Laws Don’t Apply Anymore

Technology is changing far too fast for the legal and social infrastructure to be effective.


One of the nifty things about technology is that it’s always new and always being refreshed. That creates problems, though. The speed with which technology is overhauled or changed out is so much faster than the social and legal infrastructure built to support and protect the people buying it, that the two worlds are now years, if not decades, out of sync.

The first whiff of this came in 1988, when Apple Computer Inc. sued Microsoft and HP for copyright infringement for taking the “look and feel” of the Macintosh OS and using it in Windows. (Ignore the part where Xerox claimed Apple infringed on its technology.) By the time the suit reached court and was ultimately decided in 1994—six years later—the technology on which the lawsuit was based was obsolete.

That was back during an era when design cycles were three to five years, and the legal process was still behind the pace of technological development. As we move into the IoT/IoE world, design cycles will be between 6 and 12 months, and accelerating. The whole patent system already is in disarray because it no longer can keep up. The courts, which are supposed to oversee patent cases, are backlogged. Companies that didn’t exist five years ago are becoming giants. And companies that rule the roost today may not exist in five years.

Broad-based technology cycles don’t change as quickly. The mainframe era opened the door to the minicomputer, which opened the door to PCs, with each of those taking about 20 years to progress before making room for another technology. The smartphone (and its early incarnation, the personal digital assistant) have been around roughly 20 years. And the Internet began to see widespread commercial adoption about 20 years ago, as well. That puts us right on schedule for the next big push us into the IoT/IoE era.

What’s interesting is this is just about the time we’re starting to see more legal action involving the current technology in smartphones. So by the time the legal system catches up and there is sufficient case law, the technology moves onto the next phase of development. The difference, though, is the IoT/IoE is cross-border and cross market, and the companies that are created to take advantage of these opportunities are subject to competition and innovation that is much faster, more nimble, and more targeted. Which means the rules that inevitably will need to be created to deal with issues of privacy, safety, liability and fairness have to follow those paths across borders, across markets and all of it much more quickly.

If a car fails because it gets hacked by someone in another country, who’s responsible? If a product fails because it cannot mesh with code from a different product, who’s fault is that. And if someone taps into your bank account using your smart refrigerator as an entry point, who’s at fault? Or what happens if your family photos, which were kept completely private on an encrypted hard drive, suddenly end up on a social media site?

These are all issues that will take time to iron out, and unfortunately there is no time to heat up the iron, let alone build one from scratch. Technology isn’t stopping, and people don’t seem willing to give up the benefits of what they’re getting from that technology. So it’s probably time to pay some serious attention to the infrastructure around the technology, because the greater the gap the more likely it will be to have a backlash effect that no one had planned for.