “critical infrastructure” like nuclear, gas and electric facilities, bridges, dams, and communication networks. Some states prohibit drones over jails, prisons, and schools.

In Texas, in fact, there is litigation over a state ban on photography drones above critical infrastructure, sports venues, and prisons. One of the legal issues is whether state police powers over trespass, nuisance, and privacy allow states to exclude drones from low-altitude airspace. As we’ve pointed out in a GovTech piece, this is a festering issue in drone regulation—no one knows at what altitude private property (and state police powers) begins.

For private property owners who don’t want drones flying over their property, they might be able to bring a trespass lawsuit under existing state law. Around 20 states expressly vest air rights with landowners. However, many states also recognize a privilege of non-disruptive flight, so it’s unclear if a landowner would win a lawsuit in those states. We’re unaware of the issue being litigated.

Unfortunately, many landowners and annoyed neighbors are taking matters into their own hands and shooting drones out of the sky. We’ve identified over a dozen such encounters in the past eight years, though there are likely some near-misses and unreported cases out there.  (Don’t shoot a drone–it’s dangerous and, as the cases below show, you risk being arrested and convicted for criminal mischief or some other crime.)

  1. In November of 2012, unknown shooters in Bucks County, Pennsylvania shot down a drone that was flying over their hunt club. The drone was flown by an animal rights group to bring scrutiny to pigeon shooting and this was the fourth time the activists’ drone had been shot down. No criminal charges appear to have been filed.
  2. In October of 2014, a man shot down a drone in Lower Township, New Jersey. It’s unclear if the drone was hovering over his property or a neighbor’s. The man plead guilty to criminal mischief. 
  3. In November 2014 in Modesto, California, a man allegedly instructed his minor son to shoot his neighbor’s drone out of the sky, and the drone was destroyed. The neighbor claims the drone was not over the man’s property and won $850 in small claims court from the man for damages and costs.
  4. In July of 2015 in Bullitt County, Kentucky, William Meredith,  annoyed at a drone flying over his backyard while grilling with friends, shot the drone when it flew over his property. The drone’s owner, a neighbor, called the police upon discovering his destroyed drone. Meredith was arrested and charged under local law for firing a gun in a populated area. At the highly publicized trial in state court, the judge dismissed the charges with a brief statement that Meredith was justified in shooting because of the invasion of privacy.
  5. In April of 2016, an unnamed woman shot down a drone in Edmond, Oklahoma. The drone was flown by a construction company employee who was inspecting gutters in the neighborhood. It’s unclear if the drone was flying over the woman’s property. The case was investigated by the police, who said that they did not expect to file charges
  6. An unknown shooter in Aspen, Colorado shot down a drone during 4th of July fireworks in 2016. It’s unclear if the drone was over the shooter’s property. The pilot of the fallen drone filed a report with local police and the FAA but the shooter remains a mystery.
  7. In August of 2016, a woman allegedly shot down a drone in The Plains, Virginia with her 20-gauge shotgun. The woman alleged that the drone hovered 25 to 30 feet above her property and she believed it was being used to spy on her movie-star neighbor, Robert Duvall. The two men flying the drone left the scene when she told them she was calling the police. No charges were filed. 
  8. In April of 2017, an unknown person in Morgan County, Georgia shot down a drone with a .22 rifle. It’s unclear whose property the drone was flying over. The drone owner filed a report but a suspect was never identified.
  9. In October of 2017, a man allegedly shot down a drone in Jackson County, Oregon with his pellet rifle and later turned himself in for arrest. The photography drone was flying over a state recreation area. The local prosecutor charged the shooter with first degree criminal mischief, a felony in Oregon. (The drone’s owner feels that a felony charge is excessive. With a Google search, it’s unclear whether the man was convicted.)
  10. In May of 2018, a man allegedly attempted to shoot down a drone with his handgun in Bradenton, Florida. It was a neighbor’s drone and the man claims it was on his property, hovering a few feet above the ground. Police were called and warned the man about the danger and legal risk of shooting drones. No charges were filed.
  11. In February of 2019, a man allegedly shot down a drone in Long Island, New York with a shotgun. The drone was being used by an animal rescue group to find a lost dog. It’s unclear if the drone was flying over the man’s property. He was charged with third-degree criminal mischief and prohibited use of a weapon.
  12. In May of 2020, a man allegedly shot down a drone flying over a chicken processing plant in Watonwan County, Minnesota. The drone operator was apparently taking video of the plant as a citizen-journalist. The man was charged with two felonies: criminal damage to property and reckless discharge of a firearm in city limits. 
  13. In June 2020, someone shot a drone flying somewhere in western Pennsylvania at 390 feet above the ground. Despite being grazed and damaged, the drone managed to safely operate and land. It’s unclear if the drone was over the shooter’s property. The shooter is unknown and the drone operator contacted state police but has not filed a complaint.

