CES 2016, Where Technology And Government Collide

At the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) here in Las Vegas, I got around to taking a few snapshots.

There is the Consumer Technology Association’s own useful Guide to Drones. There are numerous smartcars like the Toyota FCV Plus hydrogen fuel-cell concept; there are frog-eyed virtual reality demos happening seemingly on every aisle, like this guy taking a driverless-car spin with Kia Motors.

The giant curved TVs are here again, as are the robots, smart-home gadgets and appliances galore.

There is even this wireless fishfinder for smartphone-equipped anglers; it won an Innovation Award.

Paralleling the dizzying array of technologies are law and policy panels on–well, you name it–the networked technologies of the “internet of things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, cars becoming parts of networks, 3D printing, augmented/virtual reality, privacy/cybercecurity and the displacement of legacy industries by the likes of Lyft and Uber.

Policy does matter, since innovators and innovation alike are vulnerable to political predation that could derail the open-ended potential of consumer technologies.

The primary threat to the tech sector is the hundreds of clinging regulators whose once-convincing justifications for existence (Lookie! Market failure!) no longer apply (granting that they ever did).

The other threat is crony capitalism, from government funding of science and technology that widely displaces private funding, to billionaires with their hands out for federal subsidies and favors.

Technology, luckily, exposes prior and ongoing regulatory malpractice. Consumer technologies like those on display at #CES2016 increasingly enable individual choice, consumer protection and safety, privacy, fitness for use, and even democratized access and distribution to the Internet.

Yet at precisely this critical juncture in American business history, regulators and political entrepreneurs eagerly enable one another, in defiance of the CES vibe.

Speaking of which, one CES panel was a parade of Federal Trade Commission ((FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioners–seven of them on a single hour-long panel(!).

Technology pulls America’s economic wagon, but the wrong interventions from those same commissioners onstage at CES can do century-long damage, much as when their forebears outlawed competition for decades in both the communications and electricity sectors and affirmed government-granted monopolies instead.

Does anyone think for a split second, for example, that the FCC will be forced to answer for having created airwave scarcity for decades, or for exacerbating broadband scarcity with its self-affirming net neutrality proposal?

These same regulators purport to fret over security of the torrent of networked personal and situational data being generated by the networked economy. The FTC, for example, last year warned firms to safeguard personal data.

What a joke. The real issue has never been, can the private sector give us privacy or even complete anonymity, Thomas-Paine style.

Rather, the reality is that the federal government doesn’t allow privacy. To get to CES, most of us spread-eagled through the Transportaion Security Administration’s nudie scanners (the implementation of which my organization has challenged in court). Encryption restrictions and the NSA’s mass surveillance are aggressive federal pursuits these days. The FTC represents an entity–the United States government–that, sorry to say, simply isn’t in the privacy business–period.

When it comes to networked information security, much of what the federal government does undermines private information customization, contracts, and guarantees regarding liability, and cybersecurity writ large, of those seeking to ensure anonymity on the one hand and authentication on the other.

Not getting the simple privacy stuff right over the past two decades puts us in a tight spot for getting it right in the hyper-networked IoT economy embodied in the innovators at CES. That threatens the prospects for genuine security of the far-more complex applications like drones and autonomous vehicles.

Speaking of autonomous vehicles, I wrote from CES last year of the overwhelming risk of drone and self-driving car policy morphing into 21st century versions of 19th-century public-utility style regulation. Since roads already are primarily government-owned, and airspace government-controlled, we can be certain that policymakers are not pondering liberalizing alternatives that reduce their power, such as the extension of the magnificent, world-changing, wealth-creating institution of private property rights into airspaces.

Not that anyone desires it, but the fact is, technology and tracking (if government doesn’t mangle cybersecurity) could make it possible to pack the sky like a neutron star with commercial and personal drones.

But what is the Federal Aviation Administration doing instead?

Preposterously requiring the registration of drones, a self-interested move that undermines everything needed to address the issue of property rights in airspace/airsheds by simply ignoring it. In other words, the FAA can be expected to repudiate or at least ignore the property rights foundation that the private drone economy (as well as the low-earth-orbit economy) needs to function properly and protect property and lives.

So–deliberately, air traffic control-style–we’re on track to instead get a handful of licensed, dominant operators controlling the likes of the national drone package-delivery market, just as 100 years ago, competitive electricity and communications services were purposely eliminated in favor of monopoly franchises and a perpetual regulatory superstructure to manage it all.

The bottom line is, any new product or service, from risky “organic” fare at “natural” restaurants, to the latest low-earth orbit launch, need “regulating.”

But contractual, insurance and liability innovations to realize that become easier, not harder, alongside technology itself in the normal course of events, if not derailed by regulators like those parading at CES 2016, and by cronies and legacy industries seeking political protection.

The case for “separation of technology and state” is solid and needs to be made. We need not pile more onto the thousands of federal rules already issued annually.

Without being utopian about it, government failure has always been a graver threat than transitory market “failures” in my view. Government doesn’t merely pick winners and losers; it influences business models and entire industry configurations, and entire economies.

Alfred Khan at the Civil Aeronautics Board may have been the last to turn out agency lights. Next year’s CES panel of regulators, in the name of paving the way for consumer technologies, should be made to address exclusively the hard questions of how they intend to phase themselves out, insofar as it’s possible.

Underneath the glamour of CES exhibitions, the policy environment needs innovation.

Orginally posted at Forbes