Technopanics & the Precautionary Principle

Time magazine recently declared 2020 “The Worst Year Ever.” By historical standards that may be a bit of hyperbole. For America’s digital technology sector, however, that headline rings true. After a remarkable 25-year run that saw an explosion of innovation and the rapid ascent of a group of U.S. companies that became household names across the globe, politicians and pundits in 2020 declared the party over.

“We now are on the cusp of a new era of tech policy, one in which the policy catches up with the technology,” says Darrell M. West of the Brookings Institution in a recent essay, “The End of Permissionless Innovation.” West cites the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee’s October report on competition in digital markets—where it equates large tech firms with the “oil barons and railroad tycoons” of the Gilded Age—as the clearest sign that politicization of the internet and digital technology is accelerating.

It is hardly the only indication that America is set to abandon permissionless innovation and revisit the era of heavy-handed regulation for information and communication technology (ICT) markets. Equally significant is the growing bipartisan crusade against Section 230, the provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that shields “interactive computer services” from liability for information posted or published on their systems by users. No single policy has been more important to the flourishing of online speech or commerce than Sec. 230 because, without it, online platforms would be overwhelmed by regulation and lawsuits.

But now, long knives are coming out for the law, with plenty of politicians and academics calling for it to be gutted. Calls to reform or repeal Sec. 230 were once exclusively the province of left-leaning academics or policymakers, but this year it was conservatives in the White Houseon Capitol Hill and at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) who became the leading cheerleaders for scaling back or eliminating the law. President Trump railed against Sec. 230 repeatedly on Twitter, and most recently vetoed the annual National Defense Authorization Act in part because Congress did not include a repeal of the law in the measure.

Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers in Congress such as Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz have used subpoenasangry letters and heated hearings to hammer digital tech executives about their content moderation practices. Allegations of anti-conservative bias have motivated many of these efforts. Even Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas questioned the law in a recent opinion.

Other proposed regulatory interventions include calls for new national privacy laws, an “Algorithmic Accountability Act” to regulate artificial intelligence technologies, and a growing variety of industrial policy measures that would open the door to widespread meddling with various tech sectors. Some officials in the Trump administration even pushed for a nationalized 5G communications network in the name of competing with China.

This growing “techlash” signals a bipartisan “Back to the Future” moment, with the possibility of the U.S. reviving a regulatory playbook that many believed had been discarded in history’s dustbin. Although plenty of politicians and pundits are taking victory laps and giving each other high-fives over the impending end of the permissionless innovation era, it is worth considering what America will be losing if we once again apply old top-down, permission slip-oriented policies to the technology sector. Continue reading →

“The world should think better about catastrophic and existential risks.” So says a new feature essay in The Economist. Indeed it should, and that includes existential risks associated with emerging technologies.

The primary focus of my research these days revolves around broad-based governance trends for emerging technologies. In particular, I have spent the last few years attempting to better understand how and why “soft law” techniques have been tapped to fill governance gaps. As I noted in this recent post compiling my recent writing on the topic;

soft law refers to informal, collaborative, and constantly evolving governance mechanisms that differ from hard law in that they lack the same degree of enforceability. Soft law builds upon and operates in the shadow of hard law. But soft law lacks the same degree of formality that hard law possess. Despite many shortcomings and criticisms, compared with hard law, soft law can be more rapidly and flexibly adapted to suit new circumstances and address complex technological governance challenges. This is why many regulatory agencies are tapping soft law methods to address shortcomings in the traditional hard law governance systems.

I argued in recent law review articles as well as my latest book, despite its imperfections, I believe that soft law has an important role to play in filling governance gaps that hard law struggles to address. But there are some instances where soft law simply will not cut it. Continue reading →

I was speaking at a virtual conference recently and was discussing my life’s work, which for 30 years has been focused on the importance of innovation and intellectual battles over what we mean progress. I whipped up a short list of some things I have written over just the past 5 years on this topic and thought I would just re-post them here:

UNDERSTANDING THE CHALLENGE WE FACE:

HOW WE MUST RESPOND = “Rational Optimism” / Right to Earn a Living / Permissionless Innovation

Continue reading →

Matt RidleyThere are few things more exciting to innovation policy geeks that than the week a new Matt Ridley book drops. Thankfully, that time is upon us once again. This week, Ridley’s latest book, How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom, is being released. I can’t wait to dig in.

This weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an essay condensed from the book entitled, “Innovation Can’t Be Forced, but It Can Be Quashed.” Here are some of the highlights from Ridley’s piece:

Innovation relies upon freedom to experiment and try new things, which requires sensible regulation that is permissive, encouraging and quick to give decisions. By far the surest way to rediscover rapid economic growth when the pandemic is over will be to study the regulatory delays and hurdles that have now been hastily swept aside to help innovators in medical devices and therapies, and to see whether such reforms could be applied to other parts of the economy too.

Dealing with Covid-19 has forcibly reminded governments of the value of innovation. But if we are to get faster vaccines and treatments—and better still, more innovation across all fields in the future—then innovators need to be freed from the shackles that hold them back.

These are crucial point, and ones I discuss in the launch essay and the afterward of my new book, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance. Alas, as I pointed out in that launch essay and my last book on Permissionless Innovation, a great many barriers stand in the way of the freedom to experiment and try new things. As Ridley points out: Continue reading →

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important technology is for enabling social distancing measures while staying connected to friends, family, school, and work. But for some, including a number of celebrities, it has also heightened fears of emerging technologies that could further improve our connectivity. The latest technopanic should not make us fear technology that has added so much to our lives and that promises to help us even more.

Celebrities such as Keri Hilson, John Cusack, and Woody Harrelson have repeated concerns about 5G—from how it could be weakening our immune systems to even causing this pandemic. These claims about 5G have gotten serious enough that Google banned ads with misleading health information regarding 5G, and Twitter has stated it will remove tweets with 5G and health misinformation that could potentially cause harm in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 5G is not causing the current pandemic, nor has it been linked to other health concerns. As the director of American Public Health Association Dr. Georges C. Benjamin has stated, “COVID-19 is caused by a virus that came through a natural animal source and has no relation to 5G, or any radiation linked to technology.”  As the New York Times has pointed out, much of the non-COVID-19 5G health concerns originated from Russian propaganda news source RT or trace back to a single decades-old flawed study. In short, there is no evidence to support many of the outrageous health claims regarding 5G.

Continue reading →

I’m making the opening chapter of my new book, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments, available here. Also here’s the launch essay and the event launch video, which discuss how the themes discussed throughout the book have become even more visible during the coronavirus crisis.

Also, here are some lists of 10 major themes from the book13 key terms found in the book, and 5 innovation policy scholars who inspired my thinking. Reminder: this book is a sequel to my previous book, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.

I hope you will consider buying Evasive Entrepreneurs after reading this opening chapter.

I really liked this new essay, “Innovation is thriving in the fight against Covid-19,” by Norman Lewis over at Spiked, a UK-based publication. In it, he makes several important points similar to themes discussed in my book launch essay last week (“Evasive Entrepreneurialism and Technological Civil Disobedience in the Midst of a Pandemic.”) Lewis begins by noting that:

There is nothing like a crisis to concentrate the mind. And the Covid-19 catastrophe has certainly done this. It has speeded up latent trends and posed new questions. The issue of our technologically informed capacity to solve problems is just one example.

He continues on to argue:

a crisis like Covid-19 will necessarily pose new urgent questions that could not have been anticipated. New initiatives will rise to meet these. Pre-existing skills, knowledge, technologies and attitudes will always be the starting point of new problem-solving quests. Where and how we focus attention will, in part, be based on prior cultural assumptions and existing technologies, and also on the novelty of the problem to be solved.

Lewis discusses how innovative minds are pushing back against archaic regulatory barriers, business models and government regulations. As he nicely summarizes:

Unimagined solutions are being pushed while a more open attitude towards experimentation, risk-taking and side-stepping onerous and costly regulation is starting to emerge. Human needs are breaking down yesterday’s precautionary approaches.

That last line really resonated with me because it’s a major theme that runs throughout my new book, “Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments.” As I summarized in my book launch essay:

Eventually, people take notice of how regulators and their rules encumber entrepreneurial activities, and they act to evade them when public welfare is undermined. Working around the system becomes inevitable when the permission society becomes so completely dysfunctional and counterproductive.

This was happening before the coronavirus outbreak, but the crisis has supercharged this phenomenon. Evasive entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the growth of new devices and platforms that let citizens circumvent (or perhaps just ignore) public policies that limit innovative efforts. These can include common tools like smartphones, computers, and various new interactive platforms, as well as more specialized technologies like cryptocurrencies, private drones, immersive technologies (like virtual reality), 3D printers, the “Internet of Things,” and sharing economy platforms and services. But that list just scratches the surface and the public is increasingly using these new technological capabilities to assert themselves and push back against laws and regulations that defy common sense and hold back progress.

