IT Matters

Technology policy insights

The Nanny Police Are at IT Again

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

Kim DotCom Thinks You Are a MegaIdiot

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

IBM Super computer

Critique of OECD R&D Tax Credit Report

R&D is fundamentally important to economies because it is a primary source for innovation and new technologies. But markets rarely provide enough incentives for innovation on their own—innovations are expensive to create but easy to copy.

For those reasons many countries provide R&D tax incentives to companies that spend money on basic or applied research. The best way to think of this policy is as actually as a fix—R&D has positive benefits for the economy as a whole, but because individual companies have trouble capturing all the benefits of R&D they are unlikely to invest the socially optimal amount.

Tax breaks for businesses are fraught with controversy because they “distort” the market and according to conventional neoclassical economics thinking distortions are by definition bad, even if they are pro-growth. To be sure certain tax incentives outlive their usefulness, as they have in the fossil fuel industry, and some tax incentives are only on the books because they serve special interests, not the public interest.

But the R&D tax incentive doesn’t suffer from any of these problems. In fact, there is solid evidence that R&D incentives spur additional R&D spending and … Read the rest

healthcare.gov header

Lessons from the ACA Health Insurance Marketplace Failure

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

Department of Commerce

The Department of Commerce Should Establish an Office of Data Innovation

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

automation

Automation Not So Automatic

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 herehere 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

Child with popcorn

Innovation in the Market for Video Programming

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

Robyn T-240D CB Radio

If the Courts Do Not Recognize Technology Neutrality in the Wiretap Act, Congress Should Intervene

Yesterday the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that a lawsuit against Google for illegal wiretapping could proceed.

The case involves Google’s Street View project which provides online access to panoramic views of public streets in cities around the world. To build the database of images, Google sent vehicles into cities to photograph public streets. At times, these vehicles also unintentionally recorded data that users were transmitting over unencrypted wireless networks. The central claim of the lawsuit is that this collection of unencrypted data from wireless networks is a violation of the Wiretap Act. Google argued that the case should be dismissed because the Wiretap Act exempts “electronic communications” that are “readily accessible to the general public.” In its ruling, the Court denied Google’s motion to dismiss.

The basic logic of the Wiretap Act is that if people do not take action to make their communications private, then they do not have an expectation of privacy. For example, if two individuals use unscrambled CB radios to have a conversation, then other radio users are not in violation of the Wiretap Act if they hear this conversation. … Read the rest

Whistle Dog Collar

The “Internet of Things” Requires New Thinking on Data

In the world of tech where buzzwords come and go faster than you can say “synergy”, the “Internet of Things” is a bit of an oddity. It is an old concept (first coined in 1999) used to describe a futuristic world where everyday objects—from toasters to dog collars to running shoes—can communicate electronically with other devices. But whereas many buzzwords die off after a few years of overuse, there has been a surge in interest in the Internet of Things of late for the simple fact that the vision is quickly becoming reality.

The emergence of a host of popular consumer products such as FitBit (a personal exercise tracking device), Nest (a smart home thermostat), and Withings “Smart Body Analyzer” (a smart scale that also tracks air quality, heart rate, and body composition) has shown that it is both feasible and useful to embed intelligence in everyday devices. Nest, for example, combines sensors and user feedback to learn the heating and cooling preferences of its users, monitor energy use and environmental conditions over time, and even optimize energy consumption based on price signals from the energy … Read the rest

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, and General Michael Hayden, former Director of the CIA and NSA

Privacy Advocates Set Their Sights on the Wrong G-Men

In an op-ed in last Friday’s Washington Post, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, bemoaned the data-driven economy, equating the data scientists in Silicon Valley with the spooks at Fort Meade.

Unfortunately, she is not the first to do so. Since the exposure of the government’s PRISM program, veteran privacy activists have been conflating the intelligence community’s questionable, closed-door electronic surveillance program with the voluntary, open, and legitimate collection of personal data by the private sector. Chris Hoofnagle at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology states, “What’s happening now is the logical outcome of a leave-it-to-the-market public policy agenda, which left the private sector’s hands unbound to collect data for the government.” And John Podesta at the Center for American Progress argues that after Edward Snowden’s revelations, the government “should not only examine NSA surveillance activities and the laws governing them, but also private-sector activities and telecommunications technology more generally.” Some critics have even gone so far as to blame innovation and technology. Writing in Salon, Andrew Leonard placed the blame directly on the technology: “By making it economically feasible to extract meaning from the massive streams of … Read the rest