Is privacy a barrier to innovation?

A common theme at this year’s IAPP Global Privacy Summit in Washington, D.C., this last week was: how do we address the concern that increasing demands for privacy might stifle innovation?

Well, I have a simple answer: innovation has always been driven by constraints and limitations. It is only the increasingly coddled and slothful culture of Silicon Valley that seems to think otherwise.

Two examples to underline my view.

Firstly, take a look at the two photos below:

The Millau Viaduct, France

Millau Viaduct, Tarn Valley, France
Photo: Emma Dupont

The Vasco de Gama bridge, Lisbon, Portugal Source:

The Vasco de Gama bridge, Lisbon, Portugal

Stunning feats of engineering and beautiful to boot.
And both constructed according to some of the toughest building codes and architectural standards on the planet.

If the architects had come along and said “Look at our beautiful design but please do not pester us with your petty requests to conform with the law, be safe, or expect us to accept any liability.” They would not get the contract. And yet that is exactly how the whiny young digirati of Silicon Valley would have us believe is the only way to do business: we want the right to build anything we want and to hell with restrictions – you are just cramping our innovation. That small group of multimillionaires may think it’s OK but I’m pretty sure nobody else agrees.

Furthermore, the opposite to their claim is more often true: that constraints and limitations actually spur innovation. Look at Dr Seuss.

The popular children’s author wrote “Green Eggs and Ham” in response to a $50 bet with Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf that he couldn’t write a book using 50 or fewer distinct words. His inspired book was the result of a seemingly impossible, if unrealistic constraint. The constraint enabled the innovation rather than stymied it and the book has sold more than 200 million copies worldwide.

So maybe it is time to tell app and software developers: if you’re so damned smart and innovative, go ahead and develop solutions that are smart, beautiful, privacy-protecting, easy-to-use and cheap – and please don’t come back to us until you have. That would be an innovation race on which I would gladly wager $50.

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