May 23, 2017

Inject New Energy into Problem Solving – Principle #8 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

In response to my recent post arguing that the Federal government needs to use the social web more effectively as a tool for improving information sharing between the Federal government and the public, Michael Herz from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law reached out and directed me to a comprehensive report he recently authored for the consideration of the Administrative Conference of the United States entitled “Using Social Media in Rulemaking: Possibilities and Barriers.” One of Mr. Herz’s colleagues described the report’s tone as one of “skeptical optimism.” Mr. Herz asked me specifically about the role of social media in the Federal agency rulemaking process. In short, I generally agree with his statement that “social media culture is at odds with the fundamental characteristics of notice-and-comment rulemaking” because filing insightful comments requires “time, thought, study of the agency proposal and rationale, articulating reasons rather than…off-the-top-of-one’s-head assertions of a bottom line.” Social media, we both agree, however, is a valuable tool for Federal agencies to use to inform the public – particularly those people or groups whom the agency believes may have a vested interest in ongoing rulemakings.

Our e-mail exchange has me thinking now about why many governments and residents are embracing technology-based solutions for urban problems whereas the Federal government, as exemplified by the problems with the Affordable Care Act implementation, has not been as effective in using the Internet, wireless technology and social media to deliver services to the public. Today, I will discuss three reasons why it is easier to inject new energy into technology-based problem solving in local communities.
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The New Ambiguity of "Open Government"

David Robinson and I have just released a draft paper—The New Ambiguity of “Open Government”—that describes, and tries to help solve, a key problem in recent discussions around online transparency. As the paper explains, the phrase “open government” has become ambiguous in a way that makes life harder for both advocates and policymakers, by combining the politics of transparency with the technologies of open data. We propose using new terminology that is politically neutral: the word adaptable to describe desirable features of data (and the word inert to describe their absence), separately from descriptions of the governments that use these technologies.

Clearer language will serve everyone well, and we hope this paper will spark a conversation among those who focus on civic transparency and innovation. Thanks to Justin Grimes and Josh Tauberer, for their helpful insight and discussions as we drafted this paper.

Download the full paper here.

Abstract:

“Open government” used to carry a hard political edge: it referred to politically sensitive disclosures of government information. The phrase was first used in the 1950s, in the debates leading up to passage of the Freedom of Information Act. But over the last few years, that traditional meaning has blurred, and has shifted toward technology.

Open technologies involve sharing data over the Internet, and all kinds of governments can use them, for all kinds of reasons. Recent public policies have stretched the label “open government” to reach any public sector use of these technologies. Thus, “open government data” might refer to data that makes the government as a whole more open (that is, more transparent), but might equally well refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse, but that may have nothing to do with public accountability. Today a regime can call itself “open” if it builds the right kind of web site—even if it does not become more accountable or transparent. This shift in vocabulary makes it harder for policymakers and activists to articulate clear priorities and make cogent demands.

This essay proposes a more useful way for participants on all sides to frame the debate: We separate the politics of open government from the technologies of open data. Technology can make public information more adaptable, empowering third parties to contribute in exciting new ways across many aspects of civic life. But technological enhancements will not resolve debates about the best priorities for civic life, and enhancements to government services are no substitute for public accountability.

Bilski and the Value of Experimentation

The Supreme Court’s long-awaited decision in Bilski v. Kappos brought closure to this particular patent prosecution, but not much clarity to the questions surrounding business method patents. The Court upheld the Federal Circuit’s conclusion that the claimed “procedure for instructing buyers and sellers how to protect against the risk of price fluctuations in a discrete section of the economy” was unpatentable, but threw out the “machine-or-transformation” test the lower court had used. In its place, the Court’s majority gave us a set of “clues” which future applicants, Sherlock Holmes-like, must use to discern the boundaries separating patentable processes from unpatentable “abstract ideas.”

The Court missed an opportunity to throw out “business method” patents, where a great many of these abstract ideas are currently claimed, and failed to address the abstraction of many software patents. Instead, Justice Kennedy’s majority seemed to go out of its way to avoid deciding even the questions presented, simultaneously appealing to the new technological demands of the “Information Age”

As numerous amicus briefs argue, the machine-or-transformation test would create uncertainty as to the patentability of software, advanced diagnostic medicine techniques, and inventions based on linear programming, data compression, and the manipulation of digital signals.

and yet re-ups the uncertainty on the same page:

It is important to emphasize that the Court today is not commenting on the patentability of any particular invention, let alone holding that any of the above-mentioned technologies from the Information Age should or should not receive patent protection.

The Court’s opinion dismisses the Federal Circuit’s brighter line test for “machine-or-transformation” in favor of hand-waving standards: a series of “clues,” “tools” and “guideposts” toward the unpatentable “abstract ideas.” While Kennedy notes that “This Age puts the possibility of innovation in the hands of more people,” his opinion leaves all of those people with new burdens of uncertainty — whether they seek patents or reject patent’s exclusivity but risk running into the patents of others. No wonder Justice Stevens, who concurs in the rejection of Bilski’s application but would have thrown business method patents out with it, calls the whole thing “less than pellucid.”

The one thing the meandering makes clear is that while the Supreme Court doesn’t like the Federal Circuit’s test (despite the Federal Circuit’s attempt to derive it from prior Supreme Court precedents), neither do the Supremes want to propose a new test of their own. The decision, like prior patent cases to reach the Supreme Court, points to larger structural problems: the lack of a diverse proving-ground for patent cases.

Since 1982, patent cases, unlike most other cases in our federal system, have all been appealed to one court, United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Thus while copyright appeals, for example, are heard in the circuit court for the district in which they originate (one of twelve regional circuits), all patent appeals are funneled to the Federal Circuit. And while its judges may be persuaded by other circuits’ opinions, one circuit is not bound to follow its fellows, and may “split” on legal questions. Consolidation in the Federal Circuit deprives the Supreme Court of such “circuit splits” in patent law. At most, it may have dissents from the Federal Circuit’s panel or en banc decision. If it doesn’t like the test of the Federal Circuit, the Supreme Court has no other appellate court to which to turn.

Circuit splits are good for judicial decisionmaking. They permit experimentation and dialogue around difficult points of law. (The Supreme Court hears fewer than 5% of the cases appealed to it, but is twice as likely to take cases presenting inter-circuit splits.) Like the states in the federal system, multiple circuits provide a “laboratory [to] try novel social and economic experiments.” Diverse judges examining the same law, as presented in differing circumstances, can analyze it from different angles (and differing policy perspectives). The Supreme Court considering an issue ripened by the analysis of several courts is more likely to find a test it can support, less likely to have to craft one from scratch or abjure the task. At the cost of temporary non-uniformity, we may get empirical evidence toward better interpretation.

At a time when “harmonization” is pushed as justification for treaties(and a uniform ratcheting-up of intellectual property regimes), the Bilski opinion suggests again that uniformity is overrated, especially if it’s uniform murk.