Christopher GiancarloU.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) Commissioner J. Christopher Giancarlo delivered an amazing address this week before the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation 2016 Blockchain Symposium. The title of his speech was “Regulators and the Blockchain: First, Do No Harm,” and it will go down as the definitive early statement about how policymakers can apply a principled, innovation-enhancing policy paradigm to distributed ledger technology (DLT) or “blockchain” applications.

“The potential applications of this technology are being widely imagined and explored in ways that will benefit market participants, consumers and governments alike,” Giancarlo noted in his address. But in order for that to happen, he said, we have to get policy right. “It is time again to remind regulators to ‘do no harm,'” he argued, and he continued on to note that

The United States’ global leadership in technological innovation of the Internet was built hand-in-hand with its enlightened “do no harm” regulatory framework. Yet, when the Internet developed in the mid-1990s, none of us could have imagined its capabilities that we take for granted today. Fortunately, policymakers had the foresight to create a regulatory environment that served as a catalyst rather than a choke point for innovation. Thanks to their forethought and restraint, Internet-based applications have revolutionized nearly every aspect of human life, created millions of jobs and increased productivity and consumer choice. Regulators must show that same forethought and restraint now [for the blockchain].

What Giancarlo is referring to is the approach that the U.S. government adopted toward the Internet and digital networks in the mid-1990s. You can think of this vision as “permissionless innovation.” As I explain in my recent book of the same title, permissionless innovation refers to the notion that we should generally be free to experiment and learn new and better ways of doing things through ongoing trial-and-error. Continue reading →

The FCC has signaled that it may vote to overhaul the Lifeline program this month. Today, Lifeline typically provides a $9.25 subsidy for low-income households to purchase landline or mobile telephone service from eligible providers. While Lifeline has problems–hence the bipartisan push for reform–years ago the FCC structured Lifeline in a way that generally improves access and mitigates abuse (the same cannot be said about the three other major universal service programs).

A direct subsidy plus a menu of options is a good way to expand access to low-income people (assuming there are effective anti-fraud procedures). A direct subsidy is more or less how the US and state governments help lower-income families afford products and services like energy, food, housing, and education. For energy bills there’s LIHEAP. For grocery bills there’s SNAP and WIC. For housing, there’s Section 8 vouchers. For higher education, there’s Pell grants.

Programs structured this way make transfers fairly transparent, which makes them an easy target for criticism but also promotes government accountability, and gives low-income households the ability to consume these services according to their preferences. If you want to attend a small Christian college, not a state university, Pell grants enable that. If you want to purchase rice and tomatoes, not bread and apples, SNAP enables that. The alternative, and far more costly, ways to improve consumer access to various services is to subsidize providers, which is basically how Medicare the rural telephone programs operate, or command-and-control industrial policy, like we have for television and much of agriculture.

Because the FCC is maintaining the consumer subsidy and expanding the menu of Lifeline options to include wired broadband, mobile broadband, and wifi devices, there’s much to commend in the proposed reforms. Continue reading →

[This is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of the forthcoming 2nd edition of my book, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom,” due out later this month. I was presenting on these issues at today’s New America Foundation “Cybersecurity for a New America” event, so I thought I would post this now.  To learn more about the contrast between “permissionless innovation” and “precautionary principle” thinking, please consult the earlier edition of my book or see this blog post.]


 

Viruses, malware, spam, data breeches, and critical system intrusions are just some of the security-related concerns that often motivate precautionary thinking and policy proposals.[1] But as with privacy- and safety-related worries, the panicky rhetoric surrounding these issues is usually unfocused and counterproductive.

In today’s cybersecurity debates, for example, it is not uncommon to hear frequent allusions to the potential for a “digital Pearl Harbor,”[2] a “cyber cold war,”[3] or even a “cyber 9/11.”[4] These analogies are made even though these historical incidents resulted in death and destruction of a sort not comparable to attacks on digital networks. Others refer to “cyber bombs” or technological “time bombs,” even though no one can be “bombed” with binary code.[5] Michael McConnell, a former director of national intelligence, went so far as to say that this “threat is so intrusive, it’s so serious, it could literally suck the life’s blood out of this country.”[6]

Such outrageous statements reflect the frequent use of “threat inflation” rhetoric in debates about online security.[7] Threat inflation has been defined as “the attempt by elites to create concern for a threat that goes beyond the scope and urgency that a disinterested analysis would justify.”[8] Unfortunately, such bombastic rhetoric often conflates minor cybersecurity risks with major ones. For example, dramatic doomsday stories about hackers pushing planes out of the sky misdirects policymakers’ attention from the more immediate, but less gripping, risks of data extraction and foreign surveillance. Well-meaning skeptics might then conclude that our real cybersecurity risks are also not a problem. In the meantime, outdated legislation and inappropriate legal norms continue to impede beneficial defensive measures that could truly improve security. Continue reading →

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

Today, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed, for the second time, an FCC Order attempting to lower prison payphone phone calling rates. Back in 2003, Martha Wright had petitioned the FCC for relief, citing the exorbitant rates she was charged to call her incarcerated grandson. Finally, in 2012, the FCC sought comment on proposed price caps. In 2013, when Commissioner Mignon Clyburn took over as acting chairman, she rushed through an orderthat implemented rate-of-return regulation, a different approach on which the FCC had not yet sought public comment.

