Why does regulation and legislation on technology take so long to pass?



The presidential campaign of Andrew Yang shined a light on many of what it considered issues on modern practices of technology, data and the internet in today's society. Regarding 'Big Tech', data privacy and internet security, going as far to include even new developments such as blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies.

Yang called for the re-opening of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a non-partisan government agency which was closed in 1995, way before the internet made its way in the majority of homes in the modern world.

Yet, why is the response, of the US and other governments, on regulating technology so slow? Given that the US Government is a monolith of military technological power and intelligence practices. Even though many experts and think-tanks have called for more regulation. Is it because the those at the federal level do not see it as a problem? Or are there other more covert reasons for not taking a stance.

Hamish Gibson

Posted 2020-12-28T18:20:48.263

Reputation: 967

4You mean technology that makes billions if not trillions of dollars every year and that the creators of spend millions/billions on to keep unregulated? – Joe W – 2020-12-28T18:28:30.973

2If that is a reason, and the strongest reason, for why there has not been progress/ any action at all, then I would accept that as the best answer. – Hamish Gibson – 2020-12-28T18:33:50.150

I'd argue that tech is regulated. Just because activities happen primarily over the internet doesn't mean that they're not subject to laws that were written to regulate offline activities. In fact, tech seems to be more regulated than most. Depending on your state, a company can sell private details of decades of your major life decisions (i.e. credit data, cable TV habits, utility usage, etc.), but a social network company cannot transmit your social data to another company, even when you ask them to. And then, consider the interstate sales tax nightmare. – Brad – 2020-12-29T06:16:39.070

Huawei got nipped in the bud pretty quick, no? – Mazura – 2020-12-29T15:32:14.957

This is one single company where the scope of the issues spanned national security. I’m talking about the wider socioeconomic implications of technology as a whole. – Hamish Gibson – 2020-12-29T22:03:38.837



In the best scenario, a government won't regulate an industry until there is a clear and distinct problem that requires regulation. First, a demonstrable public ill related to the activities of the industry must come into evidence. Second, the industry itself must show an inability or unwillingness to address that public ill. Then (and only then) will governments start considering enacting regulations. This is the same issue we have in all legal contexts. No one will write law proscribing behaviors that do not occur; no one can enforce law against crimes that haven't occurred. Someone must commit a murder for legislators to say "Hey, we shouldn't allow that!", and even after a legislature has created an anti-murder law, no one can be tried under it until they've at least attempted to break it.

Even though government tries to present itself as proactive, government is always ex post facto; it responds to what people or groups do when (and only when) people or groups do problematic things.

In more realistic scenarios, the kinds of people and groups who cause problems on scales we might want to write laws about — whether we're talking about 19th century industrialists, 20th century tobacco companies, or 21st century tech giants — are often socially and politically powerful in their own right, and can mount extensive campaigns against such regulation. Then we get into a typical political grind where those seeking regulation have to fight an uphill battle against other politicians whose vested interests lie with the industry (because, perhaps, the industry is a major donor, or a significant employer or revenue generator in their constituency) as well as against well-paid lobbyists and extensive public relations or disinformation campaigns generated from the industry itself. That necessarily takes time, money, and effort. The result is that needed regulations may be delayed years or decades until the tide of public opinion shifts enough to weaken opposition in political bodies.

Ted Wrigley

Posted 2020-12-28T18:20:48.263

Reputation: 32 554

3To what extent as well has there been a distinct lack of awarenss or understanding of the industry too? An example of Orrin Hatch and his 'how do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your services?' comes to mind. – Hamish Gibson – 2020-12-28T19:43:41.517


@HamishGibson: I'm sure it happens, but politicians (and particularly conservative politicians, in the modern US) have a habit of tactical ignorance: playing dumb for political advantage. Douglas Adams put the issue well; With some politicians it's just damned hard to know whether we're watching a fool or being played for one.

– Ted Wrigley – 2020-12-28T19:55:52.833

1Most members of congress appear to have little or no understanding of technology. Even if they use experts as advisors, its pretty easy to screw things up badly, and prevent a lot of innovation from occurring. The best case scenario is that congress regulates technology as little as possible. – user4574 – 2020-12-29T04:33:01.130

@HamishGibson Your comment shows your ignorance on the topic. Ad revenue is enormous. Tech companies don't have to hire many people, compared to other industries, so they are less expensive to run. Consider newspapers when the cost for a several hundred sheet Sunday paper was $1. To write, print, and deliver that paper cost far more, and advertisers were the ones who paid for it. Or perhaps broadcast media... you don't pay for that either, but advertisers do. Tech companies require the trust of their users or they wouldn't exist. They won't be quick to jeopardize that trust. – Brad – 2020-12-29T06:20:28.750

@user4574 I agree with your comment. The GDPR has been a disaster, while not meaningfully protecting the consumers. The folks implementing the laws seemingly have no idea what they're trying to regulate, or the best way to do it. The EU is bringing the whole world down with them, while personal data and privacy is very much still at risk. Politicians get stirred up about what people are angry about, and with tech I think people are angry about the wrong things. There's a lack of understanding, which is trickling down into law. – Brad – 2020-12-29T06:24:16.980


One of the barriers I have observed in several legislative bodies, including the U.S. Congress, is an unexpected lack of faith in their own (legislators') competence to make sound judgements about "technology."

