Beware of Information Technology ‘Miracle Cures’

Published October 25, 2007

In the medical profession there are false positives, false negatives, and, unfortunately, false claims.

It’s little different in the public policy context. Lawmakers must beware of false remedies–or miracle cures–offered by proponents as the salve to solve technology public policy issues.

There’s a lot of Silicon Valley snake oil being sold to some legislators and state attorneys general. I’ll address here three of those miracle cures regarding interoperability, foreign investment, and Internet safety. They are not the antidote they appear to be.

Miracle Cure #1 — Make Everything Interoperable

Beware of the seemingly innocuous refrain to make everything interoperable. There is a trend to mandate through law and regulation the interoperability of software and other technologies. Yet at its heart, this is a sort of “Kelo-style” eminent domain-like forced sharing of intellectual property.

Forced interoperability for computer networks is the subject of the Microsoft antitrust cases. It requires the disclosure of protocols that allow workgroup servers talk to each other, and it regulates the price Microsoft can charge when licensing its intellectual property.

Forced interoperability for digital music formats has brought Apple under fire for restrictions it places on music downloaded from its iTunes Web site.

Forced interoperability for spectrum use is the subject of Google lobbying efforts. The search engine giant wants the Federal Communications Commission to force interoperability mandates onto licensees of the upcoming 700MHZ spectrum auction.

Forced interoperability for patent licenses has caused the European Union to investigate QUALCOMM for how it licenses its patents on CDMA cell phone technology.

And of particular importance for state legislators is the interoperability of electronic document file formats.

The concern over electronic document archival is legitimate. As documents are increasingly originated and stored digitally, there’s a growing concern about how to ensure that today’s digital documents are interoperable with tomorrow’s technology.

In particular, state governments are considering the best way to standardize and preserve electronic public documents. But this process has been hijacked by commercial interests to specify one document file format to the exclusion of others.

In the context of this discussion you’ll hear a lot about ODF, which stands for OpenDocument Format. ODF is a document file format that has been certified as a standard by OASIS, an international standards body. ODF is backed by IBM and Sun, and it competes against another open document format called Office Open XML from Microsoft.

ODF was first pushed as a solution to the electronic document archival problem in Massachusetts, the only state to have adopted an open document policy. This year, bills in Connecticut, Florida, Oregon, and Texas were killed; a bill in California is stalled in committee; and a Minnesota proposal has been watered down to requiring the state’s IT department to study the issue.

Minnesota had an extended public comment period that just recently ended about how to store and access electronic documents.

But specifying a particular technology is a quick fix, for three main reasons:

  • There are multiple goals. Interoperability is a worthy goal, but it can’t be the litmus test for a state’s information technology (IT) decisions. Other goals include control, access, and choice. Or privacy, confidentiality, and security. All of these goals should be considered and balanced when a state makes IT investment decisions.
  • Specify goals, not standards. Some want to turn the goal of interoperability into a mandate for “open standards” as the only way to provide interoperability. States should adhere to a goals-based policy that allows the technology industry to innovate and compete to meet the goal of interoperability.
  • Forcing interoperability can limit innovation. It is just not realistic to require that any new technology must interoperate with all other current (and previous) products in use. Many useful innovations are implemented with new formats that either cannot, or should not, be fully interoperable with other products.

So what’s the proper prescription? Don’t pick technology winners and losers. Governments should specify necessary features for preserving documents through a Request for Proposal process. Be general about technologies but specific about your needs, allowing the market to work to fulfill your requirements.

Miracle Cure #2 — Prevent Investment of Foreign Capital in the U.S. from Countries We Don’t Like

How many people would accept a bottle of pills that would cure a terminal illness–even if the pills weren’t researched or manufactured in the U.S.? All of us, I’m sure. It wouldn’t matter if the pills were from Canada, Japan, or … China.

Similarly, when it comes to money and capital, we should not care so much about where it comes from.

