If police are working on an investigation and want to tap your phone lines, they’ll effectively need to get a warrant. They will also need to get a warrant to search your home, your business, and your mail.
But if they want to access your email, all they need is just to wait for 180 days.
Because of a 1986 law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, people using third-party email providers, like Gmail, only get 180 days of warrant protection. It’s an odd quirk of the law that only exists because no one in 1986 could imagine holding onto emails longer than 180 days. There simply wasn’t space for it back then!¹
ECPA is a stark illustration of consistent phenomena in government: policy choices, especially technical requirements, have durable and long-lasting effects. There are more mundane examples as well. GPS could be dramatically more accurate but when the optical system was recently upgraded, it was held back by a technical requirement in the Federal Enterprise Architecture Framework (FEAF) of 1999. More accurate headlights have been shown to be better at reducing night crashes yet adaptive headlights only just got approved last year, nearly 16 years after Europe because of technical requirements in FMVSS 108. All it takes is one law or regulation to crystallize an idea into an enduring framework that fails to keep up with developments.
I fear the approach pushed by the White House in their recent executive order on AI might represent another crystallization moment. ChatGPT has been public for a year, the models on which they are based are only five years old, and yet the administration is already working to set the terms for regulation.
The “Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence” is sprawling. It spans 13 sections, extends over 100 pages, and lays out nearly 100 deliverables for every major agency. While there are praiseworthy elements to the document, there is also a lot of cause for concern.
Among the biggest changes is the new authority the White House has claimed over newly designated “dual use foundation models.” As the EO defines it, a dual-use foundation model is
- an AI model that is trained on broad data; generally uses self-supervision; contains at least tens of billions of parameters; is applicable across a wide range of contexts; and that exhibits, or could be easily modified to exhibit, high levels of performance at tasks that pose a serious risk to security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.
While the designation seems to be common sense, it is new and without provenance. Until last week, no one had talked about dual use foundation models. Rather, the designation does comport with the power the president has over the export of military tech.
As the EO explains it, the administration is especially interested in those models with the potential to
- lower the barrier of entry for non-experts to design, synthesize, acquire, or use chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons;
- enable powerful offensive cyber operations through automated vulnerability discovery and exploitation against a wide range of potential targets of cyber attacks; or
- permit the evasion of human control or oversight through means of deception or obfuscation
The White House is justifying its regulation of these models under the Defense Production Act, a federal law first enacted in 1950 to respond to the Korean War. Modeled after World War II’s War Powers Acts, the DPA was part of a broad civil defense and war mobilization effort that gave the President the power to requisition materials and property, expand government and private defense production capacity, ration consumer goods, and fix wage and price ceilings, among other powers.
The DPA is reauthorized every five years, which has allowed Congress to expand the set of presidential powers in the DPA. Today, the allowable use of DPA extends far beyond U.S. military preparedness and includes domestic preparedness, response, and recovery from hazards, terrorist attacks, and other national emergencies. The DPA has long been intended to address market failures and slow procurement processes in times of crisis. Now the Biden Administration is using DPA to force companies to open up their AI models.
The administration’s invocation of the Defense Production Act is clearly a strategic maneuver to utilize the maximum extent of its DPA power in service of Biden’s AI policy agenda. The difficult part of this process now sits with the Department of Commerce, which has 90 days to issue regulations.
In turn, the Department will likely use the DPA’s industrial base assessment power to force companies to disclose various aspects of their AI models. Soon enough, dual use foundation models will have to report to the government tests based on guidance developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). But that guidance won’t be available for another 270 days. In other words, Commerce will regulate companies without knowing what they will be beholden to.
Recent news from the United Kingdom suggests that all of the major players in AI are going to be included in the new regulation. In closing out a two-day summit on AI, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that eight companies were going to give deeper access to their models in an agreement that had been signed by Australia, Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Singapore, the U.S. and the U.K. Those eight companies included Amazon Web Services, Anthropic, Google, as well its subsidiary DeepMind, Inflection AI, Meta, Microsoft, Mistral AI, and OpenAI.
Thankfully, the administration isn’t pushing for a pause on AI development, they aren’t denouncing more advanced models, nor are they suggesting that AI needs to be licensed. But this is probably because doing so would face a tough legal challenge. Indeed, it seems little appreciated by the AI community that the demand to report on models is a kind of compelled speech, which has typically triggered First Amendment scrutiny. But the courts have occasionally recognized that compelled commercial speech may actually advance First Amendment interests more than undermine them.
The EO clearly marks a shift in AI regulation because of what will come next. In addition to the countless deliverables, the EO encourages agencies to use their full power to advance rulemaking.
For example, the EO explains that,
- the Federal Trade Commission is encouraged to consider, as it deems appropriate, whether to exercise the Commission’s existing authorities, including its rulemaking authority under the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. 41 et seq., to ensure fair competition in the AI marketplace and to ensure that consumers and workers are protected from harms that may be enabled by the use of AI.
Innocuous as it may seem, the Federal Trade Commission, as well as all of the other agencies that have been encouraged to use their power by the administration, could come under court scrutiny. In West Virginia v. EPA, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for agencies to expand their power when the court established the major questions doctrine. This new line of legal reasoning takes an ax to agency delegation. Unless there’s explicit, clear-cut authority granted by Congress, an agency cannot regulate a major economic or political issue. Agency efforts to push rules on AI could get caught up by the courts.
To be fair, there are a lot of positive actions that this EO advances.² But details matter, and it will take time for the critical details to emerge.
Meanwhile, we need to be attentive to the creep of power. As Adam Thierer described this catch-22,
- While there is nothing wrong with federal agencies being encouraged through the EO to use NIST’s AI Risk Management Framework to help guide sensible AI governance standards, it is crucial to recall that the framework is voluntary and meant to be highly flexible and iterative—not an open-ended mandate for widespread algorithmic regulation. The Biden EO appears to empower agencies to gradually convert that voluntary guidance and other amorphous guidelines into a sort of back-door regulatory regime (a process made easier by the lack of congressional action on AI issues).
In all, the EO is a mixed bag that will take time to shake out. On this, my colleague Neil Chilson is right: some of it is good, some is bad, and some is downright ugly.
Still, the path we are currently navigating with the Executive Order on AI parallels similar paths in ECPA, GPS, and adaptive lights. It underscores a fundamental truth about legal decisions: even the technical rules we set today will shape the landscape for years, perhaps decades, to come. As we move forward, we must tread carefully, ensuring that our legal frameworks are adaptable and resilient, capable of evolving alongside the very technologies they seek to regulate.
Will Rinehart is a senior research fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity, where he specializes in telecommunication, internet and data policy, with a focus on emerging technologies and innovation. He was formerly the Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at the American Action Forum and before that a research fellow at TechFreedom and the director of operations at the International Center for Law & Economics. This piece originally appeared in the Exformation Newsletter on November 9, 2023, and is reprinted with permission.
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