The Difficult Digital Age

Editorial

The revolutionary technologies shaping the modern world come with damaging and complex legal implications

This is evidently the case in the Apple and FBI legal battle; both the bureaucracy and the tech company are utilising old laws designed to cope with a society absent of computer hackers and encryption. Due to this, the broad vagueness of using such laws in cases involving situations which are unparalleled, an immense difficulty and complexity are created, making solutions hard to come by.

Part of the problem is the inability of lawmakers and politicians to anticipate the impacts and prospects of the technologies when in the beginning stages of their development. This is, however, reasonably understandable. Take the internet for example. At first, it was only intended to be a medium for researchers to share information with their fellow peers. The first ever message sent on the ARPANET (the first network to use the internet protocol) was sent from one laboratory to another at the institution which has been the hub producing the pioneers and innovators which have shaped our world; Stanford University. To foresee the platform exploding into something so much bigger, spurring on the emergence of social media and online university courses, but also, the unfortunate occurrence of cybercrime and cyberwarfare, would have been difficult. All of this has challenged the legal conventions, from privacy and free speech, to product liability and intellectual property.

However, a bigger, and perhaps a less suspecting reason for the problematic complexities, is the entrepreneurs and innovators who have often hastily embarked on their new revolutionary ideas with little acknowledgement of the law. This is due The eagerness to get their big money-making, or the entrepreneurial pride fulfilling, business ideas quickly underway, a particularly popular characteristic of many within Silicon Valley. They may often neglect the potential societal or legal impacts to avoid any chance of being slowed down. Therefore, the rules they may bend, or the boundaries they may come extremely close to, considered as a less important issue, if considered at all, lending to unpredictable and difficult legal problems.

Take the Napster saga for example. The creation of a website where users could download and share music in the form of mp3 files may have appeared a highly convenient and felicitous to the consumer. But in this case, the creators of the music industry menace went along with their website without proper acknowledgement of the legal implications, and even if they did, it obviously was not enough to make them reassess their motives. As a result, the music industry has continued to grapple with the array of drastic changes the internet has brought to it, as the latest advent of streaming has significantly reduced profitability for a lot of artists, as well making a mess of intellectual property in the modern digital age.

There are many other examples which could be cited to illustrate the same problems. For consumers, the problems are not that apparent; often they only focus on the products and services of which they have encouraged the production of via the powerfully inevitable and ineluctable demand they create for them. For companies and entrepreneurs, they clamber over each other to meet and satisfy this demand to tap into lucrative markets, since the technology industry is characterised by immense competition, in which only the first few pioneers can gain a significant foothold. All this goes on with the law, rules and regulations which have previously been able to moderate and keep the economic developments and societal shifts under reasonable control, are quickly being left behind.

Politicians and lawmakers are then left with the immense task of fixing the legal implications, but there have been problems with this. To begin with, often politicians, naturally, focus on only short-term policies not with the intention to genuinely deal with the problem at hand, but only address just enough to earn them another seat in office. In addition, even when lawmakers and politicians attempt to address the issues presented by revolutionary technologies, they are inadequate, which is mostly due to naivety and a lack of understanding of how certain technologies work. “It is clear he’s not up to speed on some of the technical issues,” said Democratic Congresswomen Zoe Lofgren said about FBI director, James Comey, during a hearing in Congress addressing the Apple and FBI legal battle.

The solution to all this, or perhaps one idea which could ease the unnecessary conflict taking place between the public and private sector, is collaboration. Apple had helped the FBI as much as they possibly could in their investigation, providing them with all the information about the locked phone they had and even volunteering some of their own engineers to provide assistance. But the FBI was not so compliant, making errant decisions which has led to the unneeded legal suit. Though this should not discourage further collaboration in the future. If humanity is to continue to benefit from the merits of technological innovations and the broad revolutions it encourages across the globe, public and private sector collaboration is essential. Without it, the law will continue to struggle, becoming nugatory and getting left behind.

Technology has changed the world considerably. It has initiated a transition from paper to pixels; newspapers have become webpages, letters have become emails, typewriters to word processors, and a range of other old devices and tools become digitised with the advent of powerful advancements in technology and revolutionary innovations. Consequently, technology has been able to incur a change the way humanity conducts and carries out tasks, projects and procedures in an unprecedented fashion. But the one area which seems to have lagged behind in the midst of all this, one of the most important fundamentals for a functional society, is the law.