Moral Panics

The Technology Liberation Front just marked its 15th year in existence. That’s a long time in the blogosphere. (I’ve only been writing at TLF since 2012 so I’m still the new guy.)

Everything from Bitcoin to net neutrality to long-form pieces about technology and society were featured and debated here years before these topics hit the political mainstream.

Thank you to our contributors and our regular readers. Here are the most-read tech policy posts from TLF in the past 15 years (I’ve omitted some popular but non-tech policy posts).

No. 15: Bitcoin is going mainstream. Here is why cypherpunks shouldn’t worry. by Jerry Brito, October 2013

Today is a bit of a banner day for Bitcoin. It was five years ago today that Bitcoin was first described in a paper by Satoshi Nakamoto. And today the New York Times has finally run a profile of the cryptocurrency in its “paper of record” pages. In addition, TIME’s cover story this week is about the “deep web” and how Tor and Bitcoin facilitate it.

The fact is that Bitcoin is inching its way into the mainstream.

No. 14: Is fiber to the home (FTTH) the network of the future, or are there competing technologies? by Roslyn Layton, August 2013

There is no doubt that FTTH is a cool technology, but the love of a particular technology should not blind one to look at the economics.  After some brief background, this blog post will investigate fiber from three perspectives (1) the bandwidth requirements of web applications (2) cost of deployment and (3) substitutes and alternatives. Finally it discusses the notion of fiber as future proof.

No. 13: So You Want to Be an Internet Policy Analyst? by Adam Thierer, December 2012

Each year I am contacted by dozens of people who are looking to break into the field of information technology policy as a think tank analyst, a research fellow at an academic institution, or even as an activist. Some of the people who contact me I already know; most of them I don’t. Some are free-marketeers, but a surprising number of them are independent analysts or even activist-minded Lefties. Some of them are students; others are current professionals looking to change fields (usually because they are stuck in boring job that doesn’t let them channel their intellectual energies in a positive way). Some are lawyers; others are economists, and a growing number are computer science or engineering grads. In sum, it’s a crazy assortment of inquiries I get from people, unified only by their shared desire to move into this exciting field of public policy.

. . . Unfortunately, there’s only so much time in the day and I am sometimes not able to get back to all of them. I always feel bad about that, so, this essay is an effort to gather my thoughts and advice and put it all one place . . . .

No. 12: Violent Video Games & Youth Violence: What Does Real-World Evidence Suggest? by Adam Thierer, February 2010

So, how can we determine whether watching depictions of violence will turn us all into killing machines, rapists, robbers, or just plain ol’ desensitized thugs? Well, how about looking at the real world! Whatever lab experiments might suggest, the evidence of a link between depictions of violence in media and the real-world equivalent just does not show up in the data. The FBI produces ongoing Crime in the United States reports that document violent crimes trends. Here’s what the data tells us about overall violent crime, forcible rape, and juvenile violent crime rates over the past two decades: They have all fallen. Perhaps most impressively, the juvenile crime rate has fallen an astonishing 36% since 1995 (and the juvenile murder rate has plummeted by 62%).

No. 11: Wedding Phtography and Copyright Release by Tim Lee, September 2008

I’m getting married next Spring, and I’m currently negotiating the contract with our photographer. The photography business is weird because even though customers typically pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars up front to have photos taken at their weddings, the copyright in the photographs is typically retained by the photographer, and customers have to go hat in hand to the photographer and pay still more money for the privilege of getting copies of their photographs.

This seems absurd to us . . . .

No. 10: Why would anyone use Bitcoin when PayPal or Visa work perfectly well? by Jerry Brito, December 2013

A common question among smart Bitcoin skeptics is, “Why would one use Bitcoin when you can use dollars or euros, which are more common and more widely accepted?” It’s a fair question, and one I’ve tried to answer by pointing out that if Bitcoin were just a currency (except new and untested), then yes, there would be little reason why one should prefer it to dollars. The fact, however, is that Bitcoin is more than money, as I recently explained in Reason. Bitcoin is better thought of as a payments system, or as a distributed ledger, that (for technical reasons) happens to use a new currency called the bitcoin as the unit of account. As Tim Lee has pointed out, Bitcoin is therefore a platform for innovation, and it is this potential that makes it so valuable.

No. 9: The Hidden Benefactor: How Advertising Informs, Educates & Benefits Consumers by Adam Thierer & Berin Szoka, February 2010

Advertising is increasingly under attack in Washington. . . . This regulatory tsunami could not come at a worse time, of course, since an attack on advertising is tantamount to an attack on media itself, and media is at a critical point of technological change. As we have pointed out repeatedly, the vast majority of media and content in this country is supported by commercial advertising in one way or another-particularly in the era of “free” content and services.

