Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

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.

June’s Cato Unbound: The Snowden Files, One Year Later

This month at Cato Unbound, we’re discussing Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations.

We mostly know the story, but it bears repeating: One year ago this week, Glenn Greenwald wrote a news story that would change the world forever. In it, we learned that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting enormous amounts of telephone metadata on what were presumably ordinary American citizens. The agency had done so without a warrant and without suspicion of any indiviudal person. The revelation changed forever how Americans think about national security, privacy, and civil liberties in the digital age.

More revelations soon followed. Among many others, these included NSA surveillance of web activitymobile phone location data, and the content of email and text messages. The NSA also conducted many highly embarrassing acts of surveillance against allied or benign world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the conclave that recently elected Pope FrancisIt had subverted commonly used encryption systems. It had co-opted numerous tech companies in its plans. Its leaders had repeatedly lied to, or at the very least misled, the U.S. Congress

How far should surveillance go? What has been the value of the information gained? What have we given up in the process? What are the risks, should malign actors ever get their hands on the controls of the system?

We are able to ask these questions today because of one individual: Edward Snowden, a systems administrator for the NSA who chose to make public the information to which he had access. We have no choice now but to debate it. That’s simply what democracies do whenever such momentous information becomes public.

Joining us at Cato Unbound this month are four individuals with extensive knowledge in the fields of national security and civil liberties: Cato Senior Fellow Julian Sanchez, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Benjamin Wittes, Georgetown University Professor Carrie F. Cordero, and independent journalist Marcy Wheeler. Each brings a somewhat different perspective on the matters at hand, and we welcome them all to what is sure to be a vigorous debate.

Government Data Flows Visualized

Today, I’m at the House Administration Committee’s Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. It’s become the annual confab for learning what the House is doing to improve transparency, for learning what the Senate is not doing to improve transparency, and to mix and mingle with others working on opening Congress’s deliberations to digital access.

In our 2012 study, Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices, we issued letter grades reflecting the quality of data the government makes available about its own deliberations, managment, and results, covering legislative process and budgeting, appropriating, and spending. The grading was based on criteria set out in an earlier study, Publication Practices for Transparent Government.

Grades are a way of showing the public, opinion leaders, and legislators what’s going on. For most areas, the grading study showed that access to data is relatively poor.

There is no question that people are working hard on things, and the House has consistently put in the most effort over the last few years. (The recently passed DATA Act now requires the administration to make an effort. Oversight and badgering will help ensure that it does.)

My contribution this year is a brief talk in which I’ll present what’s happening with data another way: by presenting a visualization of what’s happening with data flows—pictures!

Water is a good metaphor for data. Ideally, data would emerge at the source, like a spring, drinkable and ready for use. But very often, key information about government is not available as data at all. People have to pump it out of the ground, turning paper or PDF documents into usable data. Sometimes data isn’t in a format that’s truly useful. It’s undrinkable or “polluted.”

A lot of people in a lot of places are working to take data that is not ready for use and make it available. Our own contribution at Cato is the Deepbills project, which adds data to bills that allows computers to more readily access their meaning. Like a little water treatment plant. It’s not the only one.

It’s a big file (5.6 MB), but if you want, you can look through the PowerPoint. (Ignore the “Soup to Nuts” page—that’s a funny, funny joke, in my opinion, aimed at those who attended last year.)

FCC’s Net Neutrality Rules

On May 15 the FCC announced a proposed rule that would govern the relationship between content providers and internet service providers.  Consumer groups argued the proposed rule was not strong enough because it did not ban differential arrangements between them.

The underlying economic issues are several.  Should the government concern itself with the relationship between the “creators” of things and the “transporters” of them?  In particular should economic profits go just to the creators of things?  Is it “wrong” for the transporters to extract some as well?  What if a creator of content and a transporter want to vertically integrate or enter into a long-term contract to end the costly dispute between them over the division of any economic profits?  Should such arrangements be forbidden because of the possibility such an entity would refuse to transport the content of a different creator?

These issues are not new.  In fact they first arose between railroads and the creators of “content” i.e. farmers, mines, steel mills etc. in the 19th century.  The political resolution of these issues was the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887.  It took about one hundred years for the experiment in transportation common carrier rate regulation to end.  Scholars have concluded that rate regulation raised rather than lowered transportation prices.  And the public has come to the same conclusion because in the quarter century since the end of transportation rate regulation, prices have decreased dramatically.  For a discussion of the rise and fall of transportation regulation see this article by Thomas Gale Moore.

In “Antecedents to Net Neutrality” Bruce Owen explicitly makes the link between the concerns of traditional transportation common carrier regulation and the contemporary notion of “Internet neutrality.”  Net neutrality policies could be implemented only through detailed price regulation, an approach that failed to improve consumer welfare in the transportation sector. History thus counsels against adoption of most versions of net neutrality.  Christopher Yoo has written a detailed history of how difficult common carriage regulation was to implement in traditional telecommunications regulation.  A shorter version will appear in the summer issue of Regulation.

The public debate over net neutrality also does not reflect the increased variation in the price and quality of its services that already exists.  Innovations such as private peering, multihoming, secondary peering, server farms, and content delivery networks have caused the Internet’s traditional one-size-fits-all architecture to be replaced by one that is more heterogeneous. Related, network providers have begun to employ an increasingly varied array of business arrangements and pricing. These changes reflect network providers’ attempts to reduce cost, manage congestion, and maintain quality of service. Policy proposals to constrain this variation risk harming these beneficial developments.

Do Anti-REAL-ID Senators Support REAL ID Spending?

Each year, the homeland security appropriations bill provides for funding that supports REAL ID, the national ID law that Congress passed in haste in 2005.

States across the country originally refused to implement the national ID law, but as we showed in the recently released report, “REAL ID: A State-by-State Update,” some states are reversing course and beginning to implement, and in other states bureaucrats are moving forward with REAL ID contrary to state policy.

Part of the reason this continues is because the federal government continues to funnel money into REAL ID compliance. Year over year, federal grant money keeps state bureaucrats and state bureaucrat interest groups like the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators sniffing around for grant dollars and contracts.

Interestingly, four members of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds REAL ID through the Department of Homeland Security are from states that have rejected REAL ID. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Jon Tester (D-MT), Mark Begich (D-AK), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) could move to cut off funding for REAL ID if they chose, but, to my knowledge, have not done so in the past.

Senators Tester and Begich are cosponsors of a bill by Senator John Walsh (D-MT) to repeal REAL ID, and Senator Tester came to Cato in 2008 to call out REAL ID’s demerits (his presentation starts at 21:00 in the mp3).

If the senators from anti-REAL-ID states could tap one more member of the homeland security appropriations subcommittee, they would have a majority to amend the bill to withdraw funds from the national ID project. Will they stand by and let REAL ID funding go through again this year?