App makers should take responsibility for the effects of their creations

Waze is routing drivers through residential neighborhoods, people are getting mad and governments are stepping in. Where does this lead?

App makers should take responsibility for the effects of their creations

Imagine you’re a parent, living with your family in a quiet suburban subdivision. With very little traffic, your kids happily play in the street in front of your house. And then one day, construction begins on a distant thoroughfare, and suddenly hundreds of cars are racing down your formerly sleepy side street seeking to avoid the backup. And those cars didn’t arrive there randomly, they were sent there by traffic and navigation apps like Google’s Waze.

For increasing numbers of people around the country, there’s no need to imagine this scenario, they’re already living it. And it brings up a couple of important questions: Who’s fault is this problem, and what can—and should—be done about it? The answers, unfortunately, aren’t simple.

Troubling questions

I’ve been thinking about the issue ever since I saw this story in Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post: Traffic-weary homeowners and Waze are at war, again. Guess who’s winning?

The article details incidents in California, Georgia, Maryland and Oregon, where growth or construction created traffic problems that prompted apps such as Waze to reroute drivers into residential streets. The article quotes a city councilman in an Atlanta suburb: “It used to be that only locals knew all the cut-through routes, but Google Maps and Waze are letting everyone know.”

The apps didn’t create the traffic, the councilman acknowledged, but they gave drivers options they wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

In response, homeowners have tried to confuse Waze by reporting fake accidents and speed traps, posting “No though traffic signs” and other measures, but those attempts don’t work for long.

Unintended consequences

The law of unintended consequences applies everywhere, it seems, even to software. While drivers may appreciate the ability to circumvent traffic jams, residents can be incensed when someone else’s commute impacts their quality of life—or even their safety. Though the article didn’t mention any accidents caused by the Waze-led drivers, that’s certainly a concern when drivers are “slaloming around dog walkers and curbside basketball hoops.”

That’s one reason why government agencies are increasingly stepping in to address these situations, posting “No Left Turn” signs in key intersections in Georgia, installing barrels to block through traffic on greenway bike routes in Oregon, and considering a motion asking traffic app makers “to exclude some small residential streets from their algorithms.”

Julie Mossler, Waze’s head of communications, was quoted in the Post story, saying “the traffic has to go somewhere.” The app will continue to route drivers down any legal street, she added, but Waze programmers are working to build in alerts about school zones and other slow-speed zones.

Overall, though, most app makers have shown a resolute disregard for any unintended consequences of their products. Uber and Airbnb, in particular, have fought hard against any and all government intrusions into their businesses and services, and they have so far largely managed to stay ahead of regulators.

Churlish, naïve or disingenuous?

Just as it would be churlish to contend that these apps don’t bring real benefits, it would be naïve or disingenuous to claim there are no downsides, either. So, who bears legal and moral responsibility for these unforeseen issues?

If the app makers won’t take the issues seriously—and most favor a scorched-earth reaction to regulation—governments will be increasingly forced to step in—often in the agonizingly slow, less-than-subtle way that governments typically move. Current examples of this include France fining Uber $907,000 and the city of San Francisco working on rules that would fine Airbnb $1,000 a day for not removing unlicensed renters. Of course, these kinds of responses carry their own risk of unintended consequences, and they could threaten to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

A better solution, by far, would be for app makers—including the developers who actually write the code—to take moral and practical responsibility for the effects of their apps: intentional and unforeseen, positive and negative.

Based on how these issues have gone so far, I’m not holding my breath.

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