Legislation and ethics in the Allternet

In 1935, Edwin Armstrong introduced his employers at RCA to his new radio broadcasting technology, Frequency Modulation. His employers saw FM as a legitimately groundbreaking technology, a massive improvement to existing broadcast systems, but also a disruptive innovation to their existing business models and their status quo. For the next 19 years, they lobbied government and fought successfully in the courts against the technology, driving Armstrong to poverty and extreme hardship.

A new technological ecosystem provides both opportunities and challenges for a society and to those interested in retaining the incumbent technological infrastructures. Those challenges are often legal in nature, partly because the law is a powerful mechanism of control and prevention of change – but also because by disrupting the ways in which we communicate, behave and make use of information, we often create case scenarios that lie outside those imagined as possible at the time the relevant laws are written. As a result, these challenges need to be identified, negotiated and managed if the disruptive technologies are to be harnessed for the good of society.

Legislation frameworks need to support innovation for the greater good. However, in order for innovation to take place, transgression of the letter of the law is often inevitable. That does not mean that ethical issues such as privacy, safety, fairness and the agency of individuals can be ignored – quite the opposite. Where legislation does not reflect the realities of the new technological environment, fairness and the interests of the greater good are often set at odds against the legal infrastructure of the status quo.

Innovations should be tested in terms of their capacity for emancipatory potential – not simply for economic stakeholders but for the participation of all stakeholders and citizens. The Swedish concept of ‘lagom’ (just enough) provides a useful guiding principle for business enterprise in the field. While there is clear urgency to innovate, invest and exploit in the field of IoT, a rapacious ‘gold rush’ mentality will do more harm than good.

Experiments with IoT need to consider perennial ethical principles – in terms of privacy, security, equality, labour exploitation, protection of the vulnerable, and so on – but it’s important to understand that the legal aspects and normative values have to be considered and reflected upon at a very early stage in the design and implementation cycle. IoT innovation is currently in its early experimental stage, but already it is challenging existing frameworks and regulatory systems that were designed to operate within a different ecosystem.

Dialogue between innovators and legislators needs to be ongoing, and focus on the ethical ‘first principles’ from which the laws arise, rather than from the rules themselves. Disruptive innovation will often be transgressive by nature, but it need not be at odds with what is good for society, culture and the economy.

Once again, Uber provides us with a very good case in point. The service is actively breaking new ground and as a result new legislations are already needed. London cab drivers traditionally require years of training and testing in “the knowledge” but that registration and testing process is seemingly made redundant by technological advances that use GPS. Arguably, the principle (safe passage, good service and fair prices to customers) still applies, but the mandated mechanism that ensures that principle (the knowledge) is no longer strictly required.

As a case study Uber is useful from an ethical and social perspective within the context of European policy. While Uber is massively disruptive, it has also been shown to be open to misuse of information and unethical practice by staff of the service. This is problematic because it adheres to a logic of capital that, like the industry it seeks to disrupt, prioritises the maximisation of shareholder return over social good.

It’s important for IoT innovation to begin from a moral, ethical and legal standpoint, as information carries legal, moral and ethical values and affordances – and especially because IoT technologies provide for communication without the immediate mediation of a human actor – even though that information may be used in a way that directly affects human experience.

Within Europe, we have, right at this moment, a unique opportunity at a time of significant change to engineer significant technological disruption in the interest of the greater societal good, and balance that interest with the need to incentivise innovation and investment in the IoT space. To do so requires that we favour ethics and the social good over the specific requirements of legislation that may no longer be entirely fit for purpose. In the case of Uber, while providing ethical and legal challenges, which need to be addressed, its model is also predicated on the idea that the company makes money if the drivers make money. In this respect, as a profit sharing participatory system, it also provides a case study in economic innovation.

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