Technopanics & the Precautionary Principle

The future of emerging technology policy will be influenced increasingly by the interplay of three interrelated trends: “innovation arbitrage,” “technological civil disobedience,” and “spontaneous private deregulation.” Those terms can be briefly defined as follows:

  • Innovation arbitrage” refers to the idea that innovators can, and will with increasingly regularity, move to those jurisdictions that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity. Just as capital now fluidly moves around the globe seeking out more friendly regulatory treatment, the same is increasingly true for innovations. And this will also play out domestically as innovators seek to play state and local governments off each other in search of some sort of competitive advantage.
  • Technological civil disobedience” represents the refusal of innovators (individuals, groups, or even corporations) or consumers to obey technology-specific laws or regulations because they find them offensive, confusing, time-consuming, expensive, or perhaps just annoying and irrelevant. New technological devices and platforms are making it easier than ever for the public to openly defy (or perhaps just ignore) rules that limit their freedom to create or use modern technologies.
  • Spontaneous private deregulation” can be thought of as de facto rather than the de jure elimination of traditional laws and regulations owing to a combination of rapid technological change as well the potential threat of innovation arbitrage and technological civil disobedience. In other words, many laws and regulations aren’t being formally removed from the books, but they are being made largely irrelevant by some combination of those factors. “Benign or otherwise, spontaneous deregulation is happening increasingly rapidly and in ever more industries,” noted Benjamin Edelman and Damien Geradin in a Harvard Business Review article on the phenomenon.[1]

I have previously documented examples of these trends in action for technology sectors as varied as drones, driverless cars, genetic testing, Bitcoin, and the sharing economy. (For example, on the theme of global innovation arbitrage, see all these various essays. And on the growth of technological civil disobedience, see, “DOT’s Driverless Cars Guidance: Will ‘Agency Threats’ Rule the Future?” and “Quick Thoughts on FAA’s Proposed Drone Registration System.” I also discuss some of these issues in the second edition of my Permissionless Innovation book.)

In this essay, I want to briefly highlight how, over the course of just the past month, a single company has offered us a powerful example of how both global innovation arbitrage and technological civil disobedience—or at least the threat thereof—might become a more prevalent feature of discussions about the governance of emerging technologies. And, in the process, that could lead to at least the partial spontaneous deregulation of certain sectors or technologies. Finally, I will discuss how this might affect technological governance more generally and accelerate the movement toward so-called “soft law” governance mechanisms as an alternative to traditional regulatory approaches. Continue reading →

SecGen BanOn Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon delivered an address to the UN Security Council “on the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.” He made many of the same arguments he and his predecessors have articulated before regarding the need for the Security Council “to develop further initiatives to bring about a world free of weapons of mass destruction.” In particular, he was focused on the great harm that could come about from the use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. “Vicious non-state actors that target civilians for carnage are actively seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons,” the Secretary-General noted. A stepped-up disarmament agenda is needed, he argued, “to prevent the human, environmental and existential destruction these weapons can cause . . . by eradicating them once and for all.”

The UN has created several multilateral mechanisms to pursue those objectives, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Biological Weapons Convention. Progress on these fronts has always been slow and limited, however. The Secretary-General observed that nuclear non-proliferation efforts have recently “descended into fractious deadlock,” but the effectiveness of those and similar UN-led efforts have long been challenged by the dual realities of (1) rapid ongoing technological change that has made WMDs more ubiquitous than ever, plus (2) a general lack of teeth in UN treaties and accords to do much to slow those advances, especially among non-signatories.

Despite those challenges, the Secretary-General is right to remain vigilant about the horrors of chemical, biological and nuclear attacks. But what was interesting about this address is that the Secretary-General continued on to discuss his concerns about a rising class of emerging technologies, which we usually don’t hear mentioned in the same breath as those traditional “weapons of mass destruction”: Continue reading →

Juma book cover

“The quickest way to find out who your enemies are is to try doing something new.” Thus begins Innovation and Its Enemies, an ambitious new book by Calestous Juma that will go down as one of the decade’s most important works on innovation policy.

