Regulators must catch up with the speed of technological development - fast!

By John McKinlay
07 Aug 2014 View Comments

The past few years have seen a dramatic rise in the accessibility, speed and cheap supply of technology applications and platforms. The resulting prominence of "apps", mobile computing, robotics and the interconnection of objects and people has changed the way in which we interact with technology. Even by recent standards, things are moving quickly. The regulators of the tech sector are faced with a different set of challenges from those they have experienced when trying to regulate the internet over the past 20 years.

During this explosion of tech development, we have witnessed a trend of regulators and legislators playing catch-up well after technology is "released" onto the market. The mice have grown quicker, smarter and more evasive, while the old cat continues to wait in the same position it has been adopting for the past 20 years, hoping for an easy meal.

A few high-profile examples include:

• Uber challenging the definition of "taximeters" within the meaning of current legislation across the globe;

• Airbnb and its interaction with current local housing laws and regulations;

• Twitter and the clash between freedom of expression and comments that cause offence;

• Bitcoin and the lack of certainty in the applicability of current financial regulations (e.g. money laundering, international transfers, consumer protection); and

• Google Glass presenting a range of new challenges to current legislation including data protection, privacy and intellectual property.

The speed at which technology is developed will continue to increase, while the cost of developing new ideas and sectors will continue to fall. Is it therefore time for a refreshed and more proactive approach to be adopted by regulators to ensure they give themselves as much chance as possible to adequately and fairly legislate (and avoid being blindsided by new releases such as those listed above)?

An encouraging example of where this new approach seems to be taking hold is in autonomous vehicles and machines. The announcement at the beginning of the summer from Chris Urmson, director of Google's "self-driving project", that he expects to see driverless cars on the road within a year, has been a red flag to regulators to start making plans now to avoid playing catch-up at a later stage. On 30 July, UK government ministers ordered a review of the UK's road regulations to provide appropriate guidelines for use of the vehicles on public roads.

Despite the commendable foresight evidenced by such a review, there is certainly no room for regulator-complacency in an area developing at such speed.

What's next? The growth of robotics and autonomous machinery is the next big wave about to hit, and will continue to advance beyond the point where current regulations and legislation have any application.

Predicting which ideas will takeoff and which will fail is not an easy task and regulators cannot be expected to devise clever legislative systems for every scenario and concept that the likes of Google plays around with.

However, an increase in the amount of consultation between rule makers and developers, and an increase in the allocation of resources to the regulation of the tech sector, could herald a new efficiency in rule making and a higher degree of certainty for users, to everyone's benefit.

John McKinlay is partner at DLA Piper. Additional material was provided by Callum Swanson, also of DLA Piper.

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