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November 27, 2006

Blog 12: Big Brother Society – Public Policies and Information Technology

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When one asks the question, “What is the difference between liberals and conservatives,” one might get an answer like, “liberals are more accepting, and conservatives are more traditional.” Well, the actual difference between the two groups actually stem from the differing viewpoints on the role of government: liberals advocate heavy government involvement in the society, while conservatives advocate a limited government involvement in the society. Both groups, however, do not deny the importance of a government’s role in building infrastructure, (i.e. roads, schools, currency, etc). Such consensus exists because government’s public policy can provide something that will not be provided by individuals otherwise, maximizing societal welfare. A widely debated upon topic in public policy, accordingly, is the debate of what maximizes societal welfare.

The rise of information technology has created a debate in the field of public policy. In the UK, for example, Traffic officers today began piloting a hand-held fingerprint reader which they believe will “dramatically reduce the time it takes to identify suspects stopped by police.” ( here.) What’s the economic effect? Since police will be able to identify suspects without taking suspect drivers for formal fingerprint identification at police stations, it saves a lot of money. On a broader stroke, this also inhibits – at least discourages – individuals from giving false identification, decreasing their willingness to participate in crimes. From a public policy standpoint, this is befitting in our definition of “the role of government.” Such application of IT has expanded beyond the boundaries of police enforcement. Electronically enhanced healthcare has long been promoted as, “reducing costs, improving quality and efficiency and treating more patients with the same resources” (Click here). This, in fact, is one of the key reasons why governments around the world are heavily investing in IT technology. In fact, European Joint Technology Initiative (JTI) announced that they will conduct research in embedded computing systems, with 3 billion euro expected to be spent on electronics and software from 2007-2013. You can read that article here.

Should investment in information technology be a concern of governments? Perhaps. Some investments are too costly for any individual to provide the infrastructure. The invention of a hand-held fingerprint reader, for example, is a very costly adventure that would cost millions of dollars in research and development. The invention of such tools, based on government expenditures benefit the society at large greatly. Could there be any downside to it? Definitely. First, there is a limited amount of capital that governments can spend. An expenditure in a certain area (i.e. information technology), necessarily takes away expenditure in another area (e.g. education). Second, history proves that excessive government involvement in the society has often led to the destruction of a democratic process. While the application of fingerprint readers or web-based CCTV cameras can save money, it comes at the cost of citizen giving up a right to check the power of the government. The absence of such check destroys government transparency, which many fear would lead to a “big brother” society. In the UK, for example, there is a pervasive fear that the government will implant microchips to its citizens so that people can be tracked. (You can read that article here). Such system would greatly reduce crime, since a suspect automatically becomes a convict. Yet, is that the kind of society we want?

What about the regulation of information technology? Internet has arguably been the greatest invention of the 20th century, having big effects on economy, information, and the society. Very little of the Internet is owned, operated, or even controlled by governmental bodies. According to Robert Kahn, the Internet indirectly receives government support through federally funded academic facilities that provide some network-related services. You can read that article here). Increasingly, however, the Internet communication services is being handled by commercial firms on a profit-making basis. How has this policy held? While that loosened government surveillance of internet, internet has been a platform for terrorist organizations, drug dealers, and child molesters. Moreover, identify thefts has become epidemic.

Why do these offences occur? Quite simply, the cost of violating the law online depends on the severity of punishment and the probability that they will get caught. While the government has legislated strict punishments against online violators, the probability that they will get caught is extremely low. This is the dilemma that public policy must address. At the end of the day, we believe that it is the role of the government is to strike the balance between its need to get involvement in the information technology industry and the citizens’ need to be protected from the government.

Posted by willmoon at November 27, 2006 12:42 AM

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