As cities get ‘smarter’ and are managed by ever increasing streams of data, so the need for clear cross-border legislation becomes paramount, says Dr Anita Greenhill.
The news last week that the UK government was passing an emergency law to ensure police and security services can continue accessing people’s phone and internet records, is just the latest chapter in the ongoing battle over who owns data and what we should be doing with it.
This particular move was prompted after the European Court ruled earlier this year that an EU directive requiring phone and internet companies to retain communication data for a 12-month period was unlawful. The UK government claims that without its own new law to retain such powers then criminals and terrorists will be far freer to go about their activities undetected.
The wider point of significance here is that the UK government felt compelled to go it alone and draw up its own legislation. But in today’s ever more globalised economy there is now a much greater need for clearer and more forward thinking cross-border legislation to handle the growing demands placed on us by big data. We cannot simply have individual laws for individual countries.
The internet remains poorly regulated both nationally and internationally. Global governance for the internet is still US-centred and is, in my view, frankly a muddle. In short, many divisions continue to operate in the digital internet.
If you take cities, and particularly the fact that a majority of the world’s population now lives in them, such issues around big data and governance are becoming even more pronounced.
For instance, by 2050 city dwellers are expected to make up 70% of the global population, or 6.4 billion people. If you think we’re having problems managing all this data now, just imagine what the world will be like then.
In terms of city planning, legislation relating to the internet and the digital domain will become crucial, not least because the internet needs to be seen as part of a city’s infrastructure, an essential utility in terms of promoting economic and social activity.
Big data and internet regulation is also particularly important for the development of cities because it is about turning imperfect, complex, and often unstructured data into actionable information. Understanding and having access to big data can assist in providing a snapshot of the well-being of populations at high frequency and at high degrees of granularity.
For instance, analysing this data may help discover what some have termed ‘digital smoke signals’, namely anomalous changes in how communities access services that may in turn serve as indicators of changes in underlying well-being.
Real-time awareness of the status of a population, and feedback on the effectiveness of policy, should in turn lead to a more agile and adaptive approach to international development, and ultimately to greater resilience and better outcomes.
An important underlying legislative consideration is, therefore, how the web is currently managed and how it should be in the future. The way in which this happens will have a direct effect on the potential of the web to play its part in encouraging future smart city development and the building of a smart digital society and digital economy.
Legislation must relate to enhancing citizen potential and well-being, as well as encouraging business development and growth. One of the key legislative issues for the digital economy both now and in the future is the lack of accountability and the impact this has on governance.
Since the early days of the internet, business has stolen something of a march in this respect, especially in areas such as domain name registration. To this day there remains a conflict about whether this whole process should be business or government driven, but ultimately governments will win.
Against this backdrop there has been increased pressure to pass legislative authority to bodies such as the UN’s International Telecommunications Agency, the World Summit on the Information Society, and the Internet Governance Forum, all of which have become influential in expressing opinion about internet issues such as privacy, human rights and internet access. The EU has also been a key player in raising these issues further up the political and economic agenda.
A final consideration is that although the rise of the internet economy will certainly be the engine of growth and the provider of prosperity for the rest of this century and beyond, it is unlikely to provide the same number jobs so there may be prosperity without full access for many. This suggests to me that the main challenge we will face will be a shift from producing prosperity to distributing prosperity, but again to achieve that we will need the right regulatory framework behind us.