Social Welfare

Electric Vehicles: The Path of the Future or a Jetson-Like Fantasy?

James Challou, MJLST Staffer

Last week President Biden contributed to the already growing hype behind electric vehicles when he heralded them as the future of transportation. Biden touted that $7.5 billion from last year’s infrastructure law, Public Law 117-58, would be put toward installing electric vehicle charging stations across the United States. This mass rollout of electric vehicle chargers, broadly aimed to help the US meet its goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, constitutes an immediate effort by the Biden administration to tackle pollution in the sector responsible for the largest share of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions: transportation. The administration’s short-term goal is to install half a million chargers by 2030. However, not all are as confident as President Biden that this movement will be efficacious.

The “Buy America” Obstacle

Despite President Biden’s enthusiasm for this commitment to funding widespread electric vehicle charging stations, many experts remain skeptical that supply can keep up with demand. Crucially, Public Law 117-58 contains a key constraint, dubbed the “Buy America” rule, that mandates federal infrastructure projects obtain at least 55% of construction materials, including iron and steel, from domestic sources and requires all manufacturing to be done in the U.S.

Although labor groups and steel manufacturers continue to push for these domestic sourcing rules to be enforced, other groups like automakers and state officials argue that a combination of inflation increasing the cost of domestic materials and limited domestic production may hamstring the push towards electric vehicle charging accessibility altogether. One state official stated, “A rushed transition to the new requirements will exacerbate delays and increase costs if EV charging equipment providers are forced to abruptly shift component sourcing to domestic suppliers, who in turn may struggle with availability due to limited quantities and high demand.”

Proponents of a slower implementation offer a slew of different solutions ranging from a temporary waiver of the Buy America rules until domestic production can sustain the current demand, to a waiver of the requirements for EV chargers altogether. The Federal Highway Administration, charged with oversight of the EV charger program, proposed an indeterminate transitional period waiver of the Buy America rules until the charger industry and states are prepared to comply with requirements.

Domestic Manufacturer Complications

Domestic manufacturers are similarly conflicted about the waiver of the Buy America rules, with some thinking they may not be able to meet growing demand. While many companies predict they can meet Buy America production requirements in the future, the Federal Highway Administration specified in its waiver proposal that a mere three manufacturers, all based in California, presently believe they have existing fast charger systems that comply with Buy America requirements.

Predictably, the waiver proposal is divisive amongst domestic manufacturers. Some companies are onboard with the waiver and requested even more flexibility. This includes automakers like Ford and General Motors, who say that a process of moving all supply chains to the US demands more time, particularly at the scale necessary to match the surge in federal funding. This is largely seen as the most stakeholder friendly move as it offers companies the opportunity to use the duration of the waiver to see if a clear competitive market materializes which in turn benefits stakeholders.

Contrarily, others have asked for the waiver period to be shortened to allow them to quickly recoup their investments into Buy America compliant manufacturing upgrades. Some companies are even more aggressive; they oppose the waiver altogether and argue that the waiver would disadvantage manufacturers that intentionally put money into meeting the Buy America requirements. These companies posit that domestic manufacturing provides immediate benefits like augmenting supply chain security and electric-vehicle cybersecurity and warn against dependency on foreign governments for electrical steel needs. They further add that the Buy America rule will fuel growth in the US market and create manufacturing jobs. Labor groups and some lawmakers have adopted this stance as one lawmaker from Ohio commented, “[f]ederal agencies should implement the new Buy America provisions as quickly as possible to give American companies the certainty they need to move forward with investments.”

Other Implementation Difficulties

 The inclusion of the Buy America rule in this legislation is not the only aspect of the EV charging project that has generated considerable debate. Regional challenges pose more of an issue than originally anticipated. Although many states reported common potential hurdles like vandalism, range anxiety, supply chain, and electricity challenges, unique geographic problems have also arisen. For example, Nebraska reported in its plan that a shift to electric vehicles could decrease revenue collection from gas tax. Iowa aired out concerns about stations being hit by and damaged by snow plows. Michigan cited rodent damage as a potential concern. Finally, Oklahoma flagged political opposition to the chargers as a problem that could be both pervasive and fatal to the overall electric charging process.

