Regulatory

Freedom to Moderate? Circuits Split over First Amendment Interpretation

Annelise Couderc, MJLST Staffer

Recently, the Florida and Texas Legislatures passed substantively similar laws which restrict social media platforms’ ability to moderate posts expressing “viewpoints,” and require platforms to provide explanations for why they chose to censor certain content. These laws seemingly stem from the perception of conservative leaning users that their views are disproportionately censored, despite evidence showing otherwise. The laws are in direct conflict with the current prevalent understanding of social media’s access to First Amendment protections, which include the right to moderate content, an expression of free speech.

While the 11th Circuit declared the Florida law unconstitutional for violating social media platforms’ First Amendment rights in May, only four months later the 5th Circuit reinstated the similar Texas law without explanation, overturning the previous injunction made by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. On September 16, 2022, the 5th Circuit released its full decision explaining its reinstatement of the censorship statute, immediately raising constitutional alarm bells in the news. Following this circuit split, social media platforms must navigate a complicated legal minefield. The issue is likely to be resolved by the Supreme Court in response to Florida’s petition of the 11th Circuit’s May decision.

Social Media Platforms Are Generally Free to Moderate Content

The major social media platforms all have policies which ban certain content, or at least require a sensitivity warning to be posted before viewing certain content. Twitter restricts hate speech and imagery, gratuitous violence, sexual violence, and requires sensitive content warnings on adult content. Facebook sets Community Standards and YouTube (a Google subsidiary) sets Community Guidelines that restrict similar content.[1] Social media corporations’ access to free speech protections were well understood under settled Supreme Court precedent, and were further confirmed in the controversial 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United establishing the rights of corporations to make political donations as a demonstration of free speech. In sum, Courts have generally allowed social media platforms to moderate and censor sensitive content as they see fit, and platforms have embraced this through their establishment and enforcement of internal guidelines. 

Circuits Split Over First Amendment Concerns

Courts have generally rejected arguments challenging social media platforms’ ability to set and uphold their own content guidelines, upholding social media platforms’ free speech protections under the First Amendment. The 5th Circuit’s rejection of this widely accepted standard has created a circuit split which will lead to further litigation and leave social media platforms uncertain about the validity of their policies and the extent of their constitutional rights.

The 11th Circuit’s opinion in May of this year was consistent with the general understanding of social media’s place as private businesses which hold First Amendment rights. It rejected Florida’s argument that social media platforms are common carriers and stated that editorial discretion by the platforms is a protected First Amendment right.[2] The Court recognized the platforms’ freedom to abide by their own community guidelines and choose which content to prioritize as expressions of editorial judgment protected by the First Amendment.[3] This opinion was attacked directly by the 5th Circuit’s later decision, challenging the 11th Circuit’s adherence to existing First Amendment jurisprudence. 

In its September 16th opinion, the 5th Circuit refused to recognize censorship as speech, rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that content moderation was a form of editorial discretion (a recognized form of protected speech for newspapers).[4] The court also invoked common carrier doctrine—which empowers states to enforce nondiscriminatory practices for services that the public uses en masse (a classification that the 11th Circuit explicitly rejected)—, embracing it in the context of social media platforms.[5] Therefore, the court held with “no doubts” that section 7 of the Texas law—which prevents platforms from censoring “viewpoints” (with exceptions for blatantly illegal speech provoking violence, etc.) of users—was constitutional.[6] Section 2 of the contested statute, requiring social media platforms to  justify and announce their moderation choices, was similarly upheld as being a sufficiently important interest of the government, and not unduly burdensome to the businesses.[7] The law allows individuals to sue for enforcement. 

The Supreme Court’s Role and Further Implications

Florida, on September 21st, 2022, petitioned for a writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to review the May 2022 decision. The petition included reference to the 5th Circuit opinion, calling for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the Circuit split. Considering recent Supreme Court decisions cutting down Fourth and Fifth amendment rights, it is anticipated that First Amendment rights of online platforms may be next.

Although the Florida and Texas laws involved in these Circuit Court decisions were Republican proposed bills, a Supreme Court decision would impact blue states as well. California, for example, has proposed a bill requiring social media platforms to make public their policies on hate speech and disinformation. A decision in either direction would impact both Republican and Democratic legislatures’ ability to regulate social media platforms in any way.

Notes

[1] Studies have found that platforms like YouTube may actually push hateful content through their algorithms despite what their official policies may state.

[2] NetChoice, LLC v. AG, Fla., 34 F.4th 1196, 1222 (11th Cir. 2022).

[3] Id. at 1204.

[4] Netchoice, L.L.C. v. Paxton, No. 21-51178, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 26062, at *28 (5th Cir. Sep. 16, 2022).

[5] Id. at 59.

[6] Id. at 52.

[7]  Id. at 102.


A Solution Enabled by the Conflict in Ukraine, Cryptocurrency Regulation, and the Energy Crisis Could Address All Three Issues

Chase Webber, MJLST Staffer

This post focuses on two political questions reinvigorated by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: the energy crisis and the increasing popularity and potential for blockchain technology such as cryptocurrency (“crypto”).  The two biggest debates regarding blockchain may be its extraordinarily high use of energy and the need for regulation.  The emergency of the Ukraine invasion presents a unique opportunity for political, crypto, and energy issues to synergize – each with solutions and positive influence for the others.

This post will compare shortcomings in pursuits for environmentalism and decentralization.  Next, explain how a recent executive order is an important turning point towards developing sufficient peer-to-peer technology for effective decentralization.  Finally, suggest that a theoretical decentralized society may be more well-equipped to address the critical issues of global politics, economy, and energy use, and potentially others.

 

Relationship # 1: The Invasion and The Energy Crisis

Responding to the invasion, the U.S. and other countries have sanctioned Russia in ways that are devastating Russia’s economy, including by restricting the international sale of Russian oil.  This has dramatic implications for the interconnected global economy.  Russia is the second-largest oil exporter; cutting Russia out of the picture sends painful ripples across our global dependency on fossil fuel.

