Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Transparency and Liberty

John McGinnis has some kind words for work I oversee here at Cato in a recent blog post of his entitled: “The Internet–A Technology for Encompassing Interests and Liberty.”

As he points out, the information environment helps determine outcomes in political systems because it controls who is in a position to exercise power.

The history of liberty has been in no small measure the struggle between diffuse and encompassing interests, on the one hand, and special interests, on the other.  Through their concentrated power, special interests seek to use the state to their benefit, while diffuse interests concern the ordinary citizen or taxpayer, or in William Graham Sumner’s arresting phrase, The Forgotten Man. When the printing press was invented, the most important special interests were  primarily the rulers themselves and the aristocrats who supported them. The printing press allowed the middle class to discover and organize around their common interests to sustain a democratic system that limited the exactions of the oligarchs.

But the struggle between diffuse and special interests does not disappear with the rise of democracy. Trade associations, farmers’ associations and unions have leverage with politicians to obtain benefits that the rest of us pay for. As a successor to the printing press, however, the internet advances liberty by continuing to reduce the cost of acquiring information. Such advances help diffuse groups more than special interests.

The Internet is the new printing press, and we’re generating data here at Cato that should allow it to have its natural, salutary effects for liberty.

My favorite current example is the “Appropriate Appropriations?” page published by the Washington Examiner. It allows you to easily see what representatives have introduced bills proposing to spend taxpayer money, information that—believe it or not—was hard to come by until now.

In John McGinnis, we have a legal scholar who recognizes the potential ramifications for governance of our entry into the information age. Read his whole post and, for more in this area, his book, Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance Through Technology.

Dear America, I Saw You Naked

Politico has a hilarious, revolting, and insightful article, written by former Transportation Security Administration screener Jason Edward Harrington. It’s called “Dear America, I Saw You Naked.” The subhead: “And yes, we were laughing.”

Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display. Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who’d had mastectomies were easy to discern—their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions. Hernias appeared as bulging, blistery growths in the crotch area. Passengers were often caught off-guard by the X-Ray scan and so materialized on-screen in ridiculous, blurred poses—mouths agape, à la Edvard Munch. One of us in the I.O. room would occasionally identify a passenger as female, only to have the officers out on the checkpoint floor radio back that it was actually a man. All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels.

In July 2011, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the TSA to conduct a formal rulemaking and take comments from the public on the use of strip-search machines at airports. TSA took 20 months to propose a two-sentence regulation, which, as we pointed out to the agency, is totally defective.

The comment period closed in June last year and we have waited another seven months, at this point, for a final rule. When it comes out, it can be challenged in court under the “arbitrary and capricious” standard of the Administrative Procedure Act.

The evidence in the rulemaking docket shows that strip-search machines cost more in dollars, privacy, and dignity than they provide in security, which, as Harrington’s article again shows, is not very much: “We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed.”

Obama Administration Seeks to Head Off Spending Transparency

Congratulations to Cato’s media staff who worked though the night last night to produce an excellent Cato response to the State of the Union speech. It’s a lot of work, and they make it look easy.

At minute 10:00, my appearance in the video pivots from NSA spying and secrecy to a transparency issue that is just as important to the long-term maintenance of freedom in our country. It’s an issue you might not have heard about.

Leaked documents revealed this week that President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget is seeking to gut spending transparency legislation that is making its way through Congress. The DATA Act is intended to transform the U.S. government’s spending information from inaccessible documents buried in the executive branch into open data, available for the public to use. The House has passed one version. A Senate committee has forwarded another version of the bill to the floor.

Good First Steps, But Real Surveillance Reform Will Require More

The president’s speech on surveillance today proposed some welcome first steps toward appropriately limiting an expanding surveillance state — notably, an end to the NSA’s bulk phone metadata program in its current form, and a recognition that judges, not NSA analysts, must determine whose records will be scrutinized.

