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Conference Paper
Rónán Kennedy
Information and Communications Technology for Environmental Regulation: Critical Perspectives
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Information and Communications Technology Environmental Regulation
From online booksellers highlighting interesting items, social networking sites encouraging users to divulge personal information and auction sites using reputation-based systems to reassure consumers entering into transactions with strangers, computers can, and do, change human behaviour and have changed society in dramatic ways. There is, as a result, a considerable interest in the use of information and communications technology (ICT) for environmental regulation (ER). However, while there is now a substantial body of literature on regulation and ICT, this focuses on either the regulation of information (such as data protection) or the regulation of communications (such as freedom of speech online). It is also predominantly concerned with ICT as something to be regulated, rather than on the use of ICT for regulation (e-regulation). This paper attempts to fill this gap. The use of ICT for ER is not simply a matter of the increased use of computer technology or putting pollution data on the World Wide Web. While optimistic claims are made in this regard, the reality is more complex. ICT can play a significant role in improving the application, efficiency and effectiveness of government regulation, but the deployment of information technology often has unintended effects. A better understanding of the regulatory process and the social and economic consequences of making information available and processes more interactive is necessary in order to design appropriate systems. The information used in environmental regulation comes principally from the physical sciences. The connection between science, policy and law is not as linear or as coherent as it should be. It is not always the case that legislators, policy-makers and the general public are sufficiently scientifically literate to understand the basis of a regulatory scheme. The scientific models used in legislation may not be accurate or may lag behind the state of the art. They are an attempt to understand a system rather than the system itself. The creation, evaluation and choice of models can have important social, political and legal consequences. In addition, the data collected in order to apply these models may not itself be accurate. It may not be verifiable or consistent. Any regulatory system based on the analysis of information, particularly information expressed in numerical form, can be manipulated so as to avoid thresholds or other triggers for regulatory intervention. There is an unspoken assumption that ICT is autonomous and determines particular technical outcomes, rather than socially constructed and developed. It is not a neutral tool but a political intervention into a dynamic system. It can accentuate existing imbalances of power. As it becomes an increasingly significant component in the regulatory process, it can significantly slow down internal institutional, organisational and procedural change while further disempowering those external actors who were already excluded from the process by educational or financial disadvantage. It should not be thought that the legal decision-making process is a simple or linear system, easily amenable to modelling through computerised logic and expert systems. The implementation of an ICT system in a government context will begin to have an impact on legal processes and instruments; if the context is not properly understood and the system is not well-designed at the outset, this is likely to degenerate into a destructive feedback cycle. When in place, ICT may have unanticipated and undesired effects which are difficult to undo, becoming part of the infrastructure in a way that is very difficult and expensive to remove, unlike paper-based systems. The focus of study in e-government to date has been on the interface between the individual and the state. This tends to take a normative perspective in favour of the efficient access of services (the citizen as consumer), which is not always appropriate. We do not know enough about what ICT does to government processes, particularly regulatory systems. It generally views government action as a single-step decision-making event rather than an ongoing engagement (or game) involving diverse public, commercial and non-governmental entities. There has been little examination of the internal workings of the system and particularly not at processes that are information-intensive feedback loops. It is this gap which this paper aspires to fill.
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