Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Google’s Search “Monopoly”

Last week, while we Americans were “unbundling” the various parts of our turkeys, the European Parliament was talking about unbundling Google’s various features:

Members of the European parliament voted overwhelmingly on a measure aimed at keeping companies, such as Google, from dominating the search engine market.

The motion “calls on the [European] Commission to consider proposals with the aim of unbundling search engines from other commercial services as one potential long-term solution” to ensure fair competition.

While the vote was largely symbolic, its outcome could put EU anti-trust commissioner Margrethe Vestager under pressure to pursue complaints against Google, which critics say squeezes out its competitors using unfair advantages.

The Economist weighed in with a bit of criticism:

The European Parliament’s Googlephobia looks a mask for two concerns, one worthier than the other. The lamentable one, which American politicians pointed out this week, is a desire to protect European companies. Among the loudest voices lobbying against Google are Axel Springer and Hubert Burda Media, two German media giants. Instead of attacking successful American companies, Europe’s leaders should ask themselves why their continent has not produced a Google or a Facebook. Opening up the EU’s digital services market would do more to create one than protecting local incumbents.

The good reason for worrying about the internet giants is privacy. It is right to limit the ability of Google and Facebook to use personal data: their services should, for instance, come with default settings guarding privacy, so companies gathering personal information have to ask consumers to opt in. Europe’s politicians have shown more interest in this than American ones. But to address these concerns, they should regulate companies’ behaviour, not their market power. Some clearer thinking by European politicians would benefit the continent’s citizens.

Building on these points, I’d go even further.  It seems to me there is pretty clear demand for a privacy-focused internet company.  But I don’t see why governments need to get involved here.  Instead, companies – European ones, and others, too – just need to recognize this demand, and jump into the market with some competing products.  There are fewer barriers to entry in this market than most other markets; someone just needs to be willing to take a risk.

Computer-Aided Reporting: Looking Where the Light Is Good

Upshot (New York Times) writer Derek Willis tweeted this morning, “We need to stop doing stories (and maps) with meaningless data.” At the link, a story on Vox charts the poorest members of Congress. It’s based on a Roll Call story published in September.

His main point, I think, is the failure of the data to reliably reflect what it’s supposed to. The disclosures on which these stories rely don’t include the value of homes members own, for example, and information is reported in broad bands, so it’s probably not very accurate and may be wildly inaccurate.

The data is meaningless in another, more important way. Neither story suggests any correlation between wealth (or its absence) and legislators’ behavior or fitness for office. It’s just a look at who has money and who doesn’t—uninformative infotainment. Maybe some readers stack up inferences to draw conclusions about Congress or its members, but this is probably an exercise in confirming one’s biases.

This illustrates a real problem for computer-aided journalism. When the only data available depicts a certain slice of the world, that will skew editorial judgments toward that slice of the world, overweighting its importance in news reporting and commentary.

In my opinion, reporting on public policy suffers just such a skew. There is relatively good data about campaign financing and campaign spending, which makes it easy to report about. The relatively high level of reporting on this area makes it appear more important while the actual behavior of public officials in office—the bills they sponsor, the contents of bills, amendments, votes, and the results for society—goes relatively unreported.

It won’t be the fix for all that ails reporting on public policy, but our Deepbills project makes essential content of legislation available as data. It vastly expands the territory around U.S. federal public policy that computer-aided jounalists can cover. Deepbills data has been picked up various places, but we need more adoption before it will provide all the value it can to a better-informed public.

Update: On Wednesday, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee will have a hearing on implementation of the DATA Act, which could yet further expand the data available to journalists, and all of us.

DATA Act Implementation

The administration is working to implement the DATA Act, which, if implemented well, could produce a sea-change in government transparency, and a shift of power from government insiders to the people.

Yesterday, I submitted to the Treasury Department’s Fiscal Service our 2012 “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices” study, along with the following comment, which notes the glaring absence of a machine-readable government organization chart.

In partial response to the notice, I’m pleased to submit the attached study, which may assist your inquiry.

Over several years, I have been studying transparency, which remains largely undelivered because it has been undefined.

In “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices,” you’ll find the results of that study. Transparency is produced by data that comes from an authoritative source, data that is complete, that is machine-discoverable, and that is machine-readable. When good data publication conditions obtain, the public and government managers alike, through information services, apps, and websites, will make use of the data to make the government more legible.

The study graded the quality of data publication about key entities in the legislative and budgeting/spending processes. The striking upshot was the absence of good data about a very elemental topic: the organizational units of the federal government. There is no machine-readable organization chart for the U.S. federal government. The absence of a machine-readable government organization chart stifles public and congressional oversight, and it frustrates internal management.

