Catching child killers and other problems good tech regulation can help to solve

Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

There seems to be a simple solution to find out who killed the British teenager, Lucy McHugh.

If Facebook would unlock the account of a key suspect, police would have information to help them find out who assaulted and murdered the 13-year-old girl. The man in question has already been jailed for failing to share his password with investigators.

Again, it seems a case of a tech giant having no regard for a crime where it’s possible its platform provided a link between a perpetrator and a victim. Headlines are filled with a grieving mother’s desperation and a police chief’s fury.

We want tech companies to show that they have some regard for society — to show they bear civic responsibility and will work with the authorities to help address injustice.

But we also want tech companies to play by the rules — headlines are often also filled with outrage at tech companies’ tax evasion or disregard for data abuse.

The problem is, in this and many other instances, the rules can’t cope with Facebook — or indeed many other technologies.

So who decides?

The police need to go through a process of requesting information held under US jurisdiction that takes ‘an inordinate amount of time’. The system is clogged up because authorities across the world are making tens of thousands of requests from US-based tech companies — the volume has increased 1,000% since 2000 (ie when we started using the internet) according to Alexa Koenig, of the UC Berkley School of Law speaking to Wired.

Met police chief Cressida Dick wants Facebook to share information ‘within minutes’. And in principle, Facebook has the discretion to do this.

But do we want it to use this discretion?

Someone needs to weigh up the balance between the rights of the account holder to keep their information private and the needs of the police to investigate.

If we ask Facebook to arbitrate these decisions, we’ve ceded an important aspect of our criminal justice system to a corporate entity, based in another country whose ultimate interest is not to serve the meting out of justice in the UK but to serve its own shareholders.

It’s the job of the state — whose ultimate interest is to serve the interests of the people — to work out what these rules are, to create parameters to decide the thresholds we find acceptable. But our institutions haven’t adapted to the realities of a digitally infused world.

Redesigning the structures of the state for the digital age

The pace of legal and regulatory change is completely out of step with the pace of technological change.

Where reform happens it is belated and responsive — tackling an impact of tech that has already become a problem and attempting to mitigate that by tweaking around the margins.

Even with a great heave-ho of political will and bureaucratic vigour, it would take years to try to iron out the process involved in the McHugh case. And then, by the time that’s happened, it’s likely that a new technological innovation would have come along rendering any new procedure obsolete.

And this is only one process in one part of our administration. Every part of our regulatory system faces similar challenges because every part of our world is being changed by digital technologies.

Most of the oxygen in the debate about tech regulation is taken up with how to rein in social media and police its content. But that’s only a tiny part of what we need to consider — we need to think much more widely.

Regulating for Responsible Technology: Making the case for an Independent Internet Regulator

At Doteveryone we’re working on new proposals to show how we can build a resilient regulatory system which will be agile, forward-looking and flexible in the face of new technologies. We need this kind of system to put democracy on the front foot in shaping technological change for the public benefit, not just belatedly responding to its impacts.

We need new rules to navigate our digital world.

Without them, we make it hard to catch this, and the next, child killer. And without them, we certainly won’t be able to catch the one in the future who will be using a technology we haven’t even thought of yet.

Catching child killers and other problems good tech regulation can help to solve was originally published in Doteveryone on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.