Will ‘Helicopter Policymakers’ Stifle New Technology Over the Long Term?

Sometimes policymakers want to alleviate anxiety about future conditions, which often manifests itself in calls for laws that will create “trust” in a particular industry.

by / January 15, 2016

After a decade as the freshman dean at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims recently wrote a book detailing how “helicopter parents” have succeeded in rearing a new generation of students who are highly accomplished in some respects, but over-dependent on their parents and therefore ill-prepared to face life on their own. A similar phenomenon can be found when state lawmakers and regulators hover over emerging technologies instead of letting them develop independently. The short-term results may be gratifying, but the long-term cost may be troubling.

The causes of helicopter parenting — fear of harmful consequences, anxiety about the future and peer pressure — are likely the same sources of helicopter policymaking. Take drones. There are several reasons policymakers intervene — some justified, some not. First and foremost, policymakers want to prevent physical, economic and social harms, like ensuring drones don’t crash into people. This makes sense. But sometimes policymakers want to alleviate anxiety about future conditions, which often manifests itself in calls for laws that will create “trust” in a particular industry. For example, some legislators have called for drone privacy laws despite states’ existing laws against stalking, harassment, peeping and other potential concerns. This is likely a case of being overly protective.

Then there are cases where policymakers may see other states passing laws and regulations and think they should too. To date, 32 states have enacted laws or resolutions relating to the operation of drones, and in 2015 alone, 45 states considered 168 different pieces of drone legislation. While some of these legislators are probably just showing a healthy level of interest in new technology, others might be showing themselves to be a new breed of “quadcopter” legislators.

Of course, many policymakers (and parents) take a very different approach. The opposite of helicopter parenting is “free range” parenting, where children are encouraged to exercise their independence based on their maturity and a realistic assessment of risk. (And, to be fair, some people call this normal parenting.) Not surprisingly, many people are uncomfortable with the ambiguity inherent in a more hands-off approach. In particular, their patience for this method is tested most severely when something goes wrong and they must wait to see if the private sector (or their child) can handle the challenge. These are times that force reflection and growth, and lead to greater self-reliance. For example, autonomous vehicles promise to save thousands of lives by improving driving safety, but inevitably some will be involved in fatal accidents. When this happens, how will policymakers react?

Just as parents shouldn’t neglect their children, this isn’t to suggest that legislators shouldn’t legislate or regulators shouldn’t regulate. There are times when policymakers should intervene, but they should show restraint and choose those cases carefully, such as if inaction would otherwise result in concrete harms or if industry is ignoring legitimate public concerns. In the case of drones, it makes sense for regulators to create new rules to ensure public safety and prevent accidents. Moreover, free-range policymakers aren’t mere libertarians; they actively support and champion innovative technologies and provide the nourishing environment that will let them flourish, such as by investing in research and making government an early adopter.

It isn’t just that policymakers should adhere more closely to the ethos of “permission-less innovation” because unnecessary policies may do more harm than good in the short term, but that interference may create an unhealthy dependence on government regulation to solve industry problems. For example, businesses may use early challenges to develop industry consortiums that later serve to create and share solutions to more complex problems that the industry will face in later years. Indeed, the healthy development of the Internet can be attributed, at least partly, to the strong problem-solving capabilities built by voluntary organizations like the Internet Engineering Task Force.

Many exciting innovations are coming of age, like the Internet of Things, the sharing economy and telehealth services. Some of these technologies will stumble as they grow. When they do, are policymakers prepared to let them regain their footing on their own?

Daniel Castro Contributing Writer

Daniel Castro is the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Center for Data Innovation. Before joining ITIF, he worked at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls.