Legislation and Unintended Consequences

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We were fortunate to have Stephen J. Schultze, the associate director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, join us Friday for the Metzger Open Access Forum. During his talk, Stephen covered a number of topics that affect many of us in the technology and start-up communities, but all too often fly under the radar.

A theme that came up again and again was one of “unintended consequences.” This arises, I believe, from one of two reasons:

  1. As technology becomes more and more a part of our daily lives, legislation becomes more and more complicated. For example, in five years, if my Google Driverless Car is taking me home and crashes, who’s responsible? 
  2. But sadly, too often the unintended consequences come from a lack of understanding on behalf of our lawmakers. Those of us in tech often laugh at the comments our legislators make that show a complete luddite level of understanding, but it’s not funny.

Last year’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is an outstanding example. I certainly don’t support stealing another’s intellectual property or artistic creation (yes, I do pay for my music!), but the consequences of SOPA, had it passed, could have crippled the Internet economy. For example, the law would have given law enforcement the ability to block an entire domain for a single infringing post. Think about that: Amazon could be taken completely offline because one employee (and Amazon has nearly 90,000 employees around the world) posted something that infringed on another’s copyright — even the employee didn’t realize the post was an infringement. That’s a little like six months in lockup for driving 65 in a 55 zone.

As members of the technology community, I would encourage all of us to work to educate our legislators about unintended consequences. Take the time to write an email or sign a petition. In some cases, the intent of legislation is truly unintended. But in other cases, it’s the intent of a legacy industry trying to slip something by elected officials that just plain don’t know any better — or worse, support overreaching legislation that stifles creativity.

There’s a great reading list in Stephen’s slides, posted below, and I’d also encourage you to add his excellent blog, Freedom to Tinker, to your reading list.

Thanks again, Stephen, for joining us at Open Access Forum!

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