Category: Innovation

Facebook is More Like a Cable Network than a Newspaper

As I worried yesterday, Facebook’s defenders are already trying to end the conversation about platform bias before it can begin. “It’s like complaining that the New York Times doesn’t publish everything that’s fit to print or that Fox News is conservative,” Eugene Volokh states.

Eight years ago, I argued that platforms like Google are much more like cable networks than newspapers–and should, in turn, be eligible for more governmental regulation. (The government can’t force Fox News to promote Bernie Sanders–but it can require Comcast to carry local news.) The argument can be extended to dominant social networks, or even apps like WeChat.

As I note here, to the extent megaplatforms are classifiable under traditional First Amendment doctrine, they are often closer to utilities or cable networks than newspapers or TV channels. Their reach is far larger than that of newspapers or channels. Their selection and arrangement of links comes far closer to the cable network’s decision about what channels to program (where such entities, by and large, do not create the content they choose to air), than it does to a newspaper which mostly runs its own content and has cultivated an editorial voice. Finally, and most importantly, massive internet platforms must take the bitter with the sweet: if they want to continue avoiding liability for intellectual property infringement and defamation, they should welcome categorization as a conduit for speech, rather than speaker status itself.

Admittedly, if there is any aspect of Facebook where it might be said to be cultivating some kind of editorial voice, it is the Trend Box. It is ironic that they’ve gotten in the most trouble for this service, rather than the much more problematic newsfeed. But they invited this trouble with their bland and uninformative description of what the Trend Box is. Moreover, if the Trend Box is indeed treated as “media” (rather than a conduit for media), it could betoken a much deeper challenge to foundational media regulation like sponsorship disclosures–a topic I’ll tackle next week.

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The Fragility of Desire

In his excellent new book Exposed, Harcourt’s analysis of the role of desire in what he calls the “expository society” of the digital age is seductive. We are not characters in Orwell’s 1984, or prisoners of Bentham’s Panopticon, but rather are enthusiastic participants in a “mirrored glass pavilion” that is addictive and mesmerizing. Harcourt offers a detailed picture of this pavilion and also shows us the seamy side of our addiction to it. Recovery from this addiction, he argues, requires acts of disobedience but there lies the great dilemma and paradox of our age: revolution requires desire, not duty, but our desires are what have ensnared us.

I think that this is both a welcome contribution as well as a misleading diagnosis.

There have been many critiques of consent-based privacy regimes as enabling, rather than protecting, privacy. The underlying tenor of many of these critiques is that consent fails as a regulatory tool because it is too difficult to make it truly informed consent. Harcourt’s emphasis on desire shows why there is a deeper problem than this, that our participation in the platforms that surveil us is rooted in something deeper than misinformed choice. And this makes the “what to do?” question all the more difficult to answer. Even for those of us who see a stronger role for law than Harcourt outlines in this book (I agree with Ann Bartow’s comments on this) should pause here. Canada, for example, has strong private sector data protections laws with oversight from excellent provincial and federal privacy commissioners. And yet these laws are heavily consent-based. Such laws are able to shift practices to a stronger emphasis on things like opt-in consent, but Harcourt leaves us with a disquieting sense that this might just be just an example of a Pyrrhic victory, legitimizing surveillance through our attempts to regulate it because we still have not grappled with the more basic problem of the seduction of the mirrored glass pavilion.

The problem with Harcourt’s position is that, in exposing this aspect of the digital age in order to complicate our standard surveillance tropes, he risks ignoring other sources of complexity that are also important for both diagnosing the problem and outlining a path forward.

Desire is not always the reason that people participate in new technologies. As Ann Bartow and Olivier Sylvain point out, people do not always have a choice about their participation in the technologies that track us. The digital age is not an amusement park we can choose to go to or to boycott, but deeply integrated into our daily practices and needs, including the ways in which we work, bank, and access government services.

