Originally published on the AIER blog on 9/8/19 as “The Worst Regulation Ever Proposed.”

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Imagine a competition to design the most onerous and destructive economic regulation ever conceived. A mandate that would make all other mandates blush with embarrassment for not being burdensome or costly enough. What would that Worst Regulation Ever look like?

Unfortunately, Bill de Blasio has just floated a few proposals that could take first and second place prize in that hypothetical contest. In a new Wired essay, the New York City mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate explains, “Why American Workers Need to Be Protected From Automation,” and aims to accomplish that through a new agency with vast enforcement powers, and a new tax.

Taken together, these ideas represent one of the most radical regulatory plans any America politician has yet concocted.

Politicians, academics, and many others have been panicking over automation at least since the days when the Luddites were smashing machines in protest over growing factory mechanization. With the growth of more sophisticated forms of robotics, artificial intelligence, and workplace automation today, there has been a resurgence of these fears and a renewed push for sweeping regulations to throw a wrench in the gears of progress. Mayor de Blasio is looking to outflank his fellow Democratic candidates for president with an anti-automation plan that may be the most extreme proposal of its kind. Continue reading →

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.

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the launch of the Technology Liberation Front. This blog has evolved through the years and served as a home for more than 50 writers who have shared their thoughts about the intersection of technological innovation and public policy.

Many TLF contributors have moved on to start other blogs or write for other publications. Others have gone into other professions where they simply can’t blog anymore. Still others now just publish their daily musings on Twitter, which has had a massive substitution effect on long-form blogging more generally. In any event, I’m pleased that so many of them had a home here at some point over the past 15 years.

What has unified everyone who has written for the TLF is (1) a strong belief in technological innovation as a method of improving the human condition and (2) a corresponding concern about impediments to technological change. Our contributors might best be labeled “rational optimists,” to borrow Matt Ridley’s phrase, or “dynamists,” to use Virginia Postrel’s term. In a recent essay, I sketched out the core tenets of a dynamist, rational optimist worldview, arguing that we:

  • believe there is a symbiotic relationship between innovation, economic growth, pluralism, and human betterment, but also acknowledge the various challenges sometimes associated with technological change;
  • look forward to a better future and reject overly nostalgic accounts of some supposed “good ‘ol days” or bygone better eras;
  • base our optimism on facts and historical analysis, not on blind faith in any particular viewpoint, ideology, or gut feeling;
  • support practical, bottom-up solutions to hard problems through ongoing trial-and-error experimentation, but are not wedded to any one process to get the job done;
  • appreciate entrepreneurs for their willingness to take risks and try new things, but do not engage in hero worship of any particular individual, organization, or particular technology.

Applying that vision, the contributors here through the years have unabashedly defended a pro-growth, pro-progress, pro-freedom vision, but they have also rejected techno-utopianism or gadget-worship of any sort. Rational optimists are anti-utopians, in fact, because they understand that hard problems can only be solved through ongoing trial and error, not wishful thinking or top-down central planning.

Continue reading →

This essay was originally published on the AIER blog on August 8, 2019.

In a new Atlantic essay, Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen suggest that, “We Need a New Science of Progress,” which, “would study the successful people, organizations, institutions, policies, and cultures that have arisen to date, and it would attempt to concoct policies and prescriptions that would help improve our ability to generate useful progress in the future.” Collison and Cowen refer to this project as Progress Studies.

Is such a field of study possible, and would it really be a “science”? I think the answer is yes, but with some caveats. Even if it proves to be an inexact science, however, the effort is worth undertaking. 

Thinking about Progress

Progress Studies is a topic I have spent much of my life thinking and writing about, most recently in my book, Permissionless Innovation as well as a new paper on “Technological Innovation and Economic Growth,” co-authored with James Broughel. My work has argued that nations that are open to risk-taking, trial-and-error experimentation, and technological dynamism (i.e., “permissionless innovation”) are more likely to enjoy sustained economic growth and prosperity than those rooted in precautionary principle thinking and policies (i.e., prior restraints on innovative activities). A forthcoming book of mine on the future of entrepreneurialism and innovation will delve even deeper into these topics and address criticisms of technological advancement.

