America’s small towns are underpopulated, while big cities of plague, protests, and panic are overpopulated, overpriced, and overpopularized. We could start by ensuring rural spaces high-speed internet (still unavailable as I can attest in the rural center of supposedly high-tech California)…. Victor Davis Hanson

proposal by Congressman G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina could be a big step in the right direction of opening up rural spaces to full participation in the modern economy.  

His proposal would expand the eligibility of who can receive Federal support for building infrastructure in unserved areas, making it easier for cable operators, satellite providers and others to complete with traditional telecommunications carriers. 

The Butterfield vision is gaining bipartisan support and may possibly be included in a stimulus package.  It certainly should be.  

The proposal would simply eliminate the requirement that a competitor must receive designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) from a state public utility/service commission as a prerequisite for receiving Federal support.

This requirement harkens back to a bygone era when cable, wireless and satellite services were not substitutes for landline telephone service.  At that time, small rural telephone providers worried that a competitor would “cherry pick” or “cream skim” their most lucrative (enterprise) customers—such as the local hospital—and strand the small rural telco in a potential death spiral serving only the barely profitable (or even unprofitable) consumer segment.

Now that cable, satellite and wireless services are a substitute for many consumers, the requirement for ETC designation does nothing to protect small rural telcos from competition.  It is an anachronism.  However, it does create an unnecessary hurdle for cable, wireless and satellite providers to qualify for Federal support to help close the digital divide—which is an urgent priority.

Originally intended to prevent the loss of telecommunications services in rural areas, the requirement now serves to prevent the necessary expansion of those services to keep up with the modern world economy.  

As awful as this horrible pandemic is, at least we are driving less and spending more time with our families.  Many have learned that a daily commute may not be necessary.  Broadband seems to be boosting productivity and reducing air pollution at the same time.  Hopefully broadband can also help facilitate a revival of rural America.  

Here’s a new episode of the James Madison Institute “Policy Gone Viral” podcast in which my former Mercatus Center colleague Andrea O’Sullivan and I discuss the future of technological innovation and the public policies governing it. The video is embedded below or you can listen to just the audio here.

This week, it was my pleasure to be interviewed by Eric Peterson of the Pelican Institute on their “PeliCast” live video podcast. We discussed potential futures for permissionless innovation and, more importantly, what my favorite beer in Louisiana is. Tune in to find the answer!

 

Teacher pay raise funding passes House | Local | idahostatejournal.comWhy can’t governments ever clean up their messes? Occasional spring cleanings are essential not only for keeping our own homes tidy and in good working order, but also for keeping our government systems functioning effectively. What can be done? In a new essay with my Mercatus Center colleagues Patrick McLaughlin and Matthew Mitchell, we note that Idaho Governor Brad Little has just issued a smart Executive Order that aims to clean house by bringing state rules in line with common sense. Specifically, the governor’s order addresses what to do with the 150-plus regulations that Idaho state agencies waived in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. This is a great model for other states, and it tracks a proposal that Patrick, Matt, and I floated in a white paper just a few months ago. The entire essay, which originally ran on The Bridge, is reprinted below.

_________

Idaho “Spring Cleaning” Order a Model for Other States

by Patrick McLaughlin, Matthew D. Mitchell & Adam Thierer

Regulations tend to accumulate endlessly. Today there are over 1 million restrictive words (think “shall” or “must”) in the Code of Federal Regulations. Some states, like California and New York, layer on hundreds of thousands of additional regulatory restrictions. Fewer than 1 percent of these rules have been subjected to rigorous cost-benefit analyses. And once regulations are on the books, it is fairly rare to see them subjected to any sort of retrospective review to see how they have performed. Continue reading →

By Brent Skorup & Connor Haaland

We think drones are exciting technology with the potential to improve medical logistics, agriculture, transportation, and other industries. But drones fly at low altitudes and, to many Americans, drones represent a nuisance, trespasser, or privacy invasion when they fly over private property. This is why we think the FAA and states should work together to lease airspace above public roads—it would free up millions of miles of low-altitude airspace for operations while avoiding many lawsuits from public and private landowners.

In the meantime, states and landowners are pushing back on certain drone activities. Per Prof. Stephen Migala, about 10 states have created “no-fly zones” for drones, prohibiting flights over government property, state forests, or sensitive areas. Most state airspace rules prohibit drones at low-altitudes over “critical infrastructure” like nuclear, gas and electric facilities, bridges, dams, and communication networks. Some states prohibit drones over jails, prisons, and schools.