Without “beating a dead dinosaur” … the energy crisis, in a nutshell, is that (a) excessive fossil fuel consumption causes irreparable harm to the environment, and (b) our thirst for fossil fuel is unsustainable, our demand exceeds the supply and the supply’s ability to replenish, so we will eventually run out.  Both issues suggest finding ways to lower energy consumption and implement alternative, sustainable sources of energy.

Experts suggest innovation for these ends is easier than deployment of solutions.  In other words, we may be capable of fixing these problems, but, as a planet, we just don’t want it badly enough yet, notwithstanding some regulatory attempts to limit consumption or incentivize sustainability.  If the irreparable harm reaches a sufficiently catastrophic level, or if the well finally runs dry, it will require – not merely suggest – a global reorganization via energy use and consumption.

The energy void created by removing Russian supply from the global economy may sufficiently mimic the well running dry.  The well may not really be dry, but it would feel like it.  This could provide sufficient incentive to implement that global energy reset, viz., planet-wide lifestyle changes for existing without fossil fuel reliance, for which conservationists have been begging for decades.

The invasion moves the clock forward on the (hopefully) inevitable deployment of green innovation that would naturally occur as soon as we can’t use fossil fuels even if we still want to.

 

Relationship # 2: The Invasion and Crypto   

Crypto was surprisingly not useful for avoiding economic sanctions, although it was designed to resist government regulation and control (for better or for worse).  Blockchain-based crypto transactions are supposedly “peer-to-peer,” requiring no government or private intermediaries.  Other blockchain features include a permanent record of transactions and the possibility of pseudonymity.  Once assets are in crypto form, they are safer than traditional currency – users can generally transfer them to each other, even internationally, without possibility of seizure, theft, taxation, or regulation.

(The New York Times’ Latecomer’s Guide to Crypto and the “Learn” tab on Coinbase.com are great resources for quickly building a basic understanding of this increasingly pervasive technology.)

However, crypto is weak where the blockchain realm meets the physical realm.  While the blockchain itself is safe and secure from theft, a user’s “key” may be lost or stolen from her possession.  Peer-to-peer transactions themselves lack intermediaries, but hosts are required for users to access and use blockchain technology.  Crypto itself is not taxed or regulated, but exchanging digital assets – e.g., buying bitcoin with US dollars – are taxed as a property acquisition and regulated by the Security Exchange Commission (SEC).  Smart contract agreements flounder where real-world verification, adjudication, or common-sense is needed.

This is bad news for sanctioned Russian oligarchs because they cannot get assets “into” or “out of” crypto without consequence.  It is better news for Ukraine, where the borderless-ness and “trust” of crypto transaction eases international transmittal of relief assets and ensures legitimate receipt.

The prospect of crypto being used to circumvent U.S. sanctions brought crypto into the federal spotlight as a matter of national security.  President Biden’s Executive Order (EO) 14067 of March 9, 2022 offers an important turning point for blockchain: when the US government began to direct innovation and government control.  Previously, discussions of whether recognition and control of crypto would threaten innovation, or a failure to do so would weaken government influence, had become a stalemate in regulatory discussion. The EO seems to have taken advantage of the Ukraine invasion to side-step the stagnant congressional debates.

Many had recognized crypto’s potential, but most seemed to wait out the unregulated and mystical prospect of decentralized finance until it became less risky.  Crypto is the modern equivalent of private-issued currencies, which were common during the Free Banking Era, before national banks were established at the end of the Civil War.  They were notoriously unreliable.  Only the SEC had been giving crypto plenty of attention, until (and especially) more recently, when the general public noticed how profitable bitcoin became despite its volatility.

EO 14067’s policy reasoning includes crypto user protection, stability of the financial system, national security (e.g., Russia’s potential for skirting sanctions), preventing crime enablement (viz., modern equivalents to The Silk Road dark web), global competition, and, generally, federal recognition and support for blockchain innovation.  The president asked for research of blockchain technology from departments of Treasury, Defense, Commerce, Labor, Energy, Homeland Security, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), SEC, Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and a handful of other federal agencies.

While promoting security and a general understanding of blockchain’s potential uses and feasibility, the order also proposes Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDC).  CBDCs are FedCoins – a stablecoin issued by the government instead of by private entities.  Stablecoins (e.g., Tether) are a type of crypto whose value is backed by the US Dollar, whereas privately issued crypto (e.g., Bitcoin, Ether) are more volatile because their value is backed by practically nothing.  So, unlike Tether, a privately issued stablecoin, CBDCs would be crypto issued and controlled by the U.S. Treasury.

Imagine CBDCs as a dollar bill made of blockchain technology instead of paper.  A future “cash transaction” could feel more like using Venmo, but without the intermediary host, Venmo.

 

Relationship # 3: Crypto and Energy

Without getting into too many more details, blockchain technology, on which crypto is based, requires an enormous amount of energy-consuming computing power.

Blockchain is a decentralized “distributed ledger technology.” The permanent recordings of transactions are stored and verifiable at every “node” – the computer in front of you could be a node – instead of in a centralized database.  In contrast, the post you are now reading is not decentralized; it is “located” in a UMN database somewhere, not in your computer’s hard drive.  Even a shared Google Doc is in a Google database, not in each of the contributor’s computers.  In a distributed system, if one node changes its version of the distributed ledger, some of the other nodes verify the change.  If the change represents a valid transaction, the change is applied to all versions at each node, if not, the change is rejected, and the ledger remains intact.

These repeated verifications give blockchain its core features, but also require a significant amount of energy.

For most of the history of computers, computing innovation has focused primarily on function, especially increased speed.  Computer processing power eventually became sufficiently fast that, in the last twenty-ish years, computing innovation began to focus on achieving the same speed using less energy and/or with more affordability.  Automotive innovation experienced a similar shift on a different timeline.

Blockchain will likely undergo the same evolution.  First, innovators will focus on function and standardization.  Despite the popularity, this technology still lacks in these areas.  Crypto assets have sometimes disappeared into thin air due to faulty coding or have been siphoned off by anonymous users who found loopholes in the software.  Others, who became interested in crypto during November 2021, after hearing that Ether had increased in value by 989% that year and the crypto market was then worth over $3 trillion, may have been surprised when the value nearly halved by February.