But even when we do actively choose to use these tools, it is not clear that desire captures the why of all such choices. If we willingly enter Harcourt’s mirrored glass pavilion, it is sometimes because of some of its very useful properties — the space- and time-bending nature of information technology. For example, Google calendar is incredibly convenient because multiple people can access shared calendars from multiple devices in multiple locations at different times making the coordination of calendars incredibly easy. This is not digital lust, but digital convenience.

These space- and time-bending properties of information technology are important for understanding the contours of the public/private nexus of surveillance that so characterizes our age. Harcourt does an excellent job at pointing out some of the salient features of this nexus, describing a “tentacular oligarchy” where private and public institutions are bound together in state-like “knots of power,” with individuals passing back and forth between these institutions. But what is strange in Harcourt’s account is that this tentacular oligarchy still appears to be bounded by the political borders of the US. It is within those borders that the state and the private sector have collapsed together.

What this account misses is the fact that information technology has helped to unleash a global private sector that is not bounded by state borders. In this emerging global private sector large multinational corporations often operate as “metanationals” or stateless entities. The commercial logic of information is that it should cross political borders with ease and be stored wherever it makes the most economic sense.

Consider some of the rhetoric surrounding the e-commerce chapter of the recent TPP agreement. The Office of the US Trade Representative indicates that one of its objectives is to keep the Internet “free and open” which it has pursued through rules that favour cross-border data flows and prevent data localization. It is easy to see how this idea of “free” might be confused with political freedom, for an activist in an oppressive regime is better off in exercising freedom of speech when that speech can cross political borders or the details of their communications can be stored in a location that is free of the reach of their state. A similar rationale has been offered by some in the current Apple encryption debate — encryption protects American business people communicating within China and we can see why that is important.

But this idea of freedom is the freedom of a participant in a global private sector with weak state control; freedom from the state control of oppressive regimes also involves freedom from the state protection of democratic regimes.

If metanationals pursue a state-free agenda, the state pursues an agenda of rights-protectionism. By rights protectionism I mean the claim that states do, and should, protect the constitutional rights of their own citizens and residents but not others. Consider, for example, a Canadian citizen who resides in Canada and uses US cloud computing. That person could be communicating entirely with other Canadians in other Canadian cities and yet have all of their data stored in the US-based cloud. If the US authorities wanted access to that data, the US constitution would not apply to regulate that access in a rights-protecting manner because the Canadian is a non-US person.

Many see result as flowing from the logic of the Verdugo-Urquidez case. Yet that case concerned a search that occurred in a foreign territory (Mexico), rather than within the US, where the law of that territory continued to apply. The Canadian constitution does not apply to acts of officials within the US. The data at issue falls into a constitutional black hole where no constitution applies (and maybe even international human rights black hole according to some US interpretations of extraterritorial obligations). States can then collect information within this black hole free of the usual liberal-democratic constraints and share it with other allies, a situation Snowden documented within the EU and likened to a “European bazaar” of surveillance.

Rights protectionism is not rights protection when information freely crosses political boundaries and state power piggybacks on top of this crossing and exploits it.

This is not a tentacular oligarchy operating within the boundaries of one state, but a series of global alliances – between allied states and between states and metanationals who exert state-like power — exploiting the weaknesses of state-bound law.

We are not in this situation simply because of a penchant for selfies. But to understand the full picture we do need to look beyond “ourselves” and get the global picture in view. We need to understand the ways in which our legal models fail to address these new realities and even help to mask and legitimize the problems of the digital age through tools and rhetoric that are no longer suitable.

Lisa Austin is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

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Better Bar Design Means Better Revenue and Health for Bartenders

With the resurgence of cocktail culture, one may not think about a bartender’s work area, but it turns out that area is not well-designed so much so that bartenders have health problems and they can make fewer drinks. So in the age of let’s design and fix that, a bartender has come up with an “ergonomic, behind-the-bar workstation—which he calls the ‘race track’.” The new design lets the bartender stay in one place, have everything within forearm reach, and gets rid of the well (across which a bartender must lean and thus hurt his or her knees). The creator is seeking a patent, and the expected cost right now is five figures (they are hand built). The Wired piece covers some history of the bar and how ice changed the way we drink and how today the craft cocktail trend means efficiency is at a premium. As Wired notes

A good bar with a smartly built bartender station, on the other hand, is a blue-ribbon-prize-winning cash cow. Your typical cocktail den, Simó says, will rake in between $6,000 and $8,000 in sales in a night. At a nightclub, you more than triple that. A single bartender can ring in $10,000 in sales, by himself. That’s all contingent on how fast he can sling drinks, and Lafranconi says the race track is optimized for that kind of speed. “We can increase the output by about 10 to 15 drinks per hour.”

