Thursday, May 22, 2014

Lawmakers weigh potential hazards against risk of stifling new technology

By Caitlin Rydinsky 

Faced with the rapid rate of technological development, lawmakers find themselves questioning how soon is too soon to act when it comes to regulating new technologies.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Ira Silverstein's proposal follows those in other states such as Delaware, Maryland, Missouri and Wyoming in attempting to ban the wearing of a new device called Google Glass while driving. This product resembles a pair of glasses, but also allows users to browse the Internet, take pictures or videos, make calls and even check their emails hands free. Wilson White, public policy manager and associate litigation counsel at Google, said their product let consumers “have the Internet there when they want it and away when they don’t.”

Google Glass offers features that could be appealing to drivers, such as a GPS navigation application. The device would also prevent users from having to look down to a phone held in their hands or at a dashboard mount. It is activated and controlled by the user’s voice, head tilts, nods and multiple touches to the side of the glasses. Still, policymakers in several states question whether they would prove to be an distraction for drivers. “That’s my main problem, my main issue with this bill is safety, and I think this technology can hurt people, especially when driving cars. It can distract drivers in a second and cause a wreck and ultimately a tragedy,” Silverstein said. He is sponsoring Senate Bill 2636, which would ban wearing the glasses while driving. Texting and talking on handheld phones while driving are  banned in the state.

Google Glass is still in a customer-testing phase. The devices were only available to developers until this month. Now anyone can buy them for $1,500.

Sen. Daniel Biss, a Democrat from Evanston, knows all too well the difficulties and challenges that arise when trying to regulate advancing technology before it is being widely utilized by citizens. He sponsored a new law that restricts law enforcement's use of aerial drones. “Your knee jerk response would be to regulate, but you probably don’t want to just do it at a knee-jerk level. But again at the same time, you want to have appropriate regulation,” Biss said.

Biss’ legislation bans law enforcement from using drones to gather evidence without a warrant. It does allow for some exceptions, such as in the case of a missing person or a terrorist attack. Biss said that opposition to his proposal caused him to spend a summer learning more about drones and how law enforcement might use them. The next step, he said, was educating his fellow legislators about the issue. “Look [the Senate] has 59 members and across the building [are] 118 more. They all come from different places and different points of view. It takes a while to get people comfortable with something, particularly when the concept is new.”

Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Democrat from Chicago, said that public awareness of the dangers of texting while driving was key to passing a ban on it. “Public outcry and public demand is crucial to passing policy like the texting ban.” Sandoval says a large amount of evidence is needed to get people to see that there is a danger and be willing to put aside their desire for the instant gratification of checking their text messages while they drive.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Toi Hutchinson says that sometimes lawmakers do not have to pass a bill to have an impact on technology. She is a sponsor of SB 3593, which would require cell phones to have a “kill switch” to make them inoperable if stolen. Hutchinson said that she thinks here bill and similar legislation in other states resulted from large manufacturers volunteering to make the changes without any law being implemented. “The industry finally realized they were not going to oppose this bill state by state by state,” she said. Hutchinson still hopes to pass her bill to make sure that the companies stick to their word and that smaller manufacturers also offer the feature.

Because Google Glass is still in the experimental stage, many lawmakers feel it is too early to start regulating it. Rochelle Republican Rep. Tom Demmer borrowed a pair of Google Glass from his staffer, who worked for a developer, and wore them on the House floor on a session day. He said: “We’re jumping the gun on some of the regulations that come with technology. Often times you see technology be introduced, among a small community developer, you know, a tech advanced community, and we don’t really know how it will be adapted by the general public yet.” Demmer says that legislators run the risk of stifling innovation if the rush to restrict the use of new products. “I think we need to be cognizant that those actions we take in terms of regulating technology have an impact on the economy on what kind of businesses start in Illinois, (and) who brings their business in Illinois.” 

Silverstein has started the process of educating lawmakers about Google Glass. A team from Google came this week to meet with the Senate transportation committee and demonstrate their product.

“As far as the legislation, I think it’s a bit premature right now and I think the company, Google, would say they are still developing it and making adjustments on it. So we will see what the end product is and take a look at the legislation,” said Rushville Democratic Sen. John Sullivan, who is on the committee. 

“I don’t think it’s too early” Silverstein said. He said that the widespread use of cellphones while driving illustrates the risk of being distracted by gadgets while behind the wheel. He said that the fact that some drivers are constantly checking their phones indicates that the would be using Google Glass to do the same things, such as texting or reading emails, while driving.

Biss said that lawmakers who want to make sure that new technology is being used in a safe way that protects privacy must do so within a system that is designed to move at a deliberate pace. “Technology is changing incredibly fast right now and we have a legislative process that is designed to be sort of slow. So we have this challenge of how do you react nimbly and quickly to these unbelievable, rapid and radical technological changes in a way that it is consistent with the work things out, talk things through (and) think things over approach of legislation.”

 Although SB 2636 does not seem to be moving forward in the spring legislative session, the issue is unlikely to go away. Those who felt that it is too soon to ban them behind the wheel agreed that as more people use Google Glass and competing products hit the market, it is possible that the General Assembly would weigh in with regulations.

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