How can we incentivise the digital world to make safer services?

Justine Leblanc
Apr 20, 2018 · 8 min read

Understanding regulation history through railways, engineering and cars.

Photo by Georgina Bourke / IF (CC BY-SA)

Throughout history, new technology has resulted in new policy. However, historical patterns shows that regulation can lag behind innovation. In the case of the railways, there were 40 years of accidents and monopoly before lawmakers intervened within the industry.

The string of recent data breaches have many wondering what it will take for companies to take people’s data security seriously. Looking back at other industries that were transformed by technological progress can help us understand how safety becomes a priority.

In the case of railways, and other technological innovations, what prompted lawmakers and regulators to decide that regulation was necessary? Three interesting examples stand out: railways in the United Kingdom, engineering in Canada and cars in the United States. The regulation of each of these technologies tells an interesting story. Can we learn from them how to make digital products and services safer?

Railways in the UK: Public interest as a trigger for regulation

The Office of Rail and Road writes that today, “Britain’s railways are among the safest in Europe”. However, 175 years ago, before regulation, the system was “downright dangerous.”

In the early 19th century, when railway companies first cropped up, they were allowed to build without consulting the government. The industry grew fast: in 1807, the first horse-drawn service carrying passengers made its way from Swansea to South Wales. Eighteen years later, horses were replaced by locomotives for the first time.

It took almost 40 years for the government to begin regulating the railway industry. But once it started, safety regulation expanded quickly.

The first notable step in regulating railways in the UK was the 1840 Railway Regulation Act. The act created the Railway Inspectorate, which was responsible for regulating construction of new railways, investigating accidents and addressing safety failures. In 1844, a second Railway Regulation Act imposed minimum and maximum speeds, improved conditions in third-class carriages and other safety regulations that survive to this day. It’s important to note that these measures passed despite fierce opposition from railway companies, who feared these standards would hurt their profits.

Researchers have different hypotheses as to what triggered this appetite for regulation amongst lawmakers after 40 years of unregulated railways. McLean and Foster, in exploring the political economy of regulation in the Victorian age, argued that legislation stemmed from public safety concerns. As trains became the most popular and convenient mode of transport, lawmakers believed there was a need to intervene in the railway business “with due regard to the safety of the public.” (McLean and Foster 1992, 317)

By the time the 1844 Act was being debated, government was increasingly concerned with safety: there had been multiple fatal incidents caused by trains, and there are records of several MPs publicly recounting “stories about the dreadful things the railway companies had done to their constituents.” (McLean 2002, 17) William E. Gladstone, president of the Board of Trade at the time and main proponent of this legislation, was careful to position the bill as essential to public safety. Regulation of the railways in the 1840s won support by lawmakers because they believed it was in the interest of the public.

Canadian Pacific Railway bridge over Fraser River (1901)

Engineering in Canada: Accountability as a trigger for regulation

Different to the example of railways in the UK, the field of engineering in Canada didn’t become regulated because of a specific safety failure. Rather, a generational change and a shift in attitudes after World War I, led engineers to value increased accountability. These changes led to the founding of a tradition that persists to this day, and reminds generations of engineers of their responsibility towards public safety.

The Canadian Society of Civil Engineers (CSCE) was founded in 1887 by a group of engineers, with a stated goal of facilitating knowledge sharing, research and the development of professional connections.

At the time, engineering was still a recent profession in Canada, but it was growing fast with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Within its first year, discussion about using the CSCE to professionalize engineering began. It was inspired by similar efforts in connected professions. For example, land surveyors had united before the CSCE was founded, and after their organization was created, engineers could not carry out land survey work without an apprenticeship and exam.

However, the idea of doing something similar for engineering was met with robust opposition. Thomas Keefer, the founding president of the CSCE who put forward this idea, claimed that this opposition was due to “the reflection that the founders of the profession in Great Britain and the United States were born Engineers, and sought only a free field and asked no favours.”

After World War I, attitudes towards engineering began to change. Mechanical and electrical engineering, recent branches of the profession, had been essential to the war effort. It cemented engineering as essential in promoting the safety and well-being of people. The organization grew and changed its name in 1918 to the Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC). The EIC reintroduced the idea of regulating the profession of engineering, and this time, the measure was popular. In 1922, seven of the (then) nine provinces passed legislation which regulated the engineering profession, on the recommendation of the EIC.

