Tag: technology

TLJ on Justice Stevens’ Tech Influence

TechLawJournal has a thorough analysis of Justice John Paul Stevens’ opinions in technology-related areas. I reproduce it here with permission. (Tim Lee’s earlier about Justice Stevens’ legacy in tech is here.)

Justice John Paul Stevens, who has served on the Supreme Court since 1975, announced on April 9, 2010, that he will retire when the Court completes its current term this summer. This article reviews his contributions to technology related areas of law.

Outline of Article:
1. Summary.
2. Copyright Cases.
3. State Immunity in IPR Cases.
4. Patent Cases.
5. Communications Cases.
6. Internet Speech Cases.
7. Privacy Cases.
8. Other Cases.

1. Summary.

Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion in the 1984 landmark Sony Betamax case. It was a 5-4 opinion. He joined in the unanimous 2005 opinion in MGM v. Grokster, regarding vicarious copyright infringement by the distributors of peer to peer systems. He wrote a long and vigorous dissent in Eldred, the 7-2 case regarding the Copyright Term Extension Act.

Justice Stevens led the fight against extending sovereign immunity to states for violation of, among other things, intellectual property laws. He dissented from the outset, and never considered the Court to be constrained by the doctrine of stare decisis. However, his concern was with the conservatives’ interpretation of states rights, not incenting the creation of intellectual property.

Justice Stevens wrote for a unanimous Court in Illinois Tools Works v. Independent Ink. Otherwise, he has not been active in writing opinions in patent cases in recent years.

Justice Stevens has been an ardent advocate of freedom of speech on the internet. He wrote the majority opinion in Reno v. ACLU in 1997, overturning the censoring provisions of the Communications Decency Act. He dissented from the Court’s 2003 opinion in US v. American Library Association upholding the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which required filtering on certain government subsidized computers. He wrote a concurring opinion in 2004 in Ashcroft v. ACLU, holding unconstitutional the Child Online Protection Act (COPA).

Justice Stevens’ dedication to freedom of speech also led him to write the majority opinion in 2001 in Bartnicki v. Vopper, which limited electronic privacy and condoned violation of the Wiretap Act.

However, he reiterated his slight regard for privacy and Fourth Amendment rights by authoring the dissent in 2001 in Kyllo v. U.S, a case holding that the thermal imaging of a home to detect lamps used for growing marijuana constitutes a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

Justice Stevens has not been active in writing majority or dissenting opinions in communications law cases. However, last year in a dissent in FCC v. Fox, he wrote a significant explanation of the nature of the administrative process. He presented an explanation of the FCC as an agent of the Congress.

Finally, Justice Stevens should be remembered for authoring the Court’s 1984 opinion in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837. This is not a communications or technology case. However, this case regarding administrative procedure gives the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wide latitude to write regulations that give wild and implausible interpretations to federal statutes.

2. Copyright Cases.

Justice Stevens has not been a consistent supporter of the copyright based industries. He wrote the majority opinion in the Sony Betamax case, and wrote a vehement dissent in Eldred, the Copyright Term Extension Act case. On the other hand, he has been the Court’s most active critic of the line of cases granting states immunity in intellectual property cases.

Sony. Justice Stevens wrote for the majority in the Court’s 1984 5-4 opinion in Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417.

He wrote that the “sale of video cassette recorders (“VCR´´s) did not subject Sony to contributory copyright liability, even though Sony knew as a general matter that the machines could be used, and were being used, to infringe the plaintiffs’ copyrighted works. Because video tape recorders were capable of both infringing and “substantial noninfringing uses,´´ generic or “constructive´´ knowledge of infringing activity was insufficient to warrant liability based on the mere retail of Sony’s products.”

MGM v. Grokster. Justice Stevens joined in, but did not write, the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2005 opinion [55 pages in PDF] in MGM v. Grokster, 545 U.S. 913.

In this case, the Court reversed the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals (9thCir) regarding vicarious copyright infringement by the distributors of peer to peer systems. The Supreme Court held that “one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties.” See, story titled “Supreme Court Rules in MGM v. Grokster” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,163, June 28, 2005.

Copyright Term Extension Act. Justice Ginsburg wrote for the majority in the Court’s 2003 7-2 opinion in Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186. This opinion upheld the constitutionality of the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), which retroactively extended the maximum duration of copyrights. See also, story titled “Supreme Court Upholds CTEA in Eldred v. Ashcroft” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 584, January 16, 2003.

Both Breyer and Stevens dissented. Stevens wrote a long and emphatic criticism of the CTEA and the majority opinion. He stated that “By failing to protect the public interest in free access to the products of inventive and artistic genius – indeed, by virtually ignoring the central purpose of the Copyright/Patent Clause – the Court has quitclaimed to Congress its principal responsibility in this area of the law. Fairly read, the Court has stated that Congress’ actions under the Copyright/Patent Clause are, for all intents and purposes, judicially unreviewable. That result cannot be squared with the basic tenets of our constitutional structure. It is not hyperbole to recall the trenchant words of Chief Justice John Marshall: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.´´ Marbury v. Madison …”

Fair Use and Copying of Unpublished Works. Justice O’Connor wrote for the majority, which Justice Stevens joined, in the 1985 6-3 opinion in Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539. The Court held that the unpublished state of a work of authorship may defeat the affirmative defense of fair use.

Database Protection. Justice O’Connor wrote the 8-0-1 1991 opinion in Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340. Justice Stevens joined in O’Connor’s opinion. Justice Blackmun concurred without writing an opinion. The Court held that collections of data, such as electronic databases, are generally not subject to copyright protection.

Fair Use and Parody. Justice Souter wrote the unanimous 1984 opinion in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569 (1984). Justice Stevens joined in this opinion. This was the dispute involving the hideous and commercial parody of Roy Obison’s classic titled “Oh, Pretty Woman”. The Court reversed the Court of Appeals, which had held that the defense of fair use was barred by the song’s commercial character and excessive borrowing.

