March 23, 2017

A technological approach to better living, for D.C. and beyond

Washington, D.C., could be a leader in the United States — and worldwide — in using technology to improve the lives of its residents and visitors.

As a rapidly growing city with a diverse and highly educated population, the District is a leader in law, education, tourism and, of course, government. With this mass of educated and engaged citizens, the District can use technology to make local government more efficient and promote the further development of vibrant commercial corridors across the city.

That’s why the District government should join other leading cities in establishing an office dedicated to tech-based solutions to local, urban problems.

The networks that communities use to share information and facilitate commerce have evolved across U.S. history from waterways to railroads to broadband. As the Georgetown waterfront was once a profitable international shipping hub, cities today are leveraging their advantages to attract technology innovators. In Boston, for example, the mayor’s office found partners for its civic technology incubator (the Office of New Urban Mechanics) at Harvard University and Emerson College. Kansas City won a contest and became the first city where Google built its super-high-speed Internet service. And New York City, under the leadership of tech-savvy mayor Michael Bloomberg, developed in 2011 a “Road Map for the Digital City” to establish itself as a world leader in Internet access, open government, citizen engagement and digital industry growth.

True to the District’s status as a world political capital, the leaders in the city’s government, business and educational institutions should work together to benefit the region’s civic and economic future:

● The next mayor must establish a unified program housed in the mayor’s office and focused on using technology, data and innovation to make the city’s government more efficient and responsive to residents’ needs. Initiatives, perhaps similar to Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, should be developed and executed in partnership with local companies, universities and nonprofits.

● Within such a program, the businesses and government could systematically encourage and support new grass-roots organizations similar to the Kennedy Street Development Association, which is using Facebook and Twitter to recruit residents and businesses, and whose investments signal the rebranding of an ailing commercial corridor as a lively mixed commercial and residential neighborhood. Memphis’s MEMShop business incubation program is a good model.

● Critical support for such a unified program is locally available because many global experts on telecommunications and Internet policy are already here. The District’s business leaders could easily engage this brain trust in developing technology policies and regulations that support growing broadband infrastructure and foster economic growth resulting from proven applications, such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb.

By taking the lead on civic innovation, the District could be a template for other governments in the area. As the whole region shares information, researchers, local companies and governments can come together to tackle some of the biggest challenges we face, such as homelessness, education and transportation. With this spirit of collaboration, local Washington, D.C., can be a model for the federal D.C.

I Join the EFF and Others in Calling for Craigslist to Drop CFAA Claims

[Cross-posted on my blog, Managing Miracles]

Craigslist is suing several companies that scrape data from Craigslist advertisements. These companies, like Padmapper and 3taps, repurpose the data in order to provide more useful ways of searching through the ads. I have written about this in earlier posts, “Dear Craig: Voluntarily Dismiss with Prejudice,” and “A Response to Jerry: Craig Should Still Dismiss.” Fundamentally, I think that the company’s tactic of litigating against perceived competitors is bad for Craigslist (because it limits the reach of its users’ ads and thus the success of Craigslist), it is bad for the law and policy of the web (because scraping of public web sites has historically been a well-established and permissible practice that beneficially spreads public information), and is in bad taste (given Craiglist’s ethos of doing well by doing good).

One of the most problematic aspects of the lawsuit is the set of claims under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and its California state-law counterpart. The CFAA, passed in 1986, introduces criminal and civil penalties for “unauthorized access” to “protected computers.” The CFAA was largely a reaction to generalized fear of “computer hacking,” and it did not envision the public internet as we know it today. Nevertheless, some have tried to apply the CFAA to public web sites. This approach has been widely frowned upon by both the tech community and the courts. For instance, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are actively pushing to reform the CFAA because it has been subject to prosecutorial abuse. Craigslist has nevertheless alleged violations of the CFAA based on access to their public web site.

Today I signed on to an an amicus brief written by the EFF–which was also co-signed by other scholars in the field–that urges the court to dismiss these ill-advised CFAA claims. The brief reads, in part:
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A Response to Jerry: Craig Should Still Dismiss

[Cross-posted on my blog, Managing Miracles]

Jerry Brito, a sometimes contributor to this blog, has a new post on the Reason blog arguing that I and others have been too harsh on Craigslist for their recent lawsuit. As I wrote in my earlier post, Craigslist should give up the lawsuit not just because it’s unlikely to prevail, but also because it risks setting bad precedents and is downright distasteful. Jerry argues that what the startups that scrape Craigslist data are doing doesn’t “sit well,” and that there are a several reasons to temper criticism of Craigslist.

I remain unconvinced.

To begin with, the notion that something doesn’t “sit well” is not necessarily a good indicator that one can or should prevail in legal action. To be sure, tort law (and common law more generally) develops in part out of our collective notion of what does or doesn’t seem right. Jerry concedes that the copyright claims are bogus, and that the CFAA claims are ill-advised, so we’re left with doctrines like misappropriation and trespass to chattels. I’ll get to those in a moment.
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