Environment, privacy, net-neutrality, myspace, Google and regulation…

Bit of a rant this….. 

Al Gore has done a fabulous job of highlighting environmental issues, especially in the US. I’m yet to see his movie, but I will. While at university in the 1980’s, a common bumpersticker on a battered student chariot was “my other car is a Porsche”, today it is probably “my other car is a Prius” The more people are aware of the problems we face, the more likely things are to change. Here in Germany, we are big on recycling, green power and so on, but there is much more we could do.

This post is not about the physical environment though, it is about  our on-line one. As we all know, Al invented the Internet, so it is aposite that I try to bring his enviro concepts into the web world. Other than using a lot of clean power (see Carr’s post on googles powerplant),  information companies don’t create environmental damage, do it? Well actually they do, but in a different way.

Just as smokestack industries, cars etc damage the analogue environment, in the  digital world spam, fraud, bugs, on-line child porn, online stalking and grooming, identity theft and privacy intrusions threaten our quality of life.  Technology creates new threats , and sometimes makes real world ills easier to perpetrate.

I’m glad that Karl Benz built the first car. (Actually his first factory was in the village where I live, Ladenburg) I’m also glad that the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety act was passed in the US, despite the opposition of the car industry 

Information companies create injuries to our privacy, either intentionally, perhaps through carelessness, or  because the tools they use aren’t up to the job, or because market forces drive them to do so.  Read this paper by hirsch,  Dean and law prof at Columbia. He applies the concepts of negative externality and the tragedy of the commons to the privacy issue. Clever stuff.

Vinnie led me to Eric Keller, who posted recently on data theft and the responsibilities of software vendors. He is bang on middle stump. (cricketing metaphor for correct) The issue is brought into a much starker context by the terrible mySpace case.

Information and software companies face relatively little regulation. All of us are driven to build applications and offer solutions that the market demands.  We build software to obey laws, but only when we perceive a market demand for those solutions, for example SOX, or IFRS.

As the digital world becomes more and more vital to our personalities, our jobs, friendships, thoughts, politics and  beliefs should the web and the vast databases of information about us be determined solely by short term shareholder value?   

As consumers and users of technology, we are like 18 year olds buying our first car. All we want is horsepower and a pimped ride, seat belts are a big girls blouse. If the seatbelt was an option, we wouldn’t order it. I think lawyers call this  Volenti non fit injuria

The ongoing issue of net neutrality illustrates clearly that information companies depend on regulatory frameworks,  They need the US government to insure that the net remains free, and not controlled by the telcos, at least this is what rocketboom in her Volvo and others tell us.  The free market alone will not protect those freedoms it seems. Shock horror, Google and co are asking for regulation. rightly so, in my view.

Also recently Google, Microsoft Ebay and others have called for federal privacy legislation. This is a sign that the information companies are beginning to realise that privacy is worth protecting. See John Palfrey  and Edwards for more on this.

This is not out of altruism. Google, just like a carbon emissions producer, wants to know its boundaries. 

Personally I’d like to see a stronger legal obligation on the makers of our online world to build it safely. When I buy my kids a toy, or put them in a car in the real world, regulation helps me insure that they  are safe. When they go online into myspace or wherever, I should demand the same. I would be failing them as a parent if I didn’t.

The world’s leading manufacturers have realised, mainly after significant government and societal cohersion that they have a responsibility to protect and nurture our planet.  Software vendors and Information companies have a responsibility to protect and nurture our digital environment especially where it interacts with our analogue lives.

The industry should  build safer, better, cleaner, privacy aware applications, or governments and citizens will rightly demand that we do.  If we are to ride faster and further on Al Gore’s information highway, lets build safer cars. Building privacy and safety into our digital world is not easy, it will be expensive, and inconvenient, but worth it.

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8 thoughts on “Environment, privacy, net-neutrality, myspace, Google and regulation…

  1. Just like you said, safety online will be a challenge (that’s not to say we shouldn’t try). Some of these questions and safety implementations will imply some sort of “moral compass,” with which many on the net will struggle to agree on. Anytime you draw a line in the sand, someone is bound to get a little snarky.

  2. great post …I used toi think software quality was one of the industry’s “pollution” issues but data privacy is clearly a major one now…I see common folks doing unnatural acts to avoid technology or to protect against the lack of protection…

  3. John,
    I’m not sure it is a moral compass isssue that I’m on about here. In the real world, there is tort and consumer protection laws to protect us from products that cause harm.

    Product Liability is a concept all makers of phyisical goods understand and manage for. We need similar but different concepts in the digital world. The myspace case is likely to be repeated if we dont.

  4. fair enough. Now for a different question (completely unrelated) – my knees are starting to show their age and running won’t be as practical for the long haul – I may need to hear about these “expensive bicycle” components you tout in your subtitle. . .where are they?🙂

  5. Anyone else having bother with myspace or is it just my pc?
    Last couple of days it seems it wont let me download any song from anywhere.
    Anyone having same bother – or anyone how to sort it?

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