Regulation, Technology, Surveillance and more…..

March 31, 2009

I attended the first lecture in the {new lecture series:} sponsored by SCL and organised by OII on Monday. It was held in the Faculty of Law at the University of Oxford: this first lecture was by Professor Roger Brownsword of King’s College London on the topic of Regulation and Technology. My attempt to capture some of the conceptually rich analysis offered by Professor Brownsword is {here:}. Not being in any sense a regulatory lawyer, I felt surprised at the extent to which I enjoyed this lecture and at the speed with which the allotted hour passed.

Its timing has coincided fortuitously with the G20 gathering in London where a perceived need for much more effective regulation of the financial services industry on a global rather than national basis is very much at the top of the agenda. I remain deeply sceptical about the ability to achieve effective regulation at this level on any meaningful timescale. We have had regulation of financial services in spades at a national level for many years, and mostly it seems to lead to the premature death of whole forests, and a profusion of form-filling and tick boxes, but relatively little by way of substantive measures that make a real difference for the better to the way in which financial institutions treat their customers or manage systemic risks.

More generally, over-regulation of an overt kind seems to have become endemic in England, much of it driven by exaggerated concerns for health and safety of the “Mind the Gap” kind. On some rail networks the announcements have developed to the point where they form a monologue from the train manager in danger of lasting for the entire journey, including the other evening an invocation to make sure on leaving the train that I took all my “correct possessions” with me, whatever these might be.

For me Professor Brownsword’s lecture was at its most interesting when exploring the ways in which emerging technologies are themselves used as regulatory tools, controlling how large sections of our population might behave, and some of the darker aspects of this in areas such as the surveillance society – by reference for example to DNA profiling and databases (where the UK has one of the largest per capita databases so far created), CCTV surveillance, and biometrics. A link to the webcast of the lecture should be available within a few days.

More prosaically, on my way home, in the train’s “Quiet Zone” carriage, a passenger fell soundly asleep and started to snore, the volume increasing with each passing mile. Turning to my notes I wasn’t sure whether to wake the culprit and, with the help of other passengers, point out the inappropriateness of such behaviour (social pressure to ensure compliance with quiet zone requirements) or to call for the inspector to monitor the situation and if necessary punish the culprit for non-compliance (rule of law), or to get out paper and pen and start to generate a technological feature to the carriage design which would automatically control such behaviour – a form of ejector seat came to mind (design code). Professor Brownsword, where were you when I needed you!