No. 8: Reverse Engineering and Innovation: Some Examples by Tim Lee, June 2006

Reverse engineering the CSS encryption scheme, by itself, isn’t an especially innovative activity. However, what I think Prof. Picker is missing is how important such reverse engineering can be as a pre-condition for subsequent innovation. To illustrate the point, I’d like to offer three examples of companies or open source projects that have forcibly opened a company’s closed architecture, and trace how these have enabled subsequent innovation . . . .

No. 7: Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society by Adam Thierer, January 2010

The cycle goes something like this. A new technology appears. Those who fear the sweeping changes brought about by this technology see a sky that is about to fall. These “techno-pessimists” predict the death of the old order (which, ironically, is often a previous generation’s hotly-debated technology that others wanted slowed or stopped). Embracing this new technology, they fear, will result in the overthrow of traditions, beliefs, values, institutions, business models, and much else they hold sacred.

The pollyannas, by contrast, look out at the unfolding landscape and see mostly rainbows in the air. Theirs is a rose-colored world in which the technological revolution du jour is seen as improving the general lot of mankind and bringing about a better order. If something has to give, then the old ways be damned! For such “techno-optimists,” progress means some norms and institutions must adapt—perhaps even disappear—for society to continue its march forward.

No. 6: Copyright Duration and the Mickey Mouse Curve by Tom Bell, August 2009

Given the rough-and-tumble of real world lawmaking, does the rhetoric of “delicate balancing” merit any place in copyright jurisprudence? The Copyright Act does reflect compromises struck between the various parties that lobby congress and the administration for changes to federal law. A truce among special interests does not and cannot delicately balance all the interests affected by copyright law, however. Not even poetry can license the metaphor, which aggravates copyright’s public choice affliction by endowing the legislative process with more legitimacy than it deserves. To claim that copyright policy strikes a “delicate balance” commits not only legal fiction; it aids and abets a statutory tragedy.

No. 5: Cyber-Libertarianism: The Case for Real Internet Freedom by Adam Thierer & Berin Szoka, August 2009

Generally speaking, the cyber-libertarian’s motto is “Live & Let Live” and “Hands Off the Internet!” The cyber-libertarian aims to minimize the scope of state coercion in solving social and economic problems and looks instead to voluntary solutions and mutual consent-based arrangements.

Cyber-libertarians believe true “Internet freedom” is freedom from state action; not freedom for the State to reorder our affairs to supposedly make certain people or groups better off or to improve some amorphous “public interest”—an all-to convenient facade behind which unaccountable elites can impose their will on the rest of us.

No. 4: Here’s why the Obama FCC Internet regulations don’t protect net neutrality by Brent Skorup, July 2017

It’s becoming clearer why, for six years out of eight, Obama’s appointed FCC chairmen resisted regulating the Internet with Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. Chairman Wheeler famously did not want to go that legal route. It was only after President Obama and the White House called on the FCC in late 2014 to use Title II that Chairman Wheeler relented. If anything, the hastily-drafted 2015 Open Internet rules provide a new incentive to ISPs to curate the Internet in ways they didn’t want to before.

No. 3: 10 Years Ago Today… (Thinking About Technological Progress) by Adam Thierer, February 2009

As I am getting ready to watch the Super Bowl tonight on my amazing 100-inch screen via a Sanyo high-def projector that only cost me $1,600 bucks on eBay, I started thinking back about how much things have evolved (technologically-speaking) over just the past decade. I thought to myself, what sort of technology did I have at my disposal exactly 10 years ago today, on February 1st, 1999? Here’s the miserable snapshot I came up with . . . .

No. 2: Regulatory Capture: What the Experts Have Found by Adam Thierer, December 2010

While capture theory cannot explain all regulatory policies or developments, it does provide an explanation for the actions of political actors with dismaying regularity. Because regulatory capture theory conflicts mightily with romanticized notions of “independent” regulatory agencies or “scientific” bureaucracy, it often evokes a visceral reaction and a fair bit of denialism. . . . Yet, countless studies have shown that regulatory capture has been at work in various arenas: transportation and telecommunications; energy and environmental policy; farming and financial services; and many others.

No. 1: Defining “Technology” by Adam Thierer, April 2014

I spend a lot of time reading books and essays about technology; more specifically, books and essays about technology history and criticism. Yet, I am often struck by how few of the authors of these works even bother defining what they mean by “technology.” . . . Anyway, for what it’s worth, I figured I would create this post to list some of the more interesting definitions of “technology” that I have uncovered in my own research.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) recently delivered remarks at the National Conservatism Conference and a Young America’s Foundation conference in which he railed against political and academic elites, arguing that, “the old era is ending and the old ways will not do.” “It’s time that we stood up to big government, to the people in government who think they know better,” Hawley noted at the YAF event. “[W]e are for free competition… we are for the free market.”

