Global Leaders Debate Regulating the Internet – It’s no Surprise that Industry Players are Concerned

Internet security, privacy, safety, copyright piracy, and regulations have been a key topic in meetings this week for leaders of the G8 countries and key industry players. (The G8 includes the top global leaders from France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the U.S., Canada, Russia, and representation by the EU).

Hosted by France, and presided over by President Sarkozy, the discussions are reported  to at times be contentious as companies bristle at many of the regulatory suggestions. In a speech before top executives from Google, Facebook, Amazon, eBay and others, Sarkozy spoke to the need to maintain openness and support entrepreneurial  development, but added “The universe you represent is not a parallel universe. Nobody should forget that governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies. To forget this is to risk democratic chaos and anarchy” according to the article.

According to the New York Times article, Eric E. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, voiced his concerns over regulations suggesting that technology, rather than regulation, could take care of many of the challenges facing the Internet. “Before we decide there is a regulatory solution, let’s ask if there’s a technological solution,” he said. “We will move faster than any of these governments, let alone all of them together.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Schmidt that the industry moves faster than any government; this is actually the crux of the issue.

By moving faster than governments (that is to say, representatives elected by the people to protect our interests) internet companies have placed consumers in a position where location tracking, data mining of consumers’ personal information, and other technologies have significantly impacted our rights without first going through a due consideration process that would outline what should or should not be allowed. Wouldn’t it have been nice to get a vote on the subject? See my blog The Commercial Internet Just Turned 16 – And like Teens it Needs a  Little More Supervision.

While the lack of regulatory oversight has increased the speed of internet development, it has also created a world where a handful of companies could ignore our established privacy, safety and security norms for their own profit.

It is comments like these, and a few company’s headlong rush to deploy de facto standards before consumers – or their representative bodies, our governments – can object that have brought us to the place we are today. By cutting corners and chasing money they have trampled consumer rights, delivered products that do a very poor job of protecting consumers, and implemented shoddy security measures that fail to protect sensitive consumer data.

To be clear, there are many socially conscious and responsible companies that are respectful of the consumers they serve.  If these companies were setting the industry standards, the need for governments or other regulatory bodies to do so may have been non-existent.  It is the irresponsible companies that need to be reined in, and they surely will not do this of their own accord or they would have done so already.

Mr. Schmidt’s comment of “Before we decide there is a regulatory solution, let’s ask if there’s a technological solution,” is flawed.  To be meaningful the question must be, before creating a technological solution, let’s ask if there are ethical, privacy, safety, or security issues that should be defined first.

Oversight helps us collectively grapple with the ethical questions of ‘should’s and should-nots’ so that the entire focus is not just with the ‘can and cannots’, and corporate profit. For example, the scientific community took the time to discuss the ethical issues of cloning, and the acceptable parameters for cloning before rushing into development of something very hard to undo – liked cloned humans. This allowed boundaries to be set in advance for what was, and was not acceptable in this field.

There is humility in the reflective evaluation process that is largely lacking in our current market-driven, no holds barred, rush-forward internet world.

The question isn’t can we store every piece of data about an individual. It’s whether the ability to collect and store every piece of information about an individual should be permissible and if so, under what terms and controls. We need to discuss what safety requirements should be required to have in place within internet products and services for consumers – and this should happen before products are developed, not after tremendous damage has been done.

For all the great forward progress the industry has made in the 16 years it has existed as a commercial entity, the mighty dollar has been their beacon. See my blog The Commercial Internet Just Turned 16 – And like Teens it Needs a Little More Supervision.

To successfully move forward in a way that allows consumer to truly leverage the internet, we must balance profits with safety, security, privacy, and ethics. Some industry players have shown this is something they are unwilling or unable to do in a self-regulated model. The oversight therefore must be the voice of the consumers and citizens, through that body of elected officials we’ve charged with regulating areas to protect our interests.

Until the safeguards we need are in place, take a lesson from the people behind the biggest information sharing services.  Have you noticed that those espousing the new ‘expose-all norm’ take pains to protect their own information and privacy? If these guys aren’t willing to put their own information where their mouth is, it’s time to consider why.

Perhaps the guiding privacy principle should be always share less about your private life than Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt or Scott McNealy.



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