Would you trust an unregulated banking industry to look after your money? After the financial crisis of 2008, the question sounds absurd. Isn't it odd, then, that we trust largely unregulated tech companies with everything from our correspondences to our nudie pics?
Then again, the fact that one might speak at all of easily sending naked pictures of ourselves is a testament to just how rapidly things have changed. As a result, we've often left it to tech companies themselves to self-regulate. But as everything from messaging to accommodation to bullying is changed by new technology, it seems we've reached the limit on letting Silicon Valley look after itself.
Consider that recently, messaging service Snapchat was forced to agree to 20 years of privacy oversight from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission after it found Snapchat's key promise – that it deletes pictures users sent each to other – wasn't true. Though the punishment is stiff, at least in terms of what the FTC can do, it also speaks to the new ground regulatory bodies have to tread. Who, even five years ago, might have imagined that things like self-deleting messages might not only be something used by tens of millions, but that would have to be governed by law?
Yet, messaging is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how legal and social conventions are struggling to keep up with the rapid growth of the Internet as part of life. Accommodations service AirBnB, which lets property owners rent out rooms and apartments, is currently facing a court case in New York in which it may have to pay taxes and abide by the same rules as a hotelier. Car ride services such as Uber – which skirt around the traditional taxi systems using a smartphone app – have caused great controversy, and cabbies in London are threatening to create gridlock in protest.
Those are just the examples dominating the headlines right now – but there is no end to the confusion. If you buy a digital movie that is stored online, but the company who stores it goes bankrupt, should you retain access to the title? Should there be legally mandated levels of backup in for-pay cloud storage services? The examples don't end there, and extend from Apple's disturbance of text messaging to Facebook's role in cases of bullying. Our institutions and conventions are reeling from the speed and scale of change.
That these new tools are subject to so little legal scrutiny is understandable. The mostly unfettered growth of the Internet has been a boon for so many, and there is a case to be made that lack of regulation has allowed things like social media or Internet telephony to grow so fast.
All the same, our wonder at the inherent good of all that change has led us to place altogether too much faith in the companies at the forefront of innovation. It's not even that those organizations are pernicious, we just allowed them too much responsibility; after all, we should not be leaving social policy to Google. It almost feels as if we've been swept up in a wave of ecstatic change, and now that the euphoria is starting to wear off, we're starting to see that our system is hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with it.
And perhaps if one side of the equation is the novelty of tech companies, the other, missing counterweight is a kind "regulatory innovation" – an urgency on the part of governments to recognize an unusual pace of change and react. Thus far, legal response to the changes wrought by tech has often been scattershot or ham-fisted. The U.S. seems to have reneged on its commitment to net neutrality, which aims to prevent a two-tiered Internet, while Europe's recent ruling on privacy now threatens to undermine the Web as a historical record. Copyright holders are still relying on litigation rather than innovation to deal with change. Meanwhile, as the U.K. suffers unintended consequences from its attempts to filter porn, the Canadian government is using all this uncertainty to sneak in a "cyberbullying" law (Bill C-13) that actually does much more.
What it amounts to is a kind of flailing on the part of regulatory bodies, as legal intervention in the Web seems to go wrong more than anything else. That this has happened isn't too surprising; after all, the people making law are often baffled by new tech. Yet it's also untenable, and speaks to a need for focused, specific response from governments – particularly the use of experts to act as "translators" for those tasked with making decisions.
It wouldn't be unprecedented. Reaction to the recent financial crisis happened in conjunction with advice from economists and the Bank of Canada. That we have no such advisory system for how we react to technology is worrying to say the least.
It's not that we should valourize all regulation, as if China's Great Firewall is a model to follow. Like with modern finance, we should recognize that digital tech represents a whole new field of human action – and that if untrammelled commerce brought us this new world, then it's now time to sensibly and knowledgeably reign it in for the good of the Web and we who use it.