Sunil Paul: Apps Transcend Laws

In the days after the Newtown massacre, my uncle posted on Facebook that there must be some sort of technological innovation that could prevent future mass murders. His example was a firearm that could only fire once every five minutes. My response was that we don’t need innovation, we merely need reasonable gun laws. It was technological innovation that created the machine gun in the first place. If you want a weapon that only fires once every few minutes, let’s go back to bolt-action, single-shot rifles — most inexperienced, potential killers would be stumped (there are few Lee Harvey Oswalds and Charles Whitmans). This wouldn’t necessitate any technological solution. What are you going to do? Put biometric scanners on every trigger to ensure only the owner fires it? Good luck with that. The NRA won’t even allow full-on background checks.

My larger point in this is that the technological solutionism offered by people — people far more involved in the future of technology than my uncle, which is not a knock on him — is disconnected from the day-to-day reality and the potential and limitations of inserting such “technological innovations” into policy is completely ignored by such “innovators” or “disruptors.”

Sunil Paul continues to provide a valuable (if rather naive) target, if only because he’s a very vocal evangelical of the “technology should transcend laws” religion.

When I last left off, he was violating — loudly and proudly — the laws of Austin, resulting in ticketing and impoundment of the vehicles of some users of his app, SideCar. This was during SXSW. He was fairly indignant and snotty in interviews. It really irked him that, once again, a city was enforcing its laws — laws that he, his employees and users of the app were knowingly violating. I also mentioned some of the possible immediate and long-term socioeconomic consequences stemming from his app.

Question: Didn’t he threaten to sue Austin over the ordinance? Did he follow-through? I’d like to see it. Oh, here’s a little about it (aside from Sunil’s blog post announcing it).

Well, now he’s taking on the Big Apple. Officials there are no more happy with Paul and SideCar than Austin was. But this time his rhetoric has become more extreme. Take this sentence, which pretty much sums up his (flimsy) argument in all the cases/places SideCar has had problems:

If something is not prohibited by code then it should be allowed.

That’s an absurd statement. The “code,” or law, creates standards and limitations and licenses for a reason. He may interpret the code differently, but that doesn’t allow him to break it. In the end, it’s the argument of a man who both subscribes to the idea of technological solutionism and is driven by profit motive. Consequences be damned. His is a view devoid of the very real, very informed aspects of law, the appropriate way to change such policies and a willingness to engage with stakeholders to convince them of any benefit of this service or why it should be allowed at all. Likely, such an examination would find that SideCar provides no real social benefit — but they may still approve a policy change. That’s less likely to happen if your default approach to policymakers is litigation and statements such as:

If you want to be disruptive you’ve got to piss people off.

You probably aren’t going to get far with that attitude. This isn’t the Civil Rights Movement, Sunil. But if one of your cases makes it to the Supremes, maybe apps will be given the status of personhood as well. Such nonsense has happened before.

(As can be seen in the article, Jay Bregman, founder of Halio, a SideCar competitor, favors my approach — but, then again, he’s gone through the proper channels to license his product. His approach will probably earn him much more money, respect and contracts than Sunil Paul’s.)

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