Throw in the health issues–“Tending bar in 10-hour shifts, night after night, can lead to injuries like tennis elbow, tendonitis, and plantar fasciitis”–and the future bar will let you be closer to the bartender, get your drink faster, and keep him or her in good enough health to be there the next time you visit. Pretty cool.

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More Science Cheer – Microscopes for Everyone!

The New Yorker has a nice piece about Manu Prakash and his work on the Foldscope, a portable, paper-based microscope that costs about one dollar. As the author pointed out the whole thing can be put into “a nine-by-twelve-inch envelope.” Here are the details:

The paper is printed with botanical illustrations and perforated with several shapes, which can be punched out and, with a series of origami-style folds, woven together into a single unit. The end result is about the size of a bookmark. The lens—a speck of plastic, situated in the center—provides a hundred and forty times magnification. The kit includes a second lens, of higher magnification, and a set of stick-on magnets, which can be used to attach the Foldscope to a smartphone, allowing for easy recording of a sample with the phone’s camera. I put my kit together in fifteen minutes, and when I popped the lens into place it was with the satisfaction of spreading the wings of a paper crane.

The Foldscope performs most of the functions of a high-school lab microscope, but its parts cost less than a dollar.

So what? So Prakash and his colleagues are trying to deploy the device around the world to increase the way people gather and share data to understand the world. Folks use the device but also can go to “Foldscope Explore, a Web site where recipients of the kits can share photos, videos, and commentary. A plant pathologist in Rwanda uses the Foldscope to study fungi afflicting banana crops. Maasai children in Tanzania examine bovine dung for parasites. An entomologist in the Peruvian Amazon has happened upon an unidentified species of mite. One man catalogues pollen; another tracks his dog’s menstrual cycle.”

These seemingly far ranging interests thus connect to what Brett Frischmann, Mike Madison, and Kathy Strandburg have been studying: a knowledge commons. Just within Prakash’s interest in “biomimicry—understanding how and why certain organisms work so well, and using that knowledge to build new tools,” the project increases the ability to know about “Plants, insects, tiny bugs under the sink, bacteria,” that do amazing things. New species can be identified, and so the project creates thousands of eyes not only for Prakash’s work but others in the field.

As I read the article and the details of low-cost tech being used around the world for a variety of problems that locals identified, I thought of the way FabLabs and the work of Neil Gershenfeld have approached and supported the maker-movement. And as I went on, I found out that Prakash did his work with Gershenfeld’s Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT. Can you say school of thought?

Prakash’s group is looking for ways to aid in early detection of disease and water contamination using low-cost technology. At the same time, the world may be re-experiencing the wonder of the first tools that pushed our ability to understand the world. As the article described, Prakash and Jim Cybulski, (then Prakash’s student, now chief collaborator on the project) were in Nigeria studying malaria. They met with young students, caught a mosquito “that was feeding on one of the children and mounted it on a paper slide, which they inserted into the Foldscope.” The student looked at the slide and

“For the first time, he realized this was his blood, and this little proboscis is how it feeds on his blood,” Prakash said. “To make that connection—that literally this is where disease passes on, with this blood, his blood—was an absolutely astounding moment.” The exercise had its intended effect. The boy said, “I really should sleep under a bed net.”

Scale and change the world technology can be small, simple, and accessible. Folks who press the practical and tee up the skills and tools to learn and dream of bigger things are part of an ongoing season of giving that I dig. Happy holidays to all.