Moreover, the law caught a substantial amount of flak for a curious decision to skip interstate rest stops when installing the EV charging stations. Although at first glance this would appear to be a pivotal oversight, it stems from a 1956 law that restricts commercial activity, in this case including electric car charging, at rest stops. The Federal Highway Administration, to alleviate these concerns, issued guidance that says electric vehicle chargers should be “as close to Interstate Highway Systems and highway corridors as possible” and generally no more than one mile from the exit. Furthermore, some of the older rest stops are excluded from the 1956 guidance. However, this is not enough to sate critics as many continue to fight for the 1956 law to be changed. They claim that the existence of the restriction drastically inconveniences drivers, planners, and vehicles while potentially creating a wealth disparity by forcing low-income families, who traditionally rely more on public rest areas, to avoid purchasing electric vehicles.

Conclusion

President Biden deserves to be lauded for his ambitious plan for electric vehicles which attempts to square combating the effects of climate change with preserving American manufacturing while simultaneously improving infrastructure. It is worth questioning whether the law would be more effective if it simply focused its efforts on one of these areas. As a commentator at the Cato Institute noted, “The goal of infrastructure spending should be better infrastructure — and if you’re trying to pursue policies to mitigate climate change, well that should be the overall goal … Anything that hinders that should be avoided.”  Only time will reveal the answer to this question.


Whitelist for Thee, but Not for Me: Facebook File Scandals and Section 230 Solutions

Warren Sexson, MJLST Staffer

When I was in 7th grade, I convinced my parents to let me get my first social media account. Back in the stone age, that phrase was synonymous with Facebook. I never thought too much of how growing up in the digital age affected me, but looking back, it is easy to see the cultural red flags. It came as no surprise to me when, this fall, the Wall Street Journal broke what has been dubbed “The Facebook Files,” and in them found an internal study from the company showing Instagram is toxic to teen girls. While tragic, this conclusion is something many Gen-Zers and late-Millennials have known for years. However, in the “Facebook Files” there is another, perhaps even more jarring, finding: Facebook exempts many celebrities and elite influencers from its rules of conduct. This revelation demands a discussion of the legal troubles the company may find itself in and the proposed solutions to the “whitelisting” problem.

The Wall Street Journal’s reporting describes an internal process by Facebook called “whitelisting” in which the company “exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules, according to company documents . . . .” This includes individuals from a wide range of industries and political viewpoints, from Soccer mega star Neymar, to Elizabeth Warren, and Donald Trump (prior to January 6th). The practice put the tech giant in legal jeopardy after a whistleblower, later identified as Frances Haugen, submitted a whistleblower complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that Facebook has “violated U.S. securities laws by making material misrepresentations and omissions in statements to investors and prospective investors . . . .” See 17 CFR § 240.14a-9 (enforcement provision on false or misleading statements to investors). Mark Zuckerberg himself has made statements regarding Facebook’s neutral application of standards that are at direct odds with the Facebook Files. Regardless of the potential SEC investigation, the whitelist has opened up the conversation regarding the need for serious reform in the big tech arena to make sure no company can make lists of privileged users again. All of the potential solutions deal with 47 U.S.C. § 230, known colloquially as “section 230.”

Section 230 allows big tech companies to censor content while still being treated as a platform instead of a publisher (where they would incur liability for what is on their website). Specifically, § 230(c)(2)(A) provides that no “interactive computer service” shall be held liable for taking action in good faith to restrict “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable [content] . . . .” It is the last phrase, “otherwise objectionable,” that tech companies have used as justification for removing “hate speech” or “misinformation” from their platform without incurring publisher like liability. The desire to police such speech has led Facebook to develop stringent platform rules which has in turn created the need for whitelisting. This brings us to our first proposal, eliminating the phrase “otherwise objectionable” from section 230 itself. The proposed “Stop the Censorship Act of 2020” brought by Republican Paul Gosar of Arizona does just that. Proponents argue that it would force tech companies to be neutral or lose liability protections. Thus, no big tech company would ever create standards stringent enough to require a “whitelist” or an exempted class, because the standard is near to First Amendment protections—problem solved! However, the current governing majority has serious concerns about forced neutrality, which would ignore problems of misinformation or the mental health effects of social media in the aftermath of January 6th.

