When you plug in your phone, it lights up and begins charging. This is part of the texture of modern life, a thing so mundane we don’t even think about it. But what’s more interesting is what doesn’t happen – the wall socket doesn’t burst into flames and your phone doesn’t melt into a puddle of hot goo.
It’s not because we have a Making Phone Chargers That Don’t Start Electrical Fires Act and an accompanying set of complex regulations. We have instead — to take just one example — the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act that prohibits products that are “a danger to human health or safety.”
That’s quite a broad prohibition, though, and a constantly moving target. How could any regulatory apparatus keep up with this?
The short answer is that they don’t. Instead, they rely heavily not on law or on regulation, but on the third layer of governance that is mostly invisible to policymakers in Parliament – standards.
Standards are deeply embedded in making sure that the basics of modernity we take for granted, like safe and reliable consumer goods. Deep in the bowels of the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act is a part that says that the Minister can make a wide range of regulations, but the law also says that the Minister can “ incorporate by reference.” That means the government can essentially adopt documents produced by other organizations, including standards bodies.
There are strong incentives for companies to embrace interoperability and compatibility – safety is one of them, of course, but standards like Bluetooth, USB and HDMI that make life easier and more convenient have become household names in their own right. So industry organizations bring together technical experts, companies, public interest stakeholders and government to create rules that lead to phones that don’t melt and wall sockets that don’t catch fire, like electrical safety codes.
While governments can hire technical and regulatory experts, it would be enormously hard for them to do so in every field at once. The good thing, as we’ve seen, is that they don’t have to.
Even with the accelerating pace of change in different families of technologies, from semiconductor design to AI, standards bodies are working hard to create and keep up to date countless standards that ensure quality and keep people safe.
So, embracing standards can free up government capacity to focus on important priorities and allow innovators a degree of regulatory certainty, as well as present opportunities to create foundational, building-block technologies that many other companies rely on. Can the public rely on a system this convenient?
Standards development organizations in Canada are overseen by the Standards Council of Canada, a Crown corporation that reports to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. Standards development itself is a process that is governed by rules, and is, in terms of transparency and openness, certainly about as good as the regulatory process itself. Standards are also routinely updated, and in fact they ‘expire’ after a few years if they aren’t. Compliance with many standards is also routinely audited.
We discussed in our Mooseworks Hot AI Summer series, as well as in our Roadmap for Responsible AI Leadership, that standards recognition can be a powerful and flexible way for government to take advantage of independent, bottom-up processes, a tool that governments should be looking to take advantage of more often in more areas.
This summer, the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) published a great paper by Michel Girard on using standards more broadly as a digital governance tool. It’s an excellent idea. With a little bit of legislative streamlining, we could make it easier for government to recognize standards as a complement or alternative to prescriptive regulations.
Essentially, Girard proposes that the government could recognize standards as legal equivalents to regulations. Used well, this could save regulators a lot of time and energy and allow them to focus on areas where they are adding the most value. At the same time, this would give innovators a lot of certainty and engage them to build consensus in a constructive and proactive way with public interest and government stakeholders.
As Parliament returns, with a heavy agenda of complex digital economy issues, policymakers should think hard about embracing standards as a serious venue for regulatory innovation and give the invisible layer its due.
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