Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Gov. Quinn Vetoes Rideshare Bill

Earlier this week, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) vetoed HB 4075, a ridesharing bill backed by Illinois’ taxi industry that was overwhelmingly passed by the state House and Senate earlier this year. If the bill had been signed into law, Illinois drivers using ridesharing services for more than 18 hours a week would have had to adhere to burdensome regulations such as a requirement for a chauffeur’s license. The bill would also have created a new legal category (“commercial ridesharing agreements”) and required rideshare companies to provide its drivers with the commercial liability insurance used for taxis. Quinn should be praised for vetoing the bill. However, given the bill’s popularity among state legislators, there is a chance of an override of the veto.

The Illinois House passed HB 4075 in April by 80 votes to 26. In May, the Illinois Senate passed the bill by 46 to 8. In order to override a veto, 36 votes are needed in the Senate and 71 are needed in the House.

A few weeks after the Illinois Senate passed HB 4075, the Chicago City Council approved a rideshare ordinance, which goes into effect next week. The ordinance is far from perfect. For instance, it requires that all drivers using a rideshare company’s technology to have a chauffeur’s license if the driver workforce of that company averages more than 20 hours per week per driver. The ordinance also requires that rideshare companies whose drivers operate fewer than 20 hours per week on average have their vehicle inspections and background checks approved by the city. However, the ordinance is less restrictive than HB 4075 and its trailer bill HB 5331, which Quinn also vetoed. 

In his veto letter, Quinn rightly points out that it would be “premature—and perhaps counterproductive” to impose a statewide ridesharing regulatory structure on Illinois when the Chicago ordinance has yet to come into effect and that there is not enough evidence to judge the effectiveness of ridesharing ordinances.

However, it should be remembered that the ordinance in Chicago increases the number of regulations. While free marketers may be tempted to welcome legislation that allows ridesharing companies to operate, it is worth keeping in mind that as local lawmakers across the country try to regulate rideshare companies, there is a risk of regulatory capture and, as the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Marc Scribner has warned, a risk of ridesharing companies eventually using legislation to their advantage to stifle competition as technology continues to advance.  

 

Transparency Is Breaking Out All Over!

On Monday, Cato is hosting a briefing on Capitol Hill about congressional Wikipedia editing. Over a recent 90-day period, there were over 400,000 hits on Wikipedia articles about bills pending in Congress. If congressional staff were to contribute more to those articles, the amount of information available to interested members of the public would soar. Data that we produce at Cato go into the “infoboxes” on dozens and dozens of Wikipedia articles about bills in Congress.

A popular Twitter ‘bot called @congressedits recently created a spike in interest about congressional Wikipedia editing. It puts a slight negative spin on the practice because it tracks anonymous edits coming from Hill IP addresses, which are more likely to be inappropriate. But Congress can do a lot of good in this area, so Cato intern Zach Williams built a Twitter ‘bot that shows all edits to articles about pending federal legislation. This should draw attention to the beneficial practice of informing the public before bills become law. Meet @Wikibills!

Also, as of this week, Cato data are helping to inform some 26 million visitors per year to Cornell Law’s Legal Information Institute about what Congress is doing. Thanks to Tom Bruce and Sara Frug for adding some great content to the LII site.

Let’s say you’re interested in 18 U.S. Code § 2516, the part of the U.S. code that authorizes interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications. Searching for it online, you’ll probably reach the Cornell page for that section of the code. In the right column, a box displays “Related bills now in Congress,” linking to relevant bills in Congress.

Those hyperlinks are democratic links, letting people know what Congress is doing, so people can look into it and have their say. Does liberty automatically break out thanks to those developments? No. But public demands of all types—including for liberty and limited government—are frustrated now by the utter obscurity in which Congress acts. We’re lifting the curtain, providing the data that translates into a better informed public, a public better equipped to get what it wants.

The path to liberty goes through transparency, and transparency is breaking out all over!

How the Sharing Economy Can Help Developing Nations

While many sellers and buyers in the so-called sharing economy might like it for its convenience, there is a case to be made that in the developing world decentralized and peer-to-peer economies could help solve a crippling informational problem in environments with weak property rights and bad regulatory regimes.