Second, and it if it is a profitable investment – or incentivized by future regulations resulting from EO14067 – innovators will focus on reducing the processing power required for maintaining a distributed ledger.

 

Decentralization, and Other Fanciful Policies

Decentralization and green tech share the same fundamental problem.  The ideas are compelling and revolutionary.  However, their underlying philosophy does not yet match our underlying policy.  In some ways, they are still too revolutionary because, in this author’s opinion, they will require either a complete change in infrastructure or significantly more creativity to be effective.  Neither of these requirements are possible without sufficient policy incentive.  Without the incentive, the ideas are innovative, but not yet truly disruptive.

Using Coinbase on an iPhone to execute a crypto transaction is to “decentralization” what driving a Tesla running on coal-sourced electricity is to “environmentalism.”  They are merely trendy and well-intentioned.  Tesla solves one problem – automotive transportation without gasoline – while creating another – a corresponding demand for electricity – because it relies on existing infrastructure.  Similarly, crypto cannot survive without centralization.  Nor should it, according to the SEC, who has been fighting to regulate privately issued crypto for years.

At first glance, EO 14067 seems to be the nail in the coffin for decentralization.  Proponents designed crypto after the 2008 housing market crash specifically hoping to avoid federal involvement in transactions.  Purists, especially during The Digital Revolution in the 90s, hoped peer-to-peer technology like blockchain (although it did not exist at that time) would eventually replace government institutions entirely – summarized in the term, “code is law.”  This has marked the tension between crypto innovators and regulators, each finding the other uncooperative with its goals.

However, some, such as Kevin Werbach, a prominent blockchain scholar, suggest that peer-to-peer technology and traditional legal institutions need not be mutually exclusive.  Each offers unique elements of “trust,” and each has its weaknesses.  Naturally, the cooperation of novel technologies and existing legal and financial structures can mean mutual benefit.  The SEC seems to share a similarly cooperative perspective, but distinguished, importantly, by the expectation that crypto will succumb to the existing financial infrastructure.  Werbach praises EO 14067, Biden’s request that the “alphabet soup” of federal agencies investigate, regulate, and implement blockchain, as the awaited opportunity for government and innovation to join forces.

The EPA is one of the agencies engaged by the EO.  Pushing for more energy efficient methods of implementing blockchain technology will be as essential as the other stated policies of national security, global competition, and user friendliness.  If the well runs dry, as discussed above, blockchain use will stall, as long as blockchain requires huge amounts of energy.  Alternatively, if energy efficiency can be attained preemptively, the result of ongoing blockchain innovation could play a unique role in addressing climate change and other political issues, viz., decentralization.

In her book, Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing, Beth Simone Noveck suggests an innovative philosophy for future democracies could use peer-to-peer technology to gather wide-spread public expertise for addressing complex issues.  We have outgrown the use of “government bureaucracies that are supposed to solve critical problems on their own”; by analogy, we are only using part of our available brainpower.  More recently, Decentralization: Technology’s Impact on Organizational and Societal Structure, by local scholars Wulf Kaal and Craig Calcaterra, further suggests ways of deploying decentralization concepts.

Decentralized autonomous organizations (“DAOs”) are created with use of smart contracts, a blockchain-based technology, to implement more effectively democratic means of consensus and information sharing.  However, DAOs are still precarious.  Many of these have failed because of exploitation, hacks, fraud, sporadic participation, and, most importantly, lack of central leadership.  Remember, central leadership is exactly what DAOs and other decentralized proposals seek to avoid.  Ironically, in existing DAOs, without regulatory leadership, small, centralized groups of insiders tend to hold all the cards.

Some claim that federal regulation of DAOs could provide transparency and disclosure standards, authentication and background checks, and other means of structural support.  The SEC blocked American CryptoFed, the first “legally sanctioned” DAO, in the state of Wyoming.  Following the recent EO, the SEC’s position may shift.

 

Mutual Opportunity

To summarize:  The invasion of Ukraine may provide the necessary incentive for actuating decentralized or environmentalist ideologies.  EO 14067 initiates federal regulatory structure for crypto and researching blockchain implementation in the U.S.  The result could facilitate eventual decentralized and energy-conscious systems which, in turn, could facilitate resolutions to grave impending climate change troubles.  Furthermore, a new tool for gathering public consensus and expertise could shed new light on other political issues, foreign and domestic.

This sounds suspiciously like, “idea/product X will end climate change, all political disagreements, (solve world hunger?) and create global utopia,” and we all know better than to trust such assertions.

It does sound like it, but Noveck and Kaal & Calcaterra both say no, decentralization will not solve all our problems, nor does it seek to.  Instead, decentralization offers to make us, as a coordinated society, significantly more efficient problem solvers.  A decentralized organizational structure hopes to allow humans to react and adapt to situations more naturally, the way other living organisms adapt to changing environments.  We will always have problems.  Centralization, proponents argue, is no longer the best means of obtaining solutions.

In other words, one hopes that addressing critical issues in the future – like potential military conflict, economic concerns, and global warming – will not be exasperated or limited by the very structures with which we seek to devise and implement a resolution.


Save the Children . . . From Algorithms?

Sarah Nelson, MJLST Staffer

Last week, a bill advanced out of the Minnesota House Commerce Finance and Policy Committee that would ban social media platforms from utilizing algorithms to suggest content to those under the age of 18. Under the bill, known as HF 3724, social media platforms with more than one million account holders that operate in Minnesota, like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok, would no longer be able to use their algorithms to recommend user-generated content to minors.

The sponsor of the bill, Representative Kristin Robbins, a Republican from Maple Grove, said that she was motivated to sponsor HF 3724 after reading two articles from the Wall Street Journal. In the first, the Wall Street Journal created dozens of automated accounts on the app TikTok, which it registered as being between the ages of 13 and 15. The outlet then detailed how the TikTok algorithm, used to create a user’s For You feed, would inundate teenage users with sex- and drug-related content if they engaged with that content. Similarly, in the second article, the Wall Street Journal found that TikTok would repeatedly present teenagers with extreme weight loss and pro-eating disorder videos if they continued to interact with that content.

