Topic: Regulatory Studies

Your Choices Are Unacceptable

Through my work on agriculture, I get occasional media calls on obesity and the agri-industrial complex supposedly behind it.  On Sunday, for example, I gave an interview on NPR about the USDA’s push for – and subsidisation of – farmers markets and “eating locally” as the solution to poor nutrition. (This a recurrent theme of the Obama administration: Michelle Obama has made people’s food habits her business, growing a White House Garden and driving in a convoy of 36 vehicles to the H Street farmers’ market in a photo-op to promote it. The USDA even has a “People’s Garden”.)

So an article in today’s New York Times caught my eye. According to a recent study, the push for calorie postings in restaurants has had no affect on people’s eating habits in certain low-income areas of New York City.  People’s choices are, apparently, pretty impermeable to the information that nutrition and public health advocates assured us was the key to better choices.

You would be forgiven for thinking that was the end of the matter and we could go on eating what we like unharassed. Think again:

“I think it does show us that labels are not enough,” Brian Elbel, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, said in an interview.

I hope I’m not coming across as hyperbolic, but I find it difficult to believe that healthy eating advocates will be content to accept that people are making choices, unpalatable though they may be to the ”slow food” movement, based on the benefits and costs of the alternatives available to them. If people won’t voluntarily submit to the food police – even when information is available – then I suspect calls for regulation will soon follow.

(HT: Radley Balko)

Nanny State Doesn’t Like Competition - the English Version

A previous post by David Boaz poked fun at bureaucrats in Michigan for threatening a woman for the ostensible crime of keeping an eye on her neighbors’ kids without a government permit. English bureaucrats are equally clueless, badgering two women who take turns caring for each other’s kids. The common theme, of course, is that bureaucrats lack common sense – but the real lesson is that this is the inevitable consequence of government intervention (especially when politicians say they are “doing it for the children). The BBC reports:

England’s Children’s Minister wants a review of the case of two police officers told they were breaking the law, caring for each other’s children.

Ofsted said the arrangement contravened the Childcare Act because it lasted for longer than two hours a day, and constituted receiving “a reward”.

It said the women would have to be registered as childminders.

…Ms Shepherd, who serves with Thames Valley Police, recalled: “A lady came to the front door and she identified herself as being from Ofsted. She said a complaint had been made that I was illegally childminding.

“I was just shocked - I thought they were a bit confused about the arrangement between us. So I invited her in and told her situation - the arrangement between Lucy and I - and I was shocked when she told me I was breaking the law.”

…Minister for Children, Schools and Families Vernon Coaker insisted the Childcare Act 2006 was in place “to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all children”.

Online Privacy and Regulation by Default

My colleague Jim Harper and I have been having a friendly internal argument about Internet privacy regulation that strikes me as having potential implications for other contexts, so I thought I might as well pick it up here in case it’s of interest to anyone else. Unsurprisingly, neither of us are particularly sanguine about elaborate regulatory schemes—and I’m sympathetic to the general tenor of his recent post on the topic. But unlike Jim, as I recently wrote here, I can think of two rules that might be appropriate: A notice requirement that says third-party trackers must provide a link to an ordinary-language explanation of what information is being collected, and for what purpose, combined with a clear rule making those stated privacy policies enforceable in court. Jim regards this as paternalistic meddling with online markets; I regard it as establishing the conditions for the smooth functioning of a market. What do those differences come down to?

First, a question of expectations. Jim thinks it’s unreasonable for people to expect any privacy in information they “release” publicly—and when he’s talking about messages posted to public fora or Facebook pages, that’s certainly right. But it’s not always right, and as we navigate the Internet our computers can be coaxed into “releasing” information in ways that are far from transparent to the ordinary user. Consider this analogy. You go to the mall to buy some jeans; you’re out in public and clearly in plain view of many other people—most of whom, in this day and age, are probably carrying cameras built into their cell phones. You can hardly complain about being observed, and possibly caught on camera, as you make your way to the store. But what about when you make your way to the changing room at The Gap to try on those jeans? If the management has placed an unobtrusive camera behind a mirror to catch shoplifters, can the law require that the store post a sign informing you that you’re being taped in a location and context where—even though it’s someone else’s property—most people would expect privacy? Current U.S. law does, and really it’s just one special case of the law laying down default rules to stabilize expectations.  I think Jim sees the reasonable expectation in the online context as “everything is potentially monitored and archived all the time, unless you’ve explicitly been warned otherwise.” Empirically, this is not what most people expect—though they might begin to as a result of a notice requirement.

