Here are some notes on regulatory issues that are beginning to cause concern. Please send me further information and articles etc. which might help other readers keep track of developments.
CRISPR technology is now widely available. A Mississippi dog breeder has been given permission to use gene editing to fix a mutation that makes Dalmations prone to kidney disease. The US FDA is trying to keep abreast of the technology without stifling innovation. But future biohackers may have less acceptable objectives, including terrorism.
Lots of interesting issues here. Autonomous vehicles seem certain to be much safer (on average) than those controlled by humans. But will we hold them to higher standards? In particular:
- Who will be blamed if a half-asleep driver fails to intervene to avoid a collision caused by a mistake made by another driver?
- Should the algorithms provide that the life of the vehicle's driver should be sacrificed if that is necessary to avoid killing, say, several pedestrians - or just one - who was jaywalking - but only five years old?
Follow this link to read about the psychology involved in our attitude to Risk and Regulation.
Bitcoin and other Crypto-Currencies
Decentralized digital currencies, which use blockchain technology, feel like they are only a small and attractive step from where we are now.
Apart from my share in our house and car, all my significant assets are represented by bits and bytes in the IT systems of various financial institutions. I trust those institutions, of course, partly because they are so heavily regulated, and backed by the Government in the form of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. But then I think about the financial crisis, and the way in which the true value of my financial assets is affected by interest rates and inflation, over which I have zero control. I remember all too clearly how the value of my financial assets fell by nearly one-fifth following the Brexit referendum.
Crypto-currencies, too, are no-more than bits and bytes, but they are registered in a peer-to-peer database that is controlled by no-one and with which no-one can meddle. That can't be bad. On the other hand, their value, too, currently fluctuates wildly in response to real world events such as Brexit.
The key difference, I guess, is that Bitcoin and the rest are truly international. Unlike Sterling, the Dollar or the Remnimbi, they are not linked to any one country or influenced by any one government. If their use continues to grow, will governments seek to regulate them or their users? And could they succeed? Many say not.
Companies such as Google/YouTube, Facebook, Airbnb and Uber benefit from strong network effects - the phenomenon through which their services become increasingly attractive as more people use them, to the extent that it becomes near impossible for any other company to compete - or for governments to challenge them. They inevitably become under less pressure to remain efficient, or to innovate, or to be good corporate citizens.
They also share the American 'see you in court' approach to regulation. Regulation, they believe, is for 'the guidance of wise men and the observance fools'. Uber, for instance, is said to have 'tended to barrel into new markets by flouting local laws, part of a combative approach to expand globally'. According to the New York Times, Uber developed an app which ensured that city officials were not able to book a car and so scrutinise the service. The Times called them the 'Predators of the internet who do as they please'. Facebook certainly seemed unperturbed when it was fined €110m (£94m) by the EU for providing misleading information about its 2014 takeover of WhatsApp.
The companies' huge size and international reach certainly make it near impossible for any individual regulator to tackle them with any prospect of success, partly because their businesses are so complex and partly because their resources enable them to out-gun all but the most persistent and well-funded regulators.
There is a related issue in that Google/YouTube, Facebook, Twitter etc. claim to be mere platforms, passively hosting content that they are unwilling to assess. In practice, their algorithms to some extent choose what their readers see, and the companies are financed by advertising, much like traditional media companies. They distribute fake news and other attention-grabbing content, regardless of its quality, veracity or decency, including material which encourages terrorism. It is well established that detailed guides showing how to make nail bombs, and ricin poison are freely available on Facebook and YouTube. The companies claim that it would be too technically complex to tackle the problem, but this is unconvincing. They have shown themselves to be adept at addressing copyright violation when it suits them. And there is no obvious reason reason why they should be exempt from the 'free speech' limitations that apply to the rest of us, and to other media companies.
But they can and do deploy the strong argument that any restriction of their behaviour threatens their customers' right to free speech - a dilemma neatly summarised in the cartoon opposite.
The FT carried this interesting report in in April 2017:
Facebook blamed human error for its failure to remove dozens of images and videos depicting child pornography after they were flagged to the company. The Times newspaper reported that it had alerted the social media giant, using a dummy Facebook profile, to potentially illegal content that was posted on to its website by users, including images of an allegedly violent sexual assault on a child and cartoons of child abuse. The British newspaper accused Facebook of failing to remove many of the images but the company said this was because of human oversight and that its reviewers should have spotted that the content should be removed. ...“We are always looking for other ways to use automation to make our work easy, but ultimately content review is manual,” said Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook in a past interview with the Financial Times.
This is a clear admission of failure of quality control. I have no doubt that most media organisations would have run into severe trouble - and probably been prosecuted - if they had behaved like Facebook. But I am not aware that any formal action has yet been taken against the company.
Later that month, a man killed his daughter and then himself whilst live-streaming his actions on Facebook Live. Again, the company's attitude seemed to be that its customers' wish to view live video outweighed any moral or other pressure that the content should be pre-approved. Presumably nothing will change unless and until someone prominent is killed by someone seeking Facebook fame.
The company had previously streamed a video which showed that a man chose 74 year old Robert Godwin Snr at random and then shot him.