3. State Immunity in IPR Cases.

In the late 1990s the Supreme Court held in a series of 5-4 opinions that states have immunity from suits for money judgments in federal court for violation of intellectual property and other statutes. The Court’s reasoning was weak and tenuous at best. Several Justices, including Stevens, continuously dissented.

Stevens’ retirement from the Court removes one vote towards a five member majority for reversing or limiting this line of cases. There were once four consistent votes against state sovereign immunity in IP cases: Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. Souter was replaced by Justice Sonia Sotomayor last year. Now Justice Stevens in leaving. There remain three consistent votes in favor of state sovereign immunity: Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy.

Obama, both as Senator and President, has not shown any particular affinity for the doctrine of states rights. Moreover, his judicial appointments to date, and especially Justice Sotomayor and his Second Circuit appointments, suggest that he will be sympathetic to the interests of the copyright industries.

Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion in the seminal case of Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996). This case involves the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the Indian Commerce clause of the constitution. He wrote that the Congress lacks authority under Article I of the Constitution to abrogate the states’ 11th Amendment immunity from suit in federal courts. However, its holding regarding the abrogation of state sovereign immunity serves as the precedent for similar cases involving intellectual property. This was a 5-4 opinion.

Stevens wrote in his dissent that “This case is about power – the power of the Congress of the United States to create a private federal cause of action against a State, or its Governor, for the violation of a federal right.” He wrote that the majority opinion “prevents Congress from providing a federal forum for a broad range of actions against States, from those sounding in copyright and patent law, to those concerning bankruptcy, environmental law, and the regulation of our vast national economy.”

Stevens argued that “There may be room for debate over whether, in light of the Eleventh Amendment, Congress has the power to ensure that such a cause of action may be enforced in federal court by a citizen of another State or a foreign citizen. There can be no serious debate, however, over whether Congress has the power to ensure that such a cause of action may be brought by a citizen of the State being sued. Congress’ authority in that regard is clear.”

Next came Rehnquist’s opinion in Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, 527 U.S. 627 (1999), invalidating the Patent and Plant Variety Protection Remedy Clarification Act. This too was a 5-4 opinion. Justice Stevens wrote the long and strenuous dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Souter.

At the same time, the Court issued its opinion in College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board, 527 U.S. 666 (1999), invalidating the Trademark Remedy Clarification Act. Scalia wrote this 5-4 opinion. Both Justice Stevens and Justice Breyer wrote dissenting opinions.

As a result of these cases, states can hold intellectual property, and enforce their intellectual property rights in federal court. At the same same, states are in effect free to steal the intellectual property of others, without fear of a money judgments against them. Some states infringe intellectual property rights, hide behind 11th Amendment immunity, and lobby their Senators to block legislation that would remedy this situation.

In 2006 the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Central Virginia Community College v. Katz, 546 U.S. 356. This is an 11th Amendment case involving the Bankruptcy Code’s treatment of preferential transfers by a debtor to state entities. The Supreme Court held, 5-4, that the Congress can abrogate state sovereign immunity in the Bankruptcy Code. However, its analysis is equally applicable to the Patent Act or Copyright Act.

Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion. He commanded a majority because Justice O’Connor switched sides. This opinion cannot be reconciled with the 1990s IP opinions.

See also, story titled “Supreme Court Rules in State Sovereign Immunity Case” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,295, January 24, 2006. See also, story titled “Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in State Sovereign Immunity Case” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,109, April 5, 2005.

Some members of Congress attempted to remedy this situation by legislation. However, they failed. See, stories titled “Legislators Introduce Bills to Address Infringement by States” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 302, November 6, 2001; “Sen. Leahy Reintroduces Bill to Close 11th Amendment Loophole to IPR” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 394, March 22, 2002; “Senate Judiciary Committee Considers Federalism and Intellectual Property” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 522, October 3, 2002; and “Legislators Re-Introduce Bills to Address State IPR Sovereign Immunity” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 680, June 13, 2003.

4. Patent Cases.

Justice Stevens wrote for a unanimous Court in Illinois Tools Works v. Independent Ink. Otherwise, he has not been active in writing opinions in patent cases in recent years.

Illinois Tools Works v. Independent Ink. Justice Stevens wrote the unanimous March 1, 2006, opinion [20 pages in PDF] of the Supreme Court in Illinois Tool Works v. Independent Ink, a patent tying antitrust case. See, story titled “Supreme Court Vacates in Patent Tying Antitrust Case” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,321, March 2, 2006.

The Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals (FedCir) and remanded. The Court of Appeals held in January of 2005 that “a rebuttable presumption of market power arises from the possession of a patent over a tying product”.

The Supreme Court concluded that “Congress, the antitrust enforcement agencies, and most economists have all reached the conclusion that a patent does not necessarily confer market power upon the patentee. Today, we reach the same conclusion, and therefore hold that, in all cases involving a tying arrangement, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant has market power in the tying product.”

eBay v. MercExchange. Justice Thomas wrote the unanimous opinion in 2006 in eBay v. MercExchange, 547 U.S. 388. Justice Stevens joined in this opinion, and in a concurring opinion written by Kennedy. The Court held that the traditional four factor framework that guides a court’s decision whether to grant an injunction applies in patent cases. See, story titled “Supreme Court to Consider Availability of Injunctive Relief in Patent Cases” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,261, November 29, 2005, and story titled “Supreme Court Rules on Availability of Injunctive Relief in Patent Cases” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,371, May 16, 2006.

Patent Obviousness. Justice Kennedy wrote the unanimous 2007 opinion in KSR International v. Teleflex, 550 U.S. 398. Justice Stevens joined in this opinion. See, story titled “Supreme Court Rules on Patent Obviousness in KSR v. Teleflex” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,576, May 7, 2007.

MedImmune v. Genentech. Justice Scalia wrote for the majority in the Court’s 2007 8-1 opinion in MedImmune v. Genentech, 549 U.S. 118. Justice Stevens joined in Scalia’s opinion. Justice Thomas wrote a dissent. This is a case regarding when a patent can be challenged by a licensee in a declaratory judgment action. See, story titled “Supreme Court Rules on Case or Controversy Requirement in Patent Litigation” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,516, January 9, 2007.

