Walking the fine line between innovation and accountability

Almost everyone will agree the technology industry needs to be held accountable through regulation, but we are starting to wonder whether the sticky fingers of bureaucracy are getting too involved.

In today’s world, regulators and governments can’t do much right. Industry has proven it cannot be trusted in the light-touch regulatory environment of yesteryear, while the red-tape mazes woven by bureaucrats have often create significant challenges of their own. It is an equation which walks the tightest of tight-ropes, and we wonder whether civil servants are starting to over-compensate.

The latest example involves Facebook and the creation of its own cryptocurrency. In a letter from the House Subcommittee on Financial Services, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who acts as the subcommittees Chairwomen, has asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to pause developments on Libra until appropriate investigations have been concluded.

“Because Facebook is already in the hands of over a quarter of the world’s population, it is imperative that Facebook and its partners immediately cease implementation plans until regulators and Congress have an opportunity to examine these issues and take action,” Waters stated.

“During this moratorium, we intend to hold public hearings on the risks and benefits of cryptocurrency-based activities and explore legislative solutions. Failure to cease implementation before we can do so, risks a new Swiss-based financial system that is too big to fail.”

Some might suggest this is a sensible move to protect consumers while others will point to an already bolted horse; cryptocurrencies have been operating for some time now. This is not necessarily a reason not to investigations but asking a single company to pause its R&D plans, as opposed to the segment on the whole, seems rather heavy-handed.

Of course, what is worth noting is that Facebook is a company which should be under the scope of scrutiny more than others. Numerous scandals over the last two years have demonstrated this is not a company which can be trusted to play nice in the light-touch regulatory environment.

But you have to wonder, are the politicians over-compensating for a poor approach to technology regulation? Politicians, especially in the US, are becoming increasingly involved in the technology industry. What impact will this have on innovation, exploration and the creation of new services?

The technology, or the internet-based technology industry to be more specific, is a young one. Facebook was founded in 2004, Amazon in 1994, Twitter in 2006, Google in 1998 and Uber in 2009. In fact, the modern internet as we know it today is only 25 years old. Realistically, this is an embryonic industry with so much left to explore.

However, it always worth exploring the other side of the argument. With so much left to explore, who knows what dangers lurk in the dark corners. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the potential of the internet and look at the number of privacy scandals which have emerged. Cambridge Analytica grabbed all the headlines, but numerous companies have been operating under a cloud of obscurity when it comes to monetizing personal data and monitoring the movements of users.

There certainly is evidence the technology industry needs to be held to higher standards of accountability, but this is where the conundrum presents itself; where should the line be drawn?

The technology industry has thrived in recent years mainly because the innovators of Silicon Valley have largely been left to themselves. This light-touch regulatory environment has led to the emergence of the fail-fast business model and numerous breakthroughs which have arguably made our lives better. Some might argue against this point, but we have faith in technology.

However, the fail-fast business model solely relies on the concept of exploration. Technologists are testing ideas which have not been conceived before and therefore are not under the restraints of regulation. Ideas have been tested and the good ones are taken forward. But it is the freedoms granted to innovators which has led to the success.

If the technology industry is being tied up in more red-tape, will this progress continue? Would internet banking have emerged if lawmakers had been paying more attention? Would Google Maps be the success it is today? Would Uber have revolutionised the way we get home from the pub?

We are not suggesting the technology industry should be offered free-reign to do whatever it wants, but where should the line be drawn? How much freedom should be offered and how much involvement should regulators have in the development of embryonic ideas?

An excellent example of this point can be taken from the grilling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testimony to Congress in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook and Zuckerberg were rightly held accountable for actions during this period, though on the other side of the interrogation, politicians demonstrated they were not up to speed when it comes to technological developments.

If the House Committee on Financial Services wants to hold an investigation to understand cryptocurrency, how long will it be before it arrives at a conclusion? Weeks? Months? Years?! And should Facebook be singled out? Should this investigation not be industry-wide, otherwise you are only preventing a single company from being competitive.

This is an incredibly complex equation to balance, and we wonder whether bureaucrats are over-compensating for perceived inaction during yesteryear, or if ill-prepared politicians are attempting to secure PR points by wading into a contextually relevant debate.