Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

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?

REAL ID: Walking Dead

The REAL ID Act is a federal law that calls on states to knit their driver licensing systems together into a national ID. Congress passed it nine years ago yesterday, setting a three-year deadline for state compliance.

You might think that a program would be dead if it failed to materialize after more than triple the time Congress gave for its implementation. But REAL ID is walking dead.

After the law passed, half the states in the country passed resolutions objecting to REAL ID or laws barring their states from complying. And the Department of Homeland Security has pushed back the deadline again and again and again. But the federal government keeps funding REAL ID, and state bureaucrats keep plodding forward with the national ID system.

In a Policy Analysis released today, we examined the progress of REAL ID in states around the country. REAL ID: A State-by-State Update reveals that some states’ legislatures have backtracked on their opposition to the national ID law. Some motor vehicle bureaucrats have quietly moved forward with REAL ID compliance contrary to state policy. And in some states, motor vehicle bureaucrats have worked to undercut state policy opposing REAL ID and the national ID system.

Louisiana recently reversed course and embraced the national ID law. The District of Columbia began requiring drivers to get REAL ID-compliant licenses effective May 1st.

Funds for implementing REAL ID come from DHS annual budget, which is appropriated by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees’ homeland security subcommittees. Congress has put around $50 million a year toward REAL ID in recent years, part of $300 to $500 million a year it spends on identification and tracking programs.

The alternative is better: Congress could save money and protect liberty if it fully defunded REAL ID. State political leaders should check to see if the administrators who work under them are building a national ID contrary to state policy, or if bureaucrats are lobbying to put the legislature behind the national ID program.

It hasn’t been implemented, but because it hasn’t been repealed or defunded, REAL ID awaits the day when the political winds blow in favor of a national ID.

Copyright Law’s Abuse

Yesterday, we had a very interesting discussion of copyright at our event on Tom W. Bell’s book, Intellectual Privilege. (Video will be available soon.) Today, I received an email that reflects how the copyright statute can be misused.

In a 2009 blog post about an $18,000,000 U.S. government web site, I pointed to the web site, Recovery.org, which was then hosting the same information as the government site, and doing it for free. Since then, the Recovery.org domain has evidently been transferred to an organization specializing in recovery from addiction (to alcohol and drugs, not government spending).

The email I received today purports to be from an attorney named “Rick Smith” of the “Law Offices of Rick Smith & Associates”—no web site or phone number, and only a Gmail account. It asks me to remove the link to http://www.recovery.org/, claiming to have “received numerous complaints” from readers of the 2009 blog post.

It goes on: “If you fail to respond by May 13 we will be forced to serve you with a formal DMCA take down notice. A copy can also be sent to the hosting provider and major search engines that can exclude this and other pages from organic search rankings.”

The notice-and-take-down provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act allows aggrieved copyright holders to attack the wrongful Internet posting of material over which the law gives them control. It is not there to help people seeking correction of web site inaccuracies, much less for them to threaten suppression of access to material in which they do not hold the copyright.

I know this, of course, but many people don’t. Emails like this can fool people into thinking that they have to make demanded changes.

I’m going to make the change because there’s no sense in preserving a bad link. I’m also going to contact the folks at Recovery.org to see if they’re aware that someone purporting to be their attorney is misusing copyright in their name.