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A New Era for Government and Tech?

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Another day, another technological breakthrough.

News reports are filled with stories on technologies that improve peoples' lives. We hear about telemedicine delivery systems that allow rural patients' access to urban specialists, "virtual wallets" that allow us to pay for groceries with our cell phones, and "wearable" sensors that "read" our movement and sleep patterns to give us feedback on our health habits.

In the intelligent car field, new advances are popping up every week. This is good news for society, because we are seeing the beginning of a new era when intelligent technologies will save time, fuel, money and, most importantly, lives.

For instance, autonomous cars -- in which some or all of a vehicle's capabilities are fulfilled by the car itself without human interaction -- are being tested on roads now. These "driverless" or "self-driving" cars are capable of sensing the vehicle's surroundings and navigating without human input. This can reduce the human errors that lead to crashes and therefore save lives.

With the appearance of any new technology, there are questions. How will these technologies impact others on the road? What are the safety implications? How quickly can we see these benefits?

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is tasked with making sure our nation gets these questions answered.

As DOT's new Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote on his blog recently, "When we talk about making transportation safer, and being more efficient ... [w]e're talking about a transportation system that is stronger for the long-term. And for that to happen, we need every tool in the box ... and a few we haven't thought of yet."

However, some of the regulatory tools DOT was given by Congress many years ago weren't designed to work in a quickly-evolving technology space. Much of DOT's authority was created at a time when it took years for car designs to leave the drawing board and reach the showroom.

In the digital age, some technologies found in the car environment are developed in months, not years. And some software-based technologies can be changed wirelessly "over the air" in just minutes.

So in some cases it may make sense for all stakeholders -- industry, government, consumers -- to get together and collaboratively engage on the policy questions surrounding these technologies. This way, society would gain their benefits much sooner.

That's what another U.S. cabinet agency, the Department of Commerce and its National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) did when dealing with a technology that changes faster than laws can keep up -- it pursued a strategy that accounts for technology's ability to engineer around problems.

NTIA engaged in a "multi-stakeholder" process to protect the data of consumers who download mobile "apps" -- the mini-programs we load onto our smartphones and mobile devices every day. This multi-stakeholder process -- which brings together people to work out solutions to policy problems -- can be a nimble and effective tool for building consensus around important topics.

About a year ago, NTIA gathered stakeholders -- companies, consumer groups, and industry associations -- and began creating enforceable codes of conduct to protect consumer privacy.

On July 25, the stakeholders announced they had created a company code of conduct that will inform consumers how mobile apps are using their data. The model code -- which provides understandable privacy notifications -- will help those who download apps make informed decisions.

As the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the participants in the multi-stakeholder negotiations stated, "The goal of this code is to leverage competition among apps. Consumers can often load many different types of apps that serve the same purpose -- weather forecasts, news clips, games and many more. We believe that privacy can and should be one of the key criteria consumers use for making these determinations."

Traditional regulation does not always move quickly enough to keep up with technologies that outpace law, nor does it always encourage innovations that will bring more consumer- and society-friendly technologies to market more quickly.

The NTIA created a win-win-win solution with its multi-stakeholder process, because the parties have agreed to new business methods that incentivize companies to compete to serve consumers better.

Consumers have more control over their data, companies can continue to create innovative apps that allow the U.S. to lead the global market, and the government's meaningful work will make more of us feel free to use all of the advantages provided to us by the digital economy. Perhaps DOT -- and other agencies dealing with quickly-developing technologies that consumers have an appetite for -- will consider doing the same.