Tech Policy: Time to Level Up

Tech policy and regulation is notoriously tricky. This is an area that has many complex technological aspects to contend with, that is inherently international (not always totally, but mostly quite global), that changes faster than any comparable area ever has.

The challenges also are often contextual, zoomed-in issues that change in scope and nature quickly, that have many moving parts. Governance structures are often not entirely clear, or set up for this kind of challenge, because of jurisdictions (global? regional? domestic?), regulatory arena (economics? law? human rights?) and other cross-domain shenanigans. Often, the challenges are deeply systemic, like deeply engrained power structures or unfair power dynamics.

It doesn’t end there. The field is also shaped by very, very powerful and well-funded interests, from global tech behemoths and their lobby efforts, to governments vying for geopolitical advantage, to intelligence communities and state-sponsored actors trying to undermine opponents in a global game of tug-of-war.

In the meantime, for all its benefits, we see the beginnings of the negativities of global tech dominance outweighing those benefits: Populist movements are super-charged through social media and algorithmic content distribution; basic human rights like privacy are undermined by intelligence services and criminals; democracy is under attack through fake news; and human oversight is increasingly replaced by algorithmic decision-making systems that are introduced to save a few bucks.

So it seems to me that we need a two-pronged approach to ever get out of this mess we’re in:

  1. Make sure that the proverbial canaries in the coal mine are heard: The civil society orgs, activists and researchers that explore emerging issues connected to emerging technologies. This means putting them in a position where they can meaningfully contribute their insights: invite them to policy debates, fund them, help them level up their organizational chops.
  2. Create a sort of over-arching framework of governance that allows us to move away from a constant game of whack-a-mole and take a more systemic, structured approach to identifying and approaching issues. A machine that we can slot in those canaries in the coal mine without just hopping from one conflict to another, each time pretending they are not all part of the same, larger underlying structure.

The first part is pretty straightforward (within reason). As starting points, here are two blog posts in which I’ve written about some of those aspects: one, two.

To my own chagrin, however, I have no idea what that over-arching framework might possibly look like. I suspect it needs large-scale, deep investigation: academic research, participatory deliberation, maybe also experimentation.

If you have an inkling, please do share.

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