In Texas, in fact, there is litigation over a state ban on photography drones above critical infrastructure, sports venues, and prisons. One of the legal issues is whether state police powers over trespass, nuisance, and privacy allow states to exclude drones from low-altitude airspace. As we’ve pointed out in a GovTech piece, this is a festering issue in drone regulation—no one knows at what altitude private property (and state police powers) begins.

For private property owners who don’t want drones flying over their property, they might be able to bring a trespass lawsuit under existing state law. Around 20 states expressly vest air rights with landowners. However, many states also recognize a privilege of non-disruptive flight, so it’s unclear if a landowner would win a lawsuit in those states. We’re unaware of the issue being litigated.

Unfortunately, many landowners and annoyed neighbors are taking matters into their own hands and shooting drones out of the sky. We’ve identified over a dozen such encounters in the past eight years, though there are likely some near-misses and unreported cases out there.  (Don’t shoot a drone–it’s dangerous and, as the cases below show, you risk being arrested and convicted for criminal mischief or some other crime.)

  1. In November of 2012, unknown shooters in Bucks County, Pennsylvania shot down a drone that was flying over their hunt club. The drone was flown by an animal rights group to bring scrutiny to pigeon shooting and this was the fourth time the activists’ drone had been shot down. No criminal charges appear to have been filed.
  2. In October of 2014, a man shot down a drone in Lower Township, New Jersey. It’s unclear if the drone was hovering over his property or a neighbor’s. The man plead guilty to criminal mischief. 
  3. In November 2014 in Modesto, California, a man allegedly instructed his minor son to shoot his neighbor’s drone out of the sky, and the drone was destroyed. The neighbor claims the drone was not over the man’s property and won $850 in small claims court from the man for damages and costs.
  4. In July of 2015 in Bullitt County, Kentucky, William Meredith,  annoyed at a drone flying over his backyard while grilling with friends, shot the drone when it flew over his property. The drone’s owner, a neighbor, called the police upon discovering his destroyed drone. Meredith was arrested and charged under local law for firing a gun in a populated area. At the highly publicized trial in state court, the judge dismissed the charges with a brief statement that Meredith was justified in shooting because of the invasion of privacy.
  5. In April of 2016, an unnamed woman shot down a drone in Edmond, Oklahoma. The drone was flown by a construction company employee who was inspecting gutters in the neighborhood. It’s unclear if the drone was flying over the woman’s property. The case was investigated by the police, who said that they did not expect to file charges
  6. An unknown shooter in Aspen, Colorado shot down a drone during 4th of July fireworks in 2016. It’s unclear if the drone was over the shooter’s property. The pilot of the fallen drone filed a report with local police and the FAA but the shooter remains a mystery.
  7. In August of 2016, a woman allegedly shot down a drone in The Plains, Virginia with her 20-gauge shotgun. The woman alleged that the drone hovered 25 to 30 feet above her property and she believed it was being used to spy on her movie-star neighbor, Robert Duvall. The two men flying the drone left the scene when she told them she was calling the police. No charges were filed. 
  8. In April of 2017, an unknown person in Morgan County, Georgia shot down a drone with a .22 rifle. It’s unclear whose property the drone was flying over. The drone owner filed a report but a suspect was never identified.
  9. In October of 2017, a man allegedly shot down a drone in Jackson County, Oregon with his pellet rifle and later turned himself in for arrest. The photography drone was flying over a state recreation area. The local prosecutor charged the shooter with first degree criminal mischief, a felony in Oregon. (The drone’s owner feels that a felony charge is excessive. With a Google search, it’s unclear whether the man was convicted.)
  10. In May of 2018, a man allegedly attempted to shoot down a drone with his handgun in Bradenton, Florida. It was a neighbor’s drone and the man claims it was on his property, hovering a few feet above the ground. Police were called and warned the man about the danger and legal risk of shooting drones. No charges were filed.
  11. In February of 2019, a man allegedly shot down a drone in Long Island, New York with a shotgun. The drone was being used by an animal rescue group to find a lost dog. It’s unclear if the drone was flying over the man’s property. He was charged with third-degree criminal mischief and prohibited use of a weapon.
  12. In May of 2020, a man allegedly shot down a drone flying over a chicken processing plant in Watonwan County, Minnesota. The drone operator was apparently taking video of the plant as a citizen-journalist. The man was charged with two felonies: criminal damage to property and reckless discharge of a firearm in city limits. 
  13. In June 2020, someone shot a drone flying somewhere in western Pennsylvania at 390 feet above the ground. Despite being grazed and damaged, the drone managed to safely operate and land. It’s unclear if the drone was over the shooter’s property. The shooter is unknown and the drone operator contacted state police but has not filed a complaint.