Writing in Forbes earlier this week, Adam Ozimek, Director of Research and Senior Economist at Econsult Solutions, Inc., pointed out that the rating systems used by companies such as Uber and Airbnb allow for customers to “do what we previously thought tight regulations and even natural monopolies were needed to do.” Before the rise of the technologies that allowed for Uber and Lyft to exist, the taxi industry could argue that customers might face rip-offs or safety concerns in the absence of regulation. Thanks to the rating system used by companies in the sharing economy, this informational problem can be overcome.

To Edit or Not to Edit … Wikipedia

On Wikipedia’s list of Wikipedia controversies, you can read up on U.S. congressional staff edits to Wikipedia, which drew attention in mid-2006 because edits coming from Capitol Hill often sought to whitewash the pages of members of Congress. Most Hill staff know better than to do that now, but attention to Wikipedia editing in Congress has spiked again thanks to a new Twitter feed: @congressedits.

(How does it work? Congress has fixed, known IP addresses, and Wikipedia displays the IPs of users who are not logged in. Scan Wikipedia for edits coming from those IP addresses and you know which edits are being done by non-logged-in, Capitol Hill Wikipedians.)

So, is congressional Wikipedia editing bad? Not necessarily.

In a recent 90-day period, there were almost 400,000 hits on Wikipedia articles about bills pending in Congress. This makes Wikipedia a major source of information about congressional activity for average Americans. Getting content on Wikipedia from some of the most knowledgeable potential editors — congressional staff — could help Wikipedia deliver government transparency on a grand scale, positioning the public to demand better outcomes.

For this to happen, though, Wikipedians on the Hill must navigate Wikipedia rules around notability, neutrality, and conflicts of interest. Perhaps more challenging, Capitol Hill’s consensus on Wikipedia editing must shift from aversion to embrace.

We’ll be discussing congressional Wikipedia editing and the sea change to government transparency it might produce at a noon-time session on the Hill August 18th. The event is open to all, but Hill staff interested in improving congressional and government transparency are particularly welcome to join the discussion.

Second Verse, Same as the First

Twitter fight!

Yesterday morning, a line in a New York Times article by Nick Confessore offered me the opportunity for mirthful needling that turned into a full-blown, impossibly brief exchange of views on Twitter.

The article was on Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig’s plan to elect candidates who are committed to his version of campaign finance reform. It quoted Lessig saying, “Inside-the-Beltway people don’t think this issue matters, they don’t think voters vote on the basis of this issue, and they advise their politicians not to talk about it.”

So I tweeted: “I don’t think this issue matters.” Then I tweeted: “Voters don’t vote on the basis of this issue.” (I didn’t bother with the rest because I don’t advise politicians.)

I’m inside the beltway! I’m a people! How could I not?!

Responding to another NYT reporter’s question, I touted my own work as “speech-friendly reform,” linking to our upcoming event on congressional Wikipedia editing. Just think of the prospects if legislative staff—some of the foremost experts about the bills in Congress—contributed information about notable bills to Wikipedia for the public to peruse ahead of congressional debates.

Professor Lessig took the crumb of bait, asking me “how is more speech not speech friendly #Escapethe1990s.” (I still don’t know what the hashtag means.) Assuming he was still working on public/taxpayer funded campaigns—I’m not a follower of Lessig’s in the Twitter sense or any other—I tweeted about the wrong of forcing people to pay to money to support speech with which they disagree.

Lessig’s plan is not detailed on the website of his “Mayday PAC,” which only offers gauzy promises of “fundamental reform.” After some back and forth, I learned that Lessig’s reform plan is not direct public funding, in which taxpayer money goes from the Treasury to campaigns, but indirect. He would rebate $50 in taxes in the form of a “democracy voucher.” The taxpayer could give the voucher to any candidate who pledges only to take such vouchers, it could go to the political party of the taxpayer, or “if an independent, back to this public funding system.”

Riley and Wurie: Beyond “Get a Warrant”

As Ilya noted earlier, the Supreme Court struck a blow for privacy and the Fourth Amendment today. It ruled that a warrant is generally required when law enforcement officers want to search a cell phone they have seized. Justice Roberts’ opinion for a unanimous court provides some crisp language:

Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life.” (citation omitted) The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.

In this case, we pretty well knew we were going to get a win. So let’s set aside the trumpets and talk about the margin of victory. Did we get improvements in Fourth Amendment doctrine that will bolster privacy protection in cases to come? Only a little.

