Friday, November 29, 2013

The argument for regulating information

When Nobel Peace prizewinner Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned by Chinese authorities, his captors were unafraid that he alone, a single individual without guns, an army, or even military training, threatens the Chinese government, which has plenty of those items to spare. And few in the government would argue that Liu himself, or his ideas, are themselves irresponsible. He’s a well-educated, perfectly sensible individual well within his rights to think the thoughts he was thinking. No harm if he had simply stopped there.

When you or I, dear reader — the educated elite users of a product like the genetic testing service from 23andme, when we use the information about our genes, few at the FDA will argue that there is a danger. After all, we’re the early adopters, the people smart enough to seek this information in the first place. The trouble is not you and me, it’s them, don’t you know, the unwashed masses out there who may become — how shall we say this delicately? — overexcited, causing themselves potentially tragic — and avoidable — harm.

History shows that the ideas Liu outlined in Charter 08, might actually help China. Reasonable people, those bearing the full responsibility for the stability and long-term future of the country, have no fear of the ideas themselves. Once the country has matured a bit more, once the people are ready for this information, then yes, it may become appropriate to discuss the issues publicly. But right now, here in the real world, where leaders with actual accountability for China’s long-term stability, know that to throw Liu’s ideas out there, wily-nilly, without the proper preparation…well, think of what could happen if those ideas landed in the hands of the irresponsible masses who might be tempted to take action without understanding, as we do, the full consequences.

You see, an expert, whether at the FDA or in the Chinese Communist Party, has been carefully vetted, with years and years of education that brings a better sensitivity to the long-term benefits, as well as the potential downsides, that come with access to powerful ideas.

The government has been very patient with Liu Xiaobo, offering years of warnings, giving him plenty of time to realize the potentially destabilizing consequences of his behavior. The FDA was similarly patient with 23andme, spelling out over dozens of meetings and countless emails, precisely what the experts fear — know — can happen when important information gets into the wrong hands.

Liu Xiaobo has no gun, but many of his potential readers do. 23andme doesn’t perform mastectomies or administer drugs, but many of their potential readers may not be so limited.

You and I may be able to handle a world without sensible regulation of ideas and information. But do you really think that others can?

23andMe packagingSpeaker Pelosi With a Portrait of Liu Xiaobo at the Nobel Peace Center