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Holiday Cheer – Creations for Good

A sister notices that her sister’s monitor for her blood sugar level has a weak alarm and does not work well to wake someone up at night, when the alert is critical. Sister decides maybe she can do something, and she does. Who is this mystery girl? Our own Danielle Citron shared with me (and let me share more) that her daughter, JJ, has been designing a new monitor to help diabetics (which her sister has).

JJ applied to a program to help high schoolers with STEM projects and was paired with folks at Northrup Grumman where she spent a day a month developing her idea. Along the way, JJ had to figure out what alarm noise worked best to wake someone up, program a code to link the monitor and bracelet devices, and then wired them. As her school reports

This year, Citron will continue to test and refine the design, creating the bracelet with the help of a 3D printer. When she’s finished, the bracelet will change color to let the user know immediately if their blood sugar is getting too high or too low. The detailed information from the monitor will also be linked to a smartphone app.

3D printing! Color coding! And JJ seems poised to go into computer science.

Although I am friends with Dani and have met JJ, the real point for me is that a teenager saw a problem and felt she had the room to try and fix it. Then she worked on it. Her success is lovely, but the fact of the chance is downright excellent and puts me in a great holiday mood. Of course, with Danielle as her mom, JJ may have to look forward to law professors wondering about patents, privacy, and data ownership, but those are what a good friend of mine once called “high quality problems.” Well done, JJ.

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Exploration and Exploitation – Ideas from Business and Computer Science

One of the key reasons I joined GA Tech and the Scheller College of Business is that I tend to draw on technology and business literature, and GA Tech is a great place for both. My current paper Exploration and Exploitation: An Essay on (Machine) Learning, Algorithms, and Information Provision draws on both these literatures. A key work on the idea of exploration versus exploitation in the business literature is James G. March, Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning, 2 ORG. SCI. 71 (1989) which as far as I can tell has not been picked up in the legal literature. A good follow up to that paper is Anil K. Gupta, Ken Smith, and Christina Shalley, The Interplay Between Exploration and Exploitation, 49 ACAD. MGMT. J. 693 (2006). I had come upon the issue as a computer science question when working on a draft of my paper Constitutional Limits on Surveillance: Associational Freedom in the Age of Data Hoarding. That paper was part of my thoughts on artificial intelligence, algorithms, and the law. In the end, the material did not fit there, but it fits the new work. And as I have started to connect with folks in the machine learning group at GA Tech, I have been able to press on how this idea comes up in technology and computer science. The paper has benefitted from feedback from Danielle Citron, James Grimmelmann, and Peter Swire. I also offer many thanks to the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal. The paper started as a short piece (I think I wanted to stay at about five to eight thousand words), but as it evolved, the editors were most gracious in letting me use an asynchronous editing process to hit the final 18,000 or so total word count.

I think the work speaks to general issues of information provision and also applies to current issues regarding the way news and online competition work. As one specific matter, I take on the idea of serendipity which I think “is a seductive, overstated idea. Serendipity works because of relevancy.” I offer the idea of salient serendipity to clarify what type of serendipity matters. The abstract is below.

Abstract:
Legal and regulatory understandings of information provision miss the importance of the exploration-exploitation dynamic. This Essay argues that is a mistake and seeks to bring this perspective to the debate about information provision and competition. A general, ongoing problem for an individual or an organization is whether to stay with a familiar solution to a problem or try new options that may yield better results. Work in organizational learning describes this problem as the exploration-exploitation dilemma. Understanding and addressing that dilemma has become a key part of an algorithmic approach to computation, machine learning, as it is applied to information provision. In simplest terms, even if one achieves success with one path, failure to try new options means one will be stuck in a local equilibrium while others find paths that yield better results and displace one’s original success. This dynamic indicates that an information provider has to provide new options and information to users, because a provider must learn and adapt to users’ changing interests in both the type of information they desire and how they wish to interact with information.