They frequently seem captured by jargon, and mermerized by minutiae, such that they take whatever the "experts" tell them and go with that.

This has allowed major tech companies to basically run the table on getting public policy rules and attitudes that favour them. The impact is rather dramatic. For example the entire discussion about competition law reform has been routed to arguments about controlling the search market or controlling the advertising market. It has been completely deflected from far more fundamental questions such as the infection of oligarhic structures in Western eonomies that stifles competition and throttles true inovation.

Just consider the role of the key cell phone players. If they were in the business of making houses how long do you think it would take for legislators to act if the house maker told homeowners they could only buy furniture from approved sellers? That they could only subscribe to electricity from an approved power vendor? That all of your activity in your home becomes the property of the house builder for purposes of "improving future houses, marketing, and improving our business." No one would stand for it.

Now apply that to the wide ranger of oligarchies in our economies. Amazon is both the "franchisor" and its own franchise actively selling against its victim-franchises. It provides a market place for a fee, effectively charging for the privilege of letting them take your customers. Cable and telco companies are not only carriers, they create and own content, and they actively put up barriers for other carriers to offer such content in any way that is not exactly in the interests of the carrier-content-owner.

This has been a problem in other industries but always it was pretty clearly a bought legislature. Today politicians often quite sincerely think the whole thing is over their own heads. I know this because I have dealt with a lot of them in varying capacities. One, in response to a Standing Committee investigation of Google's opposition to a Privacy Commissioner's findings, sponteously spouted, "Well, after all, privacy is really dead anyway isn't it?" Realizing he spoke out loud he leaned back in his green chair and gazed blankly at the ceiling.

@Ted Wrigley is large right, in my view, but I think it is more severe. The lack of informed thinking, willingness, or capacity to act by politicians is compounded by the active disinterest of voters. By this I mean their disinterest is much deeper than mere apathy. When told by their various providers that what they are getting is possibly threatened by a government initiative, the user-victims of the oligarchs will actually become intransigent about doing nothing. Kind of, "Why should I care as long as I can Facetime with my boy friend?"


Posted 2020-12-28T18:20:48.263

Reputation: 743

Actually there was an electricity monopoly issue for a long time with a purchaser of a given house being forced to buy electricity from a single provider, it took many decades for congress to do anything about it. – dsollen – 2020-12-28T21:58:10.490

That's true, but it was not the house builder imposing the choice. I prefer the Big Bell example which involved breaking one monopoly into many regional ones and opening up competition. The result was dramatically lower long distance rates almost overnight. They have forgotten the lessen that competition leads to economic growth for everyone and are content with growth for the oligarchs. – So_about_that – 2020-12-28T22:08:52.230

my point is that in both electricity and Big Bell example it took an extensive time for anyone to do something about it. Your claim seems to be that there is something special about tech industry in particular, while as I see it congress has always been pretty slow about stepping in for all monopolies as they developed. I don't think this is something specific about tech – dsollen – 2020-12-28T22:13:58.250

I simply disagree. I have served as an advisor to some of the legislators at issue, and they have sincerely (for the most part) believed the technical expertise of the industry required deference. My "claim" is that the reasons for the delay are fundamentally different. It took a thousand years between the time first formal laws on anything were declared until the next ones. Makes the cases equivalent? No, there is indeed something specific about tech. – So_about_that – 2020-12-28T22:17:55.147

1But I am certainly seeing the value of putting answers in comments instead of as answers, to avoid those pesky downvotes. – So_about_that – 2020-12-28T22:20:27.447

The majority of your answer seems to be that monopolies wouldn't be allowed in other situations, but as with electricity and phone companies, to name just a few, monopolies were allowed. if you think it's a deference to technical expertise your answer should focus on why that would be different then, say, needing to trust the expertse in the phone industry when deciding how to regulate phone companies, and how that would hinder legislation, rather then a demonstrable false claim that monopolies wouldn't happen in other industries. – dsollen – 2020-12-28T22:28:39.243

I am sorry that my example was too dense to be understood. I tried to demonstrate the particular kind of oligarchy, which is completely distinct from those you are tossing in, have only come into existence with tech and in fact would not be tolerated in any other industry. Repetitively dismissing the distinction seems futile and I don't understand how to help you see the difference. The builder of the house also controlling all purchases related to the house is not Bell or electric monopolies. They are profoundly different and do not, not, not happen in other industries. – So_about_that – 2020-12-28T22:33:56.793

My point is you haven't really explained why it's different! to be frank your answer sounds more like a rant complaining about the existence of potentially monopolistic behaviors then an attempt to explain why they may not be regulated. You say imagine if this behavior existed in situation where monopoly never has or likely could exist it wouldn't be allowed. You give no reason why it wouldn't be allowed, and since your example of building homes is one where monopolies never existed it's not an informative argument. WHY is tech different then other places where monopolies could exist. – dsollen – 2020-12-28T22:37:22.653

Let us continue this discussion in chat.

– So_about_that – 2020-12-28T22:39:13.280