January 3, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
Technology featured in many policy headlines in 2018. In part as a result, policy changes and proposals in 2019 will profoundly affect the environment in which developers build and ship software for years to come. Here are five trends that might help make sense of it all, and give hope.
Moving on from techlash to root causes and fixes
2018 may have brought on peak internet disillusionment.
The internet’s utopian promises that we all believed in not so long ago appear today to be naive and unfulfilled. At the same time, dystopian perils seem realistic and imminent. However, in 2019 we’ll increasingly see thoughtful pushback on blaming the internet for social problems that predate it.
This includes problems that seem to be of the internet, such as echo chambers, fake news, and decline in trust — all well underway — identified as having originated in the broadcast era, and still largely propagated through radio and television. The same is true for more fundamental problems such as conflict, crime, hate, and inequality. “Techlash” will begin to give way to demand for root cause analysis and solutions. Developers and the tech industry will contribute, along with (hopefully) every other sector.
To illustrate what this might look like, consider climate change. Computers use lots of energy, but are obviously not the root cause of climate change. Slowing the growth of energy consumption by the internet industry is therefore a wholly inadequate standalone solution. Software has been essential to developing an understanding of climate change. The tech industry has supported green power and pursued efficiency (out of economic necessity). In some cases, it has prototyped and supported more fundamental incentive changes (e.g., carbon fee and dividend) that will be necessary to combat and adapt to climate change throughout society.
Expect to see developers and the tech industry calling for and partnering in institutional fixes—for climate change, and for problems that the internet has been largely blamed for in recent years.
Internet: The good parts
We’ll see increasing recognition for the things that have made the internet wonderful (and perhaps unrealistically raised expectations for it) are worthy of celebration. We’ll also see increased recognition that they are at imminent risk, and therefore in need of urgent tending. Developers have long understood this, but recently concerted initiatives are starting to notice. Take the inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berner-Lee’s Contract for the Web, an effort to establish a set of principles that guide the decisions of governments and companies advancing tomorrow’s web technologies. The initiative is gaining support by governments, companies and citizens around the world, and serves as one prominent summary of this recognition.
Expect to see increasingly serious consideration of policies that double down on key internet values such as access, interoperability, neutrality, openness, privacy, and transparency — often as part of much larger packages. For developers — and internet values, these will be mixed packages. If done right, those efforts will be protective of everything that is great about the Internet.
Shared defenses, and discontents
Internet security, and more broadly cyber and societal resilience, is a grand challenge that requires global cooperation. Everyone relies more and more on the Internet to coordinate necessities. Consequently, insecurity puts us all at risk. Developers have the most to gain (for example, more security and trust, which brings more opportunity), and the most to contribute. Expect to see increasing developer advocacy and ultimately policy support for meeting this shared challenge and creating appropriate defenses.
However, also expect to see direct challenges to cooperation on shared defense from law enforcement and national security interests. Two illustrative developments from the end of 2018 that will play out in 2019: Australian legislation that could put developers, tech companies, and the public at grave risk by requiring security loopholes around privacy protections, and a U.S. proposal to vastly increase the scope of technologies (AI is the largest category) subject to export control.
Robust open source
Open source is a major way we work on shared defenses — both in the narrow sense of securing shared infrastructure, and in the broad sense of developing AI in the open, minimizing arms races and technological surprise. Sustaining (as in funding) open source has long been a hot topic among developers. Lots of open source has been publicly funded, arguably for as long as software has existed, but expect to see policymakers pay more explicit attention to funding open source. For example, 2018 Nobel Laureate in Economics Paul Romer has suggested allowing research grant recipients to fund open source projects.
Also expect to see open source funding contextualized as part of a broad drive to make open source more robust. This drive will be reflected in both private and public policies concerning inclusivity, governance, lifecycle, security, supply chain, transparency, and more.
Through gaffes, denials, ill-informed legislation, and incidents, 2018 revealed as was never before the need for developers to have a seat at the table in the highest levels of policymaking — in both government and the private sector. At the U.S. federal level, expect to see strong efforts to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment. There will be corresponding increase in opportunity for policy-minded technologists, and calls for developers to keep abreast of and speak up on policies that will have a large impact on the future of software.
Tal Niv is the vice president of law and policy at GitHub.
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