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.


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.

To help slow the spread of the coronavirus, the GMU campus is moving to remote instruction and Mercatus is moving to remote work for employees until the risk subsides. GMU and Mercatus employees join thousands of other universities and businesses this week. Millions of people will be working from home and it will be a major test of American broadband and cellular networks. 

There will likely be a loss of productivity nationwide–some things just can’t be done well remotely. But hopefully broadband access is not a major issue. What is the state of US networks? How many people lack the ability to do remote work and remote homework?

The FCC and Pew research keep pretty good track of broadband buildout and adoption. There are many bright spots but some areas of concern as well.

Who lacks service?

The top question: How many people want broadband but lack adequate service or have no service?

The good news is that around 94% of Americans have access to 25 Mbps landline broadband. (Millions more have access if you include broadband from cellular and WISP providers.) It’s not much consolation to rural customers and remote workers who have limited or no options, but these are good numbers.

According to Pew’s 2019 report, about 2% of Americans cite inadequate or no options as the main reason they don’t have broadband. What is concerning is that this 2% number hasn’t budged in years. In 2015, about the same number of Americans cited inadequate or no options as the main reason they didn’t have home broadband. This resembles what I’ve called “the 2% problem“–about 2% of the most rural American households are extremely costly to serve with landline broadband. Satellite, cellular, or WISP service will likely be the best option.

Mobile broadband trends

Mobile broadband is increasingly an option for home broadband. About 24% of Americans with home Internet are mobile only, according to Pew, up from ~16% in 2015.

The ubiquity of high-speed mobile broadband has been the big story in recent years. Per FCC data, from 2009 to 2017 (the most recent year we have data), the average number of new mobile connections increased about 30 million annually. In Dec. 2017 (the most recent data), there were about 313 million mobile subscriptions.

Coverage is very good in the US. OpenSignal uses crowdsourced data and software to determine how frequently users’ phones have a 4G LTE network available (a proxy for coverage and network quality) around the world. The US ranked fourth the world (86%) in 2017, beating out every European country, save Norway.

There was also a big improvement was in mobile speeds. In 2009, a 3G world, almost all connections were below 3 Mbps. In 2017, a world of 4G LTE, almost all connections were above 3 Mbps.

Landline broadband trends

Landline broadband also increased significantly. From 2009 to 2017, there were about 3.5 million new connections per year, about 108 million connections in 2017. In Dec. 2009, about half of landline connections were below 3 Mbps.

There were some notable jumps in high-speed and rural broadband deployment. There was a big jump in fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) connections, like FiOS and Google Fiber. From 2012 to 2017, the number of FTTP connections more than doubled, to 12.6 million. Relatedly, sub-25 Mbps connections have been falling rapidly while 100 Mbps+ connections have been shooting up. In 2017, there were more connections with 100 Mbps+ (39 million) than there were connections below 25 Mbps (29 million).

In the most recent 5 years for which we have data, the number of rural subscribers (not households) with 25 Mbps increased 18 million (from 29 million to 47 million).

More Work

We only have good data for the first year of the Trump FCC, so it’s hard to evaluate but signs are promising. One of Chairman Pai’s first actions was creating an advisory committee to advise the FCC on broadband deployment (I’m a member). Anecdotally, it’s been fruitful to regularly have industry, academics, advocates, and local officials in the same room to discuss consensus policies. The FCC has acted on many of those.

The rollback of common carrier regulations for the Internet, the pro-5G deployment initiatives, and limiting unreasonable local fees for cellular equipment have all helped increase deployment and service quality.

An effective communications regulator largely stays of the way and removes hindrances to private sector investment. But the FCC does manage some broadband subsidy programs. The Trump FCC has made some improvements to the $4.5 billion annual rural broadband programs. The 17 or so rural broadband subprograms have metastasized over the years, making for a kludgey and expensive subsidy system.

The recent RDOF reforms are a big improvement since they fund a reverse auction program to shift money away from the wasteful legacy subsidy programs. Increasingly, rural households get broadband from WISP, satellite, and rural cable companies–the RDOF reforms recognize that reality.

Hopefully one day reforms will go even further and fund broadband vouchers. It’s been longstanding FCC policy to fund rural broadband providers (typically phone companies serving rural areas) rather than subsidizing rural households. The FCC should consider a voucher model for rural broadband, $5 or $10 or $40 per household per month, depending on the geography. Essentially the FCC should do for rural households what the FCC does for low-income households–provide a monthly subsidy to make broadband costs more affordable.

Many of these good deployment trends began in the Obama years but the Trump FCC has made it a national priority to improve broadband deployment and services. It appears to be be working. With the coronavirus and a huge increase in remote work, US networks will be put to a unique test.

Michael Kotrous and I submitted a comment to the FAA about their Remote ID proposals. While we agree with the need for a “digital license plate” for drones, we’re skeptical that requiring an Internet connection is necessary and that an interoperable, national drone traffic management system will work well.

The FAA deserves credit for rigorously estimating the costs of their requirements, which they set at around $450 million to $600 million over 10 years. These costs largely fall on drone operators and on drone manufacturers for network (say, LTE) subscriptions and equipment.

The FAA’s proposed requirements aren’t completely hashed out, but we raised two points of caution.