Now, as Jim well knows, there are many cases in which the law sets defaults to stabilize expectations. Under the common law doctrine of implied warranty, when you go out and buy a toaster, you do not explicitly write out a contract in which it’s stipulated that the thing will turn on when you get home and plug it in, that it will toast bread without bursting into flames, and so on. Markets would not function terribly well if you did have to do this constantly. Rather, it’s understood that there are some minimal expectations built into the transaction—toasters toast bread!—unless the seller provides explicit notice that this is an “as is” sale. This brings us to a second point of divergence: Like Jim, I think the evolutionary mechanism of the common law is generally the best way to establish these market-structuring defaults. Unlike Jim, I think sometimes it’s appropriate to resort to statute instead. This story from Techdirt should suggest why:

It’s still not entirely clear what online agreements are actually enforceable and which aren’t. We’ve seen cases go both ways, with a recent ruling even noting that terms that are a hyperlink away, rather than on the agreement page itself, may be enforceable. But the latest case, involving online retailer Overstock went in the other direction. A court found that Overstock’s arbitration requirement was unenforceable, because, as “browserwrap,” the user was not adequately notified. Eventually, it seems that someone’s going to have to make it clear what sorts of online terms are actually enforceable (if any). Until then, we’re going to see a lot more lawsuits like this one.

Evolutionary mechanisms are great, but they’re also slow, incremental, and in the case of the common law typically parasitic on the parallel evolution of broader social norms and expectations. That makes it an uneasy fit with novel and rapidly changing technological platforms for interaction. The tradeoff is that, while it’s slow, the discovery process tends to settle on efficient rules. But sometimes having a clear rule is actually more important—maybe significantly more important—than getting the rule just right. These features seem to me to weigh in favor of allowing Congress, not to say what standards of privacy must look like, but to step in and lay down public default rules that provide a stable basis for informed consumers and sellers to reach their own mutually beneficial agreements.

Finally, there’s the question of whether it’s constitutionally appropriate for federal legislators, rather than courts, to make that kind of decision. I scruple to say how “the Founders intended” the Constitution to apply to e-commerce, but even on a very narrow reading of the Commerce Clause, this seems to fall safely within the purview of a power to “make regular” commerce between the several states by establishing uniform rules for transactions across a network that pays no heed to state boundaries. A patchwork of divergent standards imposed by judges and state legislators does not strike me as an especially market-friendly response to people’s online privacy concerns, but that appears to be the alternative. If there’s a way to address those concerns that’s both constitutionally appropriate and works by enabling informed choice and contract rather than nannying consumers or micromanaging business practices, then it seems to me that it makes sense for supporters of limited government to point that solution out.

Reform Needed, but Obama Plan Would Result in More Financial Crises, not Less

Today President Obama took his financial reform plan to the airwaves.  While there is no doubt our financial system is in need of financial reform, the President’s plan would make bailouts a permanent feature of the regulatory landscape.  Rather than ending “too big to fail” – the President wants us to believe that with additional discretion and power, the same Federal Reserve that missed the boat last time will save us next time.

The truth is that the President’s plan will result in a small number of companies being viewed by debtholders as “too big to fail”.  These companies would see their funding costs decline, allowing them to gain market-share at the expense of their rivals, making these firms even larger.  Greater concentration in our financial services industry is the last thing we need, yet the Obama plan all but guarantees it.

Obama also chooses myth’s over facts.  The President claims that de-regulation and competition among regulators caused the crisis.  The facts could not be more different.  Those institutions at the center of the crisis – Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Lehman –could not choose their regulator.

The President’s plan chooses convenient targets and protects entrenched interests, rather than address the true underlying causes of the crisis.  At no time have we heard the President discuss the expansionary monetary policies that helped fuel the bubble.  Nor has the President talked about the global imbalances – the global savings glut that poured surplus savings from the rest of the world into the US.  But then the President appears to hope that loose monetary policy and continued American consumption funded by China will get him out of his own political problems with the economy.  It is especially striking that the President makes little mention of the housing bubble, as if it was only the bust that was the problem.

