Our institutions, laws, and regulations are not prepared for what Big Tech is throwing at them. The story of innovation, disruption, and regulation is by now a familiar cycle. A private actor, usually a tech company, will launch a new product (such as a ride-sharing platform), which will operate outside the law and upend the settled order. At that point, the government will frantically try to learn about what happened and develop policies to address this new reality. But too often these reactionary policies do little more than sanction whatever “disruption” the tech company has already introduced. In the absence of a regulatory framework and clear answers about the right way forward, the private sector will operate with impunity, quite possibly putting people at risk. Government may never catch up, and if it does, it’s often too late.
A new product may be more convenient and cheaper than the existing product, but it may not have been tested and evaluated to ensure that it is safe. There may not even be recognition that there is a new product that should be tested—such as Airbnb in its early days, or its predecessor CouchSurfing. For much of the data that is collected, it is not clear how it should best be collected, where it should be stored, how it can be used, and who has access to it. In addition, there are few guidelines on the wholesale deployment of algorithms to speed up or replace human decision-making, and on how to ensure these algorithms do not perpetuate ongoing injustices and discrimination. In particular, accountability regarding technology in public space can often be opaque, unclear, or complicated, given the reliance on public private partnerships.
This points to the need for much greater public education and discussion about the nature of technological capture today. The public and policymakers are largely uninformed about the potential pitfalls of, and alternatives to, smart city utopias. There can be no meaningful consent unless it is based on full prior knowledge, and we simply do not have enough knowledge about what these utopias entail. We need to know what we’re getting into, as residents who have democratic rights, as taxpayers who pay for services and privileges, as consumers who need to be protected from unscrupulous actors, and, ultimately, as human beings who have basic inalienable rights.
These new forms of unfreedom, these new corporate and statist threats to our individual and collective liberties, must be understood and discussed fully. This discussion centers around the role of government, whose job it is to protect the public interest. It also highlights the role of the media in generating and sustaining a public discourse, and the role of journalists who document and help us make sense of the world around us. What is really at stake here, after all, is our democracy.
We have begun to navigate our movement across the internet with caution. We must also begin to navigate our neighbourhoods with equal care.