That’s all nice-sounding rhetoric but it sure doesn’t seem to match up with Hawley’s recent essays and policy proposals, which are straight out of the old era’s elitist and highly paternalistic Washington-Knows-Best playbook. Specifically, Hawley has called for a top-down, technocratic regulatory regime for the Internet and the digital economy more generally. Hawley has repeatedly made claims that digital technology companies have gotten a sweetheart deal from government and they they have censored conservative voices. That’s utter nonsense, but those arguments have driven his increasingly fanatic rhetoric and command-and-control policy proposals. If he succeeds in his plan to empower unelected bureaucrats inside the Beltway to reshape the Internet, it will destroy one of the greatest American success stories in recent memory. It’s hard to understand how that could be labelled “conservative” in any sense of the word. Continue reading →

[This essay originally appeared on the AIER blog on May 28, 2019. The USA TODAY also ran a shorter version of this essay as a letter to the editor on June 2, 2019.]

In a hotly-worded USA Today op-ed last week, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) railed against social media sites Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. He argued that, “social media wastes our time and resources,” and is “a field of little productive value” that have only “given us an addiction economy.” Sen. Hawley refers to these sites as “parasites” and blames them for a litany of social problems (including an unproven link to increased suicide), leading him to declare that, “we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared.”

As far as moral panics go, Sen. Hawley’s will go down as one for the ages. Politicians have always castigated new technologies, media platforms, and content for supposedly corrupting the youth of their generation. But Sen. Hawley’s inflammatory rhetoric and proposals are something we haven’t seen in quite some time.

He sounds like those fire-breathing politicians and pundits of the past century who vociferously protested everything from comic books to cable television, the waltz to the Walkman, and rock-and-roll to rap music. In order to save the youth of America, many past critics said, we must destroy the media or media platforms they are supposedly addicted to. That is exactly what Sen. Hawley would have us do to today’s leading media platforms because, in his opinion, they “do our country more harm than good.”

We have to hope that Sen. Hawley is no more successful than past critics and politicians who wanted to take these choices away from the public. Paternalistic politicians should not be dictating content choices for the rest of us or destroying technologies and platforms that millions of people benefit from. Continue reading →

Catchy headlines like “Heavy Social Media Use Linked With Mental Health Issues In Teens” and “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” advance a common trope of generational decline. But a new paper in Nature uses a new and rigorous analytical method to understand the relationship between adolescent well-being and digital technology, finding a “negative but small [link], explaining at most 0.4% of the variation in well-being.” Continue reading →

Contemporary tech criticism displays an anti-nostalgia. Instead of being reverent for the past, anxiety about the future abounds. In these visions, the future is imagined as a strange, foreign land, beset with problems. And yet, to quote that old adage, tomorrow is the visitor that is always coming but never arrives. The future never arrives because we are assembling it today.  

The distance between the now and the future finds its hook in tech policy in the pacing problem, a term describing the mismatch between advancing technologies and society’s efforts to cope with them. Vivek Wadhwa explained that, “We haven’t come to grips with what is ethical, let alone with what the laws should be, in relation to technologies such as social media.” In The Laws of Disruption, Larry Downes explained the pacing problem like this: “technology changes exponentially, but social, economic, and legal systems change incrementally.” Or, as Adam Thierer wondered, “What happens when technological innovation outpaces the ability of laws and regulations to keep up?”

Here are three short responses. Continue reading →

Last week, science writer Michael Shermer tweeted out this old xkcd comic strip that I had somehow missed before. Shermer noted that it represented, “another reply to pessimists bemoaning modern technologies as soul-crushing and isolating.” Similarly, there’s this meme that has been making the rounds on Twitter and which jokes about how newspapers made us as antisocial in the past much as newer technologies supposedly do today.

‏The sentiments expressed by the comic and that image make it clear how people often tend to romanticize past technologies or fail to remember that many people expressed the same fears about them as critics do today about newer ones. I’ve written dozens of articles about “moral panics” and “techno-panics,” most of which are cataloged here. The common theme of those essays is that, when it comes to fears about innovations, there really is nothing new under the sun. Continue reading →

Smart Device Paranoia

by on October 5, 2015 · 0 comments

The idea that the world needs further dumbing down was really the last thing on my mind. Yet this is exactly what Jay Stanley argues for in a recent post on Free Future, the ACLU tech blog.

