Regulatory humility

As governments increase intervention in internet content and services, I wonder if sufficient regulatory humility being applied.

A recent New York Times article noted, “As companies like Google and Facebook grew into giants in the early 21st century, regulators chose largely not to interfere in the still-young market for online services.” The concern was that regulatory intervention could restrict the development of innovative applications and new business models.

What has changed?

Many internet public intellectuals have long advocated for a free and open internet, which many interpreted as supporting a hands-off approach by governments. However, one of my first blog posts, way back in March 2006, looked at an article by Tom Evslin, in saying that he was another voice on “a lonely quest to try to partially tame the anarchy of the internet.a lonely quest to try to partially tame the anarchy of the internet.”

If the Internet is a law-free zone:

  1. Governments can do whatever they want there including spying and blocking. It’s naïve and illogical to think that governments are governed by law in a free fire zone when no one else is.
  2. Monopolies can do whatever they want including blocking competing services.
  3. Malicious people are free to attack not only other sites but the structure of the Internet itself including its routers and domain name servers.
  4. Threats, libel, and fraud gain immunity from investigation and prosecution by being carried out on the Internet.
  5. The Internet becomes a river in which any conspirator can wade to avoid the bloodhounds of law enforcement.
  6. There are no laws PROTECTING privacy in a law-free zone.
  7. SPAM is as legitimate as any other activity.

The past decade and a half changed the way we look at the internet. We are more willing to have law enforcement in the digital world. As I have expressed before, my concern has been how we tailor new laws and how we define new standards of acceptable online behaviour.

We have laws developed for the analog world and a body of jurisprudence in their application. We have witnessed the failures of anti-spam and do not call legislation. Those laws curtailed activities by legitimate businesses but we continue to get nuisance calls and loads of unwanted emails. To an extent, instead of regulatory processes, we apply technology to suppress what the legislation was supposed to curtail. We target spam and malicious software with software in the networks and on our devices. Telecom networks are trying to target nuisance calls with technology.

Still, I wonder if the legislation suffers from over-reach. At the 2017 Canadian Telecom Summit, then FCC Chair Ajit Pai spoke about the need for regulatory humility:

In short, America’s approach to broadband policy will be practical, not ideological. We’ll embrace what works, and dispense with what doesn’t. That means removing barriers to innovation and investment, instead of creating new ones. That means taking targeted action to address real problems in the marketplace, instead of imposing broad preemptive regulations. And that means respecting principles of economics, physics and law, and acting with humility as we regulate one of the most dynamic marketplaces history has ever known. This vision will unleash the massive investments that the digital world demands.

Every regulation, every piece of legislation risks creating harmful unintended consequences. Some regulations can serve as disincentives for investment, slowing down necessary expansion and upgrades to network infrastructure.

These days, it seems Canada’s Parliament never misses an opportunity to wade into some form of telecom regulation. Parliament crafted laws about somewhat trivial issues, apparently believing it can do better than the specialized independent regulator. As a result, there is legislation on the books mandating paper invoices in a digital world. Why isn’t that part of a regulator’s discretion?

A private member’s bill mandates service transparency that is already part of the the Minister’s policy direction. Recall, I recently wrote about risks arising from online harms legislation in various countries.

Politicians looking to score points with intervention in the digital marketplace should carefully reflect on whether new laws are actually needed. What problems are we trying to fix?

A little more regulatory humility goes a long way to minimize unintended consequences.

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