Producing machine-readable data that articulates what the organizational units of the federal government are should be a priority. It is probably one of the easier things to do technically, and it will produce important gains in transparency. Failure to produce and maintain a machine-readable federal government organization chart would also stand out if it is not done early on in DATA Act implementation.

We are currently in the process of re-grading data publication in the areas covered by the prior study. In future iterations of the grading study, I look forward to reporting that there is well-organized, complete information about all agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects, and the relationships among them.

Thank you!

Jim Harper

A cynic—and there might be one or two reading this blog!—would say that the government will never make itself transparent. Well, it certainly won’t if you don’t ask it to…

Strange Bedfoes against NSA Reform Bill

The push to rein in the authorities of the National Security Agency—covertly expanded by a secret court to permit indiscriminate bulk collection of Americans’ communications  and financial records—has become a truly bipartisan affair. In a way, this is nothing new: Liberals who recall the abuses of the Hoover era have long teamed with conservatives skeptical of government power in efforts to check excessive surveillance.  With a Senate vote looming to move forward with the USA FREEDOM Act, however, a still stranger mix of opponents is seeking to block what has emerged as the primary vehicle for intelligence reform in the post-Snowden era.

First, and least surprising, there’s the “More Catholic than the Pope” contingent—boosters of the intelligence community who seem convinced that the bill will somehow put Americans at risk, despite the insistence of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that the proposed safeguards would not hinder intelligence operations. This stance is exemplified by a stunningly misleading Wall Street Journal op-ed penned by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and forrmer NSA head Michael Hayden. Since the terrorist Islamic State group, or ISIS, is currently in the headlines, naturally it is invoked to tar the bill as “a reform that only ISIS could love.”  Never explained: Why, precisely, we should expect an authority to indiscriminately sweep up domestic telephone records to be a critical tool for monitoring a group that seems primarily concerned with consolidating its power overseas, not fielding operatives in the United States.  After all, even when it comes to domestic investigations—where one might have expected the NSA’s mass database to show its value—two independent review groups with full access to classified records have concluded that the program had little or none.  Incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has described the reforms as “tying our hands behind our back”—but a hand is a useful appendage.  On the public record, “tying our hair back” might a be more apt description—the bulk database has obscured the FBI’s by flooding the Bureau with dead-end “tips,” while any truly pertinent information it provided was invariably duplicative of records that agents had already obtained using traditional, targeted authorities.

Yet the USA FREEDOM framework actually preserves the core capabilities of this ineffective program: It creates a new mechanism for the government to do “connection chaining” by quickly and continuously obtaining, from multiple phone carriers, the records of suspected terror affiliates and their contacts. Mukasey and Hayden falsely decribe the new process as requiring a “warrant”—which it does not, on the consensus legal understanding that a “warrant” is a particularized authority based on the Fourth Amendment’s relatively high evidentiary standard of “probable cause.”  They also, somewhat comically, describe it as requiring the government go “scurrying” to telecomunications providers to “comb through” records, presumably by consulting a card catalogue.  Yet the point of the new framework, with a mandate that carriers provide “technical assistance” to NSA, is precisely to ensure that carriers can rapidly search their files to provide information about numbers once the secret FISA court has signed off (or, indeed, in advance of the court’s approval in an emergency).  Nor, indeed, do Mukasey and Haden so much as mention “National Security Letters,” a separate tool that can be used to obtain certain types of communications records without any judicial involvement. Unfortunately, the USA FREEDOM Act does not implement the recommendation of the President’s Surveillance Review group that these, too, require court authorization. Nor, conspicuously, does their tendentious discussion of the various safeguards currently in place mention the numerous massive and systemic violations of the rules imposed by the FISA court—violations that easily passed undetected for years precisely because NSA itself maintained the database rather than making particularized requests to carriers through the FISA court.

In short, the bill doesn’t really affect the government’s capabilities, only the way they’re implemented.  First, phone numbers to be searched will have to be specifically approved by the FISA Court—as Congress expected would be the case when it approved these authorities, and as has already been required since Februrary under a presidential directive.  Second, NSA will quickly obtain particular records, corresponding to “specific selectors” like phone numbers or other account identifiers, by passing its search queries to the carriers who already maintain those rather than compiling its own massive database, overwhelmingly consisting of irrelevant data about innocent people. This ought to be a pure win: A privacy protective re-architecting that reduces the potential for abuse without meaningfully interfering with the government’s ability to obtain the information in which it has a legitimate interest.   Which, of course, is why current intelligence officials have characterized the reforms as reasonable. Retired officials—the ones who implemented the bulk program and insisted its vast invasiveness was absolutely necessary—may be reluctant to admit they’ve been proven wrong, but their stubbornness does not amount to much of an argument.