As you can see, the legal penalties for shooting a drone vary based on the circumstances and the prosecutor. Some got off with warnings but a few were charged with a felony under state law. Arguably, someone shooting a drone violates federal law, which imposes penalties on anyone who

willfully . . . damages, destroys, disables, or wrecks . . . any civil aircraft used . . . in interstate . . . commerce.

Federal penalties for willfully damaging an aircraft are stiff—fines and up to 20 years’ imprisonment. We’re unaware of federal prosecutors bringing a case against someone for shooting a drone. Perhaps federal prosecutors feel it’s excessive to use this statute, which was written with passenger planes in mind. Further, it’s unclear when drones are used in interstate commerce. As one federal judge said in a 2016 drone regulation case, Huerta v. Haughwout:

the FAA believes it has regulatory sovereignty over every cubic inch of outdoor air in the United States. . . . [I]t is far from clear that Congress intends—or could constitutionally intend—to regulate all that is airborne on one’s own property and that poses no plausible threat to or substantial effect on air transport or interstate commerce in general.

Hopefully lawmakers will clear up the ambiguity and demarcate where property rights end. As we pointed out in our recent 50-state drone report card, creating drone highways would prevent many issues. Congress should also consider drawing a federal-state dividing line in the sky, much like it drew a dividing line in the ocean in the Submerged Lands Act for energy development. For now, landowners, drone operators, the FAA, and state governments are all trying to determine the limits of their authority.

Marc Andreessen is interviewed by Sriram Krishan in his new newsletter, The Observer Effect, and asked what motivates him to support technological innovation and “to go read up on a new topic every day” related to tech and progress. His answer is inspirational and perfectly encapsulates why I also have made technological progress the focus of my life’s work:

I am a deep believer in – after learning a lot over the years about economic history and of cultural history – that technology really is the driver. There were basically millennia of just subsistence farming industry and all of a sudden, there was this vertical takeoff a few hundred years ago. And quality of life exploded around the world. Not evenly but starting in Europe and expanding out. It’s basically all technology. It’s always the printing press, it’s the internet and on and on. And you get this incredible upward trajectory. We have the potential over the course of the next century or over the next few centuries to really dramatically advance and have life be better for virtually everybody. Technology is quite literally the lever for being able to take natural resources and able to make something better out of them.

And so it’s just it’s the most interesting and by far the most useful and the most beneficial thing I can think of doing.

Amen, brother! I devoted my last two books (Permissionless Innovation and Evasive Entrepreneurs) and all my life’s work, to proving that exact point. Also, I really like Andreessen’s definition of technology as, “the lever for being able to take natural resources and able to make something better out of them.” I’ve added that to my running compendium, “Defining Technology,” which features various definitions of technology.

 

[Co-authored with Connor Haaland and originally published on The Bridge as, “Do Our Leaders Believe in Free Speech and Online Freedom Anymore?”]

The president is a counterpuncher': Trump on familiar ground in ...A major policy battle has developed regarding the wisdom of regulating social media platforms in the United States, with the internet’s most important law potentially in the crosshairs. Leaders in both major parties are calling for sweeping regulation.

Specifically, President Trump and his presumptive opponent in the coming presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden, have both called for “Section 230” of the Communications Decency Act to be repealed. Last week, the president took a misguided step in this direction by signing an executive order that, if fully carried out, will result in significantly greater regulation of the internet and of speech.

A Growing Call to Regulate Internet Platforms

The ramifications of these threats and steps could not be more profound. Without Section 230—also known as “the 26 words that created the internet”—we would have a much less advanced internet ecosystem. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia would have never grown as quickly. Indeed, the repeal of Section 230 means many fewer jobs, less information distribution, and, frankly, less joy.

Shockingly, by backing Trump’s recent push for regulating these internet platforms, many conservatives are betraying their own principles—the ones that support freedom of expression and the ability to run private businesses without government interference.

