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When Should Regulation Be Left Up to Communities?

The last several months have seen tremendous activity with regards to regulation and technology. On May 25, 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect in the European Union (EU). GDPR is a regulation that requires businesses to protect the personal data and privacy of EU citizens for transactions that occur within EU member states. You may have noticed a flurry of emails in your inbox from technology companies and your favorite apps letting you know about changes to their privacy policies as a result of GDPR. 

On December 14, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to dismantle Obama-era net neutrality regulations that regulated the businesses that connect consumers to the Internet. This regulation prohibited broadband providers from blocking websites or charging for higher-quality service or certain content. The federal government will also no longer regulate high-speed Internet delivery as if it were a utility, like a phone service.

In December 2017, the New York City Council met to pass a law on algorithmic decision-making transparency. Council members believed that New Yorkers were in the dark about how algorithms are being used to deploy services in the city. Thanks to this newly passed bill NYC has a task force that monitors the fairness and validity of algorithms used by municipal agencies.

For some time, I have been working out in my head how I felt about all of this regulation, or in some cases de-regulation around data –  specifically privacy and algorithmic use in the government. As someone who spent two years as a technology executive appointee in the Obama administration, and then another three and a half years as a technology executive appointee in the De Blasio administration, I have thought hard about the role of government in this space. This blog is my sharing the 35,000 feet view of my thoughts on the role of government in data and algorithm regulation.

With tongue firmly placed in cheek, I used to say back in my time in NYC that laws are the city council’s love language. I have a few personal friends who are extremely smart and respectable members of the NYC City Council, so by no means was that a jab at them. It is meant to say that I know how much city council members want to see a prosperous, safe and livable city, and the tool that they have to do that is legislation.

But when is legislation not enough to make government work the right way? When do we build tools and mechanisms for communities to protect themselves from these digital threats? I am stating my case here that communities and the individual residents within those communities must play a far larger, and more integral role in ensuring that their best interests are being guarded with respect to data privacy and algorithmic transparency.

For example, when the Obama-era net neutrality laws were rescinded in 2017, there was an uproar about the impact that this was going to have on underserved communities. We need to recognize that we had then, and still have, the opportunity to bring the full strength of the community into this conversation. We don’t just have to leave it up to the legislators and tech company executives to fight our battles for us. To start, there should be a nationwide effort to bring together voices of people who believe they have been impacted by broadband providers slowing down their Internet or blocking their access to websites. There also should be a raising of the voices of people who live in certain rural and low-income areas that do not have access to broadband Internet. Let them speak their truth.

But finally, in order to ensure that the government is properly tracking and managing possible unscrupulous acts by broadband providers, community members should be in charge of monitoring broadband access through crowdsourcing and mapping technology.

The best possible answer is ALWAYS to empower the people that are most impacted by legislation to protect and advocate for themselves. Laws are needed, and often times useful, but the citizens will always be the driver behind ensuring these laws do as intended.

Amen Ra Mashariki is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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