Doctrine of Equivalents. Justice Kennedy wrote the unanimous 2002 opinion in Festo Corp. v. Shoketsu Kinzoku Kogyo Kabushiki Co., 535 U.S. 722. Justice Stevens joined in that opinion. The Court again affirmed the doctrine of equivalents, articulated its purpose, held that the narrowing of a patent claim may give rise to prosecution history estoppel (but that it does not absolutely bar application of the doctrine of equivalents), and listed circumstances under which it might or might not operate as a bar. See also, story titled “Supreme Court Reverses in Festo Case” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 439, May 29, 2002.

Carlsbad Technology v. HIF Bio. Justice Thomas wrote the unanimous 2009 opinion in Carlsbad Technology v. HIF Bio, 556 U.S. __. This is a case regarding federal appellate court jurisdiction. Stevens wrote one of three concurring opinion. See, story titled “Supreme Court Reverses in Carlsband Technology v. HIF Bio” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,934, May 5, 2009.

5. Communications Cases.

Justice Stevens has not been active in writing majority or dissenting opinions in communications cases.

However, in 2009 he wrote a dissent in a broadcast case in which he made a key observation about the nature of the administrative process. He also wrote that the FCC is essentially “an agent of Congress” to which the Congress delegates legislative authority to write rules that “reflect the views of the Congress”.

Section 251 Regulation. Justice Stevens joined in Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in 1999 in AT&T v. Iowa Utilities Board, 525 U.S. 366.

FCC Price Regulation. Justice Stevens joined with the majority in the Court’s 2002 5-3 opinion in Verizon v. FCC, 535 U.S. 467, upholding the FCC’s rules regarding how incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) charge interexchange carriers (IXCs) and competitors local exchange carriers (CLECs) for access to their facilities. See, story titled “Supreme Court Upholds FCC Pricing Rules” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 431, May 14, 2002.

Antitrust and Telecom: Trinko. Justice Scalia wrote the 2004 opinion in Verizon v. Trinko, 540 U.S. 398, holding that a claim alleging a breach of an ILEC’s duty under the 1996 Telecom Act to share its network with competitors does not state a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act.

Justice Stevens wrote a separate opinion “concurring in the judgment” of the Court. Justices Souter and Thomas joined. Stevens wrote that it was AT&T, and not Trinko, who was injured by Verizon’s conduct, and therefore, under the Sherman and Clayton Acts, only AT&T has standing to raise the antitrust claim. Stevens concluded “I would not decide the merits of the § 2 claim unless and until such a claim is advanced by either AT&T or a similarly situated competitive local exchange carrier.”

See also, story titled “Supreme Court Holds That There is No Sherman Act Claim in Verizon v. Trinko” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 815, January 14, 2004.

Antitrust and Telecom: Pacific Bell v. Linkline. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority in the 2009 5-4 opinion in Pacific Bell v. Linkline, 555 U.S. __. Justice Breyer wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg.

This issue was whether “a plaintiff states a claim under Section 2 of the Sherman Act by alleging that the defendant – a vertically integrated retail competitor with an alleged monopoly at the wholesale level but no antitrust duty to provide the wholesale input to competitors – engaged in a “price squeeze´´ by leaving insufficient margin between wholesale and retail prices to allow the plaintiff to compete.” The majority held not. The four concurring justices would have sent the case back to the District Court to consider a predatory pricing claim.

See, stories titled “Supreme Court Reverses in Pacific Bell v. Linkline”, “Supreme Court: There Is Robust Competition in the Broadband Market”, and “Commentary: Impact of Pacific Bell v. LinkLine” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,906, February 27, 2009.

State Statutes that Bar Local Governments from Providing Telecom Services. Justice Souter wrote the 2004 opinion in Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, 541 U.S. 125. This is a case regarding 47 U.S.C. § 253(a) and state statutes that prohibit political subdivisions from offering telecommunications services. Missouri passed a state statute that bans local governments in Missouri from offering telecommunications services. The local governments, represented by the Missouri Municipal League, wanted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to preempt this statute, under Section 253, which provides that states cannot ban “any entity” from providing telecommunications services. It has always been clear that Section 253 means that states cannot bar any company from providing telecommunications services. The question was, does Section 253 also include local governments. The FCC said no. The 8th Circuit said yes. The Supreme Court said no. Of course, this does not mean that states must bar local governments from providing telecommunications services. This opinion only stands for the proposition that states may bar local governments from providing telecommunications services.

Justice Stevens wrote a solo dissent. He would have affirmed the judgment of the 8th Circuit. See also, story titled “Supreme Court Reverses in Nixon v. Missouri” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 864, March 26, 2004.

Cell Towers. Justice Scalia wrote the 2005 opinion in Rancho Palos Verdes v. Abrams, 544 U.S. 113, holding that an individual who brings an action to enforce the limitations on state and local authority to regulate the location, construction, and modification of wireless communications facilities under 47 U.S.C. § 332, cannot also recover damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Justice Stevens wrote a solo concurring opinion. He concurred with the Court’s conclusion as to Section 332. However, he wrote that the Court has not “properly acknowledged the strength of our normal presumption that Congress intended to preserve, rather than preclude, the availability of §1983 as a remedy for the enforcement of federal statutory rights.”

See also, story titled “Supreme Court Holds That Individuals Who Sue Under §332 Cannot Also Recover Damages Under §1983” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,101, March 23, 2005.

Broadband Internet Access Service. Justice Stevens joined with the majority in the Court’s 2005 opinion [59 pages in PDF] in NCTA v. Brand X, 545 U.S. 967. This opinion upheld the FCC’s determination that cable broadband internet access service is an information service. Justice Thomas wrote the opinion of the Court.

Justice Stevens wrote a two sentence solo concurring opinion in which he commented on Chevron deference. He wrote that Justice Thomas’s opinion “correctly explains why a court of appeals’ interpretation of an ambiguous provision in a regulatory statute does not foreclose a contrary reading by the agency. That explanation would not necessarily be applicable to a decision by this Court that would presumably remove any pre-existing ambiguity.”