As you can see, the legal penalties for shooting a drone vary based on the circumstances and the prosecutor. Some got off with warnings but a few were charged with a felony under state law. Arguably, someone shooting a drone violates federal law, which imposes penalties on anyone who

willfully . . . damages, destroys, disables, or wrecks . . . any civil aircraft used . . . in interstate . . . commerce.

Federal penalties for willfully damaging an aircraft are stiff—fines and up to 20 years’ imprisonment. We’re unaware of federal prosecutors bringing a case against someone for shooting a drone. Perhaps federal prosecutors feel it’s excessive to use this statute, which was written with passenger planes in mind. Further, it’s unclear when drones are used in interstate commerce. As one federal judge said in a 2016 drone regulation case, Huerta v. Haughwout:

the FAA believes it has regulatory sovereignty over every cubic inch of outdoor air in the United States. . . . [I]t is far from clear that Congress intends—or could constitutionally intend—to regulate all that is airborne on one’s own property and that poses no plausible threat to or substantial effect on air transport or interstate commerce in general.

Hopefully lawmakers will clear up the ambiguity and demarcate where property rights end. As we pointed out in our recent 50-state drone report card, creating drone highways would prevent many issues. Congress should also consider drawing a federal-state dividing line in the sky, much like it drew a dividing line in the ocean in the Submerged Lands Act for energy development. For now, landowners, drone operators, the FAA, and state governments are all trying to determine the limits of their authority.

Section 230 is in trouble. Both presidential candidates have made its elimination a priority. In January, Joe Biden told the New York Times that the liability protections for social media companies should be revoked “immediately.” This week, President Trump called for revoking Section 230 as well. Most notably, after a few years of threatening action, the President issued an Executive Order about Section 230, its liability protections, and free speech online. (My article with Jennifer Huddleston about Section 230, its free speech benefits, and the common law precedents for Section 230 was published in the Oklahoma Law Review earlier this year.) 

There have been thousands of reactions to and news stories about the Executive Order and a lot of hyperbole. No, the Order doesn’t eliminate tech companies’ Section 230 protection and make it easier for conservatives to sue. No, the Order isn’t “plainly illegal.”

It’s fairly modest in reach actually. The Executive Order can’t change the deregulatory posture and specific protections of Section 230 but the President has broad authority to interpret the unclear meanings of statutes. Some of the thoughtful responses that stuck out are from Adam Thierer, Jennifer Huddleston, Patrick Hedger, and Adam White. I won’t reiterate what they’ve said but will focus on what the Order does and what the FCC can do.

Election Year Jawboning

The Order is a political document. For the baseball fans, it’s the political equivalent of a brushback pitch to tech companies–the pitcher throws an inside fastball intended to scare the batter without hitting him. (Enjoy 4 minutes of brushback pitches on YouTube.) Most of the time, a pitcher won’t get ejected by the umpire for throwing a brushback pitch. Likewise, here, I don’t see much chance of the Order being struck down by judges. The Order was wordsmithed, even in the last 24 hours before release, in a way to avoid legal troubles.

