Tech viewpoint on government regulation
A view from Martin McNulty

Tech viewpoint on government regulation

Ever since Google Glass entered the public consciousness some 18 months ago, it has divided opinion. For some, it's the poster child of the wearable-tech revolution. For others, it's the gadget equivalent of the emperor's new clothes.

It’s easy to understand why Glass has generated a stronger reaction than its wearable-tech peers. First, Glass is the cash-rich love child of the uncool Bluetooth earpiece, beloved by cabbies and the folk who wore their BlackBerry in a holster. Second, there’s the awkwardness of talking to someone with a camera on their face.

But the biggest issue by far is Googlephobia. After Street View, the idea of the world’s biggest data company getting even more data is right up the street of the foil-hat brigade.

People have been ejected from restaurants for wearing Glass. It has been banned in UK cinemas, attracting national media coverage – even though it has been illegal to film in cinemas for years. And, now, even the Government is wading in.

It seems that the Information Commissioner’s Office is keen on the idea of extending CCTV legislation to Glass and wearable tech in general. The ICO may be suggesting regulation should apply only to organisations – rather than individuals – that use the tech. But, even so, it’s a wrong approach.

This isn’t a strategic shift by Google into devices, it’s a prototype. Glass won’t be the next iPhone, and I expect others to lead in wearable-tech hardware. Google is going to have a big say in wearable tech in terms of software and data. Which makes the "regulate the device" reaction all the more extraordinary.

Governments seem stuck in a mode of knee-jerk, ill-thought-out reactions. Remember the fuss over cookies and the subsequent reversal of policy? Glass is the latest innovation to fall victim to Whitehall’s "living in a cave" attitude towards technology.

Google Glass is the latest innovation to fall victim to Whitehall's 'living in a cave' attitude to technology

Smartphones have been mainstream for years. Anyone can point and record, and there’s little regulators can do about it. GoPro lets skiers and cyclists capture their exploits in vivid HD. And now we have Glass.

Glass isn’t the same as a mobile phone; but nor is it the same as a CCTV camera – a device expressly designed for surveillance.

With smartphones at one end of the spectrum and CCTV at the other, there is a large grey area in the middle. Where do you draw a line? How would you know if the usage of a device is for an organisation or a person? How would you enforce it?

Yes, regulators should be thinking about how developments in technology impact our privacy. But the ICO’s comments do little more than remind us that its focus is short-term regulation rather than long-term innovation.

Martin McNulty is the chief executive at Forward3D