Once again, the D.C. Circuit has reminded the FCC that good intentions are not enough,” said Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom. “The FCC must follow basic requirements of administrative law. When it fails to do so, all its talk of protecting consumers is just that: empty talk.”

When the FCC issued its 2013 order, TechFreedom issued the following statement:

If justice delayed is justice denied, the FCC has once again denied justice to the millions of Americans and their families who pay far too much for prison payphone calls. The FCC’s elaborate system of price controls was not among the ideas on which the FCC sought comment last December, nor is it supported by the record. Thus, today’s long-overdue order will very likely be struck down in court — and the Commission will have wasted nine years sitting on Martha Wright’s 2003 payphone justice petition, nine months proposing an illegal solution, and who-knows-how-long litigating about it — only to wind up right back where we started, with payphone operators paying up to two-thirds of their revenue in kickbacks to state prisons, in exchange for the monopoly privilege of gouging a truly captive audience.

This is just the latest example of the FCC’s M.O. of “Ready, Fire, Aim.” The FCC consistently dawdles, then suddenly works itself up into a rush to regulate in ways that are either illegal or unwise — and usually both. Once again, good intentions, the desire to make headlines, disregard for basic principles of legal process, and a deep-seated ideological preference for returning to rate-of-return price controls, have triumphed over common sense, due process and, sadly, actually helping anyone.

In January 2014, the appeals court stayed key provisions of the order. The FCC then went back to the drawing board and, in October 2015, issued a second report and order and third NPRM that, among other things, established price caps for inmate calling services. Affected service providers challenged the order and sought a stay from the D.C. Circuit, which is granted only if, as the court said here, “petitioners have satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending court review,” which means showing a strong likelihood of success on the merits.

The stay issued by the D.C. Circuit isn’t a certain death knell for the inmate calling order, but it certainly casts a grim pall over the order’s future,” said Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “This FCC has proven more than willing to tout noble goals to justify its procedural shortfalls, but the courts are less willing to bless such an outcome-driven approach. The rules for administrative procedure are there for a reason, and agencies can’t simply disregard them when it suits their interests. If something is worth doing, they should take the time to do it right.”

“It’s worth noting that Judge Tatel was among the three judges voting for today’s stay,” concluded Szoka, noting that Tatel also sits on the D.C. Circuit panel hearing challenges to the FCC’s Open Internet Order. “Even though today’s stay order addresses unrelated issues, it may suggest that the D.C. Circuit is taking a harsher look at the FCC’s procedure, and while the court didn’t grant an initial stay in the challenge to the Open Internet Order, the FCC could still lose on the merits of that case when it comes to the threshold question of whether it provided adequate notice of Title II reclassification, and rules that went well beyond ‘net neutrality.’ If so, the court might simply kick the matter back to the FCC and set the stage for a fourth court battle over the key legal questions. It’s anyone’s bet as to which issue, prison payphones (started in 2003) or net neutrality (started in 2005) the FCC will actually manage to resolve first, after more than a decade of heated fulmination exceeded only by the FCC’s incompetence.”

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

Today, the Supreme Court declined to review a Second Circuit decision that held Apple violated the antitrust laws by fixing ebook prices when, in preparing to launch its own iBookstore, it negotiated a deal with publishers that would allow them to set prices above Amazon’s one-size-fits-all $9.99 price. The appeals court reached its decision by applying the strict per se rule, which ignores any procompetitive justifications of a challenged business practice. The dissent had argued that Apple “was unwilling to [enter the ebook market] on terms that would incur a loss on e-book sales (as would happen if it met Amazon’s below-cost price),” and thus that Apple’s agreement with major publishers actually benefitted consumers by facilitating competition in the ebooks market, even if it meant higher prices for some ebooks.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case means the 2013 verdict against Apple, resulting in a $450 million dollar class-action settlement, will stand. The case began in 2010 when Apple negotiated with five major publishers, adopting an agency pricing model in which the publishers set a book’s price and gave a sales commission to Apple. This pricing model is distinct from Amazon’s previously dominant model, where t was allowed to unilaterally set e-book prices — often for below cost as a loss leader strategy to encourage sales of its own Kindle reader and promote the overall Amazon platform. The Justice Department claimed that Apple’s agency model amounted to antitrust conspiracy — and the Second Circuit agreed. Meanwhile, Apple’s entry reduced Amazon’s share of the ebooks market from 90% to 60%.