As Jesse Blumenthal points out in Slate, the Order is just the latest example of the long tradition of politicians using informal means and publicity to pressure media outlets. The political threats to TV and radio broadcasters during the Nixon, LBJ, and Kennedy years were extreme examples and are pretty well-documented.

More recently, there was a huge amount of jawboning of media companies in the runup to the 2004 election. Newspaper condemnation and legal threats forced a documentary critical of John Kerry off the air nationwide. Stations either pulled the documentary or only ran a few minutes of it because activists’ threatened to challenge TV station licenses for years at the FCC if stations ran the documentary. Many people remember the Citizens United case, which derived from the FEC’s censorship of an anti-John Kerry documentary in 2004 and an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary in 2008. Less remembered is that the conservative group started creating political documentaries only after the FEC rejected its complaint to get a Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, off the air before the 2004 election.

The Title II net neutrality regulations were, per advocates close to the Obama White House, imposed largely to rally the base after Democrats’ 2014 midterm losses.

Implementation of the Executive Order

The timing of the Order–a few months before the election–seems intended to accomplish two things:

  1. Rally the Trump base by publicly threatening tech companies’ liability protections and provoking tech companies’ ire.
  2. Focus public and media scrutiny on tech companies so they think twice before suspending, demonetizing, or banning conservatives online.

The legal effect in the short term is negligible. Unless the relevant agencies (DOJ, FTC, NTIA, FCC) patched something together hastily, the Order won’t have an effect on tech companies and their susceptibility to lawsuits in the near term. The most immediate practical effect of the Order is the instructions to the NTIA. The agency is directed to petition the FCC to clarify what some unclear provisions of Sec. 230 mean, particularly the “good faith” requirement and how (c)(2) in the statute interacts with (c)(1).

It’s not clear why the Order makes this roundabout instruction to the NTIA and FCC. (The FCC is an independent agency and can refuse instructions from the White House.) “Good faith” is a term of art in contract law. It seems to me that referring this to the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, not the FCC, would be the natural place for an administration to turn to to interpret legal terms of art and how provisions in federal statutes interact with each other. 

One reason the White House might use the roundabout method is because the administration knows the downsides of weakening Section 230 and isn’t actually intending to make material changes to existing interpretations of Sec. 230. The roundabout request to the FCC allows the White House to do something on the issue without upsetting established interpretations. And if the FCC refuses to take it up, the White House can tell supporters they tried but it was out of their hands.

Alternatively it could be that this was referred to the FCC because Section 230 is within the Communications Act and the FCC has more expertise and jurisdiction in communications law. The FCC has interpreted Section 230 before and has also interpreted what “good faith” means because Congress requires good faith negotiations between cable TV and broadcast TV operators.

If they took it up, I suspect FCC review would be perfunctory. The NTIA petition need not even get decided at the commission level. The FCC can delegate issues to bureau chiefs or other FCC staff. Bureaus can respond to a petition with an enforcement advisory or, after notice-and-comment, a declaratory ruling regarding the interpretative issues. It would take months to complete, but the full commission could also consider and rule on the NTIA petition.

But I suspect the commissioners don’t want to get dragged into election-year controversies. (As I mentioned above, White House staff may have even sent this to the FCC in order to let the issue die quietly.) The FCC is busy with pressing issues like spectrum auctions and rural broadband. Further, the NTIA-FCC relationship, while cordial, is not particularly good at the moment. Finally, the commissioners know the agency’s history of mission creep and media regulation. The Republican majority has consistently tried to untangle itself from legacy media regulations. An FCC inquiry into what “good faith” means in the statute and how (c)(2) in the statute interacts with (c)(1)–while an intriguing academic and legal interpretation exercise–would be a small but significant step towards FCC oversight of Internet services.

Section 230 is in Trouble

The fact is, Section 230 is in trouble. Courts have applied it reluctantly since its inception because of its broad protections. As Prof. Eric Goldman has meticulously documented, in recent years, courts have undermined Section 230 precedent and protection.

