A March 26 article I read in USA Today amplified an impression I’ve had for several years — that regulation of technology presents challenges I honestly don’t see our current law-making process [and certainly not the average profile of person currently in office] capable of handling effectively.
The new law about which the article was written has been dubbed the CLOUD act. It was one of the many “earmarks” inserted into the massive $1.3 trillion spending package passed last week. Its purpose seems innocuous enough, and on the surface, logical — to simplify the process for the U.S. government and its allies to get evidence of serious crimes and terrorist threats when that evidence is stored on a server in another country.
I’m happy to see efforts to replace laws that technology has long-since made obsolete. The CLOUD Act is an attempt to update a 32-year-old law that was passed before the World Wide Web existed. That obsolete law, the Stored Communications Act, is the subject of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court — a case that is now moot because of Congress’ approval of this new law.
However, detractors of this particular law make some interesting points that suggest we are probably in store for many unforeseen consequences that will stem from it. Consider, for example, these observations:
- The law could make it easier for nations with human rights abuses to spy on dissidents and collect data on Americans who communicate with foreign nationals.
- The law allows foreign governments to wiretap on American soil, using standards that don’t comply with U.S. law, and gives the executive branch the power to enter into agreements with other nations without congressional approval [from a joint letter to Congress from several civil liberties groups].
- Twenty-four groups said the law permits foreign police agencies to obtain information about people in the United States without having to follow the search-and-seizure rules imposed by the U.S. Constitution, and that it could give foreign governments access to information they could use to torture their opponents.
I’m sure there are or will be arguments about these observations, but my point in listing them here isn’t to endorse these specific assertions. My purpose in listing them is that whether they are 100% accurate or not, they bring visibility to the concept of unintended consequences in the context of regulation in general, and specifically [and I believe, peculiarly] regulation of technology.
If I tie my impressions as I read this article with similar items in media coverage over the past several years [at what feels to me to be a rapidly-increasing frequency], my general disdain for the competency of our current elected leaders to effectively deal with regulatory challenges in technology is potentially becoming greater than that for their competency to effectively deal with our unsustainable fiscal path. Consider these technological challenges:
- Drones. Getting a grip on licensing needs, and knowledge that should be required of those seeking licenses, is progressing much less quickly than the technology itself.
- The problems FaceBook is facing, as evidenced by its recent stock slide and two items in the media just this week … Facebook ads apologize for Cambridge Analytica scandal [3/26/18] and Facebook falls on the ropes, stunned by heavy backlash: FTC to probe potential misuse of personal data [3/27/18], both in USA Today.
- Technical restraints that attempts at Gun Control and Immigration Reform legislation have exposed. Observing media coverage of arguments on both sides of these issues makes it clear that our capacity to implement something as simple as better background checks is limited to a considerable extent by antiquated and disjointed systems controlled by many different agencies at various levels of government.
- Cyber warfare that is clearly going on. It’s difficult to access any media coverage in any medium on any given day without being keenly aware that we do not have a handle on this issue — and that we are by no means leaders either in capitalizing on the underlying technologies or in defending ourselves against those who have done so more effectively.
- Robocalls. Anybody who has ever registered with the FTC’s Do Not Call registry knows that this feeble attempt at regulation was nothing more than a way for politicians to say they “did something about this issue.” An article just this week revealed just how massive a problem this is and how far behind regulators are in dealing with it [FCC approves plan to cut down on millions of pesky robocalls, USA Today, 3/27/18].
- Autonomous vehicles. Read/listen/watch any media source on any given day to see this as yet another example of regulation trailing technology.
So be on the look out for many unintended consequences and after-bad-things-happen / didn’t-see-that-coming adjustments! Or as the title of this post suggests, Civi, Caveo! [Citizen, Beware!].
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Charles M. Jones