In response to the second article, TikTok said it would alter its For You algorithm “to avoid showing users too much of the same content.” It is also important to note that per TikTok’s terms of service, to use the platform, users must be over 13 and must have parental consent if they are under 18. TikTok also already prohibits “sexually explicit material” and works to remove pro-eating disorder content from the app while providing a link to the National Eating Disorders Association helpline.

As to enforcement, HF 3724 says social media platforms are liable to account holders if the account holder “received user-created content through a social media algorithm while the individual account holder was under the age of 18” and the social media platform “knew or had reason to know that the individual account holder was under the age of 18.” Social media platforms would then be “liable for damages and a civil penalty of $1,000 for each violation.” However, the bill provides an exception for content “that is created by a federal, state, or local government or by a public or private school, college, or university.”

According to an article written on the bill by the legislature, Robbins is hopeful that HF 3724 “could be a model for the rest of the country.”

 

Opposition from Tech

As TechDirt points out, algorithms are useful; they help separate relevant content from irrelevant content, which optimizes use of the platform and stops users from being overwhelmed. The bill would essentially stop young users from reaping the benefits of smarter technology.

A similar argument was raised by NetChoice, which expressed concerns that HF 3724 “removes the access to beneficial technologies from young people.” According to NetChoice, the definition of “social media” used in the bill is unacceptably broad and would rope in sites that teenagers use “for research and education.” For example, NetChoice cites to teenagers no longer being able to get book recommendations from the algorithm on Goodreads or additional article recommendations on a research topic from an online newspaper.

NetChoice also argues that HF 3724 needlessly involves the state in a matter that should be left to the discretion of parents. NetChoice explains that parents, likely knowing their child best, can decide on an individual basis whether they want their children on a particular social media platform.

Opponents of the bill also emphasize that complying with HF 3724 would prove difficult for social media companies, who would essentially have to have separate platforms with no algorithmic functions for those under 18. Additionally, in order to comply with the bill, social media platforms would have to collect more personal data from users, including age and location. Finally, opponents have also noted that some platforms actually use algorithms to present appropriatecontent to minors. Similarly, TikTok has begun utilizing its algorithms to remove videos that violate platform rules.

 

What About the First Amendment?

In its letter to the Minnesota House Commerce Committee, NetChoice said that HF 3724 would be found to violate the First Amendment. NetChoice argued that “multiple court cases have held that the distribution of speech, including by algorithms such as those used by search engines, are protected by the First Amendment” and that HF 3724 would be struck down if passed because it “result[s] in the government restraining the distribution of speech by platforms and Minnesotans access to information.”

NetChoice also cited to Ashcroft v. ACLU, a case in which “the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that attempted to prevent the posting of content harmful to teenagers on the web due to [the fact it was so broad it limited adult access] as well as the harm and chilling effect that the associated fines could have on legal protected speech.”

As Ars Technica notes, federal courts blocked laws pertaining to social media in both Texas and Florida last year. Both laws were challenged for violating the First Amendment.

 

Moving Forward

HF 3724 advanced unanimously out of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee on March 22. The committee made some changes to the bill, specifying that the legislation would not impact algorithms associated with email and internet search providers. Additionally, the committee addressed a criticism by the bill’s opponents and exempted algorithms used to filter out age-inappropriate content. There is also a companion bill to HF 3724, SF3922, being considered in the Senate.

It will be interesting to see if legislators are dissuaded from voting for HF 3724 given its uncertain constitutionality and potential impact on those under the age of 18, who will no longer be able to use the optimized and personalized versions of social media platforms. However, so far, to legislators, technology companies have not put their best foot forward, as they have sent lobbyists in their stead to advocate against the bill.


Hydrogen – The Fuel of the Future?

Max Meyer, MJLST Staffer

Hydrogen is viewed by many as being a key part of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Recently, a bipartisan group of lawmakers expressed interest in hydrogen and want to support its adoption in the United States. When used as a fuel source, hydrogen produces only water and heat. It could potentially be used to power cars, trucks, and airplanes and generate electricity. Hydrogen is used on a fairly minimal scale today, but entities ranging from industry to government are increasing investment in the technology. Currently, hydrogen is regulated by a variety of federal agencies, but no comprehensive regulatory scheme exists.

 

Hydrogen Production 

Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements on earth, but it only exists in compound form with other elements. Hydrogen has the highest fuel content of any fuel by weight.

Hydrogen can be separated from compounds in a few different ways. It can be produced from steam-methane reforming which accounts for 95% of hydrogen production in the U.S. In this process, “natural gas (which is mostly methane) reacts with high pressure, high temperature steam in the presence of a catalyst to produce a mixture of mostly hydrogen and carbon monoxide.” The product stream is then processed further to produce a stream of mostly hydrogen. Water can be added to this mixture to convert the carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide. If the carbon dioxide is subsequently capture and stored underground, the hydrogen produced is referred to as blue hydrogen. If the carbon dioxide is not captured, the hydrogen is called grey hydrogen.

Hydrogen can also be produced from water by electrolysis which splits water molecules into pure hydrogen and oxygen using electricity. When renewable energy is used for electrolysis the resulting hydrogen is often referred to as green hydrogen.

 

Why Is It Important?

Using fuel cells, hydrogen can produce electricity. A fuel cell contains two electrodes, one negative and one positive, with an electrolyte in the middle. Hydrogen is fed into the negative electrode and air is fed into the positive end. At the negative end, a catalyst separates the hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons. To produce electricity, the electrons go through an external circuit before entering the positive electrode. Then, the protons, electrons, oxygen unite to produce water and heat. Fuel cells can be used in a number of applications ranging passenger and commercial vehicles to powering buildings.