Juma, who is affiliated with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, has written a book that is rich in history and insights about the social and economic forces and factors that have, again and again, lead various groups and individuals to oppose technological change. Juma’s extensive research documents how “technological controversies often arise from tensions between the need to innovate and the pressure to maintain continuity, social order, and stability” (p. 5) and how this tension is “one of today’s biggest policy challenges.” (p. 8)

What Juma does better than any other technology policy scholar to date is that he identifies how these tensions develop out of deep-seated psychological biases that eventually come to affect attitudes about innovations among individuals, groups, corporations, and governments. “Public perceptions about the benefits and risks of new technologies cannot be fully understood without paying attention to intuitive aspects of human psychology,” he correctly observes. (p. 24) Continue reading →

This week, my Mercatus Center colleague Andrea Castillo and I filed comments with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in a proceeding entitled, “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.” For more background on this proceeding and the accompanying workshops that OSTP has hosted on this issue, see this White House site.

In our comments, Andrea and I make the case for prudence, patience, and a continuing embrace of “permissionless innovation” as the appropriate policy framework for artificial intelligence (AI) technologies at this nascent stage of their development. Down below, I have pasted our full comments, which were limited to just 2,000 words as required by the OSTP. But we plan on releasing a much longer report on these issues in coming months. You can find the full version of filing that includes footnotes here.

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DM coverOn May 3rd, I’m excited to be participating in a discussion with Yale University bioethicist Wendell Wallach at the Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center in Washington, DC. (RSVP here.) Wallach and I will be discussing issues we write about in our new books, both of which focus on possible governance models for emerging technologies and the question of how much preemptive control society should exercise over new innovations.

Wallach’s latest book is entitled, A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology from Slipping beyond Our Control. And, as I’ve noted here recently, the greatly expanded second edition of my latest book, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom, has just been released.

Of all the books of technological criticism or skepticism that I’ve read in recent years—and I have read stacks of them!—A Dangerous Master is by far the most thoughtful and interesting. I have grown accustomed to major works of technological criticism being caustic, angry affairs. Most of them are just dripping with dystopian dread and a sense of utter exasperation and outright disgust at the pace of modern technological change.

Although he is certainly concerned about a wide variety of modern technologies—drones, robotics, nanotech, and more—Wallach isn’t a purveyor of the politics of panic. There are some moments in the book when he resorts to some hyperbolic rhetoric, such as when he frets about an impending “techstorm” and the potential, as the book’s title suggests, for technology to become a “dangerous master” of humanity. For the most part, however, his approach is deeper and more dispassionate than what is found in the leading tracts of other modern techno-critics.

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One of my favorite themes, and not just in the field of tech policy, is the “Unintended Consequences of Well-Intentioned Regulations.” I believe that all laws and regulations have dynamic effects and that to fully appreciate the true impact of any particular public policy, you must always closely investigate the potential opportunity costs and unintended consequences associated with those policies. Because all too often laws and regulations are hastily put on the books with the very best of intentions in mind, only to later be shown to produce the opposite of what was intended.

Today’s case in point comes from Wall Street Journal article by Rachel Bachman and it involves how the growing wave of cycling helmet laws are having a net negative impact on public health because they discourage ridership in the aggregate. Thus, those potential riders are then either (a) just less active overall or (b) driving their cars to get where they need to go. And both of those results are, ultimately, riskier than cycling without a helmet. For that reason, Bachman reports, cycling advocates “are pushing back against mandatory bike-helmet laws in the U.S. and elsewhere. They say mandatory helmet laws, particularly for adults, make cycling less convenient and seem less safe, thus hindering the larger public-health gains of more people riding bikes.” Supporting evidence comes from this 2012 paper in the journal Risk Analysis by Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Sydney’s Macquarie University. His paper included an empirical model that showed how mandatory bike-helmet laws “have a net negative health impact.”

This strikes me as one of the very best examples of how to do dynamic benefit-cost analysis and show the full range of societal impacts associated with well-intentioned regulations. And it reminds me of the playground example I use in several of my papers: Laws and liability threats discouraged tall playground climbing structures in the ’80s and ’90s. Continue reading →

Since the release of my book, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom, it has been my pleasure to be invited to speak to dozens of groups about the future of technology policy debates. In the process, I have developed and continuously refined a slide show entitled, “Permissionless Innovation’ & the Clash of Visions over Emerging Technologies.” After delivering this talk again twice last week, I figured I would post the latest slide deck I’m using for the presentation. It’s embedded below or it can be found at the link above.

