Sascha Meinrath is tired of fighting tech's biggest policy battles from behind.
As the founder of the Open Technology Institute, an institution that's been advocating open internet initiatives since 2008, Meinrath in April launched X-Lab, an organization designed to "develop and respond to what's next in tech policy." X-Lab is small for the time being, but it has huge ambitions. Similar in theory to Google X, an organization inside the search giant dedicated to building the 'moonshot' technologies of five to ten years in the future, X-Labs will try to bring together technologists and policymakers to anticipate, educate, and in certain cases, warn against tech policies that could have a serious impact on human rights anywhere from three to ten years down the line.
"We're forced into a position in tech policy where bad stuff happens and we respond and do the best we can under those circumstances," Meinrath tells BuzzFeed.
"Our big wins in this scenario are usually a simple 'well, at least nothing bad happened!' and I think that over time that leads to this slow erosion of civil rights, human rights and a lot of our freedoms. And I wanted an entity that could be a vanguard — not for today's battles but for the policy battles of 2018 and 2020."
As tech's biggest ideas start to become reality, clashes between Silicon Valley and government will become increasingly frequent. Several large regulatory battles loom. Self-driving cars and commercial drones, for example, will have to clear complicated legal hurdles and compete with powerful lobbies before becoming commonplace.
While X-Lab is focused on the future, there's ample evidence of friction and disconnect between government and tech today, most notably the fight between open internet advocates and the FCC. The writer and former technology strategist Ben Thompson summed up the tech industry's last-ditch argument problem — the very problem Meinrath hopes to eliminate — in a recent post.
I sometimes fear that the tech industry as a whole learned the wrong lesson from the SOPA debate a few years ago. In that case much of the tech world came together at the last minute to defeat a terrible piece of legislation. It was certainly a great outcome, but I very much wonder how often the last-minute protest card can be played. Wouldn't it be better if we never got to the moment of crisis at all?
So, what are the biggest trouble spots on the horizon? Currently, Meinrath plans to focus on alternate communications infrastructures, like mesh networks, which could provide private and secure internet in conflict zones, low income areas, and regions crippled by natural disasters (Meinrath has worked on mesh networks in Tunisia as part of the Open Technology Institute), which could help to curb government surveillance. X-Labs will also tackle large and difficult topics like intelligent transportation, city smart grids, and the future of war.
Another area of focus will be centered around monitoring how 3D printing could change the manufacturing industry. "Media coverage has been centered on 3D printed guns but that feels like a red herring," Meinrath says. "What's going to be truly and totally disruptive are things like 3D printed car parts. We're going to watch what happens with everything from the teamsters to shipping to retail to what happens to the transportation infrastructure when materials they can be printed in-house and on demand."
Meinrath doesn't yet have an answer, but can see the massive change on the horizon. "We're looking at entire manufacturing industry facing a crisis like it hasn't since industrial revolution," he says. "We should be paying attention to what that means for the middle class workers who're in jeopardy of being replaced by automation."
While X-Lab will focus on protecting against the unexpected consequences of future innovations, Meinrath is adamant that the company will work with and for startups, entrepreneurs and tech companies and not against them.
"It's very much about supporting next-gen tech but balancing that with the rights of individuals and privacy rights," he says.
That said, the profit-motive imperative of the new tech giants will inevitably lead to situations that require regulation, particularly when it comes to data collection.
"At some point, we're going to have to make decisions as a society if we want to have consumer protection," says Meinrath. Right now it's the Wild West and there are so few rules and regulations. Tech impacts every facet of our lives; the solutions to these big problems will have to come from every facet of governance."