The question here wasn’t actually whether Apple should win, but whether Apple should even be allowed to argue that its arrangement could benefit consumers,” said TechFreedom President Berin Szoka. “Apple made a strong case that its deal with publishers was critical to allowing it compete with Amazon. The Supreme Court might or might not have found those arguments convincing, but it should have at least weighed them under antitrust’s flexible rule of reason. By letting the rigid per se deal stand as the controlling legal standard, the Court has ensured that antitrust law in general will put obsolete legal precedents from the pre-digital era above consumer welfare.”

Business model innovation is no less essential for progress than technological innovation,” concluded Szoka. “Indeed, the two usually go hand in hand. And new business models are usually essential to unseating the first mover in new markets like ebook publishing, especially when the first mover sets artificially low prices. Categorically banning deals that attempt to rebalance pricing power between distributors and publishers in multi-sided markets likely means strangling competition in its crib. Unfortunately, the real costs of today’s decision will go unseen: without an opportunity to defend new business models, innovative companies like Apple will be less likely to attempt to disrupt the dominance of entrenched incumbents. Consumers will simply never know how much today’s decision cost them.”

Read more about the argument for reversing the Second Circuit and applying a rule of reason to novel business arrangements in the amicus brief filed by the International Center for Law & Economics and eleven leading antitrust scholars. Truth on the Market, a blog dedicated to law and economics, held ablog symposium on the case last month.

The success of the Internet and the modern digital economy was due to its open, generative nature, driven by the ethos of “permissionless innovation.” A “light-touch” policy regime helped make this possible. Of particular legal importance was the immunization of online intermediaries from punishing forms of liability associated with the actions of third parties.

As “software eats the world” and the digital revolution extends its reach to the physical world, policymakers should extend similar legal protections to other “generative” tools and platforms, such as robotics, 3D printing, and virtual reality.

In other words, we need a Section 230 for the “maker” movement. Continue reading →

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

Today, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced legislation to create a blue ribbon commission that would examine the challenges encryption and other forms of digital security pose to law enforcement and national security. The sixteen-member commission will be made up of experts from law enforcement, the tech industry, privacy advocacy and other important stakeholders in the debate and will be required to present an initial report after six months and final recommendations within a year.

In today’s Tech Policy Podcast, TechFreedom President Berin Szoka and Ryan Hagemann, the Niskanen Center’s technology and civil liberties policy analyst, discussed the commission’s potential.

I see this commission as an ideal resting place for this debate,” Hagemann said. “Certainly what we’re trying to avoid is pushing through any sort of knee-jerk legislation that Senators Feinstein or Burr would propose, especially in the wake of a new terrorist attack.”

“I share the chairman’s concerns that since we’re not making any headway on these issues in the public forum, what is really needed here is for Congress to take some level of decisive action and get all of the people who have something to gain as well as something to lose in this debate to just sit down and talk through the issues that all parties have,” he continued.

I think it’s going to come out and say that there is no middle ground on end-to-end encryption, but it’s probably going to deal with the Apple situation very specifically,” Szoka said. “I think you’re going to see some standard that is going to be probably a little more demanding upon law enforcement than what law enforcement wants under the All Writs Act.”

Yesterday, almost exactly one year after the FCC classified Internet service as a common carrier service, Sen. Mike Lee and his Senate cosponsors (including presidential candidates Cruz and Rubio) introduced the Restoring Internet Freedom Act. Sen. Lee also published an op-ed about the motivation for his bill, pointing out the folly of applying a 1930s AT&T Bell monopoly law to the Internet. It’s a short bill, simply declaring that the FCC’s Title II rules shall have no force and it precludes the FCC from enacting similar rules absent an act of Congress.

It’s a shame such a bill even has to be proposed, but then again these are unusual times in politics. The FCC has a history of regulating new industries, like cable TV, without congressional authority. However, enforcing Title II, its most intrusive regulations, on the Internet is something different altogether. Congress was not silent on the issue of Internet regulation, like it was regarding cable TV in the 1960s when the FCC began regulating.

Former Clinton staffer John Podesta said after Clinton signed the 1996 Telecom Act, “Congress simply legislated as if the Net were not there.” That’s a slight overstatement. There is one section of the Telecommunications Act, Section 230, devoted to the Internet and it is completely unhelpful for the FCC’s Open Internet rules. Section 230 declares a US policy of unregulation of the Internet and, in fact, actually encourages what net neutrality proponents seek to prohibit: content filtering by ISPs.

