Larry Niven, an American science-fiction writer once wrote that “ethics change with technology.”
Tech giants like Google, Facebook, Uber and Airbnb are proving this true and have entered unchartered policy territory where ethics debates, grey-areas and government relations are the daily norm.
Silicon Valley is quenching our thirst for technology that makes our lives easier and more convenient. It is systematically disrupting almost every established industry it touches. The launch of the iWatch is yet another example of Apple’s attempt at revolutionizing an established industry, only time will tell if it can do it again.
But as Uncle Ben once said (the Spiderman guy, not the rice guy) “with great power, comes great responsibility,” and in the case of almost every one of Silicon Valley’s most popular names, it also comes with its fair share of stress.
Take Google and Mercedes-Benz’s self-driving cars, slated to launch between next year and 2020. Who’s to blame when one of those vehicles gets into an accident? What happens if two driverless vehicles got into an accident!?
On the housing and hotel end of policy, Airbnb struggles with the challenges of severely varied local legislation; should its service be treated the same as a hotel’s? If so, should customers be paying hotel taxes?
Uber’s spat of bad PR where a young woman in India alleged she was sexually assaulted by an Uber driver in December of 2014 triggered protests against the company, not to mention the plethora of cab companies across Europe and North America who are lobbying aggressively to shut down and/or regulate the service that is challenging business as usual.
Consumer drones are raising privacy concerns, while live-streaming apps like Meerkat and Periscope are raising broadcast, patent and reproduction problems.
Almost every major widely used tech apparatus has sent policy makers scrambling to come up with new legislation and regulation measures to respond to questions that have never before been asked in our recent history.
One fact remains clear: Darwin’s theory of evolution is playing out right before our eyes and those responsible for natural selection are each and every one of us — a.k.a the market — and that’s a good thing.
While the seeming nuisance of having to deal with all these new policy implications all at once may seem cumbersome, the economic benefits and progress that has been made far outweigh the work. Progress takes time and effort, our history has shown us that from the introduction of every disruptive technology to date.
The only reason why these questions and public policy concerns come up in the first place is because such companies have gained critical mass consumption with their products. Our raging appetite for technology that makes our lives more connected and convenient is sustaining and fortifying the new economy.
The debate about privacy often arises when Facebook rolls out new policy, yet our consumption of camera phones, photography drones and digital payment processing is indicating that we’re cool with technology as long as it doesn’t air our dirty laundry, without our permission.
The fine line and grey areas that Silicon Valley must walk become more and more complex as their global scope increases. What happens when Google’s corporate policy to promote freedom of expression online conflicts with the likes of China or Saudi Arabia, countries that seek to limit access to the site or attempt to regulate what content is accessible?
With user bases that far supersede the populations of most countries, technology companies are finding themselves responsible for more than advertising sales and marketing, they’re becoming responsible for shaping the laws of the future and thus, shaping culture and civilization as we know it.
In-house policy officials are responsible for making decisions and judgment calls on sticky subject matter that could trigger widespread repercussions; from upsetting a foreign government to connecting the most remote regions of the Earth to the internet for the very first time.
The world hasn’t seen this much policy change since the introduction of the motor vehicle and it will be up to policy schools and policy leaders to ensure that consumer’s rights and privacy are protected while promoting innovation and an open-internet. The time to unify government priorities with technology, update outdated curriculums and hire experienced professionals in policy, has never been more necessary than the present.
I would build on Larry’s quote that “everything, changes with technology.” It’s up to us to determine what that change is going to look like.