Putting the Regular in Regulation

Another week, another rambling diatribe from your doodle host, me, mason.

If you’re in RVA I imagine you’ve noticed the humidity today. That shift in temp, pressure and moisture usually leads to my least favorite thing in the world: 15+ mph wind. I have no idea if that’s actually how it works – I’m not a meteorologist – get off my case.

Why do I hate wind? I suppose it’s because I am a dumbass that gets in tiny boats from 5-8am with something to prove to myself. This morning I was rowing and battling wind that was unpredictable and difficult to follow. It was hard not to feel pretty powerless. Fast wind brings chop, texture and new dynamics to the stroke. You have to constantly adjust and you never quite get comfortable until it just dies off. But, like most things on the river and I guess life (so poetic), you’re at the mercy of forces beyond your control and all you can do is adjust your heading and technique accordingly.

That brings me to this week’s topic: Big tech and Regulation.

You may have seen some of the hearings this week. It sure seems like there’s a lot of talk and not much legislation now through two administrations. Tech is unprecedented in its pace of change so I’m sure it’s an easy thing for a legislative body with half over the age of 65 to wrap their heads around. (That’s not me trying to be ageist by the way - Watch the hearings and it’s obvious we have a competency problem when talking about technology as a country).

I do like this headline: Yes or no: Are these tech hearings doing anything?
Interesting quote of what’s to come:

“My strategy is you’ll see a number of bills introduced, both because it’s harder for [the tech companies] to manage and oppose, you know, 10 bills as opposed to one,” Cicilline told Axios.”

So what would more strict regulation of our field look like? What could be in these 10 bills? Where is Teddy Roosevelt or Harry Truman??? (Side note - the Truman admin brought an antitrust case to AT&T and it took nearly six years for a consent decree to move forward… and that was only the beginning - the breakup wouldn’t happen until 1982! That’s like 18 iphones!).

I like the grouping outlined by this article in Time and I think playing them back in context of our work is good thought exercise: Big Tech Needs to Be Regulated. Here Are 4 Ways to Curb Disinformation and Protect Our Privacy

I want to focus on two realms of regulation that I believe will have an impact on our work:

There’s a lot that regulators will likely want to target when it comes to safety. Data breaches and identity theft have been a huge issue for the past decade and it’s rarely obvious who gets the bag when things go wrong. Equifax leaked all my data to the world a few years back and I had no recourse!

Obviously keeping data protected and safe is already a responsibility we carry - if we mess up there’s a big risk for us financially.

The other side to safety seems to be centered on the power of algorithms and engagement. This is where I see our work potentially being impacted. While we rarely build these systems - we do tap into them. Who is responsible for knowing how the Publix personalization engine works? If it was somehow deemed unethical or that it was sowing a grocery divide among the country - are we in part responsible for putting a layer on top of it that made it accessible? Personalization, recommendations and automation are often protected by the affordances of section 230. If that is revised you could see a lawsuit spree similar to what we’ve seen with ADA.

Our understanding of the mechanics of these calls might seem trivial now, but if we accidentally cause the water wars of 2022 because the Publix recco engine only offers Dasani coupons to the rich - I’d be pretty bummed.

Also building ethical software that is accessible should be like… mandatory anyways. We can’t build bridges that just dump people into the ocean, why can we get away building software that harms?

Final note on safety: I think this is where section 230 is most dramatically in the crosshairs - and I don’t think it’s a simple removal of the shield that will solve this issue. That shield allowed a lot of startups to explode in the past 20 years and strengthening that rule might actually embolden the Facebooks of the world because it will make it easier for them to pursue threats. More on Section 230.

Oh hey it’s privacy again! My loyal fans know we covered that some weeks ago, shout out to Rick in accounting.

Before I dive in - check this app out: Rita. This was released this week and is the best visualization of personal data I’ve seen yet. It unpacks your facebook and google data profiles and gives you some real insight into what these companies are actually doing.

Some of it is a little scary, some of it is harmless - But I think wading into this topic you have to know what the data actually is. There seems to be lots of hand wringing in politics and the news about DATA with no real concept of what the hell anyone is actually talking about.

What is likely to come is something in the vein of the GDPR, making it mandatory for companies to allow consumers the ability to opt OUT of data tracking, logging, etc. While that approach is kinda toothless as it puts the onus on the consumer - there could be a world where the US strengthens that concept and mandates OPTING IN.

In tactical terms: That would probably be another onboarding screen we would likely have to add to many of our apps a la location. Opt In to data blah blah blah to get the best experience in recommendations or something like that.

For our work we mostly focus in the realm of HOW products are used, not what they are doing between products and services. How comfortable the public is with software tracking remains to be seen - but I don’t see if being legislated against as much as data profiles. If I was a company like Segment I might be sweating a bit though.

Last thought on privacy and algorithms - consumers LOVE recommendation algorithms based on behavior and profiles. The youtube and tik tok algos have resulted in massive apps with huge audiences and are fantastic examples of pulling relevant content for entertaining experiences in the apps.

Has this also resulted in a lot of brainwashing?

Well just ask my younger brother about chemtrails…

I do wonder when the shoe will drop. We’ve had a lot of hearings at his point. Virginia just signed its tech bill. Stuff is moving, albeit glacially in the realm of technology.

There will be changes as a result of this stuff - some smaller (opt in / opt out) some larger (algorithm investigations).

Shockoe is large enough that we work at a scale of client that will care about this but also we are small enough to make changes much faster than some of our competitors (it’s a lot faster for us to update a practice than say… Accenture).

Where can we lead on this stuff? Where can we ask our clients for more transparency? Where can we provide that as an example legislators point to as what should be the standard that regulation aspires to create?

Obviously, doing the right thing should be enough, but in my mind this is one of those situations that doing the right thing ALSO can have a tremendous benefit to us as a shop in terms of thought leadership (ugh I hate that term) and PR. And it takes everyone on projects bringing creative solutions on how to make this happen.

I think a standard “What do you know about me” screen with details (which is where I think Apple’s privacy label falls short) would be kickass and demystify a lot of the fears around tech.

And, with my SECOND sport analogy of the year, the winds are changing and all we can do is change our heading accordingly or get blown over. If you want to know what getting blown over is like, ask the list of our clients who have been through ADA lawsuits…