New Report: “Governing Emerging Technology in an Age of Policy Fragmentation and Disequilibrium”

by on May 2, 2022 · 0 comments

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has kicked off a new project called “Digital Platforms and American Life,” which will bring together a variety of scholars to answer the question: How should policymakers think about the digital platforms that have become embedded in our social and civic life? The series, which is being edited by AEI Senior Fellow Adam J. White, highlights how the democratization of knowledge and influence in the Internet age comes with incredible opportunities but also immense challenges. The contributors to this series will approach these issues from various perspectives and also address different aspects of policy as it pertains to the future of technological governance.

It is my honor to have the lead paper in this new series. My 19-page essay is entitled, Governing Emerging Technology in an Age of Policy Fragmentation and Disequilibrium, and it represents my effort to concisely tie together all my writing over the past 30 years on governance trends for the Internet and related technologies. The key takeaways from my essay are:

  • Traditional governance mechanisms are being strained by modern technological and political realities. Newer technologies, especially digital ones, are developing at an ever-faster rate and building on top of each other, blurring lines between sectors.
  • Congress has failed to keep up with the quickening pace of technological change. It also continues to delegate most of its constitutional authority to agencies to deal with most policy concerns. But agencies are overwhelmed too. This situation is unlikely to change, creating a governance gap.
  • Decentralized governance techniques are filling the gap. Soft law—informal, iterative, experimental, and collaborative solutions—represents the new normal for technological governance. This is particularly true for information sectors, including social media platforms, for which the First Amendment acts as a major constraint on formal regulation anyway.
  • No one-size-fits-all tool can address the many governance issues related to fast-paced science and technology developments; therefore, decentralized governance mechanisms may be better suited to address newer policy concerns.

My arguments will frustrate many people of varying political dispositions because I adopt a highly pragmatic approach to technological governance. No matter what your preferred ideal state of affairs looks like in terms of technological governance, you’re bound to be disappointed by the way high-tech policy is unfolding today. Many people desire bright-letter hard law that has government(s) establishing comprehensive, precautionary regulation of various tech sectors. Others prefer a clearly defined but more light-touch policy regime for emerging technology. Alas, neither of these preferred hard law dispositions describe the world we live in today, nor will either of them likely govern the future. My essay outlines a variety of reasons why such hard law approaches are breaking down today, including general legislative dysfunctionalism, the endless delegation of power from Congress to regulatory agencies or the states, and the the intensifying “pacing problem” (i.e., the fact that technological change is happening at a must faster rate than policy change).

In light of this, I argue:

it is smart to think practically about alternative governance frameworks when traditional hard-law approaches prove slow or ineffective in addressing governance needs. It is also wise to consider alternative governance frameworks that might address the occasional downsides of disruptive technologies without completely foreclosing ongoing innovation opportunities the way many hard-law solutions would.

I also show that, whether anyone cares to admit it or not, we already live in a world of multiplying “soft law” mechanisms and decentralized governance approaches. I use the example of how these new governance trends are unfolding for autonomous vehicles, but note how we see decentralized governance approaches being utilized in many other sectors. This is equally true across the Atlantic where the United Kingdom is increasingly experimenting with new governance approached for emerging technologies.

What counts as “soft law” or “decentralized governance” is an open-ended and ever-changing topic of discussion. But I note that it, at a minimum, it includes: multi-stakeholder processes, experimental “sandboxes,” industry best practices or codes of conduct, technical standards, private certifications, agency workshops and guidance documents, informal negotiations, and education and awareness building efforts. I unpack these ideas in the essay in more detail.

For social media, soft law approaches are the current governance norm, even as hard law regulatory proposals continue to multiply rapidly. But I note that despite all that pressure for more formal regulatory governance of social media platforms, the First Amendment presents a formidable barrier to most of those proposals. Thus, soft law will continue to be the dominant governance approach here. I also conclude by predicting that that soft law will become the dominant approach for artificial intelligence, too, even as regulatory proposals multiply there as well.

I’ll have more to say about my paper and other papers in the AEI series in coming weeks and month. For now, I encourage you to jump over to the website AEI has set up for the series and take a look at my new paper.


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