 

Current Regulatory Framework

Hydrogen is regulated by several federal agencies. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulates hydrogen pipelines. PHMSA’s mission is to “protect people and the environment by advancing the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials[.]” Thus, PHMSA’s regulation of hydrogen pipelines is focused on safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates hydrogen in workplaces OSHA’s regulation of hydrogen specifically covers the installation of hydrogen systems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also regulates hydrogen in several ways. Hydrogen is regulated under the EPA’s Mandator Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, Effluent Standards under the Clean Water Act, and Chemical Accident Prevention program. However, the EPA’s regulation of hydrogen is primarily a result of hydrogen’s relationship to fossil fuels. The regulations are concerned with the production of hydrogen from fossil fuels such as the methane steam reform process outlined above.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has invested in research and development concerning hydrogen. In 2020, the DOE released its Hydrogen Program Plan. The DOE’s program is intended to “research, develop and validate transformational hydrogen and related technologies… and to address institutional and market barriers, to ultimately enable adoption across multiple applications and sectors.”

In 2021, Congress passed an infrastructure bill with $9.5 billion of funding for clean hydrogen initiatives. $8 billion of that funding is directed towards the creation of Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs across the country to increase the use of hydrogen in the industrial sector. $1 billion is for clean hydrogen electrolysis research to lower costs from producing hydrogen using renewable energy. Finally, $500 million is for Clean Hydrogen Manufacturing and Recycling to “support equipment manufacturing and strong domestic supply chains.”

 

Regulation in the Future

The federal government currently does not regulate the construction of hydrogen pipelines. Presently, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) under the Natural Gas Act “regulates the siting, construction, and operation of interstate natural gas pipelines.” If Congress were to give FERC this same power for hydrogen pipelines it would allow for national planning of the infrastructure and lead to a comprehensive pipeline network. Recently, members of Congress have considered the regulatory framework covering hydrogen pipelines and if additional authority over these pipelines should be given to FERC or other federal agencies. However, these discussions are still in the preliminary stages.

Hydrogen has the potential to play a large role in the United States’ effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It can be used in a variety of industries including the transportation and industrial sectors. Congress has recognized hydrogen’s importance and must continue to invest in lowering the costs of hydrogen production and building hydrogen infrastructure.


The Mysterious Disappearance of Deference: What Is the Supreme Court’s Current Relationship to Federal Agencies?

Carly Michaud, MJLST Staffer

The Supreme Court has had no shortage of administrative law cases in the (possibly) final sessions of one of the Court’s administrative law scholars, Justice Stephen Breyer. Yet, Breyer has found himself and his ideological compatriots in the opposition on the topic in which he situates his expertise. In the recent case regarding OSHA’s ability to require COVID-19 vaccines, Breyer’s dissent repeated discusses the proper deference an agency’s determination should be given by the Supreme Court.

Notably absent from the case is any mention of the previous key to the relationship between the courts and federal agencies: Chevron deference. In fact, Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council, was, (as of a 2014 analysis in the Yale Journal on Regulation) the “Most Cited Supreme Court Administrative Law decision”. While previously considered a niche area, administrative law is now so ubiquitous in practice that as of July 2021, 55 law schools require students take a course in administrative law or one of its mainstays: legislation or statutory interpretation.

In spite of this, Chevron appears nowhere in the discussion of OSHA’s vaccine mandate, nor in the court’s earlier revocation of the CDC’s eviction moratorium. This absence suggests that perhaps this Court has become a body of health experts, relying on their own understanding of COVID-19 to determine whether these agency-created regulations are effective in their mission. Both cases center on whether an agency action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is within the purview of their empowering statute, and, despite the broad statutory authorities of these agencies to protect the health of Americans, both actions were deemed beyond that authority.

But back to Chevron, has it been abandoned as a standard? Not yet, although there was some discussion of this proposition during the oral argument of American Hospital Association v. Becerra last November. The Court has not released an opinion yet on this case, however the Court of Appeals had previously upheld HHS’s ability to set reembursement rates, per its statutory authority.

In a final thrust of irony, the death knell for Chevron deference may come from a case challenging the very statute and the very agency whose decision-making was at issue in Chevron: the EPA and the Clean Air Act. This is particularly ironic as the EPA administrator whose decision-making was being challenged in Chevron was Anne Gorsuch, the mother of Supreme Court justice and noted antagonist of agency authority: Neil Gorsuch. Yes, in a tale mirroring Hamlet, Neil Gorsuch seems determined to destroy the administrative state that had entangled his mother in various administrative scandals. The latest edition of this showdown between the Gorsuchs and EPA is scheduled for Monday February 28, which will see the Supreme Court hearing arguments in West Virginia v. EPA and its consolidated cases.

This behavior by the Court belies a grave concern both about the continued disempowerment of federal agencies—which have been empowered directly by Congress—at the hands of the unelected judiciary. Further, the most cynical of us may see this as a direct assault on the authority of agencies that some justices may politically disagree with, further disregarding the knowledge of learned experts to push their own political agendas.


You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Repair

Christopher Cerny, MJLST Staffer

Last spring, as the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic hit critical heights, many states faced a daunting reality. The demand for ventilators, an “external set of lungs” designed to breathe for a patient too weak or compromised to breathe on their own, skyrocketed. Hospitals across the United States and countries around the globe clamored for more of the life saving devices. In March and April of 2020, the increasing need for this equipment forced doctors in Washington State, New York, Italy, and around the world to make heartbreaking decisions to prioritize the scarce supply. With this emergency equipment operating at maximum capacity, any downtime meant another potential life lost. But biomeds, hospital technicians who maintain these crucial medical devices, were frequently unable to troubleshoot or repair out-of-service ventilators to return them to the frontlines. This failure to fix the much-needed equipment was not due to lack of time or training. Instead, it was because many manufacturers restrict access to repair materials, such as manuals, parts, or diagnostic equipment. According to one survey released in February 2021, 76% of biomeds said that manufacturers denied them access to parts or service manuals in the previous three months and 80% said they have equipment that cannot be serviced due to manufacturers’ restrictions to service keys, parts, or materials.