It was my pleasure this week to be invited to deliver some comments at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) to coincide with the release of their latest study, “The Privacy Panic Cycle: A Guide to Public Fears About New Technologies.” The goal of the new ITIF report, which was co-authored by Daniel Castro and Alan McQuinn, is to highlight the dangers associated with “the cycle of panic that occurs when privacy advocates make outsized claims about the privacy risks associated with new technologies. Those claims then filter through the news media to policymakers and the public, causing frenzies of consternation before cooler heads prevail, people come to understand and appreciate innovative new products and services, and everyone moves on.” (p. 1)

As Castro and McQuinn describe it, the privacy panic cycle “charts how perceived privacy fears about a technology grow rapidly at the beginning, but eventually decline over time.” They divide this cycle into four phases: Trusting Beginnings, Rising Panic, Deflating Fears, and Moving On. Here’s how they depict it in an image:

Privacy Panic Cycle - 1

 

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I’ve been thinking about the “right to try” movement a lot lately. It refers to the growing movement (especially at the state level here in the U.S.) to allow individuals to experiment with alternative medical treatments, therapies, and devices that are restricted or prohibited in some fashion (typically by the Food and Drug Administration). I think there are compelling ethical reasons for allowing citizens to determine their own course of treatment in terms of what they ingest into their bodies or what medical devices they use, especially when they are facing the possibility of death and have exhausted all other options.

But I also favor a more general “right to try” that allows citizens to make their own health decisions in other circumstances. Such a general freedom entails some risks, of course, but the better way to deal with those potential downsides is to educate citizens about the trade-offs associated with various treatments and devices, not to forbid them from seeking them out at all.

The Costs of Control

But this debate isn’t just about ethics. There’s also the question of the costs associated with regulatory control. Practically speaking, with each passing day it becomes harder and harder for governments to control unapproved medical devices, drugs, therapies, etc.  Correspondingly, that significantly raises the costs of enforcement and makes one wonder exactly how far the FDA or other regulators will go to stop or slow the advent of new technologies.

I have written about this “cost of control” problem in various law review articles as well as my little Permissionless Innovation book and pointed out that, when enforcement challenges and costs reach a certain threshold, the case for preemptive control grows far weaker simply because of (1) the massive resources that regulators would have to pour into the task on crafting a workable enforcement regime; and/or (2) the massive loss of liberty it would entail for society more generally to devise such solutions. With the rise of the Internet of Things, wearable devices, mobile medical apps, and other networked health and fitness technologies, these issues are going to become increasingly ripe for academic and policy consideration. Continue reading →

“Why hasn’t Europe fostered the kind of innovation that has spawned hugely successful technology companies?” asks James B. Stewart in an important new column for the New York Times (“A Fearless Culture Fuels U.S. Tech Giants“).

That’s a great question, and one that I have tried to answer in a series of recent essays. (See, for example, “Europe’s Choice on Innovation” and “Embracing a Culture of Permissionless Innovation.”) What I have suggested in those essays is that the starkly different outcomes on either side of the Atlantic in terms of recent economic growth and innovation can primarily be explained by cultural attitudes toward risk-taking and failure. “For innovation and growth to blossom, entrepreneurs need a clear green light from policymakers that signals a general acceptance of risk-taking—especially risk-taking that challenges existing business models and traditional ways of doing things,” I have argued. And the most powerful proof of this is to examine the amazing natural experiment that has played out on either side of the Atlantic over the past two decades with the Internet and the digital economy.

For example, an annual Booz & Company report on the world’s most innovative companies revealed that 9 of the top 10 most innovative companies are based in the U.S. and that most of them are involved in computing and digital technology. None of them are based in Europe, however. Another recent survey revealed that the world’s 15 most valuable Internet companies (based on market capitalizations) have a combined market value of nearly $2.5 trillion, but none of them are European while 11 of them are U.S. firms. Again, it is America’s tech innovators that dominate that list.

Many European officials and business leaders are waking up to this grim reality and are wondering how to reverse this situation. In his Times essay, Stewart quotes Danish economist Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who notes that Europeans “all want a Silicon Valley. . . . But none of them can match the scale and focus on the new and truly innovative technologies you have in the United States. Europe and the rest of the world are playing catch-up, to the great frustration of policy makers there.”

OK, but why is that? Continue reading →