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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Permissionless Innovation vs. the Precautionary Principle

Should change need a government permission slip?

By Maggie Thurber | From

Should innovators have to obtain a permission slip from government before they create something? What if the product has the potential to cause harm in some unexpected way? What if it conflicts with cultural norms or traditions?

In cities across the country, taxicab commissions have appealed to government to stop Uber, Lyft and other such ride-sharing programs.

New York City has threatened Airbnb, a home rental company fueled by connecting homeowners with potential renters via the Internet.

What about things such as smart cars, drones delivering goods, biomedical devices and 3D printers — things just entering the mainstream?

These and other emerging technologies are facing intense scrutiny and disrupting established business models, but at the same time they’re providing consumers with faster service, more choice and lower prices.

But how, a certain faction might argue, will consumers know if it’s safe to get into an Uber vehicle or rent a room if some government entity hasn’t first decreed it allowable — and taken a share of the profits?

What if some new idea hurts an existing business? Should drones be used to avoid paying firms such as UPS or FedEx to deliver packages? What if that results in people losing their jobs?

These questions give rise to a growing policy debate about regulating these emerging technologies, and whether we will follow the “precautionary principle” or embrace “permissionless innovation.”

The trend toward the precautionary principle is “dangerous and must be rejected,” Adam Thierer argues in his book, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.”

Instead, Thierer says, policymakers should “unapologetically embrace and defend” permissionless innovation for the Internet and “all new classes of networked technologies and platforms.”

He defines the precautionary principle as the belief “new innovations should be curtailed or disallowed until their developers can prove they will not cause any harm to individuals, groups, specific entities, cultural norms, or various existing laws, norms or traditions.”

Permissionless innovation, Thierer explains, is the idea we’ve been following so far that “experimentation with new technologies and business models should be generally permitted by default.”

He argues that unless a “compelling” case can be made that an innovation will bring serious harm, it should be allowed to continue unabated.

Thierer makes five arguments in favor of permissionless innovation:

  • If we base public policy on the fear of hypothetical worst-case scenarios, innovation becomes less likely.
  • Wisdom comes from experience, especially when that experience comes from taking risks, making mistakes and sometimes failing.
  • Just because an ethical principle or industry best-practice evolved around various innovations doesn’t mean government needs to create a law or regulation.
  • The complex social problems resulting from innovation are best solved by a “bottom-up” approach.
  • Because of these truths, permissionless innovation should, as a general rule, trump precautionary principle thinking when it comes to making public policy.

Read more on permissionless innovation at