Are governments doing enough to regulate new tech?
Regulatory Compliance

Are governments doing enough to regulate new tech?

There’s never a day when technology isn’t advancing. After all, emerging innovations such as artificial intelligence, automation, robotics, cognitive computing and the Internet of Things are already playing important role in our lives.

The general consensus is that connected technologies are helping us to achieve more as human beings, whether at home or in the workplace. We’re essentially entering an era where everything around us will have some sort of internet function. This is often described as the fourth industrial revolution.

According to research from analyst firm Gartner, the number of connected objects in use is expected to grow from 8.4 billion in 2017 to 20.4 billion in 2020. And spending on IoT systems will have surpassed $3 trillion by the next decade. Clearly, the next few years are set to be extremely lucrative for companies.

But despite all the optimism surrounding these technologies, that’s not to say they are without any challenges. Crooks have already shown that they can compromise IoT, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems. The question is, what can governments and businesses do to keep technology in check?


Changing times

Governments play an important role in regulating technology companies and products, but one of the biggest challenges they face is the fact that innovation is constantly changing.

Dan Whaley, an AI Consultant at digital agency Orange Bus, says politicians and lawmakers must ensure they stay up-to-date with the latest technology trends.

“Unfortunately governments face the challenge that the business of making laws to regulate technology is incredibly complex and slow, yet technology moves at an incredibly fast pace. So governments are constantly playing catch up. To keep pace, they need to look at how technology is innovated and copy that in a regulatory environment. Imitating the ‘fail fast’ and ‘build, measure, learn’ philosophy of tech innovation may help regulators keep up and resist stifling advancement,” he says.

When it comes to setting out regulations and calculating risks, Whaley says that governments should focus on public safety, environmental issues and economic impact. He says: “Take the example of driverless cars. Although there is much hype on the subject, it’s probably at least 15 years until they become the norm in everyday transport, and there will probably be a huge number of technology pivots and failed projects along the way.”

“Regulating this nascent industry is a huge task for governments and the temptation will be to create a rigid framework from the top down. However, in all likelihood, such a framework will either completely stifle innovation or become outdated so quickly that it will be rendered highly ineffective. In my opinion, adopting an agile approach to regulation development makes sense and has parallels in other industries, such as medical testing.”

Regulators must be patient

Quentyn Taylor, director of information security at Canon Europe, says it’s important for technology companies to work with governments and regulators on creating safeguards for the industry and consumers. In particular, he points out to the UK Government’s “Data Protection by Design” regulation. However, Taylor argues that it takes time for these regulations to have their desired effect.

“As a security professional, I very much welcome any measures that will keep us safe online. It will certainly have a positive impact on cybercrime but it won’t be felt instantly. Instead it will be a more gradual process, as products improve due to the increased and important focus on data protection and security,” he says.

Taylor expects the continued rise of IoT technology to generate new security threats. He explains: “The rise of self-driving cars could prove to be a leading factor in ensuring that security by design is robustly and firmly implemented into technology. If people’s other devices are attacked, it’s annoying certainly, but it’s not often hugely consequential. A hacked toaster, or any other popular connected device can certainly be frustrating, but a car that won’t drive – or worse, one that crashes - that is a major issue.”


Creating tech policies isn’t easy

Michal Gabrielczyk, senior technology strategy consultant at Cambridge Consultants, says that regulating emerging technologies is a difficult task for policymakers. “On the one hand they must mitigate the risks that arise from new technology and on the other they do not want to stifle innovation in the face of the great benefits promised by advances in machine learning, synthetic biology, blockchain and so on,” he tells us.

Instead of relying on governments to come up with regulatory policies, Michal says companies should also be responsible. “Fortunately industry led efforts such as OpenAI are attempting to fill the gap and consensus is emerging around simple principles to guide regulations on AI: responsibility, explainability, accuracy, transparency and fairness. Perhaps a holistic approach guided by these simple principles would help address this problem – such as appointing a minister for AI, as occurred recently in the UAE,” he explains

French Caldwell, chief evangelist at MetricStream, says that governments are sometimes cautious about regulating new technologies because they don’t want to “stifle” investment.

He says: “For example, governments intentionally have withheld from taxing internet usage. A big tax would have had a severe dampening effect on the expansion of digital access, and perhaps even prevented much of the benefits of e-commerce and global information sharing.

“However, governments are often surprised by the impact of technology-led innovation, and it can take a long time for regulators to catch up with the disruption it brings. The rapid emergence of social media as a means of spreading fake news that undermines democratic processes, for instance, is one example. Another is the emergence of sharing economy companies like Uber and Airbnb, for which existing regulations for the taxi and hospitality industries did not address. Eventually, rules adapt to technology-led disruption, but in the meantime, the societal and business disruption can be immense.”

Supported by the United Nations, Tech Against Terrorism is an excellent example of an organization that’s developing strategies to prevent technology from being abused.  Launched in Montreal recently, the Data Science Network is one of its leading initiatives. It’s designed to build “counterterrorist solutions that can be deployed on small, and often vulnerable, tech platforms”.

Adam Hadley, director of the project, explains that he has noticed “significant challenges for governments in terms of regulating future tech in a manner that efficiently addresses terrorist usage of such technologies and respects human rights”. Hadley believes that they are “not always at the forefront when it comes to addressing the terrorist threat to tech platforms”. He adds: “Frankly, the overwhelming focus on social media platforms is to fight yesterday's battle. Appropriate focus must be given to building capacity for a range of technologies including storage platforms, file-sharing platforms, cryptocurrencies, domain name registrars, web hosts, fintech, e-commerce, VPNs, and blockchain.” 

Technology has always played an important role in our lives, and nothing can change that. At the same time, businesses are going to keep looking for the next big innovation - despite the challenges. It’s clear that governments must take quick and careful action to keep emerging technologies in check, but companies also have a degree of responsibility to ensure their creations don’t get out of control.


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Nicholas Fearn

Nicholas is a technology journalist from the Welsh valleys. He's written for a plethora of respected media sources, including The Next Web, Techradar, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, TrustedReviews, Alphr, TechWeekEurope and Mail Online, and edits Wales's leading tech publication. When he's not geeking out over Game of Thrones, he's investigating ways tech can change our lives in many different ways.

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