See also, story titled “Supreme Court Rules in Brand X Case” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,163, June 28, 2005.

FCC Regulation of Broadcast Speech. Justice Scalia wrote for the majority in the 2009 5-4 opinion [PDF] in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, 556 U.S. __. In this case, the FCC issued an order that fined broadcasters for fleeting expletives. The Court of Appeals vacated and remanded, on the grounds that the FCC’s new fleeting expletives policy is arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) for failing to articulate a reasoned basis for the change in policy. The Supreme Court reversed on the basis APA does not preclude unexplained shifts of long standing policy.

Justice Stevens joined in the dissent. See, story titled “Supreme Court Reverses in FCC v. Fox” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,932, April 28, 2009.

FCC Rulemaking Process. In FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Justice Stevens also wrote a solo opinion that delved into the nature of the administrative process.

“Apparently assuming that the Federal Communications Commission’s … rulemaking authority is a species of executive power, the Court espouses the novel proposition that the Commission need not explain its decision to discard a longstanding rule in favor of a dramatically different approach to regulation.” He continued that the Constitution disperses the federal power among the three branches –legislative, the executive, and judicial. Moreover, “Strict lines of authority are particularly elusive when Congress and the President both exert a measure of control over an agency.”

But, he wrote that “when Congress grants rulemaking and adjudicative authority to an expert agency composed of commissioners selected through a bipartisan procedure and appointed for fixed terms, it substantially insulates the agency from executive control.”

“Just as the FCC’s commissioners do not serve at the will of the President”, Stevens wrote, “its regulations are not subject to change at the President’s will. And when the Commission fashions rules that govern the airwaves, it exercises legislative power delegated to it by Congress.”

Justice Stevens, quoting from the Supreme Court’s 1935 opinion in Humphrey’s Executor v. U.S., 295 U.S. 602, stated that “the FCC “cannot in any proper sense be characterized as an arm or an eye of the executive´´ and is better viewed as an agent of Congress established “to carry into effect legislative policies embodied in the statute in accordance with the legislative standard therein prescribed, and to perform other specified duties as a legislative … aid.´´”

“There should be a strong presumption that the FCC’s initial views, reflecting the informed judgment of independent commissioners with expertise in the regulated area, also reflect the views of the Congress”, opined Stevens.

6. Internet Speech Cases.

Communications Decency Act. Justice Stevens wrote for the majority in the 1997 7-2 opinion in Reno v. ACLU, 521 US 845. This case held that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. All of the Justices, except Rehnquist and O’Connor joined.

Internet Filtering. Justice Rehnquist wrote for the majority in the 2003 opinion in US v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194. This case upheld the constitutionality of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which provides that for libraries to receive federal subsidies or grants, they must use internet filtering technologies. Justice Stevens wrote a dissent.

The CIPA statute, which was enacted by the 106th Congress, requires schools and libraries receiving e-rate subsidies, pursuant to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program loosely based on 47 U.S.C. § 254(h)(1)(B), and libraries receiving grants under the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) (20 U.S.C. § 9101 et seq.), as a condition for receiving subsidies or grants, to use filtering technologies on computers with internet access that are used by children, and to filter images that constitute obscenity or child pornography.

A three judge panel of the U.S. District Court (EDPa) held the statute unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment. It held that filtering software is a content based restriction on access to a public forum, and is therefore subject to the strict scrutiny test – that is, it must be necessary to achieve a compelling governmental interest, and be narrowly tailored to further that interest. The District Court held that the federal government has a compelling interest in preventing the dissemination of obscenity, child pornography, or, in the case of minors, material harmful to minors. However, it found that mandating the use of filters is not narrowly tailored to further those interests.

The Supreme Court reversed. Justices wrote several opinions. No one opinion was joined by a majority of the Court. However, six Justices joined in opinions stating that the CIPA is constitutional. Rehnquist wrote an opinion that was joined by Justices O’Connor, Scalia and Thomas. In addition, Justice Kennedy wrote an opinion, that was joined by Justice Breyer, that concurred as to the judgment of constitutionality, but offered a different analysis.

Rehnquist first reviewed the nature of internet access and filtering software. He wrote “there is also an enormous amount of pornography on the Internet, much of which is easily obtained. … The accessibility of this material has created serious problems for libraries, which have found that patrons of all ages, including minors, regularly search for online pornography. … Some patrons also expose others to pornographic images by leaving them displayed on Internet terminals or printed at library printers. … Upon discovering these problems, Congress became concerned that the E-rate and LSTA programs were facilitating access to illegal and harmful pornography.”

Justice Stevens wrote in his dissent that “it is neither inappropriate nor unconstitutional for a local library to experiment with filtering software as a means of curtailing children’s access to Internet Web sites displaying sexually explicit images. … Whether it is constitutional for the Congress of the United States to impose that requirement … raises a vastly different question.”

He wrote that “Because the software relies on key words or phrases to block undesirable sites, it does not have the capacity to exclude a precisely defined category of images.” He stated that it both underblocks, by allowing undesirable sites through, and overblocks, by blocking non-objectionable web sites.

He wrote that “the software’s reliance on words to identify undesirable sites necessarily results in the blocking of thousands of pages that “contain content that is completely innocuous for both adults and minors, and that no rational person could conclude matches the filtering companies’ category definitions, such as `pornography´ or `sex.´ ´´ … In my judgment, a statutory blunderbuss that mandates this vast amount of “overblocking´´ abridges the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.”

See also, story titled “Supreme Court Upholds Children’s Internet Protection Act” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 686, June 24, 2003.

COPA. Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion of the Court, in which Justice Stevens joined, in the 2004 5-4 opinion in Ashcroft v. ACLU, 542 U.S. 656. This was a a constitutional challenge to the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). Stevens also wrote a concurring opinion.

The COPA provided, in part, that “Whoever knowingly and with knowledge of the character of the material, in interstate or foreign commerce by means of the World Wide Web, makes any communication for commercial purposes that is available to any minor and that includes any material that is harmful to minors shall be fined not more than $50,000, imprisoned not more than 6 months, or both.”

