Regulating the Future: Harnessing the power of digital citizens

Regulating the Future: Harnessing the power of digital citizens
  • Published Date: 26 October 2017

Regulators across the world are grappling with the challenges posed by technologies, such as artificial intelligence and the internet, as well as the opportunities technology gives them to work more effectively.

ANZSOG’s “Shifting Sands” Regulators Community of Practice Forum held in Melbourne on October 23 gave regulators a chance to share ideas on how to adapt to new technology and the rise of an informed and connected citizenry.

Keynote speaker Professor Alberto Alemanno, from the HEC University in Paris, spoke of the speed of technological change, and its effect both on individuals and society.

He said multinational companies, such as Facebook and Google, had grown rapidly in a climate of low regulation and governments were now trying to work out how, and if, they could be regulated.

“Who is looking at the algorithms, and the underlying modelling that are controlling our lives?” Professor Alemanno asked.

He raised the example of how the outcome of Uber’s algorithm means white middle-class neighbourhoods in Washington DC experience “consistently lower” wait times than poorer areas.

Closing the civic engagement gap

He said that the future of regulation is linked to closing the ‘civic engagement gap’ where too many citizens are effectively shut out of public debate.

Citing examples of a citizen-driven soft drink tax in Mexico, a measure against growing obesity, he said that encouraging the rise of citizen lobbyists was a way to counter the growing influence of corporate lobbyists, who are working to normalize behaviours such as the consumption of alcohol and junk food and marketing to children.

“We need citizens who are willing to complain to make change happen,” he said.

“At a time of growing disenchantment with the democratic system, citizen lobbying transforms mounting distrust into an active democratic virtue. Lobbying should not be a dirty word, it should be for the many not the few.”

The conference heard from a range of young regulators, who outlined what they felt were the key challenges facing them.

Transport Safety Victoria’s Matt D’Abbs warned that regulators will increasingly need to look at how to deal with technologies that replace humans and make potentially dangerous decisions themselves.

He said that three key technological trends— the internet of things, artificial intelligence and wearable technology — all removed human agency from elements of our everyday lives and would change how regulators worked.

He asked how regulators would cope with ‘glitches in the matrix’.

“If a driverless train hits a driverless bus at an autonomous level crossing and kills 30 school children, who is to blame?”

Mr D’Abbs and other regulators also spoke of the potential for technology to make regulation easier to enforce. Things like speed limits, driving licenses and permits could all be handled automatically, and inspectors could visit a workplace remotely.

Regulating a new digital world

The Conference heard that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission was considering ways to regulate emerging digital businesses and looking at the extent of their liability.

They are exploring when and how internet platforms should be made liable which is a complex question, made more complex by the lack of transparency around the algorithms used by technology companies.

Jordan O’Reilly, founder and CEO, of HireUp, an innovative private company which uses tech solutions to empower Australians with disability to find, hire and manage their own support workers, gave a business start-up’s perspective on regulation.

He said that technology was not inherently good or bad, it's how it's put together and the intentions behind it. He said that regulators needed to work with companies in emerging sectors to find the best regulatory path.

“We are wondering at what point do we reach out to regulators and at what point do they reach out to us?” he said.

Regulation is not going to disappear – despite some suggestions that we are in a ‘regulation bubble’ - and the conference provided a valuable forum for over 150 regulators to share their perspectives on this vital, and often unseen, aspect of governance.

Photo: Keynote speaker Professor Alberto Alemanno, from the HEC University in Paris, speaking to forum attendees