Technology companies should obey the law


So here’s a very simple question for all of you interested in the process of developing a new product or service. There you are sitting around the table in your kitchen when lightning strikes. It’s a red hot idea, it won’t cost a fortune to make, and it will be easy to sell. You write it down and, as a precaution, you go talk to your attorney. At this point, bad news blights the originality of your idea. If you launch, your product or service will break several local, state, and federal laws. So what do you do? Are you quietly law-abiding, tear up the piece of paper, and start trying to think of a new idea? Or do you go ahead anyway? You may calculate you can make money while enforcement action is underway. Better still, if the public likes the idea, there may be political pressure to change the laws. That means you become a catalyst, an agent for change, forcing lawmakers at all levels to get with the best of the new ideas.

As an example of the problem, let’s look at apps like Uber and Sidecar which encourage private citizens to use their cars as taxis and limos. As several drivers who signed up for this service have now realized, this is a legal minefield. Almost without exception, towns and cities have laws in place requiring people to apply for licenses to operate as a taxi. This ensures all drivers are in mechanically sound vehicles, have proper insurance in place, and have not been convicted of criminal offenses that would make them unsuitable as drivers. Needless to say, existing taxi and limo drivers who have paid for their licenses are not happy when private citizens start muscling into their business and undercutting their fares. They demand enforcement of the law.

But customers on the street complain they are being denied cheaper fares. Then the drivers realize their vehicles are not insured when they drive these customers and, if they have an accident, their medical expenses may not be covered either.

My reason for asking the question is the behavior of Google. It has been pioneering the development of self-driving cars but, so far, only three states have passed laws to make test driving legal on public roads. There are no laws in place to cover use by private citizens once testing is complete, and no prospect of resolving the insurance problems any time soon. Then comes the question of Google Glass as a breach of privacy or a distraction.

Google has now begun a major lobbying effort to prevent states from naming Google Glass in a general ban on the use of technology while driving. In other words, Google announces it intends to develop new technology it knows cannot be used unless the law is changed. It then aggressively promotes the technology in the hope of persuading lawmakers to roll over and change the law. Surely that’s the wrong way round. Surely technology companies should obey the law as it is, not deliberately ignore it?

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