Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Do New Cybersecurity Restrictions Amount to Regulatory Protectionism?

Protectionism masquerading as regulation in the public interest is the subject of an excellent new paper by my colleagues Bill Watson and Sallie James.  As tariffs and other border barriers to trade have declined, rent-seeking domestic interests have turned increasingly to regulations with noble sounding purposes – protecting Flipper from the indiscriminating nets of tuna fishermen, fighting the tobacco industry’s efforts to entice children with grape-flavored cigarettes, keeping U.S. highways safe from recklessly-driven, dilapidated, smoke-emitting Mexican trucks, and so on – in order to reduce competition and secure artificial market advantages over you, the consumer.

The paper documents numerous examples of this “bootleggers and Baptists” phenomenon, where the causes of perhaps well-intentioned advocates of health and safety regulation were infiltrated or commandeered by domestic producer interests with more nefarious, protectionist motives, and advises policymakers to:

be skeptical of regulatory proposals backed by the target domestic industry and of proposals that lack a plausible theory of market failure. These are red flags that the proposal is the product of privilege-seeking special interests disguised as altruistic consumer advocates.

After reading this incisive paper, you might consider whether a new law restricting U.S. government purchases of Chinese-produced information technology systems in the name of cybersecurity fits the profile of regulatory protectionism.  A two paragraph section of the 574-page “Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013,” signed into law last week, prohibits federal agency purchases of IT equipment “produced, manufactured or assembled” by entities “owned, directed, or subsidized by the People’s Republic of China” unless the head of the purchasing agency consults with the FBI and determines that the purchase is “in the national interest of the United States” and then conveys that determination in writing to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

Silicon Valley Addresses Homelessness by Picking at the Scab

It’s frustrating to see homelessness documented in my beloved Silicon Valley, not only because homelessness is regretable, but because of the way it’s documented in this Bill Moyers piece.

Homelessness exists “in the shadow of Google, in the shadow of Oracle, in the shadow of Apple Computer,” says AP writer Martha Mendoza, whose story inspired the Moyers video. And there’s certainly editorial in the video’s images of wealthy neighborhoods and manicured corporate campuses: Wealth causes poverty, it appears.

But would Teresa Frigge really be doing better if Larry Ellison had been held to middle class wealth? In an alternate universe where Larry Page and Sergey Brin co-own the McDonalds at El Camino and Santa Cruz in Menlo Park, how is Teresa better off?

Rather than dumb juxtaposition, look for actual causes of inequality. Is it the loss of chip manufacturing? That was already declining in 1987.

Housing is hard to find in the Valley. Fifteen years ago, “for every five jobs they were adding, they were building two units of housing,” Mendoza reports.

Disambiguate “they.” For every five jobs Silicon Valley businesses were adding, Silicon Valley builders were building two units of housing.

The reason why? Zoning laws are strangling Silicon Valley. (Liberals agree.) The cap on housing artificially raised the cost of labor, driving chip manufacturing out of Silicon Valley, which still designs chips for manufacture elsewhere. The result is class striation.

But zoning reform is nowhere to be found in the reporting on this issue. Instead, Mendoza features San Jose’s increase in the minimum wage—from $8 to $10. That means that people who cannot provide well more than $20,000 in value per year to prospective employers may not work legally in that city.

The laws say that you may not work in this area if you’re not skilled, and you may not live there if you’re not rich. I don’t think it’s wealth that’s causing this homelessness.

What Is the Value of Bitcoin?

With Bitcoin enjoying a spike in price against government currencies, there is lots of talk about it on the Interwebs. If you’re not familiar with it yet, here’s a good Bitcoin primer, which also counsels reading a lot more before you acquire Bitcoin, as Bitcoin may fail. If you like Bitcoin and want to buy some, don’t go all goofy. Do your homework. As if you need to be told, be careful with your money.

Much of the commentary declares a Bitcoin bubble for one reason or another. It might be a bubble, but nobody actually knows. A way of guessing is to compare Bitcoin’s qualities as a currency and payment network to the alternatives. Like any service or good, there are many dimensions to value storage and transfer.

I may not capture them all, and they certainly don’t predict the correct price against the dollar or other currencies. That depends on the ultimate viscosity of Bitcoin. But Bitcoin certainly has value of a different kind: it may discipline fiat currencies and the states that control them.

“Everyone Will Have to Decide For Themselves”

Alessandro Acquisti is one of my favorite privacy researchers, and a quote he gave the New York Times about consumer privacy is all Acquisti, right down to the Italian-born locution.

“Should people be worried? I don’t know,” he said with a shrug in his office at Carnegie Mellon. “My role is not telling people what to do. My role is showing why we do certain things and what may be certain consequences. Everyone will have to decide for themselves.”

Alas, Times reporter Somini Sengupta did not report on Acquisti as neutrally as Acquisti reports on privacy.