Elizabeth Warren, similar to a recent proposal in the House Judiciary Committee, takes a different approach: breaking up big tech. Warren proposes passing legislation to limit big tech companies in competing with small businesses who use the platform and reversing/blocking mergers, such as Facebook purchasing Instagram. Her plan doesn’t necessarily stop companies from having whitelists, but it does limit the power held by Facebook and others which could in turn, make them think twice before unevenly applying the rules. Furthermore, Warren has called for regulators to use “every tool in the toolbox,” in regard to Facebook.

Third, some have claimed that Google, Facebook, and Twitter have crossed the line under existing legal doctrines to become state actors. So, the argument goes, government cannot “induce” or “encourage” private persons to do what the government cannot. See Norwood v. Harrison, 413 U.S. 455, 465 (1973). Since some in Congress have warned big tech executives to restrict what they see as bad content, the government has essentially co-opted the hand of industry to block out constitutionally protected speech. See Railway Employee’s Department v. Hanson, 351 U.S. 225 (1956) (finding state action despite no actual mandate by the government for action). If the Supreme Court were to adopt this reasoning, Facebook may be forced to adopt a First Amendment centric approach since the current hate speech and misinformation rules would be state action; whitelists would no longer be needed since companies would be blocked from policing fringe content. Finally, the perfect solution! The Court can act where Congress cannot agree. I am skeptical of this approach—needless to say, such a monumental decision would completely shift the nature of social media. While Justice Thomas has hinted at his openness to this argument, it is unclear if the other justices will follow suit.

All in all, Congress and the Court have tools at their disposal to combat the disturbing actions taken by Facebook. Outside of potential SEC violations, Section 230 is a complicated but necessary issue Congress must confront in the coming months. “The Facebook Files” have exposed the need for systemic change in social media. What I once used to use to play Farmville, has become a machine that has rules for me, but not for thee.


When Divides Collide: How COVID-19 Has Further Exposed the Link Between the Digital Divide and the Education Gap

Schuyler Troy, MJLST Staffer

As we enter what public health experts warn will be the worst phase yet of the coronavirus pandemic, many Americans have been forced to reckon with the world of remote work—as of June 2020, 42 percent of the U.S. work force was working from home full time. Zoom, the now-ubiquitous video teleconferencing platform, saw an increase in meeting participation from approximately 10 million daily participants in December 2019 to at least 200 million by the end of March 2020. Zoom snafus have taken their place in the cultural zeitgeist, ranging from relatively harmless and even humorous technical snafus to more serious issues like “Zoombombing” and privacy concerns.

Among the more serious problems coming into sharper focus is the effect that remote learning has had on school-aged children, their parents, and their teachers. Without a national strategy regarding how to reopen schools for in-person instruction, states and localities were left to devise what ultimately became a patchwork of solutions. As of September 2, 2020, 73 percent of the largest school districts in the United States had chosen to offer only remote instruction at least to start the year, affecting more than 8 million students.

Early data from this massive shift to remote instruction has revealed some worrying signs. A majority of teachers across the United States report that fewer than half of their students are attending remote classes; 34 percent of teachers report that only 1 in 4 students are attending remote classes. Perhaps more distressing is the data showing stagnation in academic progress. Researchers at Brown University and Harvard University analyzed data gathered for over 800,000 students across the United States and found that through late April 2020, “student progress in math had decreased by about half in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, [and] by a third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes” as compared to a typical school year. An analysis by McKinsey & Company indicates that the effects on Black and Hispanic students could be even more pronounced.

While racial and socioeconomic education achievement gaps are not new, the shift to remote instruction nationwide appears to have exacerbated them. Pew Research data provides some clues as to one factor that may be driving this phenomenon: lack of access to reliable, high-speed Internet that is necessary for videoconferencing and online coursework. As of 2019, 61 percent of Hispanic Americans and 66 percent of Black Americans used broadband to access the Internet, as compared to 79 percent of white Americans. Only 56 percent of Americans making under $30,000 per year had access to broadband Internet at home, as compared to 92 percent of Americans making over $75,000. Rural communities, which tend to have higher poverty rates than urban and suburban communities, are also less likely to have access to broadband Internet; only 63 percent of rural communities had access to broadband Internet, as compared to 75 percent of urban communities and 79 percent of suburban communities.

Taken together, the data paints a clear and rather sobering picture: remote instruction is leaving some of America’s most vulnerable students even further behind than before.

Congress has taken action in recent years to address the broadband access disparity with the Digital Equity Act, introduced in the Senate in 2019 but not yet passed, which would require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to establish grant programs promoting digital equity and inclusion, and building capacity for state governments to increase adoption of broadband by their residents. President-elect Joe Biden also pledged throughout the 2020 presidential campaign to expand access to broadband Internet through infrastructure plans and subsidies to low-income Americans who cannot afford broadband. With seeming bipartisan agreement, a rarity in today’s polarized Congress, the United States may be on track to begin closing the digital divide. How that affects the education gap is yet to be seen, but there is good reason to believe closing the digital divide will help narrow the education gap as well.

Pandemics are fairly rare, but they are near impossible to predict, either in frequency or severity. The world was caught off-guard by COVID-19, but the lessons learned, including the lessons on remote instruction, can and should endure. Further, remote instruction is now another metaphorical “tool in the belt” for school districts; many districts are now considering eliminating snow days and replacing them with remote instruction. The sooner there is action on bridging the digital divide, the better the chances that students have to maintain their learning goals.


In Space We Trust: Regulate the Race

By: Hannah Payne, MJLST Staffer

In 1999, the UN General Assembly launched “World Space Week,” an annual celebration observed from October 4th (the date of Sputnik’s launch in 1957) to October 10th (the day The Outer Space Treaty entered into force in 1967). This year’s theme was “Space Unites the World.” The UN said the theme “celebrates the role of space in bringing the world closer together.” Unfortunately, the words ring hollow in light of the U.S.’s Space Force plans, as well as the recent escalation of inter-planetary militarization by China, Russia and the EU. Additionally, activities of SpaceX and others raise concerns about privatization, space pollution and the plans of the uber-wealthy to leave the world behind. These forces threaten to marginalize the awe-inspiring exploration of space into a scheme concerned only with war, profit, and advancing inequality. The dominance of such interests calls for a coherent system of global space regulation.

Some have observed that many recent activities violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which declared: “The exploration and use of outer space . . . shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.” The treaty also states that space and all celestial bodies are unowned and open to exploration by all. The U.S. and over 100 countries signed and ratified it, and America did not reserve the right to alter its obligations, as it often does in agreements. However, with no real international enforcement mechanism and our ceaseless profit-seeking, countries have—and will continue to—disregard the goals of the 1967 agreement. Last year, Ted Cruz expressed excitement that “the first trillionaire will be made in space.” He proposed amending the treaty to foster commercialization – and correct its erroneous assumption that worthy goals exist besides wealth and power. His motive seems to be formalistic, as was Congress’ in 2015 when it declared in the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act that “the United States does not, by enactment of this Act, assert sovereignty . . . exclusive rights . . . or ownership of, any celestial body[,]” but in the same act granted U.S. citizens the right to own and sell any “space resource.” Though the U.S. track record of treaty violations makes their disregard of the agreement perhaps unsurprising, the serious consequences of space militarization and privatization call for critical advancement in space regulation.

