Digital Myth: Permission-less Innovation Made the Internet Great

Digital Myths: #11 – If you’d rather not ask permission, you’re probably up to no good.

Tech pundits love to talk about permission-less innovation, as if it’s the secret sauce that made the Internet great, but is now threatened by all kinds of self-interested innovation-hating Luddites. People use this concept a little different: some say it’s not having to report to an authority before making something new, some say that not all rules should apply to start-up companies in the early stages. In the latter case, this usually means that online entertainment services shouldn’t have to get the proper licences for the content. Creators and rights-owners should be so generous as to let the innovators use their content without asking or paying. The upside would be a better digital market in the long run, though that may not convince those who made the content in the first place (it may just as well set a new standard price: zero). And why should it be limited to copyright? Why should start-ups have to pay for hardware, servers, office space, insurance, wages, and the drinks in the vending machine? To my knowledge, nobody has suggested that idea, but often start-ups reduce overheads by joining an incubator programme and manage staff wages by offering stock options. That’s not permission-less, though, that is deal-making, paying with stakes in the company or project rather than cash. If you’re a service delivering content, it’s difficult to understand why the same logic should not apply to the raw material of that service: the content.

You can think about the off-shore accounts revealed in the Panama Papers leak as a form of self-proclaimed permission-less innovation.

The other way ‘permission-less’ is used to get around rules that society put in place, like tax, worker security, competition law, consumer protection and other such things that are perhaps not so minor. If that is permission-less, that means some players should have different rules from others because they are … er, what? The future? So if somebody runs a bed and breakfast, they would have to get a food permit, make sure there’s a fire escape and put a sign on the lift that says ‘Don’t use in case of fire’. But if you have an online matchmaking service, that’s innovation and you don’t have to worry about any of that (looking at you, AirBnB!), which sort of makes you wonder why those rules are there in the first place. Or if you provide methods for private communication and use that privilege to operate all kinds of services in marketing, publishing and sales etc. without worrying about the rules the competition follows (looking at you, Google, Facebook, Twitter and a host of others), then where does it end? We have all sorts of regulation for the safety of cosmetics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals … are those also ripe for permission-less innovation? What if I made an app that delivers prescription drugs without, you know, a prescription; would that be permission-less innovation (or is that prescription-less)? Of course, that app surely already exists somewhere.

Let me look into my crystal ball and ask what sector is up next for permission-less innovation. I see something. I see a mist. There’s a shape … it’s the finance sector! Think about it: highly profitable, global, highly regulated. There are already digital payment services, but coming around the corner are more advanced banking services. Should they also be permission-less? So don’t worry about money laundering or unfair interest rates or transparency rules or stress tests because it’s innovation? Give it a rest! You can think about the off-shore accounts revealed in the Panama Papers leak as a form of self-proclaimed permission-less innovation. Not a great road map for the future.

Permission-less innovation is not a myth, it’s just a bad attempt to say the world is too complicated so we do it our own way.

Digital Myths is a series of posts published from the book 21 Digital Myths, Reality Distortion Antidote where Netopia editor Per Strömbäck takes a closer look at some of the concepts that have shaped the way we think, talk and make decisions about digital technology and the internet.