Technology policy insights
In 2004, the Department of Veterans Affairs was forced to scrap a multimillion-dollar computer system that was designed to streamline the agency’s costs. Ironically, the project cost taxpayers $265 million, and is one of many examples of federal IT projects which go massively over budget and under deliver. Part of the reason for these failures is the last time we made significant changes to how our government acquired its own IT was the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996. This law was enacted the year before Google.com was registered as a domain name, back when Windows 95 was the new big thing. Almost two decades later, while innovation has continued to press forward, our government’s ability to efficiently acquire new IT has lagged miserably behind.
Luckily, a few lawmakers are trying to remedy that. In March 2013, Congressmen Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Gerry Connelly (D-VA) introduced H.R. 1232, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), to overhaul the federal government’s approach to acquiring IT. The bill seeks to designate clear responsibility and authority over federal IT investment, enhance the government’s ability to get good IT, strengthen the federal IT … Read the rest
In 1895, Lord Kelvin, the renowned physicist, declared “Heavier than air flying machines are impossible” and dismissed those who were pursuing such research. Had the scientific community heeded his words and those of other skeptics, the advancements in aviation that define our modern world would have sadly been held back. Yet, unfortunately some in the scientific community have not learned the lesson that betting against human ingenuity is a fool’s game. The most recent example of this comes from Arvind Narayanan and Ed Felten who in a recent paper declared that de-identification has never and will never work. (Their paper was intended as a rebuttal to a piece written by Dr. Ann Cavoukian, the former Ontario Privacy Commissioner, and me, which demonstrated that the claims made in the popular press about academic research on re-identification methods often overstate the findings or omit important details.)
The authors are making an incredible claim. They are not saying that de-identification sometimes fails (which is painfully obvious to even the casual observer), but rather that there is no such thing as anonymous data. Narayanan and Felten write, “there is no evidence that de-identification works … Read the rest
In 1998, Congress recognized that taxation could slow the growth of the Internet adoption and suppress the enormous potential of the digital economy and so it passed the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA) to prohibit states from imposing new taxes on Internet access. After being renewed in 2001, 2004, and 2007, ITFA is once again set to expire and there is a lively debate over whether it should reauthorized and made permanent.
Unfortunately, not all participants in the debate are presenting the facts accurately. Michael Mazerov, a Senior Fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ State Fiscal Project, recently wrote a blog post opposing the extension, and one of his key assertions was that there are no differences in broadband subscription rates between states with and without taxes placed on Internet access. To back this dubious claim, Mazerov cites a 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
But there’s only one problem: the GAO didn’t say this. In fact, when presenting its finding, the GAO states very clearly that their ability to properly analyze the problem was compromised by a lack of broadband pricing data. The only … Read the rest
Digital piracy is a serious problem affecting content and software creators in a range of industries. In fact, at least 1 in 4 bits of traffic on the Internet is related to infringing content. One country in which piracy has been particularly rampant is China and the United States and international agencies such as the World Trade Organization have repeatedly called on the government to enhance enforcement.
Given this, there was some cause for optimism recently when the popular streaming video program, QVOD, was shut down by the Chinese government. The order cited the large amount of pirated and pornographic content that were delivered through the service as the key cause of the decision. In addition, the Chinese have also fined Kuaibo, the firm that runs QVOD, approximately $40 million for distributing pirated content. These actions symbolize the government’s larger effort to crack down on piracy and have led several large Internet sites, such as Sina, to publically apologize for distributing pirated or pornographic content.
It should be noted that pornography is illegal in China and some have argued that the actions by the government were designed principally to reduce … Read the rest
The Washington Post printed a story about how the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has submitted the opinions of six experts on child development to the Federal Trade Commission in support of CCFC’s complaint against toy maker Fisher-Price for marketing its “Laugh and Learn” app for infants and small children.
One of the six experts, Herbert Ginsburg writes, “Existing research suggests that infants and very young children are not cognitively ready to learn key abstract ideas about numbers. Although some children at the upper bounds of this age range might learn to parrot some number words they are highly unlikely to learn important concepts of numbers.”
To be sure I am not a child development expert (although I did study child development in college.) I am a parent of a wonderful daughter. When she was 19 months old I ran across a Fisher Price online game, “The ABC Game“, which taught infants and toddlers their letters. (This was pre-tablet so I used a laptop). My daughter would press keys on my laptop and up would pop a picture of the letter, a picture of an animal whose first … Read the rest
On Sunday evening, CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a report that reviewed the trials and tribulations of Kim DotCom—the self-styled villainous creator of the website MegaUpload. Prior to its infamous shutdown in 2012, MegaUpload was the premiere website for the illegal sharing of copyrighted works such as movies, TV shows, and music.