While the prohibition of repairs of life support equipment highlights the extreme danger this restriction creates, the situation is not unique to hospitals and emergency equipment. As technology becomes increasingly complex and proprietary, all manner of tech manufacturers are erecting more and more barriers that prevent owners and independent repair shops from working on their products. Tesla, for example, is adamant about restricting repairs to its vehicles. The electric vehicle auto maker will not provide parts or authorize repairs if performed at an uncertified, independent repair shop or end user. Tesla has gone so far as to block cars repaired outside of its network from using its Superchargers. Apple historically also prevented end users from performing their own repairs, utilizing specialized tools and restricting access to parts. John Deere requires farmers to comply with a software licensing agreement that is in appearance designed to protect the company’s proprietary software, but in practice prevents farmers from clearing error codes to start their farm equipment without an authorized technician.

In response to these obstructions to repair, the Right to Repair movement solidified around the simple proposition that end users and independent repair shops should be provided the same access to manuals and parts that many tech companies reserve solely to themselves or their subsidiaries. This proposition is catching on and the legislatures in twenty-five states are currently considering thirty-nine bills involving the right to repair. However, of the thirty-nine bills, only three address medical technology with the bulk of the proposals devoted to general consumer products—think appliances, iPads, and smart devices—and farm equipment.

Massachusetts is an early adopter of right to repair laws. Its legislature passed a law in 2012 specific to motor vehicles that, inter alia, standardized diagnostic and service information, mandated its accessibility by owners and independent or third-party repair shops, and established any violation of the provisions of the act as an unfair method of competition and an unfair trade practice. This past November, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot measure that expanded the scope of the 2012 right to repair law and closed a loophole that could circumvent the requirements imposed in the earlier statute. Automakers lobbied in force to oppose the measure, spending in excess of $25 million in advertising and other efforts. Taking into account the money spent by both sides of the ballot measure, the right to repair initiative was the most expensive measure campaign in Massachusetts history. The European Union is also taking steps to broaden access to repair materials and information. The European Parliament passed a resolution aimed at facilitating a circular economy. Acknowledging the finite nature of many of the rare elements used in modern technology, the European Union is aiming to make technology last longer and to create a second-hand market for older models. The resolution expanding repair access is a part of that effort by ensuring the ease of repair to prolong the life of the technology and delay obsolescence.

Some manufacturers are making concessions in the face of the Right to Repair Movement. Apple, notoriously one of the most restrictive manufacturers, did an about face in 2019 and expanded access to “parts, tools, training, repair manuals and diagnostics” for independent repair businesses working on out of warranty iPhones. Tesla opened its repair platform to independent repair shops in the European Union after the EU Commission received complaints, but the access can be prohibitively expensive at €125 per hour for the use of diagnostics and programming software. However, these minimal efforts are stop-gap measures designed to slow the tide of legislation and resolutions aimed at broadening access to the materials needed to perform repairs to break the monopolistic hold manufacturers are trying to exert over routine fixes.

The Right to Repair movement is clearly gaining ground as the implications of this anticompetitive status quo in the repair and second-hand market was brought into stark relief by the strains imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which strained not only hospitals but agriculture, infrastructure, and day-to-day life. The impact of these restrictions on independent repair shops, farmers, consumers, patients, and do-it-yourselfers more than ever became an obvious impediment to health, safety, and a less extractive economy. And as shown in Massachusetts, voters are responding by expanding the right to repair, even in the face of expensive lobbying and advertising campaigns. Legislators should continue to bring additional bills, especially addressing the restrictions on repairs of emergency medical equipment and should enact the existing proposals in the twenty-five states currently considering them.


It’s Not Always Greener on the Other Side: Challenges to Environmental Marketing Claims

Ben Cooper, MJLST Staffer

On March 16, 2021 a trio of environmental groups filed an FTC complaint against Chevron alleging that Chevron violated the FTC’s Green Guides by falsely claiming “investment in renewable energy and [Chevron’s] commitment to reducing fossil fuel pollution.” The groups claim that this complaint is the first to use the Green Guides to prevent companies from making misleading environmental claims. Public attention has supported companies that minimize their environmental impact, but this FTC complaint suggests that a critical regulatory eye might be in the future. If the environmental groups convince the FTC to enforce the Green Guides against Chevron, other companies should review the claims they make about their products and operations.

A Morning Consult poll released in early December 2020 showed that nearly half of U.S. adults supported expanding the use of carbon removal practices and technologies. Only six percent of survey respondents opposed carbon removal practices. In response to the overwhelming public support for carbon reduction, hundreds of major companies are making some type of commitment to reduce their carbon footprint and curb climate change. One popular program, the Science Based Targets initiative, has over 1,200 participants who made various pledges to decarbonize (or offset the carbon within) their operations.

International and non-governmental organizations took the reins of climate change policy, especially once the Trump Administration withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement in 2017. “Climate change seems to be the leading fashion statement for business in 2019,” declared a Marketplace story in October of 2019. Yet, as with fashion, style only gets one so far. Substance is key—and often lacking. One of the founders of the Science Based Targets initiative criticized fashionable but flimsy voluntary corporate commitments: “[T]here is not a lot of substance behind those [voluntary corporate] commitments or the commitments are not comprehensive enough.”

The voluntary commitments placated environmental groups when the alternative was the Trump Administration’s silence—but the Biden Administration presents an eager environmental partner: the FTC complaint “is the first test to see if [the Biden Administration] will follow through with their commitment to hold big polluters accountable,” said an environmental group spokesperson according to a Reuters report. The consensus of environmental groups, industry commentators, and regulatory observers appears to be that government oversight is imminent to encourage consistency and accountability—and to avoid “greenwashing.”

Should organizations that make environmental claims be concerned about enforcement action?  It is too early to tell if the Chevron FTC complaint portends future complaints. In the Green Guides, the FTC declared that it seeks to avoid placing “the FTC in the inappropriate role of setting environmental policy,” which might suggest that it will stick to questions of misrepresentation and avoid wading into questions of evaluating environmental claims. It is also worth noting that the FTC is missing one of its five commissioners and Commissioner Rohit Chopra is expected to resign in anticipation of his nomination to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. While the FTC might not be in a position at the moment to enforce the Green Guides, organizations that make environmental claims in marketing materials should monitor this complaint and ensure their compliance with FTC guidance as well as any policy changes from the Biden Administration.


Clawing Back the “Jackpot” Won During the Texas Blackouts

Isaac Foote, MJLST Staffer

For most Texans, the winter storm in February 2021 meant cold temperatures, uncertain electricity at best, and prolonged blackouts at worst. For some energy companies, however, it was like “hitting the jackpot.” We here at MJLST (in Madeline Vavricek’s excellent piece) have already discussed the numerous historical factors that made Texas’s power system so vulnerable to this storm, but in the month after power was restored to customers, a new challenge has emerged for regulators to address: who will pay the estimated $50 billion in electricity transactions carried out during the week of blackouts. A number estimated to eclipse the total sales on the system over the previous three years!

At the highest level, the Texas blackouts were a result of the electric grid’s need to be ‘balanced’ in real time, i.e. always have sufficient electricity supply to meet demand. As the winter storm hit Texas, consumers increased demand for electricity, as they turned up electric heaters, while simultaneously a lack of winterization drove natural gas, wind, and nuclear electricity producers offline. So, to “avoid a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months,” Texas grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), needed to find a way to drastically increase electricity supply and reduce electricity demand. Blackouts were the tool-of-last-resort to cut demand, but ERCOT also attempted to increase supply through authorizing an extremely high wholesale price of electricity. Specifically, ERCOT and the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) authorized a price of $9,000 per megawatt hour (MWh), over 340 times the annual average price of $26/MWh.

These high prices may have kept some additional generation online, but they also resulted in devastating impacts for consumers (especially those using the electric provider Griddy) and electric distributors (like Brazos Electric Power Cooperative that has already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection). Now, the Independent Market Monitor (IMM)for the PUC is questioning whether the $9,000/MWh electricity price was maintained for too long after the storm hit: specifically, the 32 hours following the end of controlled blackouts between February 17th and 19th. The IMM claims that the decision to delay reducing the price of electricity “resulted in $16 billion in additional costs to ERCOT’s market” that will eventually need to be recovered from consumers.

The IMM report on the issue has created a showdown in Texas Government between the State Senate, House, and the PUC. Former Chair of the PUC, Arthur D’Andrea, argued against repricing as “it’s just nearly impossible to unscramble this sort of egg,” while the State Senate passed a bill that would require ERCOT to claw back between $4.2 billion and $5.1 billion in from generators for the inflated prices. D’Andrea’s opposition to the clawback has already resulted in his resignation, but it appears unlikely this conflict will be resolved as the State House may concur with the PUC’s position.

There is further confusion over whether such a clawback would be legal in the first place. Before his resignation, D’Andrea implied such a clawback was beyond the power of the PUC. However, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion that: “the Public Utility Commission has complete authority to act to ensure that ERCOT has accurately accounted for electricity production and delivery among market participants in the region. Such authority likely could be interpreted to allow the Public Utility Commission to order ERCOT to correct prices for wholesale electricity and ancillary services during a specific timeframe . . . provided that such regulatory action furthers a compelling public interest.”

Going forward it appears that the Texas energy industry will be facing a wave of lawsuits and bankruptcies, whatever the decisions made by the PUC or legislators. However, it is important to remember that someone will end up bearing responsibility for the billions of dollars in costs incurred during the crisis. While most consumers will not see this directly on their electricity bill, like those using Griddy had the misfortune to experience, these costs will eventually be transferred onto consumers in some ways. Managing this process in conjunction with rebuilding a more resilient energy system will be a challenge that Texas energy system stakeholders, policymakers, and regulators will have to take on.


Decode 16 tons (of bitcoin), what do you get? Nevada considers redefining the phrase “corporate governance”

Jesse Smith, MJLST Staffer

On January 16, 2020, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak, as part of his state of the state address, announced a new legislative proposal allowing certain types of private companies to essentially purchase the ability to govern as public entities. The proposal applies specifically to tech firms operating within the fields of blockchain, autonomous technology, the internet of things, robotics, artificial intelligence, wireless technology, biometrics, and renewable resources technology. Those that purchase or own at least 50,000 contiguous acres of undeveloped and uninhabited land within a single county can apply to create  “innovation zones” within the property, or self-governed cities structured around the technology the company develops or operates. The company must apply to Nevada’s Office of Economic Development and provide a preliminary capital investment of at least $250 million, along with an additional $1 billion invested over ten years. Upon approval by the state, the area would become an “innovation zone,” initially governed by a three-member board appointed by the governor, two members of which would be picked from a list provided by the company creating the zone. This board would be able to levy taxes and create courts, school districts, police departments, and other offices empowered to carry out various municipal government functions.

One of the main companies lobbying for the passage of the bill, and the likely its first candidate or adopter, is Blockchains LLC, a Nevada based startup that designs blockchain based software in the areas of “digital identity, digital assets, connected devices and a stable means of digital payment.” The company purchased 67,000 acres of largely undeveloped land near Reno in 2018 for $170 million, in pursuit of building what it calls a “sandbox city,.” There, the company would further develop and use its blockchain technology to store records and administer various public and private functions, including “banking and finance, supply chains, ID management, loyalty programs, digital security, medical records, real estate records, and data sharing.”

Natural and rightful criticism of the legislation has mounted since the announcement. Many pointed out that Jeffrey Berns, the founder of Blockchains LLC, is a large donor to both Sisolak and Democratic PACs in Nevada. Furthermore, months before the proposal was unveiled, Blockchains purchased water rights hundreds of miles away to divert to its Nevada land, prompting various outcries from water rights and indigenous activists. From a broader perspective, skeptics conjured up dystopian images of zone residents waking up to “focus group tested alarm[s]” in constantly monitored “corporate apartments.” Others reflected on the history of company-controlled towns in the U.S. and the various problems associated with them.

Proponents of the plan seem fixated on two particular arguments. First, they note that the bill in its current incarnation requires an innovation zone to hold elections for the offices it sets up once its population hits 100. This allegedly demonstrates that while any company behind the zone “retains significant control over the jurisdiction early on, that entity’s control quickly recedes and democratic mechanisms are introduced.” Yet this argument ignores the fact that there is no requirement that a zone ever reach 100 residents. Additionally, even where this threshold is met, the board still retains significant control over election administration, and may divide or consolidate various types of municipal offices as it sees fit, and dismiss officials for undefined “malfeasance or nonfeasance” (§ 20 para. 2). Such powers provide ripe opportunity for gaming how an innovation zone’s government operates and avoiding true democratic control through consolidation of various powers into strategic elected offices.

