Is It Responsible?

The same set of questions seems to crop up whenever we — society — talk about emerging technology.

How much? How fast? What does it do?

These are fine questions to ask. We depend on the Internet to pay our bills, to search for jobs and to chat, flirt and commiserate. And so convenience and affordability are significant factors.

But there’s a fundamental question missing from this list. And it happens to be the most important.

Is it responsible?

We’ve spent the past 50 years innovating computers. Now, the Internet is in our homes, our cities, our elections and even our bodies. The line between science fiction and nonfiction grows blurrier each day. Authors like William Gibson and Phillip K. Dick seem prescient.

This is why that missing question — is it responsible? — is so important. We’ve overlooked that question in the past; the results were browser monopolies and digital empires. Going forward, the results will be more dire: medical devices and whole cities vulnerable to hackers. Exclusion, profiling and harassment on a massive scale.

Last week, I spent the day thinking about this at the NetGain Internet of Things Conference at New York Public Library. NetGain is a coalition of nonprofits — Ford, MacArthur, Knight, Open Societies and Mozilla — devoted to a responsible Internet. One in the public interest.

The short trip from my hotel to the library was a reminder that this isn’t an abstract issue. The Internet watched and influenced how I rode the subway, bought sundries at the pharmacy and located a coffee shop. All of these actions generated data about me, my location, my choices.

The NetGain event featured bright people working at the intersection of technology and humanity. People like Marta Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports. Darren Walker, president of Ford Foundation. Matt Mitchell, organizer of CryptoHarlem. And Shireen Santosham, chief innovation officer, City of San Jose.

There were strains of pessimism and strains of optimism, but the event always felt productive. NetGain is about finding workable solutions. That means asking uncomfortable questions.

Julia Angwin talked about the troubling technology we already live with: ubiquitous CCTV cameras, malicious botnets. Julia also addressed the indifference surrounding personal data, security and privacy. “There’s no penalty for companies that lose your data,” she says.

Bruce Schneier added: “We’ve built a world where our data is a profit center. We decided the Internet needs to be free, and therefore we are the products.”

Darren Walker discussed the fine line between a smart city and a menacing city: In a connected environment rich with data, exclusion and profiling can become systemic. Matt Mitchell noted these menacing cities already exist: In New York and beyond, minority populations are exposed to mass surveillance at higher levels than other groups. (Matt is founder of CryptoHarlem, which teaches online privacy and security skills in neighborhoods like Harlem.)

The afternoon featured optimism, too. Like what happens when we do ask that fundamental question, is it responsible?

Alberto Ibargüen has watched the Internet creep into newsrooms over the decades, empowering newsgathering and storytelling. New forms of reporting and practices around open data have created a more dynamic fourth estate. This same transformation is possible in government and education, he says.

One panel featured civic technologists from Akron, Boston, Philadelphia and San Jose. The upshot: When IoT is harnessed by those with a civic interest — municipalities, community organizers — the results are encouraging. Government can become more transparent, services can become more accessible, education more interactive and access more widespread. (Just look at Chattanooga.) Further: When individual communities shape the web to their needs and beliefs, the Internet becomes decentralized, becomes stronger.

The foundations in the NetGain Partnership are striving for an Internet of Things like this. And we’re going to continue looking for solutions — by continuing these conversations, by awarding grants and more.

Mozilla is doing its part independently, too: empowering a Network of leaders who care about these issues and can make a difference. Our Open IoT Lab is rallying people in Berlin, Taipei and elsewhere. They do important research. And our Hives — in New York, in Chicago and beyond — are giving local educators and makers the tools they need to shape the web.

Mozilla and NetGain will continue to think about what’s responsible versus what’s possible. It’s a conversation that is sometimes optimistic, sometimes pessimistic. It’s complicated. But I’m hopeful.

Add a Comment