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SF envisions ways to regulate future technologies

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A Marble sidewalk delivery robot moves down Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District on July 21, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

The days of tech startups catching San Francisco flat-footed with the latest craze like sandwich-delivering robots or electric scooters could soon come to an end.

Since city laws often don’t specifically address new technology, startups have on more than one occasion exploited these gaps by launching products and then dealing with the political backlash later, a behavior summed up by the old saying, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to beg for permission.”

But San Francisco may soon try to head off these confrontations with legislation requiring all emerging technologies to obtain permits.

To come up with the regulations, an Emerging Technology Open Working Group began meeting in July and discussed draft recommendations at its fifth meeting Sept. 17. The meetings have drawn senior and pedestrian advocates, lobbyists, labor unions, city departments, large tech companies and smaller startups.

The draft recommendations are divided up into seven categories, including data privacy, “equitable benefits,” collaboration between tech and City Hall, enforcement and safety.

The working group was established by City Administrator Naomi Kelly as a result of a resolution approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors in April. Supervisor Norman Yee introduced the resolution after leading the charge to regulate robots using city sidewalks.

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Yee’s legislative aide Erica Maybaum said the intention is create more clarity for tech companies and a way for The City to evaluate impacts.

“If an emerging technology wants to be a good player, there’s no clear process,” Maybaum said.

The working group’s Sept. 17 report said “companies find it difficult to know where to start when interested in operating in The City.” To address this, one suggestion is to “designate a single point of contact​ to serve as an consistent entry point for companies seeking to deploy in San Francisco.”

The group also suggests creating “a ​proactive testing/pilot permit process​ to learn about operators, provide testbeds within the city, and define range of deployment options, which will inform the development of potential permit legislation, terms and condition.”

To address equity, the group has discussed coming up with a way to measure a new technology’s equity to ensure that the benefits expand beyond only a certain group of people.

Another suggestion is to create an “equity technology fund​ to support access for low-income communities” and “incentivize and promote ​apprenticeship programs​ at companies.”

Since the tech sector is dynamic, the group is attempting to figure out how The City can quickly respond to new developments.

“Right now, it’s all mobility,” Maybaum said. “But tomorrow, what comes next?”

One draft recommendation is to “hire staff within the City to forecast into the future ​ and use this intelligence to get ahead of regulatory issues.”

The group is also exploring data sharing and data protection, such as permits dictating the terms of both. A ​privacy advisory council​ is also being considered “to establish a governance framework for data sharing, cybersecurity and privacy with companies operating in public spaces.”

Maybaum decline to comment on the draft recommendations. “A lot of the ideas have potential but I don’t want to get ahead of the process,” she said.

The Emerging Technology Open Working Group will next meet Nov. 5, when it could finalize the recommendations. Kelly would next submit a report to the board, which could use the findings to introduce legislation.

“San Franciscans want to balance the benefits of emerging technology with reasonable concerns about equity, privacy, accessibility and use of the public right of way,” Kelly said in a statement to the San Francisco Examiner. “These ideas for action put us on the path to sound public policy and I look forward to working with Supervisor Norman Yee to continue enacting legislation in the best interests of our residents.”

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