Lawmakers and regulators need to consider a balanced response to evasive entrepreneurialism that is rooted in the realization that technology creators and users are less likely to seek to evade laws and regulations when public policies are more in line with common sense. Yesterday’s heavy-handed approaches that are rooted in the Precautionary Principle will need to be reformed to make sure progress can happen. 

Read my book to find out more!

 

[First published by AIER on April 20, 2020 as “Innovation and the Trouble with the Precautionary Principle.”]

In a much-circulated new essay (“It’s Time to Build”), Marc Andreessen has penned a powerful paean to the importance of building. He says the COVID crisis has awakened us to the reality that America is no longer the bastion of entrepreneurial creativity it once was. “Part of the problem is clearlyforesight, a failure of imagination,” he argues. “But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t do in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to build.”The Mind of Marc Andreessen | The New Yorker

Andreessen suggests that, somewhere along the line, something changed in the DNA of the American people and they essentially stopped having the desire to build as they once did. “You don’t just see this smug complacency, this satisfaction with the status quo and the unwillingness to build, in the pandemic, or in healthcare generally,” he says. “You see it throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.” He continues:

“The problem is desire. We need to want these things. The problem is inertia. We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things. The problem is regulatory capture. We need to want new companies to build these things, even if incumbents don’t like it, even if only to force the incumbents to build these things.”

Accordingly, Andreessen continues on to make the case to both the political right and left to change their thinking about building more generally. “It’s time for full-throated, unapologetic, uncompromised political support from the right for aggressive investment in new products, in new industries, in new factories, in new science, in big leaps forward.”

What’s missing in Andreessen’s manifesto is a concrete connection between America’s apparent dwindling desire to build these things and the political realities on the ground that contribute to that problem. Put simply, policy influences attitudes. More specifically, policies that frown upon entrepreneurial risk-taking actively disincentivize the building of new and better things. Thus, to correct the problem Andreessen identifies, it is essential that we must first remove political barriers to productive entrepreneurialism or else we will never get back to being the builders we once were.     Continue reading →

I was pleased to see the American Psychological Association’s new statement slowly reversing course on misguided past statements about video games and acts of real-world violence. As Kyle Orland reports in Ars Technica, the APA has clarified its earlier statement on this relationship between watching video game depictions of violence and actual youth behavior. The APA’s old statement said that evidence “confirms [the] link between playing violent video games and aggression.”  But the APA has come around and now says that, “there is insufficient scientific evidence to support a causal link between violent video games and violent behavior.” More specifically, the APA says: 

The following resolution should not be misinterpreted or misused by attributing violence, such as mass shootings, to violent video game use. Violence is a complex social problem that likely stems from many factors that warrant attention from researchers, policy makers and the public. Attributing violence to violent video gaming is not scientifically sound and draws attention away from other factors.

This is a welcome change of course because the APA’s earlier statements were being used by politicians and media activists who favored censorship of video games. Hopefully that will no longer happen.

“Monkey see, monkey do” theories of media exposure leading to acts of real-world violence have long been among the most outrageously flawed theories in the fields of psychology and media studies.  All the evidence points the opposite way, as I documented a decade ago in a variety of studies. (For a summary, see my 2010 essay, “More on Monkey See-Monkey Do Theories about Media Violence & Real-World Crime.”)

In fact, there might even be something to the “cathartic effect hypothesis,” or the idea first articulated by Aristotle (“katharsis”) that watching dramatic portrayals of violence could lead to “the proper purgation of these emotions.” (See my 2010 essay on this, “Video Games, Media Violence & the Cathartic Effect Hypothesis.”)

Of course, this doesn’t mean that endless exposure to video game or TV and movie violence is a good thing. Prudence and good parenting are still essential. Some limits are smart. But the idea that a kid playing or watching violent act will automatically become violent themselves was always nonsense. It’s time we put that theory to rest. Thanks to the new APA statement, we are one step closer.

P.S. I recently penned an essay about my long love affair with video games that you might find entertaining: “Confessions of a ‘Vidiot’: 50 Years of Video Games & Moral Panics

On the latest Institute for Energy Research podcast, I joined Paige Lambermont to discuss:

  • the precautionary principle vs. permissionless innovation;
  • risk analysis trade-offs;
  • the future of nuclear power;
  • the “pacing problem”;
  • regulatory capture;
  • evasive entrepreneurialism;
  • “soft law”;
  • … and why I’m still bitter about losing the 6th grade science fair!

Our discussion was inspired by my recent essay, “How Many Lives Are Lost Due to the Precautionary Principle?”