Put differently, persistent concerns about the way in which news reaches users (the so-called “filter bubble” concern) and the way in which online shopping information is found (a competition concern) can be understood as market failures regarding information provision. The desire seems to be to ensure that new information reaches people, because that increases the potential for new ideas, new choices, and new action. Although these desired outcomes are good, current criticisms and related potential solutions misunderstand the nature of information users and especially information provision, and miss an important point. Both information users and providers sort and filter as a way to enable better learning, and learning is an ongoing process that requires continual changes to succeed. From an exploration- exploitation perspective, a user or an incumbent may remain isolated or offer the same information provision but neither will learn. In that case, whatever short-term success either enjoys is likely to face leapfrogging by those who experiment through exploration and exploitation.

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TV on your head! Smart tech development

The Glyph Headset which is a headset to watch TV, movies, or anything on a screen as if on a “65-inch TV in your living room does, or the huge screen in a theater” caught caught my eye because of the time it took to create and launch the product. As Wired explained, the company will have to explain that the device is not VR. It looks like noise canceling headphones paired with two eyepieces and so “looks silly, like you’re wearing a crappy Geordi La Forge costume.” It allows users’ with glasses to adjust for their prescription which pretty cool to me. The idea of directly projecting onto my retina bothers me, perhaps because I recall the whole era of screen burn. But the idea that a 360 degree view and sound offering is in the works is cool. That makes me think of Disneyland’s America the Beautiful Circlevision making a comeback. (Hey I can dream.) But all that is less interesting than this point in the Wired piece, “After years of development, a $1.5 million Kickstarter campaign, and lots of user testing, Avegant is getting ready to ship the Glyph this spring.”

I like the patience that went into this one. The author had seen versions of the idea two years ago. As Wired put it, “It was a mess of circuitry and plastic ties, like futuristic sunglasses someone might wear in a campy 1950s sci-fi flick. All Avegant had was concept art and a line about it looking like a pair of headphones.” And the piece noted that Avegant said it would ship one year ago, but opted to ditch the first version and go with the current one. It seems to me that getting out there with the idea, drumming up interest, and yet holding back long enough to get from 1950s camp to TNG cheese that works is a good sign. It bodes well for future offerings and is probably why the review called the Glyph “remarkably comfortable and usable,” and was positive about the way it worked with all the screens we use today. So if you want to try something as “weird” as “having a television on your face,” waiting to get it to work is quite smart. That way people may go with it; maybe because it is weird and works rather than being just plain weird which is often called stupid tech.

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Moped made in the USA

Mopeds! OK not really inspiring. But Wired’s recent piece on the Indigan Trail Roller has a cool back story. Daniel Kastner, the person behind the The Trail Roller, started his moped love early and in the 1990s started a business, 1997 Mopeds, to support moped enthusiasm. When the store fronts had to close, he kept the online business. Then he decided to build a moped — which may be “the only domestically produced moped ever.” The moped has “a frame designed and manufactured in conjunction with the Indigan moped collective in Kalamzoo.” I love this story, because it fits the sort of things that Gerard Magilocca and I saw in the 3D printing world. A small business found a way to build a niche product and sell it. Like the early kit car work in 3D printing, the moped folks send the frame and parts to consumers to assemble, which allows for sales while state and federal regulations are sorted. Kastner plans to offer more models too. If they keep up with this one, which costs $1,849 and goes about 220 miles on its two gallon tank, I may get one for my commute in Atlanta. If Kastner offers an electric motor, that would be even better.

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Centralizers: Uber vs the Others (Lyft, Didi Kuaidi, Ola, and GrabTaxi)

Uber is looking to raise more than $2 billion; Lyft, Didi Kuaidi, Ola, and GrabTaxi have formed a global alliance to counter Uber. Where or where is the disruptive scrappy tech savior? Answer: It existed briefly and the next phase is with us. In The New Steam: On Digitization, Decentralization, and Disruption I argued that [T]his era of disruption and decentralization will likely pass and new winners, who will look much like firms of old, will emerge, if they have not already.” I was building on the ideas Gerard Magliocca and I explored in our work on 3D printing. Although some technologies have helped decentralize production and distribution, to think that centralized players would all go away or new ones not emerge is a mistake. I was focused on safety, stability, liability and insights from Douglass North.