The COPA further provided that “It is an affirmative defense to prosecution under this section that the defendant, in good faith, has restricted access by minors to material that is harmful to minors … by requiring use of a credit card”.

The District Court issued a preliminary injunction of the COPA. The U.S. Court of Appeals (3rdCir) affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed the issuance of the preliminary injunction, and remanded.

In addition, Justice Stevens wrote a concurring opinion in which Justice Ginsburg joined. He wrote that “I continue to believe that the Government may not penalize speakers for making available to the general World Wide Web audience that which the least tolerant communities in America deem unfit for their children’s consumption, … and consider that principle a sufficient basis for deciding this case.”

He added that “encouraging deployment of user-based controls, such as filtering software, would serve Congress’ interest in protecting minors from sexually explicit Internet materials as well or better than attempting to regulate the vast content of the World Wide Web at its source, and at a far less significant cost to First Amendment values.”

See also, story titled “Supreme Court Affirms Preliminary Injunction of COPA” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 928, June 29, 2004.

7. Privacy Cases.

Electronic Privacy. Justice Stevens wrote for the majority in the Supreme Court 2001 6-3 opinion in Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514. The Court held that a radio host cannot be sued under 18 U.S.C. § 2511 for playing an audio recording of a cellular telephone conversation, despite a federal statute that made illegal both the interception of the conversation, and its disclosure.

Justice Stevens reasoned that the case pitted statutes banning disclosure of illegally obtained electronic communications against the First Amendment freedom of speech claims of persons with illegally obtained recordings to disclose them if their content pertains to a public issue.

While Justice Stevens and the majority may have defended First Amendment rights, they did so at the expense of privacy rights. See also, story titled “Supreme Court Diminishes Electronic Privacy” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 192, May 22, 2001.

Thermal Imaging. Justice Scalia wrote for the majority in the Court’s 5-4 2001 opinion in Kyllo v. U.S., 533 U.S. 27. The majority held that the thermal imaging of a home to detect lamps used for growing marijuana constitutes a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The Court further held that such searches are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment unless supported by probable cause and authorized by a warrant.

Justice Stevens wrote the dissenting opinion, which was joined by Rehnquist, O’Connor and Kennedy. He reasoned that the police did not enter the house search, so there was no search. Under this reasoning, police computer intrusions, or searches of files stored in the cloud, would not be protected by the 4th Amendment.

8. Other Cases.

Internet Wine Sales. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority in the Court’s 2005 5-4 opinion in Granholm v. Heald, 544 U.S. 460. Justice Stevens wrote one of two dissents.

The Court held that Michigan’s and New York’s regulatory schemes that permit in-state wineries directly to ship alcohol to consumers, but restrict the ability of out-of-state wineries to do so, violate the dormant commerce clause. See also, story titled “Supreme Court Rules in Internet Wine Sales Case” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,137, May 17, 2005.

The commerce clause is one of the few legal defenses that internet retailers have against burdensome, protectionist, and technophobic state regulators.

While Stevens would have allowed the protectionist state statutes to stand, his argument was limited to wine sales, which is also affected by the 21st Amendment. He wrote that “The New York and Michigan laws challenged in these cases would be patently invalid under well settled dormant Commerce Clause principles if they regulated sales of an ordinary article of commerce rather than wine.”

Trademark: Reverse Passing Off. Justice Scalia wrote the 8-0 2003 opinion in Dastar v. Twentieth Century Fox, 540 U.S. 806. Justice Stevens joined in this opinion. The defendant copied a work whose copyright had expired, and failed to attribute its origin. The plaintiff alleged that its work of authorship was copied (which can be actionable under the Copyright Act), but instead proceeded on the legal theory of violation of the Lanham Act’s false designation of origin provision. Passing off occurs when a producer misrepresents his own goods or services as someone else’s. Reverse passing off occurs when a producer misrepresents someone else’s goods or services as his own. Both can be actionable under the Lanham Act, which makes actionable not only the misleading use of marks, but also the false designation of origin of goods. The lower courts ruled for the producer. The Supreme Court reversed. It held that this is not the purpose of the Lanham Act. Moreover, allowing this sort of use of the Lanham Act would have the impermissible effect of creating perpetual quasi patents and copyrights. See also, story titled “Supreme Court Reverses in Dastar v. Fox” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 672, June 3, 2003.

Computer Generated Images. Justice Stevens joined with the majority in the Court’s 2002 opinion in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, 535 U.S. 234, a case involving a constitutional challenge to part of the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 (CPPA). The Court ruled that provisions of the statute banning computer generated images depicting minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct is overbroad, and violates the First Amendment. See also, story titled “Supreme Court Upholds Speech Rights of Child Pornographers” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 412, April 17, 2002. The Congress then rewrote the statute at issue.

Annals of Unhelpful Polling: Internet Access Edition

A new BBC poll is garnering plenty of press attention for its striking finding that 78% of global respondents believe that Internet access “should be a fundamental right of all people.” Fascinating!  Except… what exactly does that mean?

The obvious problem here is that, at least as it’s worded in English, the question is ambiguous between two equally plausible readings.  Especially when juxtaposed with another question about whether the Internet should be regulated by government, it could be understood as asking whether there’s a fundamental negative right to be free to use the Internet – to read and communicate free of government censorship or other onerous barriers.  That’s probably how we’d interpret a parallel question about whether people had a “fundamental right” to “access” information via newspapers or books.

Many folks, though, seem to be reading it as a measure of support for a fundamental positive right to be provided with (broadband?) Internet access. And that just seems a bit silly, frankly. There’s a decent case to be made that it’s desirable for governments that can afford it to make some kind of public Internet access available to citizens who can’t.  You can even imagine that, a few years down the line, some states in the developed world might have moved so heavily toward interacting with the public online that it would become more or less necessary for full political equality.  But a basic human right? Something that governments are “violating fundamental rights” if they don’t do? It’s not just that I don’t believe this; I have trouble imagining that much of anyone literally thinks so.  A few of my friends at Free Press, maybe, but 4/5 of the world’s population?  Color me dubious.