The details are important, however. Obama’s speech left open the possibility that bulk collection might continue with some third party — which would in effect be an arm of government — as a custodian. If records are left with phone carriers, on the other hand, it’s important to resist any new legal mandate that would require longer or more extensive retention of private data than ordinary business purposes require.

It was disappointing, however, to see that many of the recommendations offered by Obama’s own Surveillance Review Group were either neglected or specifically rejected. While the unconstitutional permanent gag orders attached to National Security Letters will be time-limited, they will continue to be issued by FBI agents, not judges, for sensitive financial and communications records.

Nor did the president address NSA’s myopic efforts to degrade the security of the Internet by compromising the encryption systems relied on by millions of innocent users. And it is also important to realize that changing one controversial program doesn’t alter the broader section 215 authority, which can still be used to collect other types of records in bulk—and for all we know, may already be used for that purpose.

Most fundamentally, Congress must now act to cement these reforms in legislation — and to extend them —to ensure safeguards implemented by one president cannot be secretly undone by another.

How’s That Oversight Coming Along?

One of the claims made by defenders of NSA spying is that it’s overseen and approved by all three branches of the federal government.

Computer security expert Bruce Schneier provides some insight into how well congressional oversight is working in a short blog post entitled: “Today I Briefed Congress on the NSA.”

This morning I spent an hour in a closed room with six Members of Congress: Rep. Logfren, Rep. Sensenbrenner, Rep. Scott, Rep. Goodlate, Rep Thompson, and Rep. Amash. No staffers, no public: just them. Lofgren asked me to brief her and a few Representatives on the NSA. She said that the NSA wasn’t forthcoming about their activities, and they wanted me – as someone with access to the Snowden documents – to explain to them what the NSA was doing.

Many members of Congress have been derelict for years in not overseeing the National Security Agency. Now some members of Congress are asking questions, and they’re being stonewalled.

It’s the government so…

I suggested that we hold this meeting in a SCIF, because they wanted me to talk about top secret documents that had not been made public. The problem is that I, as someone without a clearance, would not be allowed into the SCIF.

Randy Barnett and I made the case last fall that the panels of judges who approve domestic spying under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act should not be regarded as legitimate courts. Their use to dispose of Americans’ rights violates due process.

And the executive branch? Here’s President Obama: “I mean, part of the problem here is we get these through the press and then I’ve got to go back and find out what’s going on…”

How’s that tri-partite oversight coming along?

FCC to Make Internet Service a Public Utility

Do you want your Internet service provider to operate like the water company or the electric company? Internet access services will be more like these leaden public utilities if the Federal Communications Commission tries one of the more likely workarounds to a D.C. Circuit Court decision today that restricts its authority to regulate.

The story is long and involved—read it in the court’s opinion if you like—but the FCC has sought for years now to regulate broadband Internet service providers something like it used to regulate AT&T, with government mandated terms of service if not tarriffs and price controls. This doesn’t fit the technical environment of the Internet, which allows for diverse business models. Companies that experiment with network management, pricing, internal subsidy, and so on can find the configurations that serve widely varying consumers and their differing Internet needs the best. If government believes in fast lanes and slow lanes, surely Internet service providers could optimize service for movie delivery, video calling, and such, while email arrives a little less speedily.

The court found that the FCC’s plans don’t fit with its classification some years ago of broadband as an “information service,” subject to the light-touch regulation under Title I of the Communications Act. Title II, which applies to “telecommunications carriers,” allows common carrier regulation of the type the FCC is trying to impose. So watch for the FCC to conveniently change its mind and begin pushing for treatment of broadband once again as a “telecommunications service.” This is so it can have more control over the business decisions made by Internet service providers.

We made the case more than five years ago that “ ‘Net neutrality” is a good engineering principle, but it shouldn’t be a legal mandate. Technology and markets surpassed any need for command-and-control regulation in this area long ago. But regulators don’t give up power without a fight. To maintain power, the FCC may try to make Internet service a public utility.