It’s clear more than ever that governments will no longer leave technology alone.
Europe mandated standard phone chargers for portable electronics while Texas passed a contested law to restrain social media companies’ policing of online speech. Tech companies can count on more changes like those as government minders wade into how they do business and how we use their products.
That most likely means new technologies like driverless cars and facial recognition systems will take longer to spread into the world than they might have. For many tech proponents, more deliberation and oversight will slow invention. For others, that’s exactly the point.
The very technology we thought would bring us all together has fostered fragmentation and pervasive mistrust.Credit:Peter Riches
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by (or tune out) all the attempted government regulation. In just the past few weeks, journalists have written about pending congressional bills in the US involving data privacy and tech antitrust; the employment classification of drivers for companies like Uber; multiple countries setting standards about how data can and cannot move around the globe; the Netherlands forcing Apple to revise payment options for dating apps; and two US state laws on social media speech.
Those are all the result of a still-evolving rethinking of what had been a relatively laissez-faire approach to tech since the 1990s. With exceptions, the prevailing attitude was that new internet technologies, including digital advertising, e-commerce, social media and gig employment through apps, were too novel, fringe and useful for governments to constrain them with many rules.
As television and radio did when those mediums were new, many tech companies encouraged light regulation by saying that they were bringing change for the better, elected officials were too plodding and clueless to effectively oversee them, and government intervention would muck up progress.
‘Not stand in the way of innovation’
Just one example: A decade ago, Facebook said US rules that require TV and radio to disclose who is paying for election-related ads shouldn’t apply to that company. The Federal Election Commission “should not stand in the way of innovation.” a Facebook lawyer said at the time.
Those ad disclosures aren’t always effective, but after Russia-backed propagandists spread social media ads and free posts to inflame American political divisions in 2016, Facebook voluntarily started to provide more transparency about political ads.
Better laws or ad disclosures probably wouldn’t have prevented hostile foreign actors from abusing Facebook to wage information wars in the United States or other countries. But the hands-off conventional wisdom most likely contributed to a sense that people in charge of tech should be left alone to do what they wished.
‘We realised that we unleashed these powerful forces and failed to create appropriate safeguards.’
That made it harder for governments to wade in once it was clear that social media was being abused to hurt democracy, that unproven driver-assistance technologies might be dangerous, and that consumers have no control in the land grab for our digital information.
“We realised that we unleashed these powerful forces and failed to create appropriate safeguards,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. “We simply could have said in the beginning, every technology needs to be regulated in a common-sense way.”
Now regulators are feeling empowered. Politicians have waded in to make rules for law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology. There will be more laws like those in Texas to take power away from the handful of tech executives who set rules of free expression for billions of people. More countries will force Apple and Google to remake the app economy. More regulation is already changing the ways that children use technology.
Again, not all of this will be good government intervention. But there are more signs that people who create technologies want more government oversight, too — or at least pay lip service to it.
Any discussion about emerging technology — including cryptocurrency and the artificial-intelligence illustration software Dall-E — regularly includes deliberation about the potential harms and how regulation might minimise them.
That doesn’t mean that people agree on what government oversight should look like. But the answer is almost never no government intervention at all. And that’s different.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
The Business Briefing newsletter delivers major stories, exclusive coverage and expert opinion. Sign up to get it every weekday morning.
Most Viewed in Business
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article