Continue reading →

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 →

By Brent Skorup and Will Gu

The Chinese aviation regulator (CAAC) set out guidelines in January 2019 for drone airworthiness standards. CAAC also released proposed plans in May 2019 for the 30-year development of the unmanned civilian aircraft industry. These proposed plans, while broad and general, highlight unmanned civilian aircraft—like drones and eVTOL—as one of future pillars of the Chinese economy, alongside areas like artificial intelligence and 5G. These pillars are the industries in which the Chinese government wants China to surpass Western countries’ capabilities in the “fourth industrial revolution.” The documents are available online and we’ve translated the documents. Below is a summary of highlights from that translation. 

Industrial Plans for Unmanned Civil Aviation 

Unlike the deliberative, industry-led development in most other countries, China is taking a more top-down approach in the May 2019 plans for unmanned civil aviation. The approach in the document roughly translates as “social + industrial management,” which CAAC lays out in five-year industrial plans. Both the January and May documents outline government action from building domestic supply chains to building drone infrastructure to implementing safety protocols to training personnel.  

Some key dates from the January guidelines: 

  • Develop drone air worthiness standards by the end of 2019 
  • Create eVTOL requirements by the end of 2019 

Some key dates from the 5-year plans released in May: 

  • Allocate segregated, low-altitude airspace by 2025 
  • Develop widespread commercial urban air mobility by 2035 
  • Develop world-class unmanned aerospace manufacturing by 2035 

As a first step, CAAC is pressing ahead on national airworthiness standards because international standards have been slow to develop. A Chinese government database records over 280,000 registered drones for surveillance, agriculture, and delivery uses. There’s seems to be a real-time drone UTM system in place, but we’ve found little information about its capabilities. (Balancing competition, interoperability, and dynamic improvements in UTM will be a difficult task for aviation regulators worldwide.) According to the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, drone operators are allocated spectrum at 800 MHz, 1.4 GHz, and 2.4 GHz. 

JD.com, the largest retailer in China, has been doing trial deliveries since 2016. Another drone company, SF Express, received the first commercial drone delivery license in 2018, a year before the first US drones were approved for commercial delivery. SF Express drones can carry up to 30 kg (about 66 lbs).  

The eVTOL industry in China appears far ahead of the US. EHang has been flying tourists in a 2-passenger autonomous eVTOL for a few months, and an unconfirmed report says the company sold 18 of their eVTOL aircraft this month. In the US, eVTOL operators like Uber likely won’t fly passengers in trial flights until 2023, at the earliest. 

National airworthiness standards are needed, in part the Chinese regulators say, because of unsettling news of drones interfering with airports’ operations. However, the more pressing reason for developing standards is for Chinese industry to take the global lead in commercial unmanned aircraft. China aims to establish international norms and standards—a goal mentioned several times in both documents—similar to how China led the way attending global standards-body meetings and developing protocols in the 5G race

The Path Ahead 

One likely obstacle to autonomous urban air mobility and drone cargo development in China is the Chinese military. Most progress in these areas have to be coordinated with the military because of airspace use. According to 2017 Reuters reporting, local media estimate that the military controls about 80% of Chinese airspace. Chinese civil airspace is already somewhat crowded and integrating eVTOLs and other large drones will be a delicate process. 

What stands out from these documents how China perceives itself as lagging in traditional commercial aviation compared to the United States and Europe. That perception seems to serve as a motivation to leapfrog the West and lead the globe in developing commercial drone, eVTOL, and urban air mobility standards and services. The Chinese government has ambitious plans and is moving quickly. In many ways they appear to be leading early but—like 5G—this race is a marathon, not a sprint. 

This essay originally appeared on The Bridge under the title “Confessions of a Vidiot” on July 16, 2019.

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I have a confession: I’m 50 years old and still completely in love with video games.

Image result for Time magazine video games coverI feel silly saying that, even though I really shouldn’t. Video games are now fully intertwined with the fabric of modern life and, by this point, there have been a couple of generations of adults who, like me, have played them actively over the past few decades. Somehow, despite the seemingly endless moral panics about video games, we came out alright. But that likely will not stop some critics from finding new things to panic over.