We don’t always act in our own best interest, his research suggests. We can be easily manipulated by how we are asked for information. Even something as simple as a playfully designed site can nudge us to reveal more of ourselves than a serious-looking one.

It is just as plausible that people mouth a desire for privacy but then act more consistently with their self-interest when they reveal information that provides them fuller interaction, free Internet content, and broader commercial choices.

Read more of Acquisti on his Economics of Privacy page.

Government Surveillance of Travel IT Systems

If you haven’t seen Edward Hasbrouck’s talk on government surveillance of travel IT systems, you should.

It’s startling to learn just how much access people other than your airline have to your air travel plans.

Here’s just one image that Hasbrouck put together to illustrate what the system looks like.

He’ll be presenting his travel surveillance talk here at Cato at noon on April 2nd. We’ll also be discussing the new public notice on airport strip-search machines issued by the TSA earlier this week.

Register now for Travel Surveillance, Traveler Intrusion.

Comment on TSA Strip-Search Machine Policy—And Attend Our Event April 2nd

You can now comment on the TSA’s proposed rule regarding its use of strip-search machines on American travelers at our nation’s airports.

Under a July 2011 court order requiring it to do so, the TSA finally proposed the rule that explains its airport procedures with respect to strip-search machines. You can now know your rights and obligations in that process, how to opt-out of the strip-search machines, and where to register complaints if you feel you’ve been treated badly.

Just kidding!

This is the two-sentence statement it proposed to add to existing language about passenger screening:

(d) The screening and inspection described in (a) may include the use of advanced imaging technology. For purposes of this section, advanced imaging technology is defined as screening technology used to detect concealed anomalies without requiring physical contact with the individual being screened.

It took 20 months to produce these two sentences, which allow the TSA to do whatever it wants. My initial thoughts were to find TSA contemptuous of the court’s order and wronly using secrecy to hide the analysis of its policies.

We’ll be discussing the proposal at a Cato policy forum next Tuesday, April 2nd, called “Travel Surveillance, Traveler Intrusion,” starting at noon Eastern. Like most Cato events, it will be live-streamed.

The event is a two-fer. Not only will we hear from Ginger McCall of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the organization that brought the suit that finally produced this rulemaking. We’ll also hear from Ed Hasbrouck, whose research reveals just how intensively the U.S. government monitors the air travel of every American.

Feel free to move about the country? Just wait until you learn how your movements are tracked—before and after you get your digital strip-search or prison-style pat-down.

Register now!

Jardines: The Supreme Court Retreats to the Home

The Supreme Court ruled today in Florida v. Jardines that “use of trained police dogs to investigate the home and its immediate surroundings is a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.”

It’s the right result. The Court was divided 5-4, though, and the case shows some of the same fissures around Fourth Amendment doctrine that U.S. v. Jones did last year.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Scalia, won’t clear up the doctrinal debates, which are sure to continue. Instead, it retreats to the home. The specific protection for “houses” in the Fourth Amendment, he wrote:

renders this case a straightforward one. The officers were gathering information in an area belonging to Jardines and immediately surrounding his house—in the curtilage of the house, which we have held enjoys protection as part of the home itself. And they gathered that information by physically entering and occupying the area to engage in conduct not explicitly or implicitly permitted by the homeowner.

Property law gives strangers an implied license to approach a house for the variety of purposes they may have. “But introducing a trained police dog to explore the area around the home in hopes of discovering incriminating evidence is something else. There is no customary invitation to do that.”

Justice Scalia did use the case to answer a question left open by Jones. He emphasized that the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test from Katz v. United States (1967) built upon, and did not supplant, the Fourth Amendment’s foundation in property. He specifically declined to use that test in the holding.

The dissent objected vigorously to the idea that approaching the front door of a home via the walk was a trespass.

“[G]athering evidence—even damning evidence—is a lawful activity that falls within the scope of the license to approach,” Justice Alito wrote. “And when officers walk up to the front door of a house, they are permitted to see, hear, and smell whatever can be detected from a lawful vantage point.”

The dissent also rejected an argument put forward by the concurrence: that the reasonable expectation of privacy test is an alternative ground for the holding.

Yes, Justice Kagan would also have used “reasonable expectations” to decide the case, but her concurrence covers more important ground than that. As she did at oral argument, she fixed on the government’s use of the dog to perceive things that couldn’t otherwise be perceived. That’s what searching is.

“[P]olice officers came to Joelis Jardines’ door with a super-sensitive instrument, which they deployed to detect things inside that they could not perceive unassisted.” And later: “[A] drug-detection dog is a specialized device for discovering objects not in plain view (or plain smell).”

In the Cato Institute’s brief in the case, I emphasized that drug-dog detection was but one form of chromatography, the use of which the court should treat as searching because it “look[s] for or seek[s] out that which is otherwise concealed from view” (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary).