Would Giving a Number Have Killed You?

[via Wired via Instapundit]

This asinine bill seeks to mandate that digital cameras in phones make a sound when activated to keep people from making surreptitious photos. Beyond the incredible inanity (what if you need to quickly photograph a crime in progress?) and nannying of the bill, it highlights just how lazy and divorced from the productive world the political class has become. 

Specifically the bill says:

Requirement- Beginning 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, any mobile phone containing a digital camera that is manufactured for sale in the United States shall sound a tone or other sound audible within a reasonable radius of the phone whenever a photograph is taken with the camera in such phone. [emp added]

Okay, imagine that you’re an engineer tasked with implementing the sound function in the phone. By what criteria do you determine what comprises a “reasonable radius”? Engineers work in numbers. An engineer has to engineer the phone to emit a sound of  X decibels in order to be heard by Y percent of the general population at a radius of Z with U decibels of ambient noise.  What values of X,Y,Z and U are legally “reasonable”? 

The idiotic and politically dangerous thing here is that manufacturers will have to develop phones and then bring them before some bureaucrat who will inform them after the fact whether the phone’s audio signal has a “reasonable radius”. Imagine if all the speed limits where simply defined “as driving at a reasonable speed”. Cops would sit beside roads and determine, only after you drove by, if your speed had been reasonable. The potential for abuse would be enormous. 

This law is far from rare in its completely useless legal definition. The Americans With Disabilities Act’s infamous “reasonable accommodation” being perhaps the infamous example. “Safe” is also a word tossed about with total disregard to the fact that the word describes only a nebulous and relative concept. 

Nothing so separates the productive from the political than numbers. Engineers, designers and managers work in a world of numbers. If you make a physical object or program software to manipulate a physical object, you have to use numbers. Only number have meaning. The political need only principles and vague concepts. To succeed, they need only to manipulate the emotional states of others using emotively charged words. 

Ultimately, this lazy and slipshod law-writing undermines the will of the people by moving the final decisions about what constitutes “reasonable” and “safe” to unelected bureaucrats and judges. We elect representatives to make laws, not airy statements of principle. 

We need a constitutional amendment that requires law makers to write all laws with explicitly numerical boundaries when dealing with matters described by numbers. Otherwise, we all going to wake up one day and find out that no one can tell us before we act what is and what is not the breaking of the law. 

17 thoughts on “Would Giving a Number Have Killed You?”

  1. Unrelated comment: I wish you guys/gals would weigh in on the large attack currently underway on the Chicago school economist over the “stimulus” bill. The attack is being led by Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman is piling on. Go to Econ Log blog, Brad Delong’s blog or or Portfolio.com to weighing in.

    Below is the Portfolio.com link whichsums up the battle with some links. It is getting nasty.


    I would be very interested in the Chicago Boyz take in the matter. The argument is basically about Keynesian vs. Classical macroeconomics. Eugene Fama is taking most of the hits, but they are even going after Greg Manikiw, too.

  2. The practical requirements are childishly naive, no doubt, but I have a problem with the law philosophically also.

    Unless a law specifically prohibits some observing activity because it has some other moral end (such as prohibiting pedophilic pornography, peeping into homes, photo-copying protected materials, and that sort of thing) then this proposed requirement is just stoopid. What happens happens whether someone takes a picture of it or not. It’s absurd to require a warning that reality can be recorded. It’s exactly similar to require a warning sound as we observe and take notes of some event or moment in time.

    Likely the intimidation of the picture taker would be a much bigger problem, and societal loss, far more often than the the loss of someone’s privacy.

  3. “manufactured for sale in the United States”

    Does this mean built in the US or just sold in the US?

    I can’t imagine any phones are actually built here any longer, so maybe it won’t apply.

  4. My apologies.

    First, I would not spend any time worrying about it. Ms. Nancy won’t be letting any Republican’s bills in her house this year.

    Second, after a life time as a lawyer, who spent a bit of time worrying about legislative draftsmanship, I can tell you that it is not as easy as it looks. As one great thinker pointed out, the US Constitution is about 4500 words, and the Internal Revenue Code and IRS Regulations are more than 45,000 pages, but they both produce an enormous amount of litigation.

    Specification does not necessarily reduce ambiguity. It just relocates it. The problem is the mismatch between the world which is big and complex and language which small and hopelessly overmatched.

    After a lifetime in which I have seen most laws take after the IRC rather than the Constitution, I have come to realize that the latter is a better approach. Fewer laws, fewer words, more broad statements of principal, and fewer specifics for bureaucrats, would create a more pleasant society for us to live in.

  5. I’m amazed it only applies to cell phones. There’s all kinds of miniature cameras and camcorders out there that are easily concealable.

  6. BTW, regarding the post title “Would giving a number killed you?”,

    I think the words of Marx, the immortal presager and social philosopher, apply here: “take any number you want, I got plenty of them”. (Groucho said this as he or one of the boys was bidding up the price at a real estate auction in “Coconuts”, I believe.)

  7. 1)A ridiculous idea for a law–can you imagine how irritating it would be at (say) Yellowstone National Park with dozens of camera phones all beeping away at once?

    2)It’s fairly common for legislation to be drafted in fairly general terms but then to give authority to a regulatory agency to promulgate specifics. For example, I’m fairly sure that the speed limit which applies to aircraft in congested airspace was not explicitly legislated by Congress but rather was established by the FAA under its rulemaking authority.

    In the case of the camera phones, it seems to me that the correct was to do it (stipulating for a moment that the whole thing is desirable) would be for the law to state something like “a sound which can be heard by 80% of people at a distance of at least 20 feet” and would then direct the Secretary of Something-or-Other to turn this into a specific decibel and frequency requirement.