Section 230 limits the liability online intermediaries face for the content and communications that travel over their networks. The immunities granted by Section 230 let online speech and commerce flow freely, without the constant threat of legal action or onerous liability looming overhead for digital platforms. To put it another way, without this provision, today’s vibrant internet ecosystem likely would not exist. Continue reading →

Section 230 is in trouble. Both presidential candidates have made its elimination a priority. In January, Joe Biden told the New York Times that the liability protections for social media companies should be revoked “immediately.” This week, President Trump called for revoking Section 230 as well. Most notably, after a few years of threatening action, the President issued an Executive Order about Section 230, its liability protections, and free speech online. (My article with Jennifer Huddleston about Section 230, its free speech benefits, and the common law precedents for Section 230 was published in the Oklahoma Law Review earlier this year.) 

There have been thousands of reactions to and news stories about the Executive Order and a lot of hyperbole. No, the Order doesn’t eliminate tech companies’ Section 230 protection and make it easier for conservatives to sue. No, the Order isn’t “plainly illegal.”

It’s fairly modest in reach actually. The Executive Order can’t change the deregulatory posture and specific protections of Section 230 but the President has broad authority to interpret the unclear meanings of statutes. Some of the thoughtful responses that stuck out are from Adam Thierer, Jennifer Huddleston, Patrick Hedger, and Adam White. I won’t reiterate what they’ve said but will focus on what the Order does and what the FCC can do.

Election Year Jawboning

The Order is a political document. For the baseball fans, it’s the political equivalent of a brushback pitch to tech companies–the pitcher throws an inside fastball intended to scare the batter without hitting him. (Enjoy 4 minutes of brushback pitches on YouTube.) Most of the time, a pitcher won’t get ejected by the umpire for throwing a brushback pitch. Likewise, here, I don’t see much chance of the Order being struck down by judges. The Order was wordsmithed, even in the last 24 hours before release, in a way to avoid legal troubles.

As Jesse Blumenthal points out in Slate, the Order is just the latest example of the long tradition of politicians using informal means and publicity to pressure media outlets. The political threats to TV and radio broadcasters during the Nixon, LBJ, and Kennedy years were extreme examples and are pretty well-documented.

More recently, there was a huge amount of jawboning of media companies in the runup to the 2004 election. Newspaper condemnation and legal threats forced a documentary critical of John Kerry off the air nationwide. Stations either pulled the documentary or only ran a few minutes of it because activists’ threatened to challenge TV station licenses for years at the FCC if stations ran the documentary. Many people remember the Citizens United case, which derived from the FEC’s censorship of an anti-John Kerry documentary in 2004 and an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary in 2008. Less remembered is that the conservative group started creating political documentaries only after the FEC rejected its complaint to get a Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, off the air before the 2004 election.

The Title II net neutrality regulations were, per advocates close to the Obama White House, imposed largely to rally the base after Democrats’ 2014 midterm losses.

Implementation of the Executive Order

The timing of the Order–a few months before the election–seems intended to accomplish two things:

  1. Rally the Trump base by publicly threatening tech companies’ liability protections and provoking tech companies’ ire.
  2. Focus public and media scrutiny on tech companies so they think twice before suspending, demonetizing, or banning conservatives online.

The legal effect in the short term is negligible. Unless the relevant agencies (DOJ, FTC, NTIA, FCC) patched something together hastily, the Order won’t have an effect on tech companies and their susceptibility to lawsuits in the near term. The most immediate practical effect of the Order is the instructions to the NTIA. The agency is directed to petition the FCC to clarify what some unclear provisions of Sec. 230 mean, particularly the “good faith” requirement and how (c)(2) in the statute interacts with (c)(1).

It’s not clear why the Order makes this roundabout instruction to the NTIA and FCC. (The FCC is an independent agency and can refuse instructions from the White House.) “Good faith” is a term of art in contract law. It seems to me that referring this to the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, not the FCC, would be the natural place for an administration to turn to to interpret legal terms of art and how provisions in federal statutes interact with each other. 

One reason the White House might use the roundabout method is because the administration knows the downsides of weakening Section 230 and isn’t actually intending to make material changes to existing interpretations of Sec. 230. The roundabout request to the FCC allows the White House to do something on the issue without upsetting established interpretations. And if the FCC refuses to take it up, the White House can tell supporters they tried but it was out of their hands.

Alternatively it could be that this was referred to the FCC because Section 230 is within the Communications Act and the FCC has more expertise and jurisdiction in communications law. The FCC has interpreted Section 230 before and has also interpreted what “good faith” means because Congress requires good faith negotiations between cable TV and broadcast TV operators.