The 60 Minutes piece focuses primarily on the perspective of DotCom, including his delusion that he has been unfairly targeted by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). He repeatedly states that he should not be held responsible for the actions of his users; the website was designed for file sharing, and what his users chose to share is not his concern. In fact, DotCom expresses a desire for his work to be compared to that of movie heroes such as James Bond, only to have Bob Simon aptly point out that he is in fact much closer in persona to Dr. No — the flamboyant lifestyle, the private island, etc. It is this persona that DotCom alleges is responsible for the FBI targeting him, rather than the fact that he built a website designed to illegally exploit copyrighted works … Read the rest
One can’t pass a single day it seems without seeing in the news coverage of the problems with the Affordable Care Act’s Health Insurance Marketplace (HIM). But what is perhaps most surprising is not that the web site had problems, but that people are surprised that it had problems. The current process of managing and acquiring federal IT is largely broken and the failure of the HIM is simply the newest reminder of that dysfunction. We can just go down the list of past high-profile failures, including the delayed launch last year of USAjobs.gov, the FBI’s Virtual Case Files program, the Census Bureau’s handheld PC debacle, and the FAA modernization.
There are several reasons for this dysfunction. First, the contracting process does not work as it should. Larded up with an accretion of rules and requirements from past scandals and failures, only the most intrepid firms are able to manage the labyrinth called federal contracting. Moreover, as Congress has tried to use federal contracting to fulfill social policy goals that should be addressed with other policy tools, agencies must give preferences to a wide variety of businesses—small businesses, women-owned businesses, … Read the rest
The importance of data to the U.S. economy continues to grow. For example, in the United States the economic value from health care data is estimated at $300 billion annually, while $90 billion is generated from global positioning system (GPS) data, and $10 billion from weather data. And these examples just scratch the surface of the potential for data to transform a wide range of sectors including energy, education, finance, health care, manufacturing, and transportation.
Unfortunately, while President Obama has signed an historic executive order on open data and various government agencies have begun to promote data-driven innovation within their communities, such as the successful Health Datapalooza, there is still no federal government agency responsible for developing and implementing a national strategy to promote data-driven innovation across all sectors of the economy. To help fill this void, the Department of Commerce should establish an Office of Data Innovation.
The Office of Data Innovation would be responsible for facilitating data sharing between organizations and reducing barriers to global information flows. It would evaluate the impact of data-related regulations on competition and innovation in different industries, work with other … Read the rest
In our recent report, “Are Robots Taking our Jobs or Making Them?,” we argued that one reason the alleged robotic invasion of the workforce (e.g., very high productivity through machines) was unlikely to happen was that the workforce was made up of such a wide variety of occupations. While there has been work done examining the susceptibility of work to automation through the decomposition of tasks or similar methods (see here, here and here), we thought that doing our own back-of-the-envelope calculation might be interesting. So we coded each occupation in the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics and ranked it according to our perceived ease of automation, with 1 being only moderately difficult to automate and 3 being very difficult. Then we added up each category to see how much of the economy was liable to be automated.
We admit that these classifications are not based on science, but rather educated guesses. Additionally, we should note that occupations in the “moderately difficult to automate” category can still be uneconomical or challenging automate for other reasons: we based our criteria on whether we could envision current or moderately … Read the rest
Some technological changes sneak up on us so quietly we do not even know it has happened. A perfect example of this is video programming. It was not too long ago when consumers had to drive to a store to rent a movie at the local Blockbuster rather than just start streaming a movie instantly with a few clicks on Netflix. Today consumers have more options than ever for legally obtaining video content. The market shows an unprecedented amount of competition as businesses experiment with different business models and technologies to deliver consumers video content. Both ISPs and over-the-top providers deliver video on a variety of formats including traditional programming, on-demand, and “on the go” options. In fact, there are so many options—Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, HBO Go, Dish Online, Crackle, etc.—that consumers have more choice today in video programming than ever before.
These changes are not only occurring in the United States, but also globally. Worldwide there are hundreds of legitimate streaming services that consumers can access. And consumers are accessing this content in new ways. Whereas we used to measure the percent of … Read the rest