  8. Firstly, this is an idiotic bill. This is a Republican’s bill?? No wonder they’re out of power. Shielding people from the consequences of their own stupidity is supposed to be the Democrats’ specialty.

    Secondly, many Western states had “reasonable and proper” speed limit laws before the 55-mph law came in. I believe Montana went back to that after the repeal. They worked just fine. Most states have always had “reasonable and proper” standards even when they had a numercial speed limit; you can be cited for going too fast for conditions even if it’s under the posted limit. Once upon a time American law could rely on an assumption of common sense on the part of both citizens and police; we’re lost a lot of that, and no structural reforms can get us back to what we’ve lost thereby.

  9. Imagine if all the speed limits where simply defined “as driving at a reasonable speed”. Cops would sit beside roads and determine, only after you drove by, if your speed had been reasonable. The potential for abuse would be enormous.

    That is PRECISELY how Montana’s speeding laws worked until the Feds held the states hostage with their highway money in the late 80s. There were no speed limits… only a police officer’s professional judgment on whether you were driving at a safe speed for local conditions. If you didn’t want to get a ticket, you used your OWN judgment and didn’t push the envelope.

    And guess what? It worked beautifully! Montana had less auto fatalities per capita than the national average, Montanans were free from an expensive, intrusive, and onerous legal framework, and patrolmen had a free hand to exercise their professional judgment in looking after public safety.

    Leave it to the Feds to screw that up.

  10. Here’s what really happens in most cellphone companies when vague regulation like this is enacted:

    1)Engineer notices product spec says something about compliance with “beep” legislation. Goes to talk to product manager who wrote the spec & asks “Hey, how loud does this need to be?”

    2)Product manger sayS, “I don’t have a clue, but let me do some research and find out.”

    3)Product manager goes to see the General Counsel (in a small company) or any lawyer he can find (in a large company) and asks for clarification.

    4)Lawyer say2, “Well, that’s really not an area I specialize in–let me get in touch with one of our outside law firms.”

    5)Outside law firm does a couple of days of research, at $1000/hour.

    6)Outside law firm finally gives an opinion, wrapped in lots of disclaimers, which goes back to the product manager.

    7)PM is pissed off because he really doesn’t want his product beeping annoyingly, but relays answer to the engineer. Goes to see VP of marketing, who summons in-house lawyer for meeting. They reluctantly decide there isn’t any choice, and tell engineer what the loudness level must be.

    8)Code is written and irritating beep is implemented. Engineer, product manager, VP marketing, and in-house lawyer have all wasted their time: outside law firm has profited nicely.

  11. Jim Bennett

    I think that common law phrasing such as “reasonable and proper” only work on the small scale.

    I grew up in a small town that was surrounded by dangerous curves on roads laid down when 40mph was a breakneck speed. So, even though the posted speed was 55 driving that fast down those roads was a recipe for disaster. Everybody in the community knew where these bad patches were so I don’t think cops even patrolled those roads.

    But I don’t think you could use the same system to run a highway through a major urban area. To use a rule of thumb you need a community consensus and you can only reach such a consensus in small, relatively homogenous community. I doubt any three New Yorkers could come to a consensus about what was meant by a “reasonable and proper” speed for any particular circumstance.

    Even if we can use such definitions for the daily repeated actions of individuals I don’t think we can use them for engineering specifications. Its nuts to have someone build something without numerical guidance and then tell them retroactively whether they met specifications or not. This is especially true given the real world conditions of the federal regulatory environment wherein powerful activist groups and corporations tussle in every mathematically possible combination. Leaving companies open to multimillion dollar lawsuits for making an “unsafe” product because nobody would tell them what design parameters constituted “safe” is morally wrong and politically dangerous.

  12. I have some of the same sort of issues when faced with people that dink around with ridiculous homeopathic cures. Words like openness, energy flow, balance, etc are meaningless to me. These things are impossible to quantify, which leads back to the thrust of this post.

    The previous commenters are correct in pointing out that regulatory agency “x” will eventually set the standard, but just lobbing out there “I want cameras to click” is pretty stupid.

    I can also relate to the post because in my industry, HVAC, there are some VERY vague rules coming up set down by the EPA that if enacted would cost almost every single person and business in the country $$$ (certain HCFC’s will not be allowed to be manufactured after Jan. 1, 2010 and the vagueness is in the area of servicing existing systems). Industry groups are as we speak having meetings in Washington to hopefully have the EPA clean up some of the very vague language currently on the books.

  13. Shannon —

    My comment was only a response to a previous post regarding speed limits, that in fact such an approach historically worked well in the Western states. I agree that approach probably wouldn’t work well in heavily populated areas. And it wasn’t meant to apply to all areas of law and regulation.

    In general, a vague law is an invitation to tyranny, since it gives cops and proecutors wide latitude for selective enforcement. This is similar to the effect of the very wide range of criminal penalties that businessmen are now subject to for normal conduct of business, if a scalp-hunting prosecutor thinks he can benefit from a show trial.

  14. Why are we surprised that the political class (either side of the isle) spends every waking moment, which is not already employed in the seeking of bribes, perseverating over new and more annoying ways to dictate the minutia of private life?

    How many people who want to surreptitiously photograph others or can’t stand the beep will just switch to a different tiny camera or figure out how to turn the damn beep off? I predict a swift business for people who know how to either physically or via software get rid of the beep. Soon instructions for de-beeping your phone camera will appear on message boards all over the web.

  15. audible within a reasonable radius…
    How does this not violate the ADA? You think this law is bad? Wait until some civil rights lawyers get hold of it, and mandate decibel levels roughly equivalent to a jet taking off!

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