In 1922, the EIC set up a tradition which remains a fixture of the professional development of an engineer in Canada. Rudyard Kipling created the ceremony which became The Ritual of Calling of an Engineer, after a Canadian engineer wrote to him asking for ideas on a ritual to induct new engineers into the profession. The point of the ceremony is to direct “the newly qualified engineer toward a consciousness of the profession and its social significance.” Kipling’s writings are read to the graduating class and an iron ring is given to every new engineer. It is meant to represent the irons from which bridges were built in the 20th century — many of which had collapsed in the years before 1922. It serves to remind the engineers who wear it of their civic duties and fallibility. During the calling, engineers swear to be diligent and watchful of the work they put out into the world. The ring serves as a reminder for the rest of their professional life.

The automotive industry in the USA: Public outrage as a trigger for regulation

When it comes to road safety in the US, the history of regulation is very different. It wasn’t promoted by a specific safety failure or from within a profession. Instead, Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed” is widely credited with heightening safety standards in the automotive industry.

Published in 1965, it summarised Nader’s years of research, as a law student and a lawyer, into car safety and its shortcomings. His goal was to push for the creation of an agency responsible for generating and enforcing safety standards for cars. The book attracted significant attention and created pressure to change automotive safety policy.

Andy Warhol’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupé (1954), 1986 (copyright The Estate and Foundation of Andy Warhol / VBK, Vienna)

Nader became interested in car safety when he hitchhiked across the country as a young adult and witnessed terrible accidents on the road. Unsafe at Any Speed detailed the design features of cars that made them dangerous including “metal dashboards and steering wheels and car doors vulnerable to open or fall off in a collision,” (Parry 2011, 257). This led Nader to declare that there was “gap between existing design and attainable safety.” The book was an incredible success, standing alongside In Cold Blood in 1965’s list of nonfiction best-sellers.

Nader’s book and the public outcry that it caused led to the passage of the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. The Act created an agency in charge of ensuring that every model put out by the automobile industry met a set of safety standards.

As Christopher Jensen writes in his appraisal of the legacy of Nader’s book: “Suddenly, what consumer advocates saw as an unfettered auto industry was facing much stronger federal oversight.” Stringent safety regulations led to many technological innovations that are now considered standard safety features in a car, like airbags, seatbelts and anti-lock brakes. Public outcry and legislative interests made the automotive industry take passengers’ safety more seriously, which in turn pushed them to create technology to make cars safer.

What about digital?

Trigger points for regulation have varied depending on the field, the period of history and the country. However, the thing all these triggers have in common is a change in attitudes. People need to demand change to incentivize companies to make their products and services safer.

If we look at the lack of regulation around digital, we can see some clear parallels to the railways in the Victorian age. The industry had grown, unchecked and unregulated, to become a huge part of people’s everyday life. Safety concerns were often disregarded if they were seen as a threat to a company’s profit maximization. When legislators finally decided to regulate the industry and enforce a certain set of standards, railway companies bristled and protested.

Photo by Georgina Bourke / IF (CC BY-SA)

A faulty train line, or an accident caused by poor car safety is easily understandable. In comparison, it can be difficult to grasp the safety issues we face online as similarly dangerous. When people don’t understand the things they use, it is difficult for people to recognize when their rights are abused and how data about them is being used. These uneven power dynamics between people and services can have dramatic consequences on our society and democracy. For example, writing on Cambridge Analytica’s influence on the Kenyan election, Larry Madowo positioned the scandal as a prime example of how digital can perpetuate colonial power structures. He writes that Cambridge Analytica’s campaign strategy of collecting information and exploiting ethnic divides resulted in many innocent lives lost in the aftermath of the contested election.

As previously occurred with railways, engineering and cars, we could now be on the cusp of a policy shift. Digital is facing an unprecedented number of regulatory triggers. The market incentives are there — recent research shows the immense cost of data breaches, and that strong privacy policies can save a company millions. With GDPR coming into effect soon in Europe, companies are incentivized through legislation to handle data with care. This could have a ripple effect across the world. Finally, public concern and awareness about privacy issues is growing in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations.

Going forward

Whilst we can learn from the history of other technologies, digital will need a completely new approach to be effectively regulated. We need more than just laws and regulation. We need new designs to fix what’s broken in digital safety. The three examples above offer lessons on some steps we can take to make digital safer:

  • First, railway regulation taught us that the public interest can be a powerful incentive for legislators’ to regulate an industry.
  • Second, public outcry can create the necessary pressure for governments to hold companies accountable, as we learned from the auto industry.
  • And finally, professionalization can create a sense of responsibility amongst those whose work is instrumental in ensuring our safety. Could this be the way forward for digital?

Drawing historical parallels gives us some interesting potential starting points for thinking about the future of digital policymaking. We should learn from history what works and what doesn’t, and find a way to make the digital world safer.

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