At some level the President and his advisors know that opening the door to regulation of the Internet will end badly for right-of-center and free speech. This was the foundation of the President’s opposition to Title II net neutrality rules. As he’s stated on Twitter:

Obama’s attack  on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media.

The Executive Order, while it doesn’t allow the FCC to regulate online media like Title II net neutrality did, is the Administration playing with fire. It’s essentially a bet that the Trump administration can get a short-term political win without unleashing long-term problems for conservatives and free speech online.

The Trump team may be right. But the Order, by inviting FCC involvement, represents a small step to regulation of Internet services. More significantly, there’s a reason prominent Democrats are calling for the elimination of Section 230. The trial bar, law school clinics, and advocacy nonprofits would like nothing more than to make it expensive for tech companies to defend their hosting and disseminating conservative publications and provocateurs.

Prominent Democrats are calling for the elimination of Sec. 230 and replacing it with a Fairness Doctrine for the Internet. If things go Democrats’ way, the Executive Order could give regulators, much of the legal establishment, and the left a foothold they’ve sought for years to regulate Internet services and online speech. Be careful what you wish for.

Last week the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project released a podcast Adam and I recorded with FCC Chairman Pai:

Tech Roundup 9 – COVID-19 and the Internet: A Conversation with Ajit Pai

A few highlights: Chairman Pai’s legacy is still being written, but I suspect one of his lasting marks on the agency will be his integrating more economics and engineering in the FCC’s work.

He points out that that in recent decades, the FCC’s work has focused on the legal and policy aspects of telecommunications. My take: much of the dysfunctional legalism and regulatory arcana that’s built up in communications law is because Congress refuses to give the FCC a clean slate. Instead, communications laws have piled on to communications laws for 80 years. The regulatory thicket gives attorneys and insiders undue power in telecom policy. With the creation of the Office of Economics and Analytics and Engineering Honors program, Chairman Pai is creating institutions within the FCC to shift some expertise and resources to the economists and engineers.

We also discussed Marc Andreessen’s It’s Time to Build essay. A thought-provoking polemic (Adam has a response) that offers a challenge:

[T]o everyone around us, we should be asking the question, what are you building? What are you building directly, or helping other people to build, or teaching other people to build, or taking care of people who are building? If the work you’re doing isn’t either leading to something being built or taking care of people directly, we’ve failed you, and we need to get you into a position, an occupation, a career where you can contribute to building.

As we discuss in the podcast, the FCC has outperformed most public institutions on this front. The FCC in the past few years has untangled itself from the nonstop legal trench warfare of net neutrality regulation–an immense waste of time–to focus on making it faster and easier to build networks. As a result, the US is seeing impressive increases in network investment, coverage, and capacity relative to peer countries.

The COVID-19 crisis has been a stress test for the FCC and the broadband industry, and we’re grateful the Chairman took the time to discuss the agency, industry trends, and more with us.

The recently-passed CARES Act included $500 million for the CDC to develop a new “surveillance and data-collection system” to monitor the spread of COVID-19.

There’s a fierce debate about how to use technology for health surveillance for the COVID-19 crisis. Unfortunately this debate is happening in realtime as governments and tech companies try to reduce infection and death while complying with national laws and norms related to privacy.

Technology has helped during the crisis and saved lives. Social media, chat apps, and online forums allow doctors, public health officials, manufacturers, entrepreneurs, and regulators around the world to compare notes and share best practices. Broadband networks, Zoom, streaming media, and gaming make stay-at-home order much more pleasant and keeps millions of Americans at work, remotely. Telehealth apps allow doctors to safely view patients with symptoms. Finally, grocery and parcel delivery from Amazon, Grubhub, and other app companies keep pantries full and serve as a lifeline to many restaurants.

The great tech successes here, however, will be harder to replicate for contact tracing and public health surveillance. Even the countries that had the tech infrastructure somewhat in place for contact tracing and public health surveillance are finding it hard to scale. Privacy issues are also significant obstacles. (On the Truth on the Market blog, FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson provides a great survey of how other countries are using technology for public health and analysis of privacy considerations. Bronwyn Howell also has a good post on the topic.) Let’s examine some of the strengths and weaknesses of the technologies.