One, many many drone flights won’t stray from a pre-programmed route or leave private property. For instance, roof inspections, medical supply deliveries across a hospital campus, train track inspections, and crop spraying via drone all remain on private property. They all pose a de minimis safety concern to manned aircraft and requiring networking equipment and subscriptions seems excessive.

Two, we’re not keen on the FAA and NASA plans for an interoperable, national drone traffic management system. A simple wireless broadcast from a drone should be enough in most circumstances. The FAA proposal would require drone operators to contract with UAS Service Suppliers (USSs) who would be contractors of the FAA. Technical standards would come later. This convoluted system of making virtually all drone operations known to the FAA is likely run aground with technical complexity, technical stagnation, FAA-blessed oligopoly in USS or all of the above.

The FAA instead should consider allowing states, cities, and landowners to make rules for drone operations when operations are solely on their property. States are ready to step in. The North Dakota legislature, for instance, authorized $28 million a few months ago for a statewide drone management system. Other states will follow suit and a federated, geographically-separated drone management system could develop, if the FAA allows. That would reduce the need for complex, interoperable USS and national drone traffic management systems.

Further reading:

Refine the FAA’s Remote ID Rules to Ensure Aviation Safety and Public Confidence, comment to the FAA (March 2020), https://www.mercatus.org/publications/technology-and-innovation/refine-faa%E2%80%99s-remote-id-rules-ensure-aviation-safety-and

Auctioning Airspace, North Carolina Journal of Law & Technology (October 2019), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3284704

Last week I attended the Section 230 cage match workshop at the DOJ. It was a packed house, likely because AG Bill Barr gave opening remarks. It was fortuitous timing for me: my article with Jennifer Huddleston, The Erosion of Publisher Liability in American Law, Section 230, and the Future of Online Curation, was published 24 hours before the workshop by the Oklahoma Law Review.

These were my impressions of the event:

I thought it was pretty well balanced event and surprisingly civil for such a contentious topic. There were strong Section 230 defenders and strong Section 230 critics, and several who fell in between. There were a couple cheers after a few pointed statements from panelists, but the audience didn’t seem to fall on one side or the other. I’ll add that my friend and co-blogger Neil Chilson gave an impressive presentation about how Section 230 helped make the “long tail” of beneficial Internet-based communities possible.

AG Bob Barr gave the opening remarks, which are available online. A few things jumped out. He suggested that Section 230 had its place but Internet companies are not an infant industry anymore. In his view, the courts have expanded Section 230 beyond drafters’ intent, and the Reno decision “unbalanced” the protections, which were intended to protect minors. The gist of his statement was that the law needs to be “recalibrated.”

Each of these points were disputed by one or more panelists, but the message to the Internet industry was clear: the USDOJ is scrutinizing industry concentration and its relationship to illegal and antisocial online content.

The workshop signals that there is now a large, bipartisan coalition that would like to see Section 230 “recalibrated.” The problem for this coalition is that they don’t agree on what types of content providers should be liable for and they are often at cross-purposes. The problematic content ranges from sex trafficking, to stalkers, to opiate trafficking, to revenge porn, to unfair political ads. For conservatives, social media companies take down too much content, intentionally helping progressives. For progressives, social media companies leave up too much content, unwittingly helping conservatives.

I’ve yet to hear a convincing way to modify Section 230 that (a) satisfies this shaky coalition, (b) would be practical to comply with, and (c) would be constitutional.

Now, Section 230 critics are right: the law blurs the line between publisher and conduit. But this is not unique to Internet companies. The fact is, courts (and federal agencies) blurred the publisher-conduit dichotomy for fifty years for mass media distributors and common carriers as technology and social norms changed. Some cases that illustrate the phenomenon:

In Auvil v. CBS 60 Minutes, a 1991 federal district court decision, some Washington apple growers sued some local CBS affiliates for airing allegedly defamatory programming. The federal district court dismissed the case on the grounds that the affiliates are conduits of CBS programming. Critically, the court recognized that the CBS affiliates “had the power to” exercise editorial control over the broadcast and “in fact occasionally [did] censor programming . . . for one reason or another.” Still, case dismissed. The principle has been cited by other courts. Publishers can be conduits.

Conduits can also be publishers. In 1989, Congress passed a law requiring phone providers to restrict “dial-a-porn” services to minors. Dial-a-porn companies sued. In Information Providers Coalition v. FCC, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that regulated common carriers are “free under the Constitution to terminate service” to providers of indecent content. The Court relied on its decision a few years earlier in Carlin Communications noting that when a common carrier phone company is connecting thousands of subscribers simultaneously to the same content, the “phone company resembles less a common carrier than it does a small radio station.”

Many Section 230 reformers believe Section 230 mangled the common law would like to see the restoration of the publisher-conduit dichotomy. As our research shows, that dichotomy had already been blurred for decades. Until advocates and lawmakers acknowledge these legal trends and plan accordingly, the reformers risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Relevant research:
Brent Skorup & Jennifer Huddleston, The Erosion of Publisher Liability in American Law, Section 230, and the Future of Online Curation (Oklahoma Law Review).

Brent Skorup & Joe Kane, The FCC and Quasi–Common Carriage: A Case Study of Agency Survival (Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology).