Make the Internet Great Again

Donald Trump will become President Trump in less than one week. For some, that’s a terrifying reality. For others, that’s a cause for celebration. For all, however, that means radical change is on the horizon. Now, what will change? Who knows—like all politicians, Trump (likely) made more promises than he can keep. His 100-day agenda, for example, is devoid of several policies that he championed during his campaign such as the wall and the Muslim ban. But, based on Trump’s FCC landing team (and 2014 tweet), at least one thing seems certain: Net neutrality will be on the chopping block. And that’s fantastic news. “Net neutrality” is a term coined by Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor. Basically, it means that “no bit of information should be prioritized over another.” Here’s an illustration. Imagine two companies, Netstream and DeuceTV. Both provide entertainment to their customers over the Internet. Netstream is affiliated with an internet service provider. DeuceTV isn’t. Net neutrality prevents the internet service provider from (1) speeding up the delivery of Netstream’s content, (2) slowing down the delivery of DeuceTV’s content, and (3) blocking DeuceTV’s content altogether. Few regulations are as divisive as net neutrality. (That’s why it took the FCC until 2015, nine years after its first attempt, to get it passed.) Those is favor, although they purport to be interested in preserving competition, argue on fairness grounds; they claim that network neutrality is “the mother of innovation.” Those in opposition argue that the government should mind its beeswax; that network neutrality is “a solution that won’t work to a problem that doesn’t exist .” Here...

Federal Labor Law Protections in the Age of Social Media

Websites like Facebook and Twitter have given millions of people a chance to publicly express thoughts and opinions they otherwise would have kept private. Social media also leaves a record of the views its users express. Some of these views are benign, but others are controversial. Unsurprisingly, many people use their social media profiles to discuss work. Many people are unhappy in their work life, and it should come as no surprise that these are often the topics of social media activities. This has required courts and federal agencies like the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to determine how well-established standards in labor and employment law apply to the era of social media. While this is still an evolving process, a general principle has emerged: employees are generally protected against any negative employment consequences for engaging in activities and discussions which are already protected by federal labor laws, but they are not protected for “mere gripes” about their employer or their working conditions. The most important set of pre-existing legal rights protected on social media are called “protected concerted” activity. This is an umbrella term for a broad category of rights including the right to address work-related issues with co-workers, including discussions about pay, benefits, and working conditions. Just as employers cannot sanction or fire employees for engaging in these activities in private conversation, they cannot sanction them for engaging in them through social media either. Protected concerted activity is distinguished from mere gripes. “Protected concerted activity must have some relation to group action, or seek to initiate, induce, or prepare for group action, or bring a group complaint to...

The Most Tech-savvy Government in the World

Estonia, a small country on the Baltic Sea, has faced subjection by larger, more powerful countries throughout its history. Following decades of occupation by the Soviet Union, the country emerged free and independent at the end of the Cold War. Since its independence in 1991, the country has embarked on a major efforts to change the way governments and citizens interact through technology. Estonia was one of the first countries to mandate the use of personal digital identification and moved nearly all aspects of civil and commercial life online. Every person over the age of 15 is required to have a chip ID card. The cards are encrypted and give every Estonian citizen the ability to electronically sign any government document as well as access to their bank accounts and personal records. On the other side of the transaction, every single element of the Estonian government must accept this digital signature; no citizen can be forced to sign a paper copy. Taxes are all handled digitally and automatically; employers report employment taxes every month while banks and charities do the same with deductions. Tax refunds are digitally transferred back into citizens’ bank accounts within two days of filing. This online government extends further than just providing services or collecting taxes. Citizens can vote in Parliamentary elections online, with nearly 24% doing so in 2011. Drafts of legislation are placed online where citizens can see the substance of every change as well as which lawmaker made the change. This technological focus extends to personal privacy and national cyber security as well, with the NATO Cooperative Cyber Security Defense Center headquartered...

Political Conversations in the Age of the Unfollow Button

During the Second World War, Americana artist Norman Rockwell created a painting entitled Freedom of Speech. The painting, which depicts a man standing to speak at a town meeting, was based on a 1941 speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, where he presented four fundamental freedoms that should be enjoyed by all, the first being freedom of speech. The message of FDR’s speech and of the paintings themselves was simple – free speech and public discussion are integral parts of a free and democratic society. In the modern era, especially in this year’s election, the archetypical town meeting of Rockwell’s painting has been supplanted by social media as the primary forum for people to express their political beliefs. A recent Pew Research Center study found that  67% of Facebook and 65% of Twitter users reported that “a lot” or “some” of the content they saw in posted was political in nature. Such discussions have the potential to change minds, with 20% of those surveyed saying they had altered their political positions based on content from social media. Yet this potential for persuasion is countered by the ability of social media to create “echo chambers” of like-minded individuals who are never exposed to ideas outside their personal political point-of-view. The political landscape can appear very different when viewed from the newsfeed of a conservative versus the newsfeed of a liberal, even if the two are using the same website. In same study, 30% of people who were identified as “highly politically engaged” (registered to vote, said they always or almost always vote, and have volunteered or contributed money to political...

Heavy Baggage: Liability and Risk in the Space Tourism Industry

As private space companies continue to grow, monetized space travel is becoming a booming industry. So far, much of the economic activity associated with the private space industry has involved the transportation of telecommunications satellites into orbit. Increasingly, however, these companies are eager to begin launching even more valuable cargo in orbit: thrill seeking tourists willing to pay top dollar for a chance to spend a few days in space. The legal risk of orbital space tourism is uncharted territory, and the liability risks to these companies could be huge. A 2010 report from the Federal Aviation Administration predicts that space tourism could become a billion-dollar market within 20 years. Meanwhile, there are no comprehensive federal guidelines on space tourism and only a patchwork of untested state laws. Other mechanisms currently used to mitigate risk, such as liability waivers, also remain untested in the courts. Despite decades of improving technology, the space flight industry is far from being a reliably safe method of transportation. In September of this year, one of SpaceX’s commercial rockets infamously exploded during the fueling process on the launch pad. While nobody was on board, NASA has contracted with SpaceX to begin transporting astronauts to the International Space Station as soon as next year, with plans for commercial tourism not far off. Even if their rockets take off and land without incident, the effects of spaceflight on the human body in terms of long-term health are still poorly understood. Because of these concerns, it’s almost certain that commercial space flight companies will be faced with significant liability, and without a regulatory framework in place, this will...

Machine Learning: The Basics

As machine learning (also called data mining) becomes a more integral part of technology everywhere, it will become increasingly important for lawyers and businessmen to be able to relate to and understand how it works. Machine learning is a subfield of AI which encompasses the creation, study, and use of techniques that allow computers to process new information, learn from it, then use that learning to perform some task.  The most important machine learning concept to understand, and the focus of this post, is the distinction between supervised and unsupervised learning, the two methods by which systems are educated.  There is an enormous diversity of specific algorithms and techniques used in machine learning, but all fit inside of one of these two methods. The goal of supervised learning is to create a system which can successfully predict or classify input data; how the system uses those predictions/classifications is irrelevant.  In order to develop a supervised learning scheme, a sample dataset which is representative of the universe — i.e. the data that the system will have to read after development is finished — is required.  This dataset is divided into a training set and a testing set.  This division can be accomplished in a number of different ways, and the two datasets do not have to be of equal size, as long as each new dataset is representative of the full sample dataset and universe.  There are a number of supervised learning algorithms, many of the most popular use Bayesian statistics, neural nets, or decision trees. When conducting supervised learning, the testing set is held in reserve while the training...