The era of hands-off technology is over


It is clearer than ever that governments will no longer leave technology alone.

Europe has mandated standard phone chargers for wearable electronics while Texas has passed a contested law to restrict online speech monitoring by social media companies. Tech companies can count on more changes like these as government gatekeepers look at how they do business and how we use their products.

This most likely means that new technologies such as driverless cars and facial recognition systems will take longer to spread around the world than they could have. For many proponents of the technology, more deliberation and scrutiny will slow down invention. For others, that’s exactly the point.

I wanted to chop that up in today’s newsletter because it’s easy to get overwhelmed by (or disconnect from) all the attempts at government regulation. In the past few weeks alone, journalists have written about pending congressional bills regarding data privacy and tech antitrust; job classification of drivers for companies like Uber; several countries setting standards for how data can and cannot move around the world; the Netherlands forcing Apple to review payment options for dating apps; and two state laws on social media speech.

All of this is the result of an ever-evolving rethinking of what had been a relatively liberal approach to technology since the 1990s. With few exceptions, the prevailing attitude was that new Internet technologies, including digital advertising , e-commerce, social media and “on-demand” employment through apps, were too new, marginal and useful for governments to constrain them with many rules.

As TV and radio did when these media were new, many tech companies encouraged light regulation saying they were making changes for the better, that elected officials were too industrious and clueless to oversee them effectively, and that government intervention would spoil progress.

Just one example: Ten years ago, Facebook said US rules that require TV and radio to disclose who pays for election-related ads shouldn’t apply to this company. The US election agency “shouldn’t get in the way of innovation,” a Facebook attorney said at the time.

These ad disclosures aren’t always effective, but after Russian-backed propagandists ran social media ads and gratuitous posts to inflame US political divisions in 2016, Facebook voluntarily began providing more transparency about political advertisements.

Better laws or ad disclosures probably wouldn’t have stopped hostile foreign actors from abusing Facebook to wage information wars in the United States or other countries. But conventional wisdom without intervention has most likely contributed to the impression that those responsible for the technology should be left alone to do as they please.

“We realized we had 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 could have just said at the beginning that every technology must be regulated sensibly.”

Regulators now feel empowered. Lawmakers have floundered to establish rules for the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement. There will be more laws like the ones in Texas to take power away from the handful of tech executives who set free speech rules for billions of people. More countries will force Apple and Google to redo the app economy. More regulation is already changing the way kids use technology.

Again, all of this will not be good government intervention. But there are more signs that the people creating technology also want more government oversight — or at least pretend to. Any discussion of emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence illustration software Dall-E and cryptocurrency, routinely includes deliberations about potential harms and how regulation might minimize them.

This does not mean that people agree on what government surveillance should look like. But the answer is almost never any government intervention. And it’s different.

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  • In 10 months, nearly 400 car crashes in the United States involved advanced driver assistance technologies, according to federal data reported by my colleagues Neal Boudette and Cade Metz. As I wrote above, federal regulators are trying to better understand the real safety of technologies like Tesla’s Autopilot as they become more mainstream.

  • What has been lost in the debate over AI and human intelligence: A Google employee’s fear that AI software has gained consciousness – it hasn’t – has diverted attention from pressing concerns about AI, including the biases built into the technology and all the humans needed for the supposedly automated systems, Bloomberg News wrote. (Subscription may be required.)

  • The Sports Streaming Rush: Apple has paid $2.5 billion for the right to stream Major League Soccer matches in the TV app for Apple devices, the Athletic reported. In India, two companies will pay $3 billion to broadcast cricket matches. These deals are another sign that companies are betting on sports to persuade people to pay for video streaming services.

I will watch all videos of a kitty playing poker, like this one.


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