I’ll confess being startled at the response to a much less ambiguous question: A global majority agreed that “the Internet should never be regulated by any level of government anywhere.” While I find this pattern of responses congenial enough, I can’t take it much more seriously.  After all, what falls under the category of “regulation of the Internet”?  Censorship, of course, which I expect is what most people immediately thought of.  But in reality, of course, there are a whole panoply of laws and rules that at least arguably “regulate” the Internet in some sense, some of which even I would approve of. I have many, many issues with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for instance, but there’s nothing wrong with the idea that there should be a basic protocol that provides both a safe harbor for service providers hosting user content and a mechanism for complaining about copyright-infringing or libelous or otherwise tortious material.  Probably there are other “regulations” I’d approve too, but I’d have to sit and think about it for an hour to even enumerate all the different kinds of rules that might be considered to “regulate the Internet” in one way or another.

Because it’s at least not susceptible to such dramatically divergent readings, this response might be more useful as a kind of big-picture attitude check. But the reality is that almost none of the respondents can really mean it because even someone steeped in tech policy would have to sit and think about the question for a half hour to really get a grip on what it entails. Or might entail. If the BBC were engaged in some kind of serious social science, they probably would have worked up better questions.  But of course, that’s not the business they’re in.  They’re in the business of asking the sort of question that will let them run exciting headlines that get re-tweeted and drive page views. And 100% of respondents in my poll of myself agree they’ve succeeded.

Radioactive Corporate Welfare

A good default proposition regarding the government’s role in the economy would state that the government should not loan money to an enterprise if the enterprise in question cannot find one single market actor anywhere in the universe to loan said enterprise a single red cent.  It might suggest – I don’t know – that the investment is rather … dubious.

Alas, like all good propositions regarding the government’s role in the economy, this one is being left by the roadside by the Obama administration.  Unfortunately, the only complaint being made by a not insubstantial segment of the political Right – frequently, the political crowd that is busy decrying “Bailout Nation” – is that the loan guarantees are not fat enough.

I write, of course, about the $8.3 billion federal loan guarantee announced by President Obama this week for Southern Company to build two new nuclear power plants.  The money will be used to guarantee the loans being made by the federal government (via the Federal Financing Bank) to partially cover the cost of Southern’s projected $14 billion nuclear construction project at their Vogtle plant near Waynesboro, Georgia.  The loan guarantees were authorized by Congress in the 2005 Energy Policy Act and, we are told, are the first installment on a total package of $54 billion that the President would like to hand out to facilitate the construction of 7-10 new nuclear power plants (Congress, however, has only authorized $18.5 billion to this point).

The claim being made by some – that the loan guarantees are necessary to jump-start investor interest in new nuclear power plant construction – is not quite correct.  Even these lavish loan guarantees aren’t enough to do that.  In a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy dated July 2, 2007, six of Wall Street’s s then-largest investment banks – Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley – informed the administration that, contrary to the government’s expectations, anything short of a 100 percent unconditional guarantee would be insufficient to induce private lending.

Why is it risky to build nuclear power plants?  Because new nuclear projects tie up more capital for longer periods of time than its main competitor, natural-gas fired generation.  Nuclear power makes economic sense only if natural gas prices are very high.  Then, over time, the high initial costs of nuclear power would be offset by nuclear power’s lower fuel costs.  Moreover, as noted by Moody’s in an analysis published in July of last year, there is uncertainty associated with construction costs, regulatory oversight, technological developments that might reduce the cost of rival facilities, and the ability of utilities to recover costs and make a profit over the lifetime of the plant – a risk tied up in the economic prospects of the region being served by the plant.  And those risks have been increasing, not decreasing, as time has gone on.

In short, even during the go-go days prior to the September 2008 crash – a time when Wall Street was allegedly throwing around money left and right to all sorts of dubious borrowers – the banks that stand accused of recklessly endangering their shareholders on other fronts were telling utility companies that they would not loan them anything for new nuclear power plant construction unless the feds unconditionally guaranteed every last penny of those loans.  That’s how risky market actors think it is to build nuclear power plants.

And it’s not as if the federal government disagrees completely.  The Congressional Budget Office pegs the chance of default (program-wide) at 50 percent or better and the Government Accountability Office likewise thinks that default risks are quite high.  Energy Secretary Stephen Chu says that he thinks the chance of default is much lower.  We can only speculate about who’s right given that no one has tried to build a nuclear power plant in the United States for over 30 years.

Regardless of what the risk actually is, the loan guarantees do not reduce that risk.  They simply transfer the risk from the bank to taxpayer.  In this particular case, however, the loan guarantee transfers risk from one arm of the state to the other, so it doesn’t really count.  But if such loan guarantees  ever were to induce actual private lending for plant construction, that’s how it would work.

Plenty of arguments have been offered to justify these loan guarantees.  Most of them are flimsy on their face.

For instance, we’re often told that we “need” new power plants.  But with electricity demand declining over the past couple of years, it is unclear when that need might arise.

Regardless, when the market “needs” more electricity, that need will be manifested in price signals that will carry with them profit opportunities.  Profit-hungry investors will be willing and able to meet that need without the help of government.  Of course, if market conditions don’t radically change, those needs will be met with gas-fired power plants, but hey, if that bothers you, take it up with someone else.

Others argue that we need the jobs that will be produced by new nuclear power plants.  Well, building big new reactors will certainly employ a lot of (largely unionized) construction workers.  But that’s one reason why building a nuclear power plant is not very economic compared to building gas-fired generators.  If creating jobs is the idea whether the project makes any economic sense or not, then let’s just ban food imports and farm equipment and put everyone to work with hand plows and scythes.

Two somewhat more serious arguments have been offered to justify these loan guarantees.  Neither of them stands up to much scrutiny either.

The first argument – the argument most often heard from the nuclear power industry and some segments of the political Left – is that we need nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Of course, the best (that is, most efficient) way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to internalize the cost of greenhouse gas emissions in the retail price of electricity and then allow market actors to adjust their production and consumption decisions accordingly.  That price internalization exercise, however (whether directly through a carbon tax or indirectly through a cap-and-trade program), does not appear to be in the cards in the foreseeable future.  Hence, the loan guarantees are advanced as a “second-best” solution, one that will get us the technology and economic efficiency that would be delivered by a properly crafted carbon tax or cap-and-trade program without the retail price increases associated with either.

