Let’s learn the rules of the digital road before talking about a web Magna Carta

Let’s learn the rules of the digital road before talking about a web Magna Carta 1024 565 Neil Lawrence

My latest post for The Guardian:

Technology is moving so fast we’re only beginning to understand how it will change society. It’s too early to distill our thinking to an internet bill of rights.

Karl Popper, the scientific philosopher, gave a definitive answer to the question: “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” The answer is neither: they co-evolved. Simply put, there once were two primordial entities which weren’t very chicken-like or egg-like. Over time small changes occurred rendering those entities into two of today’s most familiar foodstuffs, unrecognisable from their origins.

Our personal data is being interconnected and processed in manners we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago. Technology and law are like the chicken and the egg: they need to be brought into being together, they need to co-evolve. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has led recent calls for a Magna Carta for the internet. But technology is moving so fast and it is affecting society in ways that no one envisaged. Do we really understand today what the right legislative framework should be?

Advancing technology has always affected the law. Before the printing press no one would have begrudged a monk’s right to hand-transcribe the books of the day. Printing meant it was necessary to protect the copyrights of the originator of the material. Copyright law acknowledges the value of the creative process. In the industrial revolution the legal mechanism of letters patent evolved to protect creative insight. Patents became protection of intellectual property, ensuring that inventors’ ideas could be shared under licence. These mechanisms also protect innovation in the digital world.

The challenge now is not in protecting what is innovative about people, but what is commonplace. The new value is in knowing the nature of people: predicting their needs and fulfilling them. This is the value of interconnection of personal data. It allows us to make predictions about an individual by comparing him or her to others. It is the mainstay of the modern internet economy: targeted advertising and recommendation systems. It underpins my own research ideas in personalisation of health treatments and early diagnosis of disease. But it leads to potential dangers, particularly where the uncontrolled storage and flow of an individual’s personal information is concerned.

Continue reading on The Guardian here.

Picture credit: Jake Givens

Neil Lawrence

Neil holds the collaborative Chair in Neuroscience and Computer Science at the University of Sheffield. Neil’s main research interest is machine learning through probabilistic models. He focuses on both the algorithmic side of these models and their application. He was Program Chair of NIPS in 2014 and is General Chair for 2015. Neil has a monthly column in The Guardian and is writing a book about Data Ethics. He enjoys cycling and last summer he spent six weeks cycling up and down the Alps. Many have tried, but no one has figured out how he fits everything in.

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