We have built a media in constant search for controversy, and our "tech journalists" are no exception. This week, a number of tech sites went on a predictable freakout after The New York Times reported on a part of the administration's transportation safety bill that would grant the Department of Transportation the explicit authority to regulate mobile apps used while driving.
NYT noted a disagreement on this between car manufacturers, who have by and large agreed to regulations of in-vehicle navigation systems, for example, and tech companies that make apps for your phone. Really? Tech companies don't want to be regulated for public safety just like any other large corporation in America? I was equally shocked when I heard of gambling in Casa Blanca.
But the Tech industry, like any other, has its own friendly press. And the Tech press crapped all over itself trying to linkbait the headline. "US Government wants to control Google Maps..." read one ominous headline. "Should the government regulate navigation apps like Google Maps and Waze?" asks another's Facebook posting.
There were plenty of other regulation-phobic headlines floating around. The idea for all of them is to drive the conversation into an anti-regulatory direction. The tech press is focusing on the fact that the DoT is seeking some regulatory authority without detailing too much about precisely what regulatory authority they are seeking. The supposition is that regulation is, in and of itself, bad.
Let's get to the fact of the matter first. The government is, in fact, not seeking to regulate any content of any app. It is only asking Congress for regulatory authority - or more precisely, a clarification of regulatory authority it thinks it already has - to regulate how apps are used while you are driving. Here is the part of the actual bill (that neither the New York Times nor the regulophobic tech press bothered to show their readers) that is sticking in the craw of the tech press:
The Secretary shall prescribe requirements or guidelines for the design, functional safety process, verification and validation, and development of safety-related electronics or software used in motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment to ensure that they are likely to function as intended and contain fail safe features.
To keep things simple, if you use a smartphone, everything you use is an app, not just the ones you think of when you hear the word 'app'. The dialer is an app. You text through an app.
Looked at this way, the government has been for some time regulating drivers' behavior interacting with apps through hands free laws and no-texting-while-driving laws. The only difference is that in this case, the government is asking to possibly regulate the apps themselves and not simply the behavior of the driver.
While it sounds reasonable to say that the government should stop at regulating the behavior of a driver rather than the apps they are using, it is a bit like requiring drivers to wear seatbelts without requiring car manufacturers to put seatbelts in their cars. Whether it's a navigation app like Google Maps or a simple phone call, it does no good to tell the driver that they must use hands free methods of communication if the apps themselves are not required to provide that functionality.
Note that in the language of the bill, that the regulations are to be safety-related is made explicit. This is not a carte blanche for the government to go around dictating the development of mobile applications.
To a frightening degree, my fellow technophiles seem to believe that the rules of the surrounding world do not - or at least should not - apply to their chosen universe. Just because technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, any form of regulation is seen as an impediment to innovation from old people in government who do not "get it."
And yet, just along with the expansion of smartphone use, distracted driving-related accidents have gone up. While distracted driving-related fatalities remained essentially flat between 2011 and 2012 after rising sharply from 2010 to 2011, over 421,000 people were injured in 2012 from distracted-driving related crashes, up from 387,000 the year prior.
You see, technophiles, brilliant as we are, are not really exempt from the laws of physics, nor do we have superhuman capabilities to give our full attention to two things at once.
But we do seem to have a tendency towards buying into paranoid theories about reasonable government regulations when it comes to technology. It is natural for tech companies to resist these regulations - although it should be noted that companies like Google and Apple already have integrated voice commands into their mobile operating systems and maps - but public safety should take primacy over industry protests.