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Precrime Regulation of Internet Innovation


In the sci-fi movie Minority Report, a ‘precrime’ police unit relies on the visions of psychics to predict future crimes, then arrests the potential perpetrators before they do anything wrong.  In the world of Internet governance, the future is now, as regulators want online services to predict and prevent safety threats before they actually occur.

Online child safety is a hot topic at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) this week in Lithuania, where I attended a workshop on those new location-based services that allow users to publish their mobile phone location info to their parents or social network pages (think: Foursquare, Loopt, and Facebook Places). 

According to some privacy advocates and lawmakers, the precrime problem here is that location data might be seen by someone with bad intentions.  In the name of protecting children, panelists here favor a policy framework that would require innovators to clear new location-based services with regulators before making them available to users. 

Think of the irony with this regulatory approach. Lawmakers are not likely to predict all the ways that bad people can abuse a good service, and regulatory approvals are notoriously slow and inflexible.  On the other hand, Internet innovation is marked by rapid development of new services and quick reactions to fine-tune new features or fix unexpected problems. For example:

  • When Google rolled out its “Buzz” social networking product, users and privacy advocates responded quickly and vociferously to features that exposed information without appropriate notice and user control. Within days, Google changed the way the service worked and gave users more control.
  • And when the privacy lobby criticized Facebook’s privacy practices, the social-networking giant responded within days by unveiling new privacy controls that allowed users to fine-tune their info sharing and what advertisers see about them.

Contrast the speed of these changes with the average time it takes to pass a new law, or – since these problems are global – with the time it takes to negotiate an international treaty.   The fastest solution to the problems raised by technological innovation usually comes in the form of more technological innovation.

Earlier this week at IGF, White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin said that one of the best aspects of the Internet is how it enables innovation without permission.

Innovators treasure this ability to experiment, and in return, know that they must quickly find solutions when their innovations cause unintended consequences for users. They get that innovation without permission does not mean innovation without responsibility.  And online services should improve their design and testing methods so that there are fewer post-release problems to deal with.

But surely we don’t want to require developers to seek permission before innovating. As a Swiss government official said at IGF today:

Maybe for some functions you need an ex-ante regulation that is proscriptive.  For other functions you let people act and then if something bad happens, you have an ex-post regulation.    –Thomas Schneider, Switzerland’s rep at the Council of Europe and ICANN.

More sage advice came from young people – the anticipated victims of precrimes that might use location-based info. Joonas Makinen of the Youth Coalition on Internet Governance told the IGF, "It is better to focus on fighting ignorance and building digital literacy than applying safety strategies based on restriction."

At the end of Minority Report, the precrime unit is shut down, but only after it had ruined many lives with faulty predictions.  Before online precrime advocates gather too much steam, I suggest we take a scene out of their own movie, and shut them down before they begin.

–Steve DelBianco