FCC Seeking Comments On Possible Broadband Privacy Rules

Last week during its meeting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) related to consumer privacy related to broadband and other data services.  As seems to be the new normal in Washington, the Commission approved the notice along partisan lines, 3-2.  Comments will be accepted until May 27 (and replies to submitted comments are due June 27).  However, since the ability of the FCC to regulate Internet services, particularly its net neutrality proposal, is subject to a court case, it may be a long time before the rules are implemented (assuming they are).

As FCC Chairman Wheeler described the proposal in a memo released in March, the proposed rules would provide consumers the opportunity to opt out of sharing certain kinds of information with their Internet Service Provider (ISP).  This would cover marketing non-Internet/broadband services of that ISP as well as sharing information with affiliates that offer similar services.  Information required for the ISP to provide its services and to market the ISP’s Internet/broadband services (like a service providing faster speed) to that customer would not be eligible for opting out.  Information sharing for any other purposes would have to be expressly opted in by the customer.

Other parts of the NPRM cover data security requirements and data breach notification requirements for consumers.  While these components may not draw as much attention as the information sharing provisions, effective management and use of data requires that all three aspects are covered.

Aside from a general lack of interest in FCC regulations, broadband providers consider the proposed rules unequal treatment because such regulations would not cover information technology companies that do not fall under FCC regulation like Apple or Google.  I think these companies (including major services like Facebook that also collect and use consumer data) need to provide consumers with the kinds of protections outlined in the proposed rules, but at present it will have to be done through the Federal Trade Commission.  Now it’s possible that something like Google Fiber might place that company under FCC jurisdiction, but I think it more pragmatic to determine how best to extend those protections to those Internet companies that rely on consumer data but don’t own or operate the infrastructure that shares it.

One Reason To Not Speed Up Hospital Digitization

Part of the recent episode of Science Goes to the Movies that I posted about Saturday involved a discussion of how outdated much of the technology hospitals are using for their record keeping.

Unfortunately, computerized record keeping is not the only networked activity that hospitals are having problems with.  Computer security is a serious problem.  On Saturday The Washington Post noted the recent ransomware attack on a local health-care system.  Attacks like this, where the attacked party must pay a ransom or risk losing access to the data now controlled by the attacking hacker, are not unique to hospitals and hospital systems, but they seem to be a favored target for this tactic.  Whether this is due to a technical or organizational characteristic of health-care systems I can’t tell.

For better or worse, a lot of this comes to money.  As hospitals and health-care systems are under pressure to invest in new information technology, security for that technology does not get enough attention or investment to keep up with the new technology.  And, of course, other systems reliant on information technology need to make the right kind of investments in both technology and people.  It’s just that hospitals seem to be getting the attention right now.

European Commission Seeking Ideas On Possible European Innovation Council

The European Commission, led by the Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas, continues to explore a possible European Innovation Council (EIC).  Last month the Commission released a Call for Ideas, a (relatively) informal survey where stakeholders can provide input on what they see as the challenges facing Europe with respect to supporting innovation.  Participants may simply answer the survey questions, or they can also upload a white paper or similar document outlining their ideas for what an EIC might resemble.

As Commissioner Moedas notes in this question and answer session at this year’s Science|Business Horizon 2020 Conference, the idea of an EIC has been circulating for some time.  I suspect the levels of risk involved in the kind of investment an EIC may support pose the biggest challenges in forming such a venture, but without a formalised conversation around what an EIC might be, identifying and articulating those risks won’t happen to the extent that would be required for a government to make a decision on how it would be involved.

Personally, while the language around the initial discussions of an EIC suggest parallels to the European Research Council, I think it unlikely that there will be much overlap between the two.  Commissioner Moedas has emphasized the need for collaboration and better coordination of existing support mechanisms in generating startups and market-creating kinds of innovation.  With fundamentally different kinds of output, different organizations seem likely.

Submissions to the Call for Ideas are being accepted until April 29.  Submissions may be posted on the call’s webpage, and the material submitted will generate a response from the Commissioner (or his staff) in June.

Parsing How High Court Nominees Might Engage With Science And The Law

Earlier today the President announced his nominee for the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, D.C. Circuit Court Judge Merrick Garland.  As several Senate Republicans are on the record indicating a lack of interest in meeting the nominee, much less holding a confirmation hearing, it’s unclear when or if Garland might sit on the court.  Even so, the nomination raised the question for me about how to assess potential jurists on how they would use science and technology in the court.

It strikes me as a tricky bit of business, but one worth engaging with regardless.  Especially since whomever joins the Court next is replacing a Justice who felt it necessary to note in the Myriad Genetics opinion (page 22) that

“I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I–A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology. I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief.”

