On Regulation

Last week Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon is preparing draft legislation to present to the US Congress on how to regulate its own facial recognition software.

Thanks to the work of numerous academics and activists, issues around surveillance technology are increasingly infiltrating the mainstream political debate.

Too often however, the fallback approach of politicians is to cow before complexity and cede the intricacies of regulation to the tech firms themselves.

As the 24 hour news cycle repeatedly regurgitates terrifying stories of particular privacy breaches, our reaction is one of indignation, and then of resignation – a fatalistic adjustment to the inevitable reality of technological wonder in the 21st century.

This perception has led the data debate down a singularly worrying path.

Whilst commentators pick up on individual issues – algorithmic bias, privacy infringement, electoral manipulation etc. – the responsibility for realigning technology with social values falls squarely on the shoulders of private corporations.

Amazon’s Rekognition software is a case in point. We are relying on a private company to ensure its technology works in the best interests of citizens. At best, subsequent legislation will create Trojan Horse regulations that medicate the symptoms of a data-for-profit system. It will not deal adequately with the incentive structure at the root of this extraction imperative.

Yes Facial Recognition Technology must be regulated, but equally important is who is doing the regulating.

As Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of Congress last year showed all too well, States are wildly deficient when it comes to understanding, let alone controlling, the invasive power of data-driven technology.

Yet if the power of data is going to be channelled for emancipatory ends, regulation must be democratically designed, transparent and accountable.

To do this effectively, we must reverse the brain-drain of the public sphere, and reclaim proactive power for democratic representatives.

If we fail to articulate the possibility of a democratic alternative, then stories like this one will only serve to reinforce a one-dimensional and deterministic narrative of how technology develops.

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