Supreme Court Should Remove Kafka-esque Burden to Vindicating Property Rights

In order to create better telecom infrastructure, New York state law gives private telecom firms the power to take private property in exchange for just compensation. Verizon used this power to build terminal boxes on thousands of pieces of private property, thus essentially permanently occupying a part of the properties. Verizon is one of a few companies that enjoy this extraordinary, state-granted privilege to build things on other people’s property without their permission.

Those companies, however, must compensate the owners (at least theoretically) for these sorts of takings of property. Kurtz v. Verizon New York, Inc. arises from a putative class action alleging that Verizon failed to compensate 30,000-50,000 property owners for building terminal boxes on their property. Although Verizon is required to give property owners their “full compensation rights,” the plaintiffs argue that the company continuously flouts this requirement “as a matter of corporate policy and practice,” thus violating both the plaintiffs’ rights to procedural due process—for example, by not even notifying them that their property was being taken—and their Fifth Amendment rights to not have their property taken for public use without just compensation.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, however, ruled that the plaintiffs couldn’t proceed with their claims because of a case called Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City (1985), in which the Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs with takings claims have to seek relief from state courts before proceeding with a federal claim. Otherwise, the case will be dismissed for being not “ripe”—not ready for a federal court to hear the case.

Although this may seem like a small hoop-jumping exercise, this procedural requirement creates an unnecessary and burdensome extra step that can prevent many plaintiffs from ever having their takings claims heard in federal court. No other enumerated constitutional right has a similar requirement. Plaintiffs claiming a First Amendment violation, for example, don’t first have to exhaust their case in state courts.

The plaintiffs are now petitioning the Supreme Court to review the continuing relevance of Williamson County. In a brief supporting the petition, Cato, joining the Pacific Legal Foundation, argues that takings claims are ripe when the taking occurs, not after a plaintiff has gone through the state courts. Moreover, we point out that Williamson County, when combined with other rules of civil procedure, has actually prevented many claimants from ever bringing a case.

After exhausting their claims in state courts, some plaintiffs find that federal courts will dismiss their case on the ground that the matter has already been decided (what lawyers call res judicata, or “judged matter”). Other times, defendants will ask the judge to move the case from state court to federal court and then, once the case is in federal court, will argue that the plaintiffs did not exhaust their claims in state court (which of course they couldn’t have done because the defendants removed the case).

This Kafka-esque system is not the way to properly vindicate constitutional rights, and it’s certainly not what the Supreme Court imagined when it decided Williamson County. The Court should take this case to remove an unnecessary and harmful barrier to the protection of private property. 

Why Transparency Is Important

The benefits of transparency are hard to explain. Bit by bit, we’re improving public oversight of government, I’ve been heard to say, implying more libertarian-friendly outcomes—never quite sure that I’m getting my message through.

Now comes a comment on transparency that articulates its importance better than I ever could. It’s Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber describing how lacking transparency allowed the president’s signature health care regulation to pass.

A gaffe in Washington is when somebody tells the truth. Thanks to this one, more people may understand how non-transparent government undercuts their freedoms. Insisting on government transparency can protect them.

Public Oversight of Congress, One Click at a Time

In mid-August, using Cato Deepbills data, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University started alerting visitors to its U.S. Code pages that the laws these visitors care about may be amended by Congress.

The most visited bills are an interesting smattering of issues.

Getting top clicks is H.R. 570, the American Heroes COLA Act. Would it surprise you to learn that beneficiaries of Social Security’s Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance program are looking to see if veterans’ disability compensation will get the same cost-of-living increases? The relevant section of the Social Security Act on the Cornell site points to the bill that would grow veterans’ benefits in tandem with Social Security recipients’.

S. 1859, the Tax Extenders Act of 2013, is the second bill with the most referrals from Cornell. People looking into federal regulation of health insurance—or myriad other statutes—are finding their way to this complex piece of legislation. We know visitors to the Cornell site are legally sophisticated. They just might be able to follow what S. 1859 does.

Immigration is a hot-button issue, and Deepbills links at Cornell such as the code section dealing with reimbursement for detaining aliens are sending people to S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.

Another hot-button issue and top source of clicks from Cornell’s site: federal gun control. People looking at gun control law are following links to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) bill to ban assault weapons.

As of Thursday morning, 674 people had clicked 855 times on links to the bills in Congress that affect the laws they’re interested in. Those numbers aren’t going to instantaneously revive public oversight of the government. But usage of these links is rising, and Tom Bruce at Cornell says he plans changes that may increase clicks by 3 to 5 times. He guesses that people see Cato’s sponsorship of the data they can access 20,000 times a day. (“I should have asked you for a penny per impression ),” he says. Funny guy.)

A lot more people are aware of work Cato is doing to increase government transparency, but, more importantly, a small but growing cadre of people are being made aware of what Congress is doing. This positions them to do something about it. Public oversight of Congress is increasing one click at a time.