As I said in the paper:

Douglass North captures a paradox that goes with transaction costs. Greater specialization, division of labor, and a large market increase transaction costs, because the shift to impersonal transactions demands higher costs to: 1) measure the valuable dimensions of a good or service; 2) protect individual property rights; 3) enforce agreements; and 4) integrate the dispersed knowledge of society.26 Standardized weights and measures, effective laws and enforcement, and institutions and organizations that integrate knowledge emerge, but the “dramatic increase in the overall costs of transacting” is “more than offset by dramatic decreases in production costs.” Digitization forces us to revisit these issues.

Uber’s success and the response of the other players raises another point. Although I think that society will favor centralized players in the long run, because that allows for some regulation; the process of centralization may also occur for simpler reasons. When one big player starts to break away from the pack, the rest may co-operate or consolidate to keep pace. There may be one winer or a handful. Either way, as Seattle now allows Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize and calls for more regulation continue, the former disruptors will be seen as the new centralized power and treated as such. The reasons offered for that treatment are what draw my interest and where legal theory has and will see some action.

Air Traffic Control for Drones

8435473266_16e7ae4191_zRecently a man was arrested and jailed for a night after shooting a drone that hovered over his property. The man felt he was entitled (perhaps under peeping tom statutes?) to privacy from the (presumably camera-equipped) drone. Froomkin & Colangelo have outlined a more expansive theory of self-help:

[I]t is common for new technology to be seen as risky and dangerous, and until proven otherwise drones are no exception. At least initially, violent self-help will seem, and often may be, reasonable even when the privacy threat is not great – or even extant. We therefore suggest measures to reduce uncertainties about robots, ranging from forbidding weaponized robots to requiring lights, and other markings that would announce a robot’s capabilities, and RFID chips and serial numbers that would uniquely identify the robot’s owner.

On the other hand, the Fortune article reports:

In the view of drone lawyer Brendan Schulman and robotics law professor, Ryan Calo, home owners can’t just start shooting when they see a drone over their house. The reason is because the law frowns on self-help when a person can just call the police instead. This means that Meredith may not have been defending his house, but instead engaging in criminal acts and property damage for which he could have to pay.

I am wondering how we might develop a regulatory infrastructure to make either the self-help or police-help responses more tractable. Present resources seem inadequate. I don’t think the police would take me seriously if I reported a drone buzzing my windows in Baltimore—they have bigger problems to deal with. If I were to shoot it, it might fall on someone walking on the sidewalk below. And it appears deeply unwise to try to grab it to inspect its serial number.

Following on work on license plates for drones, I think that we need to create a monitoring infrastructure to promote efficient and strict enforcement of law here. Bloomberg reports that “At least 14 companies, including Google, Amazon, Verizon and Harris, have signed agreements with NASA to help devise the first air-traffic system to coordinate small, low-altitude drones, which the agency calls the Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management.” I hope all drones are part of such a system, that they must be identifiable as to owner, and that they can be diverted into custody by responsible authorities once a credible report of lawbreaking has occurred.

I know that this sort of regulatory vision is subject to capture. There is already misuse of state-level drone regulation to curtail investigative reporting on abusive agricultural practices. But in a “free-for-all” environment, the most powerful entities may more effectively create technology to capture drones than they deploy lobbyists to capture legislators. I know that is a judgment call, and others will differ. I also have some hope that courts will strike down laws against using drones for reporting of matters of public interest, on First Amendment/free expression grounds.

The larger point is: we may well be at the cusp of a “this changes everything” moment with drones. Illah Reza Nourbakhsh’s book Robot Futures imagines the baleful consequences of modern cities saturated with butterfly-like drones, carrying either ads or products. Grégoire Chamayou’s A Theory of the Drone presents a darker vision, of omniveillance (and, eventually, forms of omnipotence, at least with respect to less technologically advanced persons) enabled by such machines. The present regulatory agenda needs to become more ambitious, since “black boxed” drone ownership and control creates a genuine Ring of Gyges problem.

Image Credit: Outtacontext.