Do Government Policies and Laws Hinder Tech Advances?

Did you know that texting while driving is illegal in 33 states and the District of Columbia?

This kind of government regulation of technology may seem reasonable, but other government interventions are more controversial.

For example, governments devise various ways to prevent you from visiting websites or downloading apps that lawmakers don't like. Some states have laws that forbid cities to build their own broadband networks, while other states want to impose privacy rules that could affect users all over the world.

Meanwhile, litigation sometimes serves to line the pockets of patent and copyright holders that are willing to file massive lawsuits against individuals, small businesses, and large corporations. And if you think the Internet is a wild frontier, check out the mess that legislators and courts make as they try to create and interpret laws governing this ever-growing digital medium.

Whether you're for or against more government regulation--online or on your smartphone--here's a look at 10 controversial areas of legal wrangling going on in the halls of power in the United States and in other parts of the world.

Patently Broken System

The Issue

U.S. Patent Office Seal
U.S. Patent Office Seal
The U.S. patent system is designed to protect innovations created by private inventors. But patenting software has helped foster a situation where, to win a patent, inventors need do little more than write a broad academic thesis paper about a vague idea and call it an invention. These "inventors" then press technology companies to pay licensing fees if they try to implement the inventors' supposedly original concepts.

The Controversy

Critics point to lawsuits by patent-holding company Lodsys against small third-party iOS app developers for patent infringement as an example of what's wrong with U.S. patent law. Intellectual property rights activist and patent blogger Florian Mueller says that companies like Lodsys are able to use property rights to "exploit the miserable state of affairs of the U.S. patent system."

The Result

Despite critical objections to Lodsys's actions, the company is probably looking at a good-size paycheck. Big companies such as Apple may find it cheaper to pay out a settlement to such companies than to endure the uncertainty of an infringement trial, according to Mueller. But Lodsys may have a tougher time than is typical for most patent-holding companies engaging in lawsuits. Apple recently filed to intervene in Lodsys's infringement suit against app developers in a U.S. District Court in Texas. Meanwhile, Mueller says that at least three companies are seeking to invalidate Lodsys's patents in a U.S.District Court in Illinois. These companies include The New York Times Company, market research firm OpinionLab, and customer analytics company ForeSee Results.

Europe's e-G8 Forum: More Harm Than Good?

The Issue

In May, French President Nicolas Sarkozy convened a meeting with some of the world's major Internet figures, including Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. The stated aim of the e-G8 Forum was to discuss how governments could help maintain the Internet as an engine for innovation while preventing its use as a tool for terrorism, child pornography, and copyright infringement.

The Controversy

Sarkozy has said before that he wants to create a "civilized Internet." That notion alone spooked many technology enthusiasts. Critics such as writer and blogger Cory Doctorow saw the meeting as cover for imposing extensive government regulation over the Internet. Blogger, writer, and academic Jeff Jarvis, who attended the e-G8 forum, said in a blog post that he saw the meeting as "government's opening volley against the Internet" to prevent technology from disrupting the traditional role of government.

The Result

The G8 world leader summit that followed the e-G8 Forum issued a vaguely worded statement about the Internet that was included in the G8 meeting's closing declaration.

Outlaw Apps

The Issue

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer
Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-New York) recently pressed Apple and Google to remove from their app stores any third-party apps that help a user locate DUI checkpoints near them in real time.

The Controversy

Schumer believes that apps such as DUI Dodger, Buzzed, and MrDUI allow drunk drivers to subvert the law by helping them evade police checkpoints. "The DUI applications are nothing more than a how-to guide in avoiding law enforcement. They provide drunk drivers with the tools they need to go undetected, putting innocent families and children at risk. Simply put, if it breaks the law, there shouldn't be an app for that," Senator Schumer said in a statement to PCWorld.

But not everyone agrees. "DUI Dodger does nothing more than support the free flow of PUBLIC information. Censoring it merely impedes on free speech," Geno Rose, creator of DUI Dodger told PCWorld.

The Result

Apple recently updated its App Store submission guidelines to ban apps that contain DUI checkpoint locations not published by law enforcement agencies, or those that encourage and enable drunk driving. Apple is also requiring DUI apps currently in the App Store to comply with the new regulations. On the other hand, so-called radar-detection apps (actually speed-trap location apps) seem still to be available at the App Store.

Is Bitcoin Money Laundering?

The Issue

Bitcoin Logo
Bitcoin Logo
The Silk Road website appears to be a one-stop shop for online buyers looking for illicit drugs such as heroin, ecstasy, marijuana, and cocaine. In carrying out its transactions, Silk Road uses various methods that help it evade police scrutiny, including the TOR anonymization network and the use of a nearly untraceable online currency called Bitcoin. Senators Schumer and Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) want to shut down Silk Road and have called on Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate. Schumer has also called Silk Road's use of Bitcoin an "online form of money laundering," according to NBC New York.

The Controversy

Some reports have speculated that the Drug Enforcement Administration may investigate the use of Bitcoin as a tool for online illicit drug transactions. But big questions remain about whether the government could do anything to stop the online use of Bitcoins. The Bitcoin Project uses a peer-to-peer distributed network to circulate the currency, and the network's decentralized nature would make shutting it down very difficult.

The Result

The fate of Bitcoin is an open question, but the currency is gaining in popularity. At the time of this writing 1 Bitcoin was trading at (or was equal to) $19.63. For a full discussion on Bitcoin and how it works check out the Bitcoin episode of the Security Now podcast with Steve Gibson. Of course, if instances where people lose their accumulated Bitcoins grow more frequent, the desirability of the currency may plummet.

Next: Under Examination--Pirate Streaming Sites, Facebook Privacy, Copyright Infringement, Broadband, and Twitter

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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