If they took it up, I suspect FCC review would be perfunctory. The NTIA petition need not even get decided at the commission level. The FCC can delegate issues to bureau chiefs or other FCC staff. Bureaus can respond to a petition with an enforcement advisory or, after notice-and-comment, a declaratory ruling regarding the interpretative issues. It would take months to complete, but the full commission could also consider and rule on the NTIA petition.

But I suspect the commissioners don’t want to get dragged into election-year controversies. (As I mentioned above, White House staff may have even sent this to the FCC in order to let the issue die quietly.) The FCC is busy with pressing issues like spectrum auctions and rural broadband. Further, the NTIA-FCC relationship, while cordial, is not particularly good at the moment. Finally, the commissioners know the agency’s history of mission creep and media regulation. The Republican majority has consistently tried to untangle itself from legacy media regulations. An FCC inquiry into what “good faith” means in the statute and how (c)(2) in the statute interacts with (c)(1)–while an intriguing academic and legal interpretation exercise–would be a small but significant step towards FCC oversight of Internet services.

Section 230 is in Trouble

The fact is, Section 230 is in trouble. Courts have applied it reluctantly since its inception because of its broad protections. As Prof. Eric Goldman has meticulously documented, in recent years, courts have undermined Section 230 precedent and protection.

At some level the President and his advisors know that opening the door to regulation of the Internet will end badly for right-of-center and free speech. This was the foundation of the President’s opposition to Title II net neutrality rules. As he’s stated on Twitter:

Obama’s attack  on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media.

The Executive Order, while it doesn’t allow the FCC to regulate online media like Title II net neutrality did, is the Administration playing with fire. It’s essentially a bet that the Trump administration can get a short-term political win without unleashing long-term problems for conservatives and free speech online.

The Trump team may be right. But the Order, by inviting FCC involvement, represents a small step to regulation of Internet services. More significantly, there’s a reason prominent Democrats are calling for the elimination of Section 230. The trial bar, law school clinics, and advocacy nonprofits would like nothing more than to make it expensive for tech companies to defend their hosting and disseminating conservative publications and provocateurs.

Prominent Democrats are calling for the elimination of Sec. 230 and replacing it with a Fairness Doctrine for the Internet. If things go Democrats’ way, the Executive Order could give regulators, much of the legal establishment, and the left a foothold they’ve sought for years to regulate Internet services and online speech. Be careful what you wish for.

Here’s a webinar video of a discussion I had recently with Kevin Gomez and his colleague at the Institute for Economic Inquiry at Creighton University’s School of Business.  We discussed my new book, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments and the future of “permissionless innovation” more generally. My thanks to Kevin and his team at Creighton for inviting me to join them for a fun discussion. Topics include:

  • why evasive entrepreneurialism is expanding
  • the growth of innovation arbitrage
  • the difference between technologies that are “born free” versus “born in captivity”
  • the nature of “the pacing problem” and what it means for policy
  • the problem with “set-it-and-forget-it” & “build-and-freeze” regulations
  • technological risk and the potential for “soft law” governance
  • sensible legislative reforms to advance permissionless innovation (such as “the innovator’s presumption” and “the sunsetting imperative”)
  • how the COVID crisis potentially opens the Overton Window to much-needed policy change

President Trump and his allies have gone to war with social media sites and digital communications platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Google. Decrying supposed anti-conservative “bias,” Trump has even floated an Executive Order aimed at “Preventing Online Censorship,” that entails many new forms of government meddling with these private speech platforms. Section 230 is their crosshairs and First Amendment restraints are being thrown to the wind.

Various others have already documented the many legal things wrong with Trump’s call for greater government oversight of private speech platforms. I want to focus on something slightly different here: The surprising ideological origins of what Trump and his allies are proposing. Because for those of us who are old-timers and have followed communications and media policy for many decades, this moment feels like deja vu all over again, but with the strange twist that supposed “conservatives” are calling for a form of communications collectivism that used to be the exclusive province of hard-core Leftists.

To begin, the truly crazy thing about President Trump and some conservatives saying that social media should be regulated as public forums is not just that they’re abandoning free speech rights, it’s that they’re betraying property rights, too. Treating private media like a “public square” entails a taking of private property. Amazingly, Trump and his followers have taken over the old “media access movement” and given it their own spin. Continue reading →