Disappear Here

Is the “internet of everything” the tipping point for the conversation of regulation of online? This is certainly Netopia’s mission, as has been expressed over and over in the blog you’re reading, but also in reports and events. If there is one thing that is lacking in the route toward a better society online, it is a structured approach to regulation. However, the case against regulation is often made and it is simple: regulation of any sort would “break the internet”. It would go against the principle of “end-to-end-communication” that made the internet so successful. It would stop “permissionless innovation”. It would invite dictators to persecute dissidents. It would be the end of freedom of expression and privacy. Of course, the evidence is building that none of these things are true: dictators use tech to hunt down dissidents, privacy needs protection, freedom of expression too, and the internet was built by governments in the first place. But the myth is strong, we can have all these great things, just as long as we don’t give in to the temptation of regulation.

Google-chairman Eric Schmidt has a habit of speaking his mind at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Last year he expressed his concern that humans are losing to computers in a race over jobs (ironically, of course Google is the main driver of that change). This year was no exception, mr Schmidt presented a vision of the future where “the internet will disappear”.

“There will be so many IP addresses…so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it. It will be part of your presence all the time.

“Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.”(Source)

Netopia readers know this to be “The Internet of Everything”, the idea of connecting everyday objects, introducing smart devices in the home and regarding everything, even a chair or a table, as data sources that can be mined and analysed. The main promise is that of a simpler life. The house that knows you’re coming and starts lighting/heating/cooling rooms. The self-driving car. But the obvious question is privacy: the internet of everything will know everything, not only about light switches and thermostats, but about you and me. Schmidt already in 2010 suggested that privacy is a thing of the past, and of course that has to be the idea if this vision is to be pursued. Why should we let principles like privacy, rule of law, freedom and democracy stand in the way of technological progress? Inevitable, some would say. Or we can agree to make technology abide by our rules and not the other way around.

As objections on privacy mount, the conclusion is obvious: we need regulation. It is not far-fetched, this is how we handle similar issues in relation to consumer safety, building codes, traffic, food production and pretty much all other areas of human activity. In a Techcrunch story on Schmidt’s quote, computer science professor Margo Seltzer says “Technology is neither good nor bad, it is a tool,”

“However, hammers are tools too. They are wonderful for pounding in nails. That doesn’t mean that someone can’t pick up a hammer and use it to commit murder. We have laws that say you shouldn’t murder; we don’t specialize the laws to call out hammers. Similarly, the laws surrounding privacy need to be laws about data and usage, not about the technology.”

The real question, then, for the Davos elite and everyone else to discuss, is “How?”. One avenue, suggested by Oxford professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in his 2013 book Big Data (with Kenneth Cukier), is to hold data companies accountable for how the data is used, not how it is collected or stored, but used. If it is used against rules and regulation, companies should be fined. This solution will allow “permissionless innovation” but not irresponsible innovation, and it does not put the regulator in the position to have to judge on potential consequences of new technologies. Netopia recommends the WEF to invite professor Mayer-Schönberger as the 2016 keynote speaker.

(Oh, and what about the head ache of keeping all those devices charged or in fresh batteries…)