Cell tower location information

Personal smartphones typically connect to the nearest cell tower, so a cell networks record (roughly) where a smartphone is at a particular time. Mobile carriers are sharing aggregated cell tower data with public health officials in Austria, Germany, and Italy for mobility information.

This data is better than nothing for estimating district- or region-wide stay-at-home compliance but the geolocation is imprecise (to the half-mile or so). 

Cell tower data could be used to enforce a virtual geofence on quarantined people. This data is, for instance, used in Taiwan to enforce quarantines. If you leave a geofenced area, public health officials receive an automated notification of your leaving home.

Assessment: Ubiquitous, scalable. But: rarely useful and virtually useless for contact tracing.

GPS-based apps and bracelets

Many smartphone apps passively transmit precise GPS location to app companies at all hours of the day. Google and Apple have anonymized and aggregated this kind of information in order to assess stay-at-home order effects on mobility. Facebook reportedly is also sharing similar location data with public health officials.

As Trace Mitchell and I pointed out in Mercatus and National Review publications, this information is imperfect but could be combined with infection data to categorize neighborhoods or counties as high-risk or low-risk. 

GPS data, before it’s aggregated by the app companies for public view, reveals precisely where people are (within meters). Individual data is a goldmine for governments, but public health officials will have a hard time convincing Americans, tech companies, and judges they can be trusted with the data.

It’s an easier lift in other countries where trust in government is higher and central governments are more powerful. Precise geolocation could be used to enforce quarantines.

Hong Kong, for instance, has used GPS wristbands to enforce some quarantines. Tens of thousands of Polish residents in quarantines must download a geolocation-based app and check in, which allows authorities to enforce quarantine restrictions. It appears the most people support the initiative.

Finally, in Iceland, one third of citizens have voluntarily downloaded a geolocation app to assist public officials in contact tracing. Public health officials call or message people when geolocation records indicate previous proximity with an infected person. WSJ journalists reported on April 9 that:

If there is no response, they send a police squad car to the person’s house. The potentially infected person must remain in quarantine for 14 days and risk a fine of up to 250,000 Icelandic kronur ($1,750) if they break it.

That said, there are probably scattered examples of US officials using GPS for quarantines. Local officials in Louisville, Kentucky, for example, are requiring some COVID-19-positive or exposed people to wear GPS ankle monitors to enforce quarantine.

Assessment: Aggregated geolocation information is possibly useful for assessing regional stay-at-home norms. Individual geolocation information is not precise enough for effective contact tracing. It’s probably precise and effective for quarantine enforcement. But: individual geolocation is invasive and, if not volunteered by app companies or users, raises significant constitutional issues in the US.

Bluetooth apps

Many researchers and nations are working on or have released some type of Bluetooth app for contact tracing. This includes Singapore, the Czech Republic, Britain, Germany, Italy and New Zealand.  

For people who use these apps, Bluetooth runs in the background, recording other Bluetooth users nearby. Since Bluetooth is a low-power wireless technology, it really only can “see” other users within a few meters. If you use the app for awhile and later test positive for infection, you can register your diagnosis. The app will then notify (anonymously) everyone else using the app, and public health officials in some countries, who you came in contact with in the past several days. My colleague Andrea O’Sullivan wrote a great piece in Reason about contact tracing using Bluetooth.

These apps have benefits over other forms of public health tech surveillance: they are more precise than geolocation information and they are voluntary.

The problem is that, unlike geolocation apps, which have nearly 100% penetration with smartphone users, Bluetooth contact tracing apps have about 0% penetration in the US today. Further, these app creators, even governments, don’t seem to have the PR machine to gain meaningful public adoption. In Singapore, for instance, adoption is reportedly only 12% of the population, which is way too low to be very helpful.

