MSNBC's Morning Joe political news program led at 6am with a discussion of the drone privacy hearing yesterday and the growing, odd alliance of the left and right to question domestic drones, mostly on the fear of abuse by government and law enforcement. The body language of Mika, Joe, and their guest Richard Haas from the Council on Foreign Relations indicated a general shock about the technology and the large gaps in consensus and understanding generated by the larger drone debate.
What would have happened in the news cycle if instead of a Senate staff person walking a 2lb drone from the Mesa, AZ, police department up to Chairman Leahy as a prop, that a small drone was flown live inside the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room?
The room was packed yesterday and with a noticeably young audience. People stood in line outside in the hallway hoping to get in and many went to the overflow room to watch the hearing live.
The hearing generally showcased a lot of negative feelings toward drones and fears about how law enforcement may use them domestically. Lots of fear about how new the technology is and how fast it is moving.
The hearing did a good job of teeing up many issues. But it did provide more runway to those on the left and the right already critical of drones used by the government to fight terrorism. Chairman Leahy mentioned that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chairman of the the Constitution, Civil Rights & Human Rights Subcommittee, will soon have a hearing on drones and the Constitution.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), is the Ranking Member (or top Republican), on that Subcommittee. Cruz has attracted headlines for his questioning of the Obama Administration on drones and how they may be used domestically and Constitutionally. This Durbin-Cruz hearing should attract yet more commentary on fears.
The good news for the DIYDrones community is that these hearings and the legislation already introduced won't lead to a change in the law next week, next month and probably not this year. Drone regulation is likely to get bogged down in the broader privacy/cybersecurity reform debates (ECPA, DNT, CISPA) and in the general debate about the President's use of drones.
Worth noting that commentary at the hearing indicated that the FAA does not have the authority to deal with drone privacy issues. Now it is only a matter of time for other agencies to volunteer to be the "lead" regulatory or for someone to propose that a new agency be created.
If the odd alliance of the left and the right continues that coalition could be a driver for legislation. And even if there is not legislation that becomes law, this coalition is likely to exert influence on public opinion and on government agencies including those that will act on drone issues including the FAA.
And the activism is clearly being driven by groups that fear drones or at least the government exercise of authority via drones. Yesterday two dozen civil liberty and privacy organizations petitioned the U.S. Bureau of Customs & Border Protection. It is good to see an open debate and privacy and other concerns raised. This should be encouraged.
However, it needs to be balanced with activism for the positive and creative developments resulting from drones. Too much fear (or ignorance, grandstanding) of technology risks disrupting disruption. Descending ingenuity and entrepreneurship in the drone area is not good policy.
Michael Toscano of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, one of the witnesses yesterday, tried to present the positive story of how drones create jobs and economic growth. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) was not impressed. She fears that drones will be armed.
There is some hope for the positive story. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) spoke at the hearing about his constituents bidding for one of the six FAA drone test facilities. Lee, a backer of Sen. Cruz on the drone Constitutionality debate, may be opening the door for fostering drone innovation. Sanctioned safe zones in politically connected communities, however, may or may not impede innovation.
What has made the Internet great is that an entrepreneur (anyone) can think of something and put it out on the Web and see if it takes off. Little to no permission is needed in advance. Doing the same with physical innovations in the public airspace is going to be different.