Often the disputes that come before the Supreme Court and lower courts may involve decisions and agencies that deal with science on a regular basis, but are contested on grounds that deal with matters of law and authority for which science and technology are context but not the crux of the decision.  So while issues related to science and technology have become more important to society and have appeared more often in court matters beyond the specialized cases you might expect to see them (intellectual property chief among them), they don’t drive decisions so much as force the legal disputes.

When you review assessments of judges such as this one about Judge Garland from SCOTUSBlog in 2010 (the first time he was considered for a Supreme Court nomination) you don’t see any mention of science or technology.  It’s hard to say if that’s because he didn’t deal with cases that engaged with those topics or not.  The Circuit Court Garland serves on deals primarily with regulatory actions, so it stands to reason that science and technology factors into those cases in terms of informing policy choices.  But that doesn’t automatically mean that Garland had to have significant technological or scientific literacy in order to rule in those cases.

Again, Senate Republicans may make discussing a future Justice Garland moot.  But they won’t stop me from thinking of how difficult it could be to assess if the next Supreme Court Justice will feel the need to commit their lack of science and technology knowledge (or interest in same) to the public record.  Pointers and suggestions (as always) welcome.

National Maker Faire Returning In June

Today the White House announced that the second National Maker Faire will take place on June 18 and 19 as part of the National Week of Making (June 17-23).

The White House held a Maker Faire in 2014, and expanded it to a Week of Making and the National Maker Faire in 2015.  This year’s event will also be held at the University of the District of Columbia and feature participation from several federal agencies.  As the producer of Maker Faires, Maker Media is involved again this year.

The White House is encouraging people to submit their maker stories, and to host events during the Week of Making.  If interested in sharing your stories or otherwise supporting the effort, please contact the White House by May 30th.

In related news, the Education Department announced a new competition today to support creating more maker spaces in high schools.  The idea here is that such spaces would help boost interest and participation in career and technical education.  Put another way (and one that Mike Rowe might get behind), it’s updating various shop classes to include new skills needed in the 21st century and to get more people in the room.  It’s a multi-stage competition that will recognize the winners at the World Maker Faire in October.  The deadline for the first phase of the competition is April 1.

Research Mice Are Strongly Segregated By Sex

Earlier this week, when discussing the recently implemented National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant requirement that proposals cover how sex is accounted for as a biological variable, I commented on the length of time it has taken to get to this point.

“While some of this time can be accounted for by the typical time required in developing policy I think it also highlights the challenges in confronting and mitigating a longstanding bias against systematic consideration of sex in biomedical research.”

I mentioned in that post a 2015 GAO report noting the problems NIH grantees have had in incorporating women into clinical trials.  However, this Nature news article describes the problems ahead for addressing sex differences in research animals.  It discusses a paper in eLife that describes an analysis of sex differences in research mice used in over 15,000 open access research papers published between 1994 and 2014.

While researchers did find that recording data on animal studies improved over the time series of the study, it plateaued around 2010.  So the existence of subsequent policies, like that of the NIH, has not yet translated into further improvements.  The study also noted that certain research fields have strong preferences for either male or female research mice.  These differences were also found in different kinds of research in the same field (the Nature article notes that diabetes research tends to use male mice, but studies on immunology related to diabetes tend to use female mice.

It would seem that policies will only be one tool used in order to successfully manage the use of both genders in research mice for biomedical research.  Education and journal practices will need to adapt to make sure researchers understand why sex is an important variable in their research that needs to be address much better than it has until now.

Defense Department Building An Innovation Advisory Board

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has named Alphabet (the new parent company for all Google businesses) executive chairman Eric Schmidt as the chair of the newly constituted Defense Department Innovation Advisory Board (H/T WIRED).  Aside from Schmidt’s work at Alphabet, he serves on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST).

The board will have up to 12 members, and be selected by both Schmidt and Secretary Carter.  The mission of the board, according to the Department’s press release, is to:

“provide department leaders independent advice on innovative and adaptive means to address future organizational and cultural challenges, including the use of technology alternatives, streamlined project management processes and approaches – all with the goal of identifying quick solutions to DoD problems.”

Members are expected to be leaders of (or have led) major public and/or private organizations and have experience with identifying advanced technology concepts.  The Department sees this board as comparable to the Defense Business Board, and would likely meet quarterly.

No first meeting date has been announced yet, but that is not likely to happen until the full slate of board members have been selected by Carter and Schmidt.  How much this board will be able to do before the Presidential transition is unclear.  Absent a statutory basis for the board fixing terms independent of whomever is President, this process will be restarted (or possibly not) under the next administration.