A handful of institutions in the world could get appreciable use of Bluetooth contact tracing: telecom and tech companies have big ad budgets and they own the digital real estate on our smartphones.

Which is why the news that Google and Apple are working on a contact tracing app is noteworthy. They have the budget and ability to make their hundreds of millions of Android and iOS users aware of the contact tracing app. They could even go so far as push a notification to the home screen to all users encouraging them to use it.

However, I suspect they won’t push it hard. It would raise alarm bells with many users. Further, as Dan Grover stated a few weeks ago about why US tech companies haven’t been as active as Chinese tech companies in using apps to improve public education and norms related to COVID-19:

Since the post-2016 “techlash”, tech companies in Silicon Valley have acted with a sometimes suffocating sense of caution and unease about their power in the world. They are extremely careful to not do anything that would set off either party or anyone with ideas about regulation. And they seldom use their pixel real estate towards affecting political change.

[Ed.: their puzzling advocacy of Title II “net neutrality” regulation a big exception].

Techlash aside, presumably US companies also aren’t receiving the government pressure Chinese companies are receiving to push public health surveillance apps and information. [Ed.: Bloomberg reports that France and EU officials want the Google-Apple app to relay contact tracing notices to public health officials, not merely to affected users. HT Eli Dourado]

Like most people, I have mixed feelings about how coercive the state and how pushy tech companies should be during this pandemic. A big problem is that we still have only an inkling about how deadly COVID-19 is, how quickly it spreads, and how damaging stay-at-home rules and norms are for the economy. Further, contact-tracing apps still need extensive, laborious home visits and follow-up from public health officials to be effective–something the US has shown little ability to do.

There are other social costs to widespread tech-enabled tracing. Tyler Cowen points out in Bloomberg that contact tracing tech is likely inevitable, but that would leave behind those without smartphones. That’s true, and a major problem for the over-70 crowd, who lack smartphones as a group and are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Because I predict that Apple and Google won’t push the app hard and I doubt there will be mandates from federal or state officials, I think there’s only a small chance (less than 15%) a contact tracing wireless technology will gain ubiquitous adoption this year (60% penetration, more than 200 million US smartphone users). 

Assessment: A Bluetooth app could protect privacy while, if volunteered, giving public health officials useful information for contact tracing. However, absent aggressive pushes from governments or tech companies, it’s unlikely there will be enough users to significantly help.

Health Passport

The chances of mass Bluetooth app use would increase if the underlying tech or API is used to create a “health passport” or “immunity passport”–a near-realtime medical certification that someone will not infect others. Politico reported on April 10 that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House point man on the pandemic, said the immunity passport idea “has merit.”

It’s not clear what limits Apple and Google will put on their API but most APIs can be customized by other businesses and users. The Bluetooth app and API could feed into a health passport app, showing at a glance whether you are infected or you’d been near someone infected recently.

For the venues like churches and gyms and operators like airlines and cruise ships that need high trust from participants and customers, on the spot testing via blood test or temperature taking or Bluetooth app will likely gain traction. 

There are the beginnings of a health passport in China with QR codes and individual risk classifications from public health officials. Particularly for airlines, which is a favored industry in most nations, there could be public pressure and widespread adoption of a digital health passport. Emirates Airlines and the Dubai Health Authority, for instance, last week required all passengers on a flight to Tunisia to take a COVID-19 blood test before boarding. Results came in 10 minutes.

Assessment: A health passport integrates several types of data into a single interface. The complexity makes widespread use unlikely but it could gain voluntary adoption by certain industries and populations (business travelers, tourists, nursing home residents).

Conclusion

In short, tech could help with quarantine enforcement and contact tracing, but there are thorny questions of privacy norms and it’s not clear US health officials have the ability to do the home visits and phone calls to detect spread and enforce quarantines. All of these technologies have issues (privacy or penetration or testing) and there are many unknowns about transmission and risk. The question is how far tech companies, federal and state law officials, the American public, and judges are prepared to go.