Specifically, Stanley is concerned by the proliferation of “smart devices,” from smart homes to smart watches, and the enigmatic algorithms that power them. Exhibit A: The Volkswagen “smart control devices” designed to deliberately mis-measure diesel emissions. Far from an isolated case, Stanley extrapolates the Volkswagen scandal into a parable about the dangers of smart devices more generally, and calls for the recognition of “the virtue of dumbness”:

When we flip a coin, its dumbness is crucial. It doesn’t know that the visiting team is the massive underdog, that the captain’s sister just died of cancer, and that the coach is at risk of losing his job. It’s the coin’s very dumbness that makes everyone turn to it as a decider. … But imagine the referee has replaced it with a computer programmed to perform a virtual coin flip. There’s a reason we recoil at that idea. If we were ever to trust a computer with such a task, it would only be after a thorough examination of the computer’s code, mainly to find out whether the computer’s decision is based on “knowledge” of some kind, or whether it is blind as it should be.

While recoiling is a bit melodramatic, it’s clear from this that “dumbness” is not even the key issue at stake. What Stanley is really concerned about is biasedness or partiality (what he dubs “neutrality anxiety”), which is not unique to “dumb” devices like coins, nor is the opacity. A physical coin can be biased, a programmed coin can be fair, and at first glance the fairness of a physical coin is not really anymore obvious.

Yet this is the argument Stanley uses to justify his proposed requirement that all smart device code be open to the public for scrutiny going forward. Based on a knee-jerk commitment to transparency, he gives zero weight to the social benefit of allowing software creators a level of trade secrecy, especially as a potential substitute to patent and copyright protections. This is all the more ironic, given that Volkswagen used existing copyright law to hide its own malfeasance.

More importantly, the idea that the only way to check a virtual coin is to look at the source code is a serious non-sequitur. After all, in-use testing was how Volkswagen was actually caught in the end. What matters, in other words, is how the coin behaves in large and varied samples. In either the virtual or physical case, the best and least intrusive way to check a coin is to simply do thousands of flips. But what takes hours with a dumb coin takes a fraction of a second with a virtual coin. So I know which I prefer.

Continue reading →

It was my pleasure this week to be invited to deliver some comments at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) to coincide with the release of their latest study, “The Privacy Panic Cycle: A Guide to Public Fears About New Technologies.” The goal of the new ITIF report, which was co-authored by Daniel Castro and Alan McQuinn, is to highlight the dangers associated with “the cycle of panic that occurs when privacy advocates make outsized claims about the privacy risks associated with new technologies. Those claims then filter through the news media to policymakers and the public, causing frenzies of consternation before cooler heads prevail, people come to understand and appreciate innovative new products and services, and everyone moves on.” (p. 1)

As Castro and McQuinn describe it, the privacy panic cycle “charts how perceived privacy fears about a technology grow rapidly at the beginning, but eventually decline over time.” They divide this cycle into four phases: Trusting Beginnings, Rising Panic, Deflating Fears, and Moving On. Here’s how they depict it in an image:

Privacy Panic Cycle - 1

 

Continue reading →

Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times posted an interesting story yesterday noting how, “Technology Has Made Life Different, but Not Necessarily More Stressful.” Her essay builds on a new study by researchers at the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University on “Social Media and the Cost of Caring.” Miller’s essay and this new Pew/Rutgers study indirectly make a point that I am always discussing in my own work, but that is often ignored or downplayed by many technological critics, namely: We humans have repeatedly proven quite good at adapting to technological change, even when it entails some heartburn along the way.

The major takeaway of the Pew/Rutgers study was that, “social media users are not any more likely to feel stress than others, but there is a subgroup of social media users who are more aware of stressful events in their friends’ lives and this subgroup of social media users does feel more stress.” Commenting on the study, Miller of the Times notes:

Fear of technology is nothing new. Telephones, watches and televisions were similarly believed to interrupt people’s lives and pressure them to be more productive. In some ways they did, but the benefits offset the stressors. New technology is making our lives different, but not necessarily more stressful than they would have been otherwise. “It’s yet another example of how we overestimate the effect these technologies are having in our lives,” said Keith Hampton, a sociologist at Rutgers and an author of the study.  . . .  Just as the telephone made it easier to maintain in-person relationships but neither replaced nor ruined them, this recent research suggests that digital technology can become a tool to augment the relationships humans already have.

I found this of great interest because I have written about how humans assimilate new technologies into their lives and become more resilient in the process as they learn various coping techniques. Continue reading →

As 2014 draws to a close, we take a look back at the most-read posts from the past year at The Technology Liberation Front. Thank you for reading, and enjoy. Continue reading →