Second is the more traditional argument that these zones will attract new businesses to the state and bestow an influx of money and jobs upon the citizens of Nevada. Setting aside various studies and arguments that question this assumption, this argument is yet another tired talking point that ignores the damage large businesses already wreak on the local communities they take over. Many overuse the limited resources of various departments. Others use the “value” that big businesses supposedly bring to communities to pit local governments against each other in bidding wars to see who can offer more tax breaks and subsidies to bring the business to their town, money and revenue that could and likely should be used to fund other local programs. Thus, the ability to actually govern appears to be the logical end in a progression of demands big businesses expect from the cities they set up shop in. Perhaps the best argument in favor of innovation zones is also the saddest, in that they allow big businesses to, as is said in corporate speak, “cut out the middleman” by directly collecting the tax dollars they already consume by the billions and directly controlling the municipal resources they already monopolize.

Sisolak, Berns, and other proponents of the proposal fight back against the idea that innovation zones will become the equivalent of “company towns” and argue that it will make Nevada a tech capital of the world by attracting the businesses specified in the bill. They would be well suited to remember two maxims that summarize the criticism of their idea: that history repeats itself and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. There is a reason these phrases are overused cliches. Last week’s MJLST blog post left us with the sweet sounds of Billy Joel to close out its article. As suggested by Tony Tran of “The Byte,” I’ll end mine with the classic, yet unknowingly cyberpunk ballad “16 tons” (the Tennessee Ernie Ford version), and leave the reader thinking about the future plight of the Nevada Bitcoin miner, owing her or his uploaded cloud soul to the company store, aka Blockchains LLC, in their innovation zone job.


Everything’s Bigger in Texas, Including Power Outages

Madeline Vavricek, MJLST Staffer

On last week’s episode of “now what?”, Texas was experiencing massive power shortages following a winter storm, leaving hundreds of thousands of Texans without power and water. An estimated 4.3 million Texans were rendered without power for up to a week as the cold snap that swept the nation caused Texas’s power grids to fail. Though the power grid is back up and Texas has returned to its regularly scheduled spring temperatures, last month’s empty grocery store shelves and power shortages have yet to melt from many Texans’ memories. As massive electric bills arrive in citizens’ mailboxes (hello, surge pricing!), lawsuits levied against power companies, and bankruptcies filed by energy companies, one might ask why Texas, far from being the coldest part of the United States that week, was so thoroughly and singularly felled by the winter weather. The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is both political and economic, and requires a history lesson as well.

Nearly half a century after Thomas Edison’s 1880 invention of the light bulb, the advent of the power grid was gaining traction in the nation’s cities and becoming less of a luxury and more of a necessity. This created a highly profitable market for electricity where previously no market had existed, and the expansion of the industry only shed light on ways that electric companies were utilizing the novel market to their advantage. This expansion eventually lead to the passage of the 1935 Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUHCA) under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Act outlawed the “pyramidal structure” of interstate utility holding companies, preventing holding companies from being more than twice removed from their operating subsidiaries, and required companies with a ten percent stake or greater in a utilities market to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission for monitoring. Essentially, this legislation was to prevent energy companies from operating as monopolies in the relatively new energy market, a move met with vehement opposition by the utility companies themselves; the bitter feeling was mutual, with FDR notably calling the holding companies “evil” in his 1935 State of the Union address.

While PUHCA inconvenienced these villainous utility companies’ interstate operations, there was one loophole left available to them: their “evil” was left unregulated within the state, allowing holding companies that operated within a single state unregulated under PUHCA.  While the Act was effective, decreasing the number of holding companies from 216 to 18 between 1938 and 1958, creating a “a single vertically-integrated system which served a circumscribed geographic area regulated by either the state or federal government.” It was following the 1935 passage of PUHCA that Texas power companies decided to band together within the state rather than submit to the federal regulation at hand. By only operating within state lines, Texas companies effectively skirted federal regulation and interference, politically maneuvering itself to an energy independence largely made possible through Texas’s energy-rich natural resources.

In the late sixties, the federal government created two main power grids to serve the country: the Eastern Interconnection and the Western Interconnection. Texas opted out of this infrastructure, choosing instead to form its own grid operator, called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. The ERCOT grid “remains beyond the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,” the federal entity that regulates the power grid for the rest of the nation. ERCOT took on additional power following the 1999 move to deregulate the energy economy in Texas, an effort to create a completely free market for electricity in the state to benefit both consumers and companies. This independence had most Texans’ ardent approval . . . until the cold front rolled in late February 2021, obstructing the flow of the state’s natural gas and leading to the failure of 356 electric generators state-wide. While other Southern states relied on the national power grid to maintain their electricity, Texas had no one but itself to fall back on, and was quite literally left out in the cold.

While some argue that the independent electrical grid was not to blame for Texas’s misfortunes, insisting that the cold temperatures in the rest of the nation meant there wouldn’t be much energy to spare anyway, it is undeniable that the deep freeze has called attention to many cons of Texas’s pro-deregulation energy market. Though there is what could be considered an “instinctive aversion to federal meddling” in avoiding federal regulation, as well as sensible reasons for a state of Texas’s size and natural resources to remain separate from the other 47 continental United States, the reality remains that many Texans suffered at the hands of its own power grid. As the bills pile up and Texans increase the water bottles they have in their pantry at any given time, one can see how some might favor the security of a more regulated system over the freedom that lead to surge pricing, dry faucets, and dark homes.  However, as with all government regulation, there is a price to pay, and perhaps the Lone Star State prefers to stay “lone” for that very reason. Either way, Texas, now warmer and well-lit, is no doubt grateful to return to our 2021 definition of “normal” and hoping that their lives stop sounding like a verse of a beloved Bill Joel song (no, not Piano Man).