Kevin and Avonte's Law, a piece of legislation recently passed by the Senate, is not strictly speaking a bill about regulating technology; it's an effort to safeguard children with autism from the dangers of wandering. More than 250,000 school-age children with developmental disabilities run away every year, so this is not a problem to sneeze at. A big chunk of the bill, though, is about access to particular technologies as a strategy to combat the wandering probelm. That means at least a little bit of regulating those technologies.
Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the sponsors of the bill in the Senate, went on the record saying that GPS devices sewn into the clothes of children with developmental disabilities could prevent death and other harm. That is an exact description of a technology developed by a company that is particularly excited about the new legislation: AngelSense. AngelSense CEO Nery Ben-Azar says that under the umbrella of Kevin and Avonte's Law AngelSense is looking to "partner with the federal government and create joint programs that would either fully reimburse or subsidize the costs for families." The legislation is a government effort to try to provide the means for families with children with development disabilities to use the most modern technology available to avoid harm.
There's an extra piece though: a bit of regulation of the technology comes along with making it available to more people. The bill calls for the Attorney General's office, along with the Department of Health and Human Services, to devise best practices in relation to privacy and data collection for technologies that will track wandering children with developmental disabilities. While it's not clear exactly what those best practices will look like, Ben-Azar is confident that the information required to protect these children will not pose a privacy problem. AngelSense only collects GPS data, which is "the same data that is collected about any cell phone," Ben-Azar said. The device has no recording function, so even though you can listen in with AngelSense, it does not record or store any audio data, and Ben-Azar says even the location data is only used in the emergency scenario. If we can protect children with autism by doing nothing more invasive than what Facebook or Google already does, most people don't have any issues with that.
That's the part of the discussion around Kevin and Avonte's Law that is so amazing: it hasn't been treated as controversial. Usually when the Attorney General's office is given a mandate to develop practices for data collection, or is involved in regulating any kind of technology, there is uproar. Every relevant company, non-profit, and academic group chimes in. Debates erupt on forums, in the tech press, and in journals. That is just not happening with Kevin and Avonte's Law.
Maybe it's because the AG's mandate is narrow. Maybe it's because the practices suggested will only apply to these particular devices. Maybe it's because people just think this is a good idea. Protecting children with developmental disabilities is the kind of public good most people want to see encouraged and making sure the privacy of the children themselves and of the people around them is maintained is also important. Or maybe it will become controversial if the Attorney General puts forth best practices that don't strike the right balance. But for now, there's no clamor.
This legislation that is effectively set up to encourage the proliferation of and then regulation of a particular kind of technology isn't getting the aggressive online debate treatment that most such bills do. Whether it's because it's niche or because it's actually uncontroversial, there may be lessons here for legislators in how to develop and frame regulation of technology.