In September 2007, Boston-based Bain Capital announced it had entered into an agreement to purchase 3Com Corporation, a U.S. seller of network and other emerging technologies. The purchase would include a limited financial stake for 3Com’s largest customer, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., a private China-based technology company.

This has raised a “Dubai Ports” type of brouhaha in the technology sector.

But we have a process called CFIUS. It stands for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. President Ronald Reagan established the predictability necessary to attract foreign direct investment in the U.S. That move supported a growth in foreign direct investment in the U.S. that reached $1.7 trillion for 2004 alone, supporting 5.6 million U.S. jobs with $350 billion in wages and compensation.

CFIUS is the best way to protect our national security while still showing investors the U.S. is open for business. Politics ought to be removed from foreign investment reviews. The CFIUS process should be allowed to run its course.

What does this mean to state governments?

Money and capital act a lot like people–they go where they are most welcome, and stay where they are most welcome. State public officials have become increasingly active courting foreign governments and investors in an attempt to attract capital and business into their individual states.

As an example, the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority has offices not just in Vienna, Virginia, but also in Silicon Valley, Bangalore, Frankfurt, London, Seoul, and Tel Aviv. Such local development authorities will be hampered by actions of federal officials that discourage investment in the United States.

States are also on a constant quest to attract high-value and high-wage industries, often coming from the technology sector. Limiting access to the capital that helps fund and grow these industries will put our states at a disadvantage, forcing them to compete for these dollars and jobs with other countries, not just the state next door.

Miracle Cure #3 — Age Verify and Get Parental Consent before Kids can join Social Networking Sites

Online safety is of particular concern to parents, teachers, and policymakers.

So is child obesity. But we don’t require McDonald’s to get a parent’s consent before the kids eat a Quarter Pounder. Instead, menu disclosures and market pressures for healthier food are a positive force.

Likewise, we shouldn’t be forcing social networking Web sites such as MySpace or Facebook to validate parents and age-verify children, as bills introduced this year in Connecticut, Georgia, and North Carolina would have required. Education, market pressures, and law enforcement efforts will go a long way to improve online safety.

There’s no question we have visible online safety symptoms. In July 2007, MySpace detected and deleted from its service 29,000 convicted sex offenders. We are constantly barraged with news reports of children meeting offline with adults they first met online, and the resulting bad things that happen. Dateline’s To Catch a Predator television show has helped fuel a definite climate of fear.

The real problem, however, is that we’re failing to educate, prosecute, properly sentence, and provide resources.

In a recent hearing of the House Judiciary Committee in Congress on “Sex Crimes and the Internet”:

  • Witnesses testified that judges are giving less than the required minimum sentences in one-quarter of federal child pornography cases.
  • Rep. Linda Sanchez said lawmakers are big on rhetoric but not so good on steering resources into enforcement.
  • Other witnesses testified that too many sexual predator cases are being dropped or reduced by prosecutors who can’t get witnesses or resources. We need more accountability and transparency of plea bargains and dropped charges.
  • A witness noted only one state explicitly prohibits “grooming” a child to lure and entice him or her for sex.
  • A Wyoming prosecutor said he could prosecute all new cases … if he’s given funds to add three more attorneys to his staff.

Clearly, we need to focus on education and enforcement. Regulating social networking sites won’t do anything to increase the online safety of our kids. Instead, we should integrate online safety and ethics training into the curriculum of our public schools. We need more resources for law enforcement and more post-conviction controls. As lawmakers, you can work to make sure your laws make online solicitation a crime.


If we follow the proper prescription for these emerging issues, we’ll help increase our innovative health, take the right steps for economic wellness, and just plain get in touch with our inner libertarian self (which some might call a new-age, holistic cure).

There are no miracle cures, but the folks at The Heartland Institute and other policy groups do a good job to help illustrate markets work to provide the best possible outcome for technology businesses and consumers.

Braden Cox, J.D. is research and policy counsel for the Association for Competitive Technology.