🔮 Sunday commentary: Policy as code
I invited EV member Vass Bednar to share her thinking on the intersection of policy and technology in today’s Sunday commentary. Enjoy, and thank Vass by sharing her essay on Twitter.
Hi, I’m Vass Bednar. I’m the founder of “regs to riches,” a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), a Public Policy Forum Fellow and the Executive Director of McMaster University’s MPP in Digital Society Program. I spent two years on Airbnb’s public policy team helping to bring forward regulations for short-term rentals from 2017-2019. Much of my current research and policy advocacy is focused on improving competition law in Canada. In this guest essay, I’m switching gears to offer a perspective on a new role for technologists to better inform public policy design and accelerate implementation.
Uber’s aggressive tactics in the 2010s inappropriately characterised the space between tech companies and governments. The adversarial legacy is characterised by scepticism and dissonance between the two sides. As residual mistrust endures, it hurts the broader policy process by perpetuating a disconnect between policy ideas and their technical viability.
As the terms of policy priorities are debated, technology firms may insist to government officials that technical compliance with a proposed regime is too difficult - if not impossible - to implement. A government currently has no real way to validate such a claim - though it may occasionally be true - for instance, the initially proposed Online Harms approach in Canada imagined humans would be able to enforce a 24-hour takedown standard. This was going to mean that the government would have to hire thousands of people to monitor the internet, without any clarity on how this was going to happen or how it would be resourced.
In reconciling the demands of technology to the traditions of public policy processes, we have under-explored the need to infuse the expertise of coders into policy design early and often. After a new law is passed, tech firms of all sizes typically have to translate new rules directly to their tech stack. And this is not always possible. That’s why any digital policy needs to be re-articulated in proposed open-source code as part of introducing legislation. It’s time for a new linguistic layer that expresses the viability of a policy proposal through technical specs.
Governments need to be able to prove that any proposed intervention designed for a digital economy is buildable, instead of presuming its viability. Anything else is irrational.
One way to achieve this would be to invite technical experts to advise on the feasibility of a new policy proposal, or invite concurrent consultants to interpret the proposal and mock up a roadmap of how to build a new rule. Government should also then act as a resource for firms of all sizes to achieve compliance with new policies, instead of abandoning them to their own devices. Too often, regulatory compliance becomes a form of arbitrage whereby the largest firms have the resources to comply with new expectations and smaller firms struggle; as has been observed with GDPR and CCPA. This too, is not ideal as it skews the playing field.