Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

A Transparency Milestone

This week, I reported at the Daily Caller (and got a very nice write-up) about a minor milestone in the advance of government transparency: We recently finished adding computer-readable code to every version of every bill in the 113th Congress.

That’s an achievement. More than 10,000 bills were introduced in Congress’s last-completed two-year meeting (2013-14). We marked up every one of them with additional information.

We’ve been calling the project “Deepbills” because it allows computers to see more deeply into the content of federal legislation. We added XML-format codes to the texts of bills, revealing each reference to federal agencies and bureaus, and to existing laws no matter how Congress cited them. Our markup also automatically reveals budget authorities, i.e., spending.

Want to see every bill that would have amended a particular title or section of the U.S. code? Deepbills data allows that.

Want to see all the bills that referred to the Administration on Aging at HHS? Now that can be done.

Want to see every member of Congress who proposed a new spending program and how much they wanted to spend? Combining Deepbills data with other data allows you to easily collect that imporant information.

TSA’s Classified “Risk-Reduction Analysis”

Last month, our friends at the Competitive Enterprise Institute filed suit against the TSA because the agency failed to follow basic administrative procedures when it deployed its notorious “strip-search machines” for use in primary screening at our nation’s airports. Four years after being ordered to do so by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, TSA still hasn’t completed the process of taking comments from the public and finalizing a regulation setting this policy. Here’s hoping CEI’s effort helps make TSA obey the law.

The reason why federal law requires agencies to hear from the public is so that they can craft the best possible rules. Nobody believes in agency omniscience. Public input is essential to gathering the information for setting good policies.

But an agency can’t get good information if it doesn’t share the evidence, facts, and inferences that underlie its proposals and rules. That’s why this week I’ve sent TSA a request for mandatory declassification review relating to a study that it says supports its strip-search machine policy. The TSA is keeping its study secret.

In its woefully inadequate (and still unfinished) policy proposal on strip-search machines, TSA summarily asserted: “[R]isk reduction analysis shows that the chance of a successful terrorist attack on aviation targets generally decreases as TSA deploys AIT. However, the results of TSA’s risk-reduction analysis are classified.”

A Bitcoin Constitutional Amendment

Some influential developers of the software that runs Bitcoin have proposed an important amendment to the functioning of the leading cryptocurrency. It’s a development as important to Bitcoin as a constitutional amendment aimed at the Fed would be to the dollar.

The debate has been characterized in some headlines as “existential,” and one write-up called it a “constitutional crisis.” Both are probably overstating the situation. But it’s worthwhile to dig in and see what we should make of the debate. Doing so can tell us how things might go for lots of things in the world of cryptocurrency, including potential future proposals to alter Bitcoin’s embedded monetary policy.

The Patent Case that Threatens the Internet

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit heard oral arguments today in a case about dental retainers that could threaten the free flow of information over the Internet.  The question is whether the U.S. International Trade Commission has the authority to bar the “importation” of digital transmissions.  The case has serious implication for the future of 3D printing, internet service providers’ liability for copyright piracy, and the internet’s global infrastructure. 

The ITC has the power to ban imports to prevent “unfair competition” and has become a popular venue to enforce U.S. patents.   A Cato Policy Analysis from 2012 details how the ITC’s patent enforcement powers are unnecessary, protectionist, and inconsistent with U.S. trade obligations

The case before the appeals court today involves products that are manufactured inside the United States based on schematics generated by a computer in Pakistan.  The production of those schematics is covered by a patent owned by Align Technology, who successfully petitioned the ITC to issue an order barring its competitor ClearCorrect from transmitting the data from Pakistan to the United States.

An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times explained the dangers of allowing the agency to have power over digital transmissions:

The I.T.C. has long had the power to forbid companies from importing physical goods like electronics, books and mechanical equipment that violate the patents, copyrights and trademarks of American businesses. It does so by ordering customs officials to seize items at the border or by issuing cease and desist orders to importers. The commission’s order to ClearCorrect was the first time it had sought to bar the transfer of digital information. If the appeals court upholds this decision, it could set a precedent that would allow businesses to seek to block all kinds of data transmissions.

Of course businesses should be able to protect their patents and copyrights. But there are far better ways to do so. In this case, for example, Align could sue ClearCorrect and seek damages for patent infringement. Or the company could ask a judge to order ClearCorrect to stop selling products made using the information contained in the files.

It is not even clear that the commission has the authority to restrict international data transfers. Congress has given it authority to block the import of “articles,” which for decades has been understood to mean physical goods. In last year’s ruling, a five-member majority of the commission ruled that the word “article” includes data.

Groups like the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America are supporting the commission’s view. They argue that, as trade increasingly becomes digital, the definition of “article” should include data. The Internet Association, which represents companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter, is asking the court to reverse the decision.

