Governments can’t handle tech regulation. It’s time for companies to take over

As anxiety mounts about the risks we face from driverless cars, artificial intelligence, and social media, it is increasingly common to hear calls for regulation, not only from legislators, but also from the corporate titans that are inventing our future.

What we don’t hear nearly enough, however, is the call to invent the future of regulation. And that’s a problem.

Our existing regulatory tools, like the online terms and conditions that we all blithely accept, and the complex regulations that government bureaucracies pile on, are not up to the task. They are not fast enough, smart enough, or accountable enough to achieve what we want them to achieve, whether that’s greater privacy, data security, or personal safety. And they are too expensive for most people to rely on.

For example, it may be too early to tell, but if the avalanche of new “click to agree” boxes on webpages in response to the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation is any indication, the effective impact on user privacy and control is going to be small because people still don’t know what they’re agreeing to. It will also be costly for individual consumers to monitor and challenge in court what corporations are actually doing with their data.

A key reason that our regulatory tools are growing so useless is that we have not devoted the same funding, energy, or time to updating the way we develop regulation as we have to developing new technologies. We continue to rely on tools invented to manage the economies and societies of the 19th and 20th century, tools that are badly out of step with the 21st.

So how do we build the systems we need to cope with and regulate the new economic and social challenges we are facing?

The key is to harness the same creativity and inspiration that built Facebook and other tech giants to build the regulatory systems of the digital age, rewarding for-profit and nonprofit innovators who can come up with better regulatory tools.

I call this “super-regulation.” It’s “super” because it elevates governments out of the business of legislating the ground-level details and into the business of making sure that a new competitive market of private regulators operates in the public interest.

Photo: Reuters/Nicky Loh