The President continues to say he inherited this crisis.  While true, he did not inherit the same individuals – Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke – who were at the center of creating the crisis.  All Obama needs to do is find a position for Hank Paulson and he will have completely re-assembled the Bush financial team.

Without real reform – fixing Fannie and Freddie, scaling back the massive subsidies for leverage in our tax code, loose monetary policy – it will only be a matter of time before the next crisis hits.  If we implement the President’s plan, we will, however, guarantee that the next crisis will be even larger and severe than the current one.

We’re Terribly Czarry

My former colleague Dave Weigel makes the excellent point that the supposed explosion of “Czars” under this administration is, in significant part, a function of journalists trying to make the same old “deputy undersecretary” sound sexier. Which is a shame, since it means that the pernicious and the benign get lumped together under the same sensationalist label – one whose public effect is to normalize the idea of unaccountable individuals within the executive branch given sweeping powers to solve specific problems, whether or not that picture is accurate.

I don’t know how much it can be attributed to the Czarmania, but I’m especially puzzled by the apparent emergence of legal scholar and prospective OIRA Adminstrator Cass Sunstein as the new hot bogeyman for conservatives. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which Sunstein’s been tapped to head, was created in 1980 and is precisely the sort of agency conservatives should love – tasked with catching inefficient and excessively burdensome regulations before they go into effect. It has, unsurprisingly, been most active under conservative presidents, and is one of the few offices where fans of limited government should want a vigorous, influential, and intellectually formidable director at the helm.

Now, Cass Sunstein is not somebody I agree with on a great number of things. On the day he’s tapped for a seat on the Supreme Court bench, I’ll break out in hives. But it’s awfully hard to imagine any realistic alternative – anyone Obama might actually have appointed – who would be better in the OIRA post from a limited government perspective. (I considered some of the specific concerns being raised about Sunstein back in the spring and found that they ranged from exaggerated to simply mendacious.) That’s one reason hardcore progressives have, in fact, been freaking out over his nomination. They must be pinching themselves  now that it seems Glenn Beck is out to do their work for them. Say what you will about the tenets of “libertarian paternalism,” but at least it’s an ethos that would demand a far lighter touch on markets than the unreconstructed technocracy of your average regulator.

Picture Don Draper Stamping on a Human Face, Forever

Last week, a coalition of 10 privacy and consumer groups sent letters to Congress advocating legislation to regulate behavioral tracking and advertising, a phrase that actually describes a broad range of practices used by online marketers to monitor and profile Web users for the purpose of delivering targeted ads. While several friends at the Tech Liberation Front have already weighed in on the proposal in broad terms – in a nutshell: they don’t like it – I think it’s worth taking a look at some of the specific concerns raised and remedies proposed. Some of the former strike me as being more serious than the TLF folks allow, but many of the latter seem conspicuously ill-tailored to their ends.

First, while it’s certainly true that there are privacy advocates who seem incapable of grasping that not all rational people place an equally high premium on anonymity, it strikes me as unduly dismissive to suggest, as Berin Szoka does, that it’s inherently elitist or condescending to question whether most users are making informed choices about their privacy. If you’re a reasonably tech-savvy reader, you probably know something about conventional browser cookies, how they can be used by advertisers to create a trail of your travels across the Internet, and how you can limit this.  But how much do you know about Flash cookies? Did you know about the old CSS hack I can use to infer the contents of your browser history even without tracking cookies? And that’s without getting really tricksy. If you knew all those things, congratulations, you’re an enormous geek too – but normal people don’t.  And indeed, polls suggest that people generally hold a variety of false beliefs about common online commercial privacy practices.  Proof, you might say, that people just don’t care that much about privacy or they’d be attending more scrupulously to Web privacy policies – except this turns out to impose a significant economic cost in itself.