The FCC is filled with telecom lawyers who know existing law doesn’t leave room for much regulation, which is why top FCC officials resisted common carrier regulation until the end. Chairman Wheeler by all accounts wanted to avoid the Title II option until pressured by the President in November 2014. As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, the White House push for Title II “blindsided officials at the FCC” who then had to scramble to construct legal arguments defending this reversal. The piece noted,

The president’s words swept aside more than a decade of light-touch regulation of the Internet and months of work by Mr. Wheeler toward a compromise.

The ersatz “parallel version of the FCC” in the White House didn’t understand the implications of what they were asking for and put the FCC in a tough spot. The Title II rules and legal justifications required incredible wordsmithing but still created internal tensions and undesirable effects, as pointed out by the Phoenix Center and others. This policy reversal, to go the Title II route per the President’s request, also created First Amendment and Section 230 problems for the FCC. At oral argument the FCC lawyer disclaimed any notion that the FCC would regulate filtered or curated Internet access. This may leave a gaping hole in Title II enforcement since all Internet access is filtered to some degree, and new Internet services, like LTE Broadcast, Free Basics, and zero-rated video, involve curated IP content. As I said at the time, the FCC “is stating outright that ISPs have the option to filter and to avoid the rules.”

Nevertheless, Title II creates a permission slip regime for new Internet services that forces tech and telecom companies to invest in compliance lawyers rather than engineers and designers. Hopefully in the next few months the DC Circuit Court of Appeals will strike down the FCC’s net neutrality efforts for a third time. In any case, it’s great to see that Sen. Lee and his cosponsors have made innovation policy priority and want to continue the light-touch regulation of the Internet.

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

Today, the FCC voted on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would  force pay-tv or multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to change their existing equipment to allow third-party set-top boxes to carry their signals. Currently, MVPD subscribers typically pay $15–20/month to lease set-top boxes from their cable, satellite, or telco video provider. Those set-top boxes allow subscribers to view video programming on their TVs and, in some cases, also provide access to online video distributors (OVDs) such as Netflix and Hulu. However, Chairman Wheeler and some interest groups say those leasing fees are too high, that MVPDs have a stranglehold on video programming, and that the set-top box market must be opened to competition from third parties.

“Regulating set-top boxes may do serious damage to video programmers, especially small ones and those geared to minorities,” said Berin Szoka. “That’s why Congressional Democrats, minority groups and other voices have urged caution. Yet FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler blithely dismisses these concerns, insisting that ‘this is just the beginning of a fact-finding process.’ Do not believe him. If that were true, the FCC would issue a Notice of Inquiry to gather data to inform a regulatory proposal. Instead, the FCC has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. That means the FCC Chairman has already made up his mind, and that the agency is unlikely to adjust course.”

This is simply the latest example of the FCC abusing the rulemaking process by bypassing the Notice of Inquiry,” concluded Szoka. “Every time the FCC does this, it means the gun is already loaded, and ‘fact-finding’ is a mere formality. It’s high time Congress put a stop to this pretense of objectivity and require the FCC to begin all major rulemakings with an NOI. That key reform was at the heart of an FCC reform bill initially proposed by Republicans in 2013 — but, tellingly, removed at the insistence of Congressional Democrats.”

The FCC’s proposal is based on the recommendations of the Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee (“DSTAC”), which was directed to investigate this issue by Congress in the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014.

The FCC is also abusing the advisory committee process—once again,” argued Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “The Commission acts as if the DSTAC unanimously supported the NPRM’s proposal. In fact, the DSTAC recommended two alternative approaches, only one of which was taken up by the FCC. This is only the most recent example of the FCC abusing the advisory committee process, denying broad input from stakeholders and steering the committee to issue recommendations that suit the administration’s policy preferences. The FCC should have used an NOI to seek comment on both the DSTAC recommendations. But at the very least, Chairman Wheeler should drop his absurd pretense that the FCC is merely beginning a fact-finding process.”

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

TechFreedom has sued the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to overturn the agency’s recently adopted “interim” drone regulations, which require that drones that weigh over 250 grams be registered for a $5 fee.

Whether or or not requiring drone registration is a wise policy, the rules the FAA rushed out before Christmas are unlawful,” said Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom. “They exceed the authority Congress has given the FAA. Moreover, the agency illegally bypassed the most basic transparency requirement in administrative law: that it provide an opportunity for the affected public to comment on its regulations. That means the FAA could not fully consider the real-world complexities of regulating drones. Thus, the FAA’s rules could lead to a host of unintended consequences.”

The notice-and-comment rulemaking process serves an important role in ensuring that regulation doesn’t do more harm than good,” said Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “It ensures that the agency is exposed to viewpoints from all the relevant stakeholders, and it forces the agency to weigh competing considerations before issuing a rule. The holiday rush did not justify the FAA bypassing standard notice-and-comment rulemaking, and the paltry cost-benefit analysis contained in the IFR does not pass muster. The D.C. Circuit should set aside these interim rules and force the FAA to go back to the drawing board.”

See TechFreedom’s petition for review here.