As a child of the 1970s, I straddled the divide between the old and new worlds of gaming. I was (and remain) obsessed with board and card games, which my family played avidly. But then Atari’s home version of “Pong” landed in 1976. The console had rudimentary graphics and controls, and just one game to play, but it was a revelation. After my uncle bought Pong for my cousins, our families and neighbors would gather round his tiny 20-inch television to watch two electronic paddles and a little dot move around the screen.

Every kid in the world immediately began lobbying their parents for a Pong game of their own, but then a year later something even more magical hit the market: Atari’s 2600 gaming platform. It was followed by Mattel’s “Intellivision” and Coleco’s “ColecoVision.” The platform wars had begun, and home video games had gone mainstream.

My grandmother, who lived with us at the time, started calling my brother and me “vidiots,” which was short for “video game idiots.” My grandmother raised me and was an absolute treasure to my existence, but when it came to video games (as well as rock music), the generational tensions between us were omnipresent. She was constantly haranguing my brother and me about how we were never going to amount to much in life if we didn’t get away from those damn video games!

I used to ask her why she never gave us as much grief about playing board or card games. She thought those were mostly fine. There was just something about the electronic or more interactive nature of video games that set her and the older generation off.

And, of course, there was the violence. There is no doubt that video games contained violent themes and images that were new to the gaming experience. In the analog gaming era, violent action was left mostly to the imagination. With electronic games, it was right there for us to see in all its (very bloody) glory. Continue reading →

My latest AIER column examines the impact increased lobbying and regulatory accumulation have on entrepreneurialism and innovation more generally. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a healthy relationship. A growing body of economic evidence concludes that increases in the former lead to much less of the latter.

This is a topic that my Mercatus Center colleagues and I have done a lot of work on through the years. But what got me thinking about the topic again was a new NBER working paper by economists Germán Gutiérrez and Thomas Philippon entitled, “The Failure of Free Entry.” Their new study finds that “regulations and lobbying explain rather well the decline in the allocation of entry” that we have seen in recent years.

Many economists have documented how business dynamism–new firm creation, entry, churn, etc–appears to have slowed in the US. Explanations for why vary but Gutiérrez and Philippon show that, “regulations have a negative impact on small firms, especially in industries with high lobbying expenditures.” Their results also document how regulations, “have a first order impact on incumbent profits and suggest that the regulatory capture may have increased in recent years.”

In other words, lobbying and cronyism breed a culture of rent-seeking, over-regulation, and rule accumulation that directly limit new startup activity and innovation more generally. This is a recipe for economic stagnation if left unchecked. Continue reading →

When it comes to the threat of automation, I agree with Ryan Khurana: “From self-driving car crashes to failed workplace algorithms, many AI tools fail to perform simple tasks humans excel at, let alone far surpass us in every way.” Like myself, he is skeptical that automation will unravel the labor market, pointing out that “[The] conflation of what AI ‘may one day do’ with the much more mundane ‘what software can do today’ creates a powerful narrative around automation that accepts no refutation.”

Khurana marshals a number of examples to make this point:

Google needs to use human callers to impersonate its Duplex system on up to a quarter of calls, and Uber needs crowd-sourced labor to ensure its automated identification system remains fast, but admitting this makes them look less automated…

London-based investment firm MMC Ventures found that out of the 2,830 startups they identified as being “AI-focused” in Europe, 40% used no machine learning tools, whatsoever.

I’ve been collecting examples of the AI hype machine as well. Here are some of my favorites. Continue reading →

CollegeHumor has created this amazing video, “Black Mirror Episodes from Medieval Times,” which is a fun parody of the relentless dystopianism of the Netflix show “Black Mirror.” If you haven’t watched Black Mirror, I encourage you to do so. It’s both great fun and ridiculously bleak and over-the-top in how it depicts modern or future technology destroying all that is good on God’s green earth.

The CollegeHumor team picks up on that and rewinds the clock about a 1,000 years to imagine how Black Mirror might have played out on a stage during the medieval period. The actors do quick skits showing how books become sentient, plows dig holes to Hell and unleash the devil, crossbows destroy the dexterity of archers, and labor-saving yokes divert people from godly pursuits. As one of the audience members says after watching all the episodes, “technology will truly be the ruin of us all!” That’s generally the message of not only Black Mirror, but the vast majority of modern science fiction writing about technology (and also a huge chunk of popular non-fiction writing, too.)

Continue reading →