Building broadband takes time. There’s permitting, environmental reviews, engineering, negotiations with city officials and pole owners, and other considerations.

That said, temporary wireless broadband systems can be set up quickly, sometimes in days and weeks, not months or years like wireline networks. Setting up outdoor WiFi, as some schools have done (HT Billy Easley II), is a good step but WiFi has its limits and more can be done.

The FCC has done a great job freeing up more spectrum on a temporary basis for the COVID-19 crisis, like allowing carriers to use Dish’s unused cellular spectrum. Wireless systems need more than spectrum, however. Operators need real estate, electricity, backhaul, and permission. This is where cities, counties, and states can help.

Waive or simplify permitting

States, counties, and cities should consider waiving or simplifying their permitting for temporary wireless systems, particularly in rural or low-income areas where adoption lags.

Cellular providers set up Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and Cells on Wheels (COWs) for events like football games, parades, festivals, and emergency response after hurricanes. These provide good coverage and capacity in a pinch.

There are other ad hoc wireless systems that can be set up quickly in local areas, like WISP transmitters, cellular or WISP backhaul, outdoor WiFi, and mesh networks.

Broadband to-go.

Allow rent-free access to municipal property

Public agencies own real estate and buildings that would lend themselves to temporary wireless facilities. Not only do they have power, taller public buildings and water towers allow wireless systems to have greater coverage. Cities should consider leasing out temporary space rent free for the duration of the crisis.

Many cities and counties also have a dark fiber and lit fiber networks that serve public facilities like police, fire, and hospitals. If there’s available capacity, state and local public agencies should consider providing cheap or free access to the municipal fiber network.

Now, these temporary measures won’t work miracles. Operators are looking at months of cash constraints and probably don’t have many field technicians available. But the temporary waiver of permitting and the easy access to public property could provide quick, needed broadband capacity in rural and hard-to-reach areas.

I saw a Bloomberg News report that officials in Austria and Italy are seeking (aggregated, anonymized) users’ location data from cellphone companies to see if local and national lockdowns are effective.

It’s an interesting idea that raises some possibilities for US officials and tech companies to consider to combat the crisis in the US. Caveat: these are very preliminary thoughts.

Cellphone location data from a phone company is OK but imprecise about your movements. It can show where you are typically in a mile or half-mile area. 

But smartphone app location is much more precise since it uses GPS, not cell towers to show movements. Apps with location services can show people’s movements within meters, not half-mile, like cell towers.I suspect 90%+ of smartphone users have GPS location services on (Google Maps, Facebook, Yelp, etc.). App companies have rich datasets of daily movements of people.

Step 1 – App companies isolate and share location trends with health officials

This would need to be aggregated and anonymized of course. Tech companies with health officials should, as Balaji Srinivasan says, identify red and green zones. The point is not to identify individuals but make generalizations about whether a neighborhood or town is practicing good distancing practices.

Step 2 – In green zones, where infection/hospitalization are low and app data says people are strictly distancing, COVID-19 tests.

If people are spending 22 hours not moving except for brief visits to the grocery store and parks, that’s a good neighborhood. We need tests distributed daily in non-infected areas, perhaps at grocery stores and via USPS and Amazon deliveries. As soon as the tests production ramps up, tests need to flood into the areas that are healthy. This achieves two things:

  • Asymptomatic people who might spread can stay home.
  • Non-infected people can start returning to work and a life of semi-normalcy of movement with confidence that others who are out are non-contagious.

Step 3 – In red zones, where infection/hospitalization is high and people aren’t strictly distancing, public education and restrictions.

At least in Virginia, there is county-level data about where the hotspots are. I expect other states know the counties and neighborhoods that are hit hard. Where there’s overlap of these areas not distancing, step up distancing and restrictions.

That still leaves open what to do about yellow zones that are adjacent to red zones, but the main priority should be to identify the green and red. The longer health officials and the public are flying blind with no end in sight, people get frustrated, lose jobs, shutter businesses, and violate distancing rules.