The truth is, if we were dealing with a frictionless Coaseian market of fully-informed users, regulation would not be necessary, but it would not be especially harmful either, because users who currently allow themselves to be tracked would all gladly opt in. In the real world, though, behavioral economics suggests that defaults matter quite a lot: Making informed privacy choices can be costly, and while an opt-out regime will probably yield tracking of some who would prefer not to be under conditions of full information and frictionless choice, an opt-in regime will likely prevent tracking of folks who don’t object to tracking. And preventing that tracking also has real social costs, as Berin and Adam Thierer have taken pains to point out. In particular, it merits emphasis that behavioral advertising is regarded by many as providing a viable business model for online journalism, where contextual advertising tends not to work very well: There aren’t a lot of obvious products to tie in to an important investigative story about municipal corruption. Either way, though, the outcome is shaped by the default rule about the level of monitoring users are presumed to consent to. So which set of defaults ought we to prefer?

Here’s why I still come down mostly on Adam and Berin’s side, and against many of the regulatory remedies proposed. At the risk of stating the obvious, users start with de facto control of their data. Slightly less obvious: While users will tend to have heterogeneous privacy preferences – that’s why setting defaults either way is tricky – individual users will often have fairly homogeneous preferences across many different sites. Now, it seems to be an implicit premise of the argument for regulation that the friction involved in making lots of individual site-by-site choices about privacy will yield oversharing. But the same logic cuts in both directions: Transactional friction can block efficient departures from a high-privacy default as well. Even a default that optimally reflects the median user’s preferences or reasonable expectations is going to flub it for the outliers. If the variance in preferences is substantial, and if different defaults entail different levels of transactional friction, nailing the default is going to be less important than choosing the rule that keeps friction lowest. Given that most people do most of their Web surfing on a relatively small number of machines, this makes the browser a much more attractive locus of control. In terms of a practical effect on privacy, the coalition members would probably achieve more by persuading Firefox to set their browser to reject third-party cookies out of the box than from any legislation they’re likely to get – and indeed, it would probably have a more devastating effect on the behavioral ad market. Less bluntly, browsers could include a startup option that asks users whether they want to import an exclusion list maintained by their favorite force for good.

On the model proposed by the coalition, individuals have to make affirmative decisions about what data collection to permit for each Web site or ad network at least once every three months, and maybe each time they clear their cookies. If you think almost everyone would, if fully informed, opt out of such collection, this might make sense. But if you take the social benefits of behavioral targeting seriously, this scheme seems likely to block a lot of efficient sharing. Browser-based controls can still be a bit much for the novice user to grapple with, but programmers seem to be getting better and better at making it more easy and automatic for users to set privacy-protective defaults. If the problem with the unregulated market is supposed to be excessive transaction costs, it seems strange to lock in a model that keeps those costs high even as browser developers are finding ways to streamline that process. It’s also worth considering whether such rules wouldn’t have the perverse consequence of encouraging consolidation across behavioral trackers. The higher the bar is set for consent to monitoring, the more that consent effectively becomes a network good, which may encourage concentration of data in a small number of large trackers – not, presumably, the result privacy advocates are looking for. Finally – and for me this may be the dispositive point – it’s worth remembering that while American law is constrained by national borders, the Internet is not. And it seems to me that there’s a very real danger of giving the least savvy users a false sense of security – the government is on the job guarding my privacy! no need to bother learning about cookies! – when they may routinely and unwittingly be interacting with sites beyond the reach of domestic regulations.

There are similar practical difficulties with the proposal that users be granted a right of access to behavioral tracking data about them.  Here’s the dilemma: Any requirement that trackers make such data available to users is a potential security breach, which increases the chances of sensitive data falling into the wrong hands. I may trust a site or ad network to store this information for the purpose of serving me ads and providing me with free services, but I certainly don’t want anyone who sends them an e-mail with my IP address to have access to it. The obvious solution is for them to have procedures for verifying the identity of each tracked user – but this would appear to require that they store still more information about me in order to render tracking data personally identifiable and verifiable. A few ways of managing the difficulty spring to mind, but most defer rather than resolve the problem, and add further points of potential breach.

