When Permissionless Doesn’t Mean Permissive

“Permissionless innovation” is one of the invariant properties of the Internet — without it, we would not have the World Wide Web.   Sometimes, however, this basic concept is misunderstood, or the expression is used as an excuse for bad behaviour.

Consider the case of the Guardian’s article on the use of “smart” technology, such as wifi trackers that tail people through their phones’ MAC addresses, to monitor activities in Utrecht and Eindhoven:  https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/mar/01/smart-cities-data-privacy-eindhoven-utrecht:

“Companies are getting away with it in part because it involves new applications of data. In Silicon Valley, they call it “permissionless innovation”, they believe technological progress should not be stifled by public regulations.”

Consider the converse:  requiring permission in order to innovate.  Those of us on the far side of the median of population age recall a time when “innovation” in the “telecommunications network” meant that the phone company was going to implement “call waiting” in your local phone switch.   Or, more recently, when the range of games available on your phone was limited by what brand of phone you had and what your mobile operator chose to offer you.    The only people who could design those innovations were the ones who had access to the proprietary technology that was used to run the phone network.  And, the innovations were only implemented if the phone company wanted them.

In contrast to that reality, the fact that anyone can create a new application or service (such as e-mail, or Skype) that functions out of the box on the Internet telecommunications network is a full on marvel.

That marvel notwithstanding, there still is the cautionary advice that “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”    The win of permissionless innovation is that you can build new things.  Whether or not you should (build them, deploy them) ought to be balanced with local prevailing logical governance.

The Internet’s “permissionless innovation” capacity explains why it is possible to build wifi trackers that can make traces of peoples’ movements, but it doesn’t imply permissiveness.   Cars are not tied to fixed tracks on the road, so we can drive them pretty much anywhere we want.  That’s a freedom, and it’s fundamental to the utility of cars.  However, it doesn’t make it right to drive your car onto your neighbour’s lawn.  To say that permissionless innovation is an excuse for bad behaviour and invasion of privacy is like saying, “I can drive my car anywhere I want, so you shouldn’t tell me I ought not to have driven over that pedestrian.”

Don’t drive over pedestrians.  And don’t try to prevent driving over pedestrians by chaining cars to roads.

Ditto the Internet and innovation.



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