OK, let’s trumpet the case a bit. This is a unanimous case with a bright-line rule. It’s about the best outcome you could hope for in Riley and Wurie themselves (argued separately, decided together), and it’s a great vindication of the constitutional status of cell phones and our data on them.

Chief Justice Roberts seems to have brought the Court together on this one (save a niggling Alito concurrence) to produce a strong opinion that doesn’t show gaps among the justices. (They may all have felt a need to huddle, avoiding an open fight or the tipping of hands on the NSA spying controversy, for example.)

And on the major privacy controversy of the day, the Court did not tip its hand. It distinguished Smith v. Maryland, the case the government uses to justify gathering records about every U.S. phone. Smith held that using a pen register to gather phone calling information was not a search. “There is no dispute here that the officers engaged in a search of Wurie’s cell phone,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, punting for the Court in this case based on the consensus among parties.

The errant decision in Smith relied on the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test arising from the 1967 case, Katz v. United States. The very good news from this decision is that the Court once again declined to use the Katz test in resolving a Fourth Amendment issue, as our briefs invited the Court to do (or not to do, as it were). Instead, the Court implicitly found that there were searches in both cases and that those searches were of persons, houses, papers, or effects. Then it examined the reasonableness of searching cell phones.

That’s important because it means that the Court is interpreting the Fourth Amendment more like a law and not as the stack of doctrines that I’ve previously called a “jumble of puzzles.”

London Cabbies Hold Uber Regulation Protest

Today, thousands of drivers of London’s iconic black cabs are taking part in a possibly illegal demonstration in response to how Transport for London (TfL), the city’s transportation agency, is treating Uber. The drivers plan to cause congestion which Kabbee, a mini cab app company, believes will cost the London economy an estimated £125 million. Licensed taxi drivers are also holding protests related to Uber across other European cities today.

The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) believes that Uber, the San Francisco-based transport technology company, is operating illegally in London. Thanks to the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, it is illegal for a London vehicle with a private hire vehicle license to have a taximeter. Up until yesterday Uber’s website stated that anyone who wanted to be an Uber driver in London must have a private hire vehicle license. Today those requirements remain the same, however in response to the London protest Uber has opened to licensed black cabs.

TfL disagrees with LTDA and believes that the phones used by Uber should not be considered taximeters because they are not physically attached to the vehicle:

Smartphones used by private hire drivers – which act as GPS tracking devices to measure journey distances and relay information so that fares can be calculated remotely from the vehicle – do not constitute the equipping of a vehicle with a taxi meter.

However, TfL has asked the High Court to rule on the matter. LTDA’s secretary general, Steve McNamara, believes the court is unlikely to announce a ruling before the end of the year.

McNamara has used blunt language when discussing Uber and its presence in London:

This is not some philanthropic friendly society, it’s an American monster that has no qualms about breaching any and all laws in the pursuit of profit, most of which will never see a penny of tax paid in the UK.

Becoming a driver of one of London’s black cabs is a long process. In order to be a London black cab driver you need to pass “The Knowledge,” a rigorous test on London’s thousands of streets, roads, and landmarks, which takes years to prepare for. Not only do those hoping to become London cabbies have to spend years studying London, they also have to pay the relevant fees to complete the application process.

Speaking to the BBC, London black cab driver Lloyd Baldwin said:

Our beef with Uber is that these drivers have come straight into London, and have been licensed straight away by Transport for London. We’re regulated to within an inch of our lives.

We don’t do protests willy-nilly for petty things, we feel it’s our only course.

and,

We just want them to be treated exactly the same as we are.

Baldwin’s frustrations make sense in light of the time and money invested into becoming a driver of one of London’s iconic taxis. But, as in other jurisdictions, the answer is not to make new and innovative companies like Uber conform to already out-of-date regulations and legislation, but rather to liberalize the market Uber and London black cabs are competing in. When the Private Hire Vehicles Act was signed in 1998 the iPhone was still nine years away, and “The Knowledge” test, which began almost 150 years ago, predates cell phones (never mind smartphones). Regulations such as the ban on private hire vehicle license holders from having taxi meters are out of date, and it is long past due for them to be repealed in order to allow traditional cabs to compete with companies like Uber.

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