The Hands-Off Tech Era Is Over

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.

I wanted to hash this over in today’s newsletter because 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 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 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.

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 US election agency “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 US 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 realized 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. Lawmakers 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 the artificial intelligence illustration software Dall-E and cryptocurrency, regularly includes deliberation about the potential harms and how regulation might minimize 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.

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  • Over 10 months, nearly 400 car crashes in the US 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-world safety of technologies such as Tesla’s Autopilot as they become more commonplace.

  • What got lost in the debate over AI and human intelligence: A Google employee’s fear that a piece of artificial intelligence software had acquired consciousness – it didn’t – distracted from pressing concerns about AI, including bias built into the technology and all the humans required for supposedly automated systems, Bloomberg News wrote. (A subscription may be required.)

  • The sports streaming scramble: Apple paid $ 2.5 billion for the right to broadcast matches from Major League Soccer in the TV app for Apple devices, the Athletic reported. In India, two companies will pay $ 3 billion to stream 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 every single video of a kitty playing poker, like this one.

New Technology Era

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