Bucking the ‘mother, may I?’ mentality


“Permissionless innovation” is what we call the unconstrained tinkering and continuous exploration that takes place at multiple levels across the digital economy today, from professional creators to amateur coders. Perhaps not fully appreciated in the past, it is the secret sauce that gave us the Internet and the modern digital revolution.

And it is now at risk.

As I note in a new book on the topic, new innovations such as the so-called “Internet of Things” and wearable technologies, 3-D printing, autonomous vehicles and private drones are being threatened by a cabal of turf-conscious special interests, over-eager bureaucrats and regulatory-minded policy activists and academics. If those forces succeed in burdening these exciting new innovations with layers of red tape, it will mean fewer services, higher prices, diminished economic growth and a decline in our overall standard of living. We should, therefore, continue to embrace and defend the permissionless innovation norm that makes America’s information technology sector the envy of the world.

Permissionless innovation is about the creativity of the human mind to run wild in its inherent curiosity and inventiveness, even when it disrupts certain cultural norms or economic business models. It is that unhindered freedom to experiment that ushered in many of the remarkable technological advances of modern times. In particular, all the digital devices, systems and networks that we now take for granted came about because innovators were at liberty to let their minds run wild.

Steve Jobs and Apple didn’t need a permit to produce the first iPhone. Jeff Bezos and Amazon didn’t need to ask anyone for the right to create a massive online marketplace. When Sergey Brin and Larry Page wanted to release Google’s innovative search engine into the wild, they didn’t need to get a license first. And Mark Zuckerberg never had to get anyone’s blessing to launch Facebook or let people freely create their own profile pages.

All of these digital tools and services were creatively disruptive technologies that altered the fortunes of existing companies and challenged various social norms. Luckily, however, nothing preemptively stopped that innovation from happening. Today, the world is better off because of it, with more and better information choices than ever before.

If you’re old enough to recall the state of the world before the rise of the Internet and digital technologies, you remember how much less innovation of this sort existed in the analog era. The reason was simple: Older information technologies—the telephone and broadcast television and radio, for example—depended on an explicit system of regulatory permissioning. Very little innovation could happen back then without someone—be they government officials, some affected interests or cranky academics—demanding that the process be meticulously micro-managed and planned in a top-down fashion.

They argued that innovation should be curtailed or disallowed until developers can prove that their innovation will not cause harm to individuals, groups, laws, cultural norms or traditions. This is known as “precautionary principle” reasoning, and it is the antithesis of the permissionless innovation norm that has, luckily, dominated the past two decades.

Despite the remarkable advances that permissionless innovation brought to us with the digital revolution, the struggle between these two worldviews is not over. Precautionary principle thinking is increasingly threatening, not just for the Internet, but also for all new classes of networked technologies and platforms.

Over the past year, for example, taxicab commissions across the nation tried to stop Uber, Lyft and Hailo from offering better transportation options to consumers. Similarly, the State of New York threatened the home rental company Airbnb, demanding data from all users who rented out their apartments or homes in New York City. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration ordered 23andMe to stop marketing its at-home $99 genetic analysis kit.

Many other new innovations are at risk, too. Federal and state officials are already exploring how to regulate “Internet of Things,” smart cars, commercial drones, 3D printing, and many other new technologies thatare just starting to emerge. In each case, as with those mentioned above, policymakers, pundits, and special interests will claim that safety, security, or even privacy concerns necessitate preemptive regulatory action.

But unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention will bring serious harm to society, innovation should continue unabated. To the maximum extent possible, the default position toward new forms of technological innovation should be “innovation allowed.” The burden of proof rests on those who favor precautionary regulation to explain why government should prevent ongoing experimentation with new ways of doing things.

If and when problems develop, there are many less burdensome ways to address them than through preemptive technological controls. Education and empowerment, social pressure, societal norms, voluntary self-regulation and targeted enforcement of existing legal norms (especially through the common law) are almost always superior to top-down, command-and-control regulatory edits and bureaucratic schemes of a “mother, may I?” (i.e., permissioned) nature.

Importantly, more often than not, citizens find ways to adapt to technological change by employing a variety of coping mechanisms, new norms, or creative fixes. Wisdom and resilience are born of experience, including experiences that involve risk and the possibility of occasional mistakes and failures.

Preserving permissionless innovation and the general freedom to experiment and innovate is essential for powering the next great wave of industrial innovation and rejuvenating our dynamic, high-growth economy. Even more profoundly, permissionless innovation is worth defending to enhance social and economic freedom more generally, expand the choices we have our disposal and raise our standard of living over the long haul.

— Adam Thierer is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the author of “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.”


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