One of several problems with this argument is that it would take one hell of a carbon tax – or one hell of an onerous cap-and-trade program – to get anyone interested in building nuclear power plants.  If natural gas prices remained roughly where they are at present (that is, if they were to remain at historical norms) then it would take a $90 per ton carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program that delivered carbon emission credits at $90 per ton on the open market to induce investment in nuclear power plants.  Few economists who study climate policy believe that a carbon tax of that size is defensible given what we know about climate change.

And that’s if construction costs are as low as advertised.  Were they to double (as they did from 2003 to 2009) – either because of endogenous increases in the cost of capital, labor, or construction-related resources or because of cost overruns – then it would take at least a $150 per ton carbon tax (or a cap-and-trade program that delivered $150 carbon credits to the market) to induce investment.

You might ask yourself what the historical relationship is between final (inflation-adjusted) nuclear power plant construction costs in the United States and construction costs as projected at the onset of the project.  Happily, the CBO has done your homework for you.  They found that final construction costs averaged 207 percent of projected costs.  Hence, a doubling of construction costs is probably more likely than not once a project is underway … if past is prologue.

The upshot is that there are many more efficient ways to respond to greenhouse gas emission constraints than to go on a nuclear power bender.  This observation is heresy on the Right, but almost every credible analysis of the matter backs up that observation.

The second argument one hears to justify federal loan guarantees is that they are necessary to counter-balance the excessive regulatory costs associated with new plant construction.  Now, put aside the fact that the Nuclear Energy Institute – the trade association of the nuclear power industry – has often expressed near-total satisfaction with the current federal regulatory regime.  If the regulatory regime is truly “bad” and, accordingly, is imposing steep and unnecessary costs on the industry, then the correct remedy is to improve said regulatory regime, not to subsidize the industry.

The counter-complaint that positive regulatory reforms are impossible is difficult to swallow.  After all, if there is sufficient political will to bestow tens of billions of dollars worth of tax money on this industry, then surely there is enough political will to reform the bad and unnecessarily costly regulations allegedly bedeviling the object of those very same legislative affections.

I will confess to being skeptical about the argument that high construction costs are largely the fault of regulators.  Building a light water breeder reactor is a technologically challenging and costly undertaking whether regulators are on the scene or not.  Moreover, it is not obvious to me that the regulations that are in place are a priori objectionable from a libertarian perspective.

One rarely, if ever, hears of particulars in this bill of complaint offered about nuclear regulation.  But if a persuasive bill of complaints is ever presented, then the appropriate response is regulatory reform and then to leave the decision to build or not to build to markets.

In the course of announcing these loan guarantees, President Obama said this week that “The fact is, changing the ways we produce and use energy requires us to think anew. It requires us to act anew.”  Well, there’s nothing new about throwing subsidies at nuclear power.  Economist Douglas Koplow calculates that federal nuclear subsidies have totaled $178 billion from 1947-1999.  The promise of a nuclear economy with rates too cheap to meter has been made for over half a century.  What would be new would be a policy of “just saying no” to industries with their hands out in Washington.

[Cross-posted at MasterResource]

Obama Commands the Impossible

Today’s New York Times reports that President Obama has “ordered the rapid development of technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of coal,” as well as mandating the production of more corn-based ethanol and financing farmers to produce “cellulosic” ethanol from waste fiber.

You’ve got to like the president’s moxie.  Faced with his inability to pass health care reform and cap-and-trade, he now chooses to command the impossible and the inefficient.

Most power plants are simply not designed for carbon capture.  There isn’t any infrastructure to transport large amounts of carbon dioxide, and no one has agreed on where to put all of it.  Corn-based ethanol produces more carbon dioxide in its life cycle than it eliminates, and cellulosic ethanol has been “just around the corner” since I’ve been just around the corner.

However, doing what doesn’t make any economic sense makes a lot of political sense in Washington, because inefficient technologies require subsidies–in this case to farmers, ethanol processors, utilities, engineering and construction conglomerates, and a whole host of others.  Has the president forgotten that his unpopular predecessor started the ethanol boondogle (his response to global warming) and drove up the price of corn to the point of worldwide food riots? Hasn’t he read that cellulosic ethanol is outrageously expensive? Has he ever heard of the “not-in-my-backyard” phenomenon when it comes to storing something people don’t especially like?

Yeah, he probably has.  But the political gains certainly are worth the economic costs.  Think about it.  In the case of carbon capture, it’s so wildly inefficient that it can easily double the amount of fuel necessary to produce carbon-based energy.  What’s not to like if you’re a coal company, now required to load twice as many hopper cars?  What’s not to like if you’re a utility, guaranteed a profit and an incentive to build a snazzy, expensive new plant?  And what’s not to like if you’re a farmer, gaining yet another subsidy?

Technology Clarifies Debate About Whole-Body Imaging Technology

I was dismayed today to listen to a recorded radio program in which James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation debated Michael German of the ACLU about the whole-body imaging systems being considered for airports after the Christmas attempt to light a bomb on a flight into Detroit.

Carafano, who I like personally, is a careless debater. He misstated the law, insulted a caller to the radio program, and misstated people’s names as he mischaracterized their views—in particular, my name and my views.

The segment was recorded, so we can capture exactly what Carafano said:

When the Transportation Security Administration rolled out this technology, they went through a very long and detailed consultation period with privacy and civil liberties groups including Jim Lindsey at Cato. I remember Jim Lindsey, when we had a session on privacy and civil liberties, stood up and complimented Secretary Chertoff, and said, “Look, this is something that you’ve actually done right. You’ve gone out to the stakeholder community, and you’ve gone over the procedures with us and we’ve come up with procedures that we’re very, very comfortable with.” So I think the privacy issue is really a non-issue.