Evan Williams — a Twitter founder and co-creator of Blogger — was reported as follows in 2017:-
“I think the internet is broken ... And it’s a lot more obvious to a lot of people that it’s broken.” People are using Facebook to showcase suicides, beatings and murder, in real time. Twitter is a hive of trolling and abuse that it seems unable to stop. Fake news, whether created for ideology or profit, runs rampant. Four out of 10 adult internet users said in a Pew survey that they had been harassed online. “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Mr. Williams says. “I was wrong about that.”
It must be irritating (to use a mild word) for the established media to watch Facebook and others publish material which would lead to others being brought low. Imagine what would happen if the BBC decided that they would allow the public to broadcast murders and suicides live on one of their channels!
Optimists suggest that the companies' consumers may become a sort of regulator if they begin to desert the platforms in protest against their content or behaviour. But there is little sign of this happening, and many users are in effect locked into the products as a result of the strong network effects mentioned above.
Maybe the EU will collectively be strong enough to take the companies on, encouraged by Germany which has a tradition of strong form-based regulation.
Artificial Intelligence may one day be the answer, but it cannot at present distinguish between the the video of the of murder of Robert Godwin and that of a fatal shooting by a police officer - which surely should be made available to the public.
There is also the danger that algorithmic news poses a risk to democracy as 1.2 billion daily Facebook users, for instance, mainly listen to louder echoes of their own voices - the so-called filter bubble. But Facebook’s relatively modest efforts to curb misinformation have been met with fury on the right, with Breitbart and The Daily Caller fuming that Facebook had teamed up with liberal hacks motivated by partisanship. If Facebook were to take more significant action, like hiring human editors, creating a reputational system or paying journalists, the company would instantly become something it has long resisted: a media company rather than a neutral tech platform. Facebook’s personalisation of its news feeds would perhaps be less of an issue if it were not crowding out every other source – but as a result it is at least clear that Facebook must be responsible for finding solutions to its problems.
The Home Affairs Select Committee published a report on Hate Crime in early 2017. The committee strongly criticised social media companies for failing to take down and take sufficiently seriously illegal content – saying they were "shamefully far" from taking sufficient action to tackle hate and dangerous content on their sites. The Committee recommended that the Government should assess whether failure to remove illegal material is in itself a crime and, if not, how the law should be strengthened. They recommended that the Government should also consult on a system of escalating sanctions to include meaningful fines for social media companies which fail to remove illegal content within a strict time frame.
Note: The 'Big Four' technology giants - Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet (i.e. Google & YouTube) and Netflix - were valued on Wall Street at around $1.5 trillion in May 2017.
The Gig Economy
Information technology is facilitating new ways of ordering goods and services to be delivered to the door, including books (and much more) from Amazon, taxis (in particular from Uber), food etc. (from supermarkets), and meals (Deliveroo etc.).This is to be welcomed. (See for instance 'The Ridesharing Revolution' .) But it is also facilitating new ways of employing those who prepare and deliver those goods and services. They can be required to enter into contracts under which
- they must purchase their own vans and equipment (although it is provided or specified by the 'employer'),
- they have no guaranteed work (zero hours contracts),
- they are not paid, and are sometimes responsible for providing cover, when sick or on holiday.
These arrangements can be tax efficient for both 'employer' and 'employee' and they suit many individuals very well. But the government's attempts to remove the excessive tax benefits also catch the genuinely self-employed, who arguably do deserve the tax breaks. And it is far from clear that the one-sided contracts are in the long term interests of the individuals or society.
See also my web page commenting on weaknesses in HMRC.
There is a bit of a theme running through some of the above issues. Modern technologies and algorithms cut costs and facilitate activities (such as internet searches and autonomous driving) which would otherwise be impossible. But they remove human involvement from the decision-making. For algorithms, all decisions are binary:- a big contrast (in the UK at least) from our tradition of having law enforcement moderated by human police officers, jury-members and judges. Katia Moskvitich commented, with some force, that 'our society is built on a bit of contrition here, a bit of discretion there'. Follow this link for a further discussion of this subject.
And then there is the related issue that algorithms are written by humans, who will almost certainly (though accidentally) import their own false assumptions, generalisations, biases and preconceptions. How easy is it to challenge decisions made by such algorithms?
We have all grown up believing that, although our physical behaviour can easily be constrained and dominated by others, our minds, thoughts, beliefs and convictions are to a great extent beyond external constraint. As John Milton said "Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind". But advances in neural engineering, brain imaging and neuro-technology mean that the mind may soon not be such an unassailable fortress. Elon Musk and others are developing tools such as
- brain computer interfaces,
- lie detectors that use brain scanning to achieve very high success rates,
- brain scans that predict recidivism rates for offenders, and
- ways of altering memories.
This suggests that we will, at the very least, require improvements to laws around data analysis and collection. But some scientists argue that human rights law will need to be updated to take into account the ability of governments not only to peer into people's minds but also alter them.
Protecting Key Infrastructure
Remember the stories about the Russian hacking of Western databases, and the Stuxnet attack on Iranian nuclear industry centrifuges? Much Western infrastructure is nowadays in private hands, so whose responsibility is it to defend it? Government is understandably reluctant to take on such a massive task, but industry is understandably unwilling to foot the bill. The answer, in the UK at least, is that the owners of designated Critical National Infrastructure have a legal duty to safeguard it, advised and monitored by the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure or the National Cyber Security Centre.