Regulating the Digital Economy

By The Editors

When one thinks of cutting-edge technology, one rarely thinks of government. From the BlackBerrys still adorning the hips of thousands of federal workers to the bungled rollout of, it seems that Washington is even further than the 3,000 miles it lies from Silicon Valley.

Yet the reality of this new digital age is that government has to keep pace with technology in order to play the role that it must with any industry: to ensure that the playing field is level and open to all, to set and enforce the rules of the road, and to protect the public from any negative effects of these advances. But like their IT departments, government regulators are struggling to keep up. Today, mayors, city councils, and state regulators across the country are contending with cellphone apps that have disrupted the taxicab and hotel industries and rendered the regulatory regime under which they operate almost useless. Judges are forced to peer at computer code and decide whether it violates similarly technical patents. Meanwhile, because of our inanimate legislature, federal regulators are left to work within laws signed when AOL was a dominant Web company and one had to hang up the phone in order to browse the Internet.

The implications of this reality are difficult for progressives. It can’t mean that regulations, patents, and consumer-protection measures can be abandoned wholesale. But it also can’t mean that we just need to apply rules from the age of the rotary phone to the age of the smartphone. So how can regulators at an information deficit implement smart rules governing these new technologies? How can they protect the values we hold dear—fairness, competition, equality, and privacy, to name a few—in a world moving at gigabit speed? And can government actually use these new, digital technologies to make regulation more effective?

To help untangle these questions, we’ve gathered a distinguished group of experts, with the support of the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy. Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, starts off by showing how regulators can use “sandbox” thinking to improve regulation in the digital economy. The author and tech-industry analyst Larry Downes considers what a pro-innovation policy agenda looks like in an age of “big bang disruptions.” John W. Mayo of the aforementioned Georgetown Center argues against taking a purely pro-regulation or pro-market stance, instead advocating a results-based-management approach—and applying those lessons to the knotty problem of broadband regulation. Karen Kornbluh, former ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, looks at digital policy from a global perspective and describes how to combat the trend of “data protectionism” taking place around the world.

Our last two contributors go beyond the regulations of the digital world and advocate some new principles that should guide regulation generally in this new high-tech era. Beth Simone Noveck, the former deputy chief technology officer in the Obama Administration and currently a professor at NYU Law School, lays out how technology platforms can help identify previously hidden expertise within the federal bureaucracy. Finally, Cass R. Sunstein, distinguished professor at Harvard Law School and the former head of President Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, shows how technology has advanced progressive efforts to make the regulatory process more democratic.

Realistically, government (other than the military) will probably never be on the cutting edge of technology. But there is good news here. Government’s role remains the same—to protect consumers, to ensure fair competition, and to encourage broad access. Our authors think—and show—that by harnessing some of the digital age’s power, government can do that job a little more effectively.

Sandbox Thinking

By Jessica Rosenworcel


Managing the Big Bang: The Regulator’s Dilemma

By Larry Downes


Beyond Ideology: A Results-Based Approach

By John W. Mayo


Beyond Borders: Fighting Data Protectionism

By Karen Kornbluh


Bridging the Knowledge Gap: In Search of Expertise

By Beth Simone Noveck


Democratizing Regulation, Digitally

By Cass R. Sunstein


The Editors of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas are Michael Tomasky (Editor), Jack Meserve (Managing Editor), and Delphine d'Amora (Associate Editor).

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