At a Heritage event in June, 2008, I rose to rebut how Secretary Chertoff dismissed privacy advocates. He said privacy advocates prefer “no-security” airlines and that they want people to use fraudulent documents. As I gently chastised him for that, I did compliment the work of one TSA official to minimize privacy consequences of millimeter wave, which does provide a margin of security.

The event was recorded, so we can capture exactly what I said: “Frankly, I think millimeter wave is not a bad technology. Peter Pietra at TSA has done a good job, I think, of getting the agency to design the system well.”

That’s it. I made no reference to a ”long and detailed consultation period,” and I don’t know of any such thing happening. I didn’t compliment Secretary Chertoff, but a deputy who—despite Chertoff, most likely—managed to instill some privacy protections in TSA’s use of whole-body imaging systems. As to my comfort, I’ll take “less uncomfortable than I would have been” over “very, very comfortable,” which is inaccurate.

As I’ve written elsewhere, ”I think [TSA privacy officer Peter Pietra has] done a creditable job of trying to build privacy protections into this system… . But maybe it’s not enough. We’re talking about trying to maintain privacy with a technology that’s fundamentally intrusive.”

Perhaps I’ve taken too subtle a position on millimeter wave: It provides a small margin of security at a high cost to privacy. With that, I’ll let the country make its decision, while I seek to moot this as a public policy issue: Airline security should be provided by airlines and airports, not the government.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to speak of me—by any name—as an endorser of this technology or the process of its adoption. Thanks to sound and video recording technology, the record can be clear.

Do Bring a Phonecam to a Snowball Fight

By now, you’ve probably heard the story—and seen the video.  During the weekend’s Snowpocalypse™ in DC, a gaggle of young urbanites, using Twitter and other social media, announced a big group snowball fight at the corner of 14th and U Streets.  For a while, it was all good fun, with the participants periodically stopping the skirmish to help dislodge a motorist for a snowdrift, amid collective cheers. But an off-duty plainclothes cop whose Hummer had been hit by a few snowballs lost his cool—and advanced on the crowd to berate them with his gun drawn. You’d think an angry, out-of-uniform guy brandishing a gun might set off a dangerous stampede in the snow, but true to form, the DC crowd responded with chanting: “You don’t bring a gun to a snowball fight!”

Initially, the Metropolitan Police Department “reviewed the evidence” and concluded that the officer had only been holding a cell phone after all—folks who’d said it was a gun must have just imagined it, what with all that snow. But it turns out there were a whole lot of video cameras and phonecams there, and still shots and recordings began to circulate on the Internet, making it impossible to deny what had happened.  By Monday, the chief of police had issued a statement calling the officer’s behavior “totally inappropriate” and announcing that he’d be relegated to desk duty pending further inquiry.

As anyone who follows the excellent work of my colleague Radley Balko will be well aware, things often play out quite differently—with departments circling the wagons, and no serious accountability for far more egregious abuses of authority. But video—increasingly ubiquitous and portable—can make a difference. And it strikes me that, in one sense, it helps remedy other kinds of social inequality.  Reviewing that video of the snowball scene, you might point out that the crowd is full of white 20-somethings, many of whom (given the city’s demographics) are almost certainly college-educated professionals, while police misconduct toward less privileged groups is far more likely to be ignored.

What is privilege, though? In cases like these, it consists largely in the ability to be seen and heard—to attract media attention, to articulate your story in a clear and compelling way, to be considered credible by press and the community. All of these, unfortunately, depend enormously on class, status, race, and education. Unless there’s video. And video is democratic these days. You’d have to poke around a bit to find even a bottom-of-the-line cheapo cell phone that didn’t come with at least a still camera, and likely video capture to boot. So while there’s been some attention paid to the potential of this kind of “Little Brother” surveillance to increase accountability—the to lessen disparity in power between citizen and cop—it’s also worth stressing the way it can lessen certain kinds of disparities between citizens.

That said, and just going by memory, it seems like most of the stories I encounter in this vein still involve white, middle-class, college-educated young people. One possibility is that this shows I’m wrong, and that other aspects of privilege still play into their videos circulating while others languish. Another, though, is just that they’re both accustomed to this kind of routine use of technology and sharing of data, and that they take their social power for granted. That is, it occurs more naturally to them that the right response to this kind of misbehavior is to record and circulate it. If it’s mostly the latter, we’re on an interesting precipice, where the main remaining precondition for the leveling effect to kick in is just awareness that the other preconditions are in place.  If that’s right, the next few years should be interesting.

Technology: Debating the Pace of Progress

Last night, thanks to Craigslist and a Web-enabled cell phone, I unloaded two extra tickets to tonight’s World Cup qualifying game between the U.S. and Costa Rica in under an hour. (8:00, ESPN2 “USA! USA! USA!”)

Wanting to avoid the hassle of selling the tickets at RFK, I placed an ad on Craigslist offering them at cost, figuring I might find a taker and arrange to hand them off downtown today or at the stadium tonight. Checking email as I walked to the gym, I found an inquiry about the tickets and phoned the guy, who happened to live 100 feet from where I was walking. A few minutes later, he had the tickets and I had the cash.

This quaint story is a single data point in a trend line—the high-tech version of It’s Getting Better All the Time. Everyone living a connected life enjoys hundreds, or even thousands, of conveniences every day because of information technology. Through billions of transactions across the society, technology improves our lives in ways unimaginable two decades ago.

Before 1995, nobody ever traded spare soccer tickets in under an hour, on a Tuesday night, without even changing his evening routine. If soccer tickets are too trivial (you must not understand the game), the same dynamics deliver incremental, but massive improvements in material wealth, awareness, education, and social and political empowerment to everyone—even those who don’t live “online.”

Sometimes debates about technology regulation are cast in doom and gloom terms like the Malthusian arguments about material wealth. But the benefits we already enjoy thanks to technology are not going away, and they will continue to accrue. We are arguing about the pace of progress, not its existence.

This is no reason to let up in our quest to give technologists and investors the freedom to produce more innovations that enhance everyone’s well-being even more. But it does counsel us to be optimistic and to teach this optimism to our ideological opponents, many of whom seem to look ahead and see only calamity.