It has been a tough few months for some of the U.S.’ biggest tech companies. Political upheaval has placed a big focus on data, privacy, and government contracts not only in the tech industry but across the public too.
You could easily argue that these organizations have been quiet in spite of considerable noise, but that might be changing. Brad Smith, Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer today (13 July) wrote a blog post arguing in favor of regulation of facial recognition technology.
What Brad Smith argues in his blog post
In his blog post Brad Smith sets the context clearly. He argues that while facial recognition technology can be “both positive and potentially even profound,” it also “raises a critical question: what role do we want this type of technology to play in everyday society?”
For Smith, that question can’t be answered by tech companies alone. “As a general principle,” he writes, “it seems more sensible to ask an elected government to regulate companies than to ask unelected companies to regulate such a government.”
As Smith also notes, we shouldn’t actually be that surprised at a company asking for government regulation. In other industries, it’s actually common. Smith cites the aviation, food and pharmaceutical industries as areas in which corporations work closely with government to develop regulation and legislation.
However, Smith doesn’t outline anything specific with regards to legislation. Instead he is much more keen to urge a “thoughtful approach” from government, as a challenge to ways of using facial recognition technology that could be exploitative.
He does, however, argue for Congress to form a bipartisan expert commission to properly assess the uses (and abuses) of facial recognition technology. “The purpose of such a commission should include advice to Congress on what types of new laws and regulations are needed, as well as stronger practices to ensure proper congressional oversight of this technology across the executive branch,” he explains.
Does Brad Smith think tech companies still have responsibility?
In short, yes. Although Smith believes the debate and discussion around facial technology has to take place in a civic space away from the demands of industry and government, he is forthright in asserting technology companies’ responsibility in developing and deploying new technologies.
He outlines 4 things that the tech industry can do to ensure that facial recognition technology is used ethically:
- Working to minimize bias in machine learning and artificial intelligence systems
- More transparency in how facial recognition technology is being developed and used
- Being more cautious in how facial recognition technology is applied
- Actively participating in public policy discussions around facial recognition technology
Are things changing in tech?
Although it’s only a blog post, this is one of the first instances of a senior figure at a tech company talking positively about working with government. Contrasted with Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony, it couldn’t look more different.
At a time when conversation around the ethics of technology has never felt more visible and urgent, Brad Smith’s intervention is welcome. How the wider tech world and government responds is another matter.