From an environmental law perspective, the language of the 1967 treaty evokes the seldom-used Public Trust Doctrine (PTD). Traced back to the Roman era, the Public Trust Doctrine is described as “requir[ing] government stewardship of the natural resources upon which society . . . depends for continued existence.” The PTD places the government/sovereign as the trustee, obligated to protect the rights of the public/beneficiary in the trust, which is comprised of things like navigable waterways. It has mostly been applied to water rights, and successfully reclaimed property for the “public good” in Illinois and California. However, in 2012 the Supreme Court suggested that the PTD is no stronger than state common law. Even so, the doctrine should be remembered by those who think the privileged cannot, by right, hoard or destroy resources – including those in space. In the 1970s, Joseph Sax argued for the PTD’s use as sweeping environmental common law. Some have since theorized about the extension of the PTD to space. These scholars identify issues such as the lack of a sovereign to act as trustee. That problem would not likely be solved by allowing every country to exert self-interested sovereignty in space. At least no one has been so bold as to outright claim the moon – yet.

The PTD is just one tool that may be useful in designing a peaceful move forward. The Expanse, a near-future science fiction series in which humanity has colonized the solar system, offers a thought-provoking look ahead. Earth and the moon are governed by the UN. Mars is a sovereign as well, and the asteroid belt a colonial structure with fractured governance. Space is highly commercialized and militarized, and personal opportunity is hard to come by – but humanity has avoided self-destruction. Their global governance allows for some cooperation between Earth and Mars in space. Depending on one’s dreams of the future, the situation represents an overpopulated, inefficiently run hellscape – or a less-bad option out of the possibilities that now seem likely. It begs the question – how do we expand while avoiding astronomical inequality and self-destruction?

Perhaps it is nearly impossible, but Earth needs real, global regulation of outer space. A weak U.N. cannot do it; private companies and wealthy countries should not be given free reign to try. Last month, the U.N. held the First United Nations Conference on Space Law and Policy.  It’s good to see the international community ramping up these discussions. Hopefully, the PTD’s underlying philosophy of equitable preservation will be central to the conversation. Done right, the exploration of space could be the most inspiring, community-building, and even profitable experience for humanity. If approached thoughtfully, inclusively, carefully –  we could have much more than just a Space Force.


Haiti, Hurricanes and Holes in Disaster Law

Amy Johns, MJLST Staffer

The state of national disaster relief is one that depends greatly on the country and that country’s funds. Ryan S. Keller’s article, “Keeping Disaster Human: Empathy, Systematization, and the Law,” argues that proposed legal changes to the natural disaster laws (both national and international) could have negative consequences for the donative funding of disaster relief. In essence, he describes a potential trade–off: do we want to risk losing the money that makes disaster relief possible, for the sake of more effectively designating and defining disasters? These calculations are particularly critical for countries that rely heavily on foreign aid to recover after national disasters.

In light of recent tragedies, I would point to a related difficulty: what happens when the money is provided, but because of a lack of accountability or governing laws, the funds never actually make it to their intended purposes? Drumming up financial support is all well and good, but what if the impact is never made because there are no legal and institutional supports in place?

Keller brings up a common reason to improve disaster relief law: “efforts to better systematize disaster may also better coordinate communication procedures and guidelines.” There is a fundamental difficulty in disaster work when organizations don’t know exactly what they are supposed to be doing. A prime example of the lack of communication and guidelines has been seen in Haiti, in which disaster relief efforts are largely dependent on foreign aid. The fallout from Hurricane Matthew has resurrected critiques of the 2010 earthquake response—most prominent was the claim of the Red Cross to build 130,000 homes, when in fact it only built six. Though the Red Cross has since disputed these claims, this fiasco pointed to an extreme example of NGOs’ lack of accountability to donors. Even when such efforts go as planned and are successful, the concern among many is that such efforts build short—term solutions without helping to restructure institutions that will last beyond the presence of these organizations.

Could legal regulations fix problems of accountability in disaster relief? If so, the need for those considerations is imminent: climate change means that similar disasters are likely to occur with greater frequency, so the need for effective long-term solutions will only become more pressing.