We already know from leaked documents that the MPAA plans to use the ITC’s potential jurisdiction over data transmissions  as a way to block Americans from accessing foreign websites that host copyrighted movies.

The purpose of the ITC’s patent enforcement power is to make sure that U.S. companies have a remedy against foreign infringers who are otherwise unreachable by a domestic court.  That’s why the ITC’s remedy is a ban on future imports rather than money damages for past infringement like you would get in federal district court.  But the bulk of the ITC’s caseload, including the Align case, involves disputes between parties that can and do sue each other in U.S. courts. 

In today’s global economy, it’s particularly pointless to have a specialized IP court for imports, digital or otherwise.  The fact that an article is imported from outside the United States or a piece of information travels through a foreign computer server has no bearing on whether that product infringes a U.S. patent or copyright. 

Giving the ITC power to bar cross-border data transmissions invites mischievous litigation without serving any legitimate public policy goal.

As Racists Return to the Mainstream, Be Sure to Deprive Them of Power

I hope I’m wrong to see it as racism returning to the mainstream. Indeed, I hope that the long, agonizingly slow erosion of racial fixations from our society will continue. But I found it interesting to see a Washington Post blog post explaining a recently minted epithet—“cuckservative”—chiefly with reference to the president of a “white nationalist” organization.

Apparently, we have such things in the United States, credible enough to get online ink from a major newspaper. I’m not against reporter Dave Weigel’s use of the source. I take it as confirmation that some of our ugliest politicians have even uglier supporters.

I don’t think it’s likely, but one can imagine a situation where these currents join a worsening economic situation to sow public distemper that gives actual political power to racists. Were some growing minority of political leaders to gain by advocating for ethnic or racial policies, do not count on the “good ones” standing against them. Public choice economics teaches that politicians will prioritize election over justice, morality, or any other high-minded concept.

It is poor civic hygiene to install technologies that could someday facilitate a police state. That includes a national ID system. I’ve had little success, frankly, driving public awareness that the U.S. national ID program, REAL ID, includes tracking of race and ethnicity that could be used to single out minorities. But that’s yet another reason to oppose it.
 
If the future sees no U.S. national ID materialize, and no political currents to exploit such a system for base injustice and tragedy, some may credit the favorable winds of history. Others may credit the Cato Institute and its fans. We’re working to prevent power from accumulating where it can be used for evil.

Hackers Remotely Kill a Jeep

This is a very interesting development—one that’s been coming for a long time: Your car is a computer, some cars can be hacked, and now we know they can be hacked in dangerous ways.

The correct public policy response is implicit in this very good Wired article describing the whole thing. “Automakers need to be held accountable for their vehicles’ digital security,” writer Andy Greenberg says, quoting auto hacker Charlie Miller thus: “If consumers don’t realize this is an issue, they should, and they should start complaining to carmakers.”

That’s two very important consumer protection systems in a couple of brief sentences: In one, carmakers suffer lost sales if their cars are hackable or perceived as such. The market feedback system—including the article itself—causes automakers to work to make their cars less hackable.

A Favorable Trend in Driver Licensing

Twelve states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, currently grant (or will soon grant) drivers’ licenses to unauthorized immigrants. An additional two—Arizona and Nebraska—explicitly grant licenses to immigrants brought to the United States as small children (“Dreamers”). This is a favorable trend, both for public safety and for liberty.

If you want an illustration of the public safety benefits from using drivers’ licenses solely for driving administration, give a read to this Voice of America article which illustrates clearly that illegal immigrants drive even when licensing is unavailable to them. Now that licensing is available, a California applicant who is not legally in this country must first prove residence. “He must also take an eye test to show he can see well, and a written test on driving rules. He must also take a driving test to show he can operate a motor vehicle.” Bringing all drivers up to such minimum standards undoubtedly improves safety outcomes.

For liberty, though, the shift back toward using driver licensing for driving is especially welcome. In 2005, amid a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment stoked by terror fears, Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which requires states to get proof of legal presence if their licenses and IDs are to be accepted by federal agencies. It appeared for a time as though states kowtowing to the federal government would help turn their driver’s licenses into an all-purpose federal tracking and control instrument, a national ID.

It has become increasingly clear that the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration will never follow through on the feds’ threat to turn away air travelers from states that don’t comply with REAL ID (though many are still taken in by DHS talking points). Some states are declining to implement REAL ID at all. Others are producing easy-to-acquire licenses that are labeled “not for federal purposes,” which REAL ID permits.

The states giving licenses to unauthorized immigrants today run the gamut from “liberal” to “conservative”: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware (effective December 2015), Hawaii (effective January 2016), Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont, and Washington. For varying reasons—and with varying levels of controversy—they’re re-asserting state authority over a state prerogative: driver licensing policy.

That’s good federalism. It’s good for road safety. And it’s especially good for keeping motor vehicle bureaucrats from being TSA agents and vice versa.