That doesn’t mean there’s no place for government or policy change here, but it’s not always the one the coalition endorses. Let’s look  more closely at some of their specific concerns and see which, if any, are well-suited to policy remedies. Only one really has anything to do with behavioral advertising, and it’s easily the weakest of the bunch. The groups worry that targeted ads – for payday loans, sub-prime mortgages, or snake-oil remedies – could be used to “take advantage of vulnerable consumers.” It’s not clear that this is really a special problem with behavioral ads, however: Similar targeting could surely be accomplished by means of contextual ads, which are delivered via relevant sites, pages, or search terms rather than depending on the personal characteristics or browsing history of the viewer – yet the groups explicitly aver that no new regulation is appropriate for contextual advertising. In any event, since whatever problem exists here is a problem with ads, the appropriate remedy is to focus on deceptive or fraudulent ads, not the particular means of delivery. We already, quite properly, have rules covering dishonest advertising practices.

The same sort of reply works for some of the other concerns, which are all linked in some more specific way to the collection, dissemination, and non-advertising use of information about people and their Web browsing habits. The groups worry, for instance, about “redlining” – the restriction or denial of access to goods, services, loans, or jobs on the basis of traits linked to race, gender, sexual orientation, or some other suspect classification. But as Steve Jobs might say, we’ve got an app for that: It’s already illegal to turn down a loan application on the grounds that the applicant is African American. There’s no special exemption for the case where the applicant’s race was inferred from a Doubleclick profile. But this actually appears to be something of a redlining herring, so to speak: When you get down into the weeds, the actual proposal is to bar any use of data collected for “any credit, employment, insurance, or governmental purpose or for redlining.” This seems excessively broad; it should suffice to say that a targeter “cannot use or disclose information about an individual in a manner that is inconsistent with its published notice.”

Particular methods of tracking may also be covered by current law, and I find it unfortunate that the coalition letter lumps together so many different practices under the catch-all heading of “behavioral tracking.” Most behavioral tracking is either done directly by sites users interact with – as when Amazon uses records of my past purchases to recommend new products I might like – or by third party companies whose ads place browser cookies on user computers. Recently, though, some Internet Service Providers have drawn fire for proposals to use Deep Packet Inspection to provide information about their users’ behavior to advertising partners – proposals thus far scuppered by a combination of user backlash and congressional grumbling. There is at least a colorable argument to be made that this practice would already run afoul of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which places strict limits on the circumstances under which telecom providers may intercept or share information about the contents of user communications without explicit permission. ECPA is already seriously overdue for an update, and some clarification on this point would be welcome. If users do wish to consent to such monitoring, that should be their right, but it should not be by means of a blanket authorization in eight-point type on page 27 of a terms-of-service agreement.

Similarly welcome would be some clarification on the status of such behavioral profiles when the government comes calling. It’s an unfortunate legacy of some technologically atavistic Supreme Court rulings that we enjoy very little Fourth Amendment protection against government seizure of private records held by third parties – the dubious rationale being that we lose our “reasonable expectation of privacy” in information we’ve already disclosed to others outside a circle of intimates. While ECPA seeks to restore some protection of that data by statute, we’ve made it increasingly easy in recent years for the government to seek “business records” by administrative subpoena rather than court order. It should not be possible to circumvent ECPA’s protections by acquiring, for instance, records of keyword-sensitive ads served on a user’s Web-based e-mail.

All that said, some of the proposals offered up seem,while perhaps not urgent, less problematic. Requiring some prominent link to a plain-English description of how information is collected and used constitutes a minimal burden on trackers – responsible sites already maintain prominent links to privacy policies anyway – and serves the goal of empowering users to make more informed decisions. I’m also warily sympathetic to the idea of giving privacy policies more enforcement teeth – the wariness stemming from a fear of incentivizing frivolous litigation. Still, the status quo is that sites and ad networks profitably elicit information from users on the basis of stated privacy practices, but often aren’t directly liable to consumers if they flout those promises, unless the consumer can show that the breach of trust resulted in some kind of monetary loss.

Finally, a quick note about one element of the coalition recommendations that neither they nor their opponents seem to have discussed much – the insistence that there be no federal preemption of state privacy law. I assume what’s going on here is that the privacy advocates expect some states to be more protective of privacy than Congress or the FTC would be, and want to encourage that, while libertarians are more concerned with keeping the federal government from getting involved at all. But really, if there’s an issue that was made for federal preemption, this is it.  A country where vendors, advertisers, and consumers on a borderless Internet have to navigate 50 flavors of privacy rules to sell a banner add or an iTunes track does not sound particularly conducive to privacy, commerce, or informed consumer choice.