San Francisco

San Francisco Wants to Require Companies To Get Permits Before Rolling Out 'Emerging Technology'

The city's Board of Supervisors has proposed creating an Office of Emergent Technology to regulate new inventions using public spaces.


Companies in San Francisco might soon to be required to get a permission slip from the city before rolling out their new innovations in public spaces.

On Tuesday, Norman Yee, president of the city's Board of Supervisors, introduced a bill that would create the Office of Emerging Technology (OET). Entrepreneurs looking to deploy any emerging technology "upon, above, or below" city properties or public rights-of-way would need to first obtain a pilot permit from the OET's director.

"As a city, we must ensure that such technologies ultimately result in a net common good and that we evaluate the costs and benefits so that our residents, workers and visitors are not unwittingly made guinea pigs of new tech," said Yee in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Over the years San Francisco's tech companies have deployed all kinds of inventions in public spaces, including package delivery robots and dockless electric scooters. But because these innovations were, well, innovative, no specific rules initially existed to govern their use.

That has irritated city residents and officials who've resented new vehicles popping up in public space without specific rules governing their operation.

Naturally, city officials have scrambled to create what they consider to be appropriate regulations, which has proved chaotic and heavy-handed. To smooth out this process, Yee has proposed the OET as a sort of regulatory catchall department that will tailor regulations for each new innovation before they hit city streets.

Under Yee's bill, companies wanting to try out emergent technologies would have to secure a permit from OET. OET's director would be empowered to reject permit applications or otherwise require applicants to abide by any conditions he or she deems necessary to protect "the public peace, safety, health, and welfare" of pedestrians and other users of public spaces.

Provided companies can convince OET their new technology is a net win for the public good, they would be given permission to run a pilot program. This permission would be in addition to any other permits or licenses required by San Francisco's existing regulatory bodies.

Members of the public could also request a public hearing on any new emergent technology company seeking a permit.

OET-sanctioned pilot programs would last for up to a year, after which time the office would determine if the technology is safe, secure, and provides for the common good, says a spokesperson for Yee's office. Provided it did, recommendations would be made to either extend the pilot or create a more permanent permit program.

Yee sees this more restrictive, precautionary approach as vindicated by history.

"When I tried to ban the delivery robots, I was seen as anti-tech," he said at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting. "A few weeks later when hundreds of scooters were dumped on our sidewalks, everyone understood."

Yee's bill—which was developed with the input of tech companies and other city departments—is also intended to streamline things for businesses who are often unsure which city permissions they need to secure before rolling out their new idea.

But the trouble with trying to predict the problems of innovation is that innovation is inherently unpredictable, says Michael Munger, a political scientist at Duke University.

"Regulators cannot possibly foresee the consequences of most tech (and neither can I, or anyone else)," writes Munger in an email. That's why, he says, governments should instead "lay out the principles of safety, health, and privacy, and have quick and substantial sanctions for violations of the principles."

A system that requires companies to ask for permission before innovating, he says, could also easily be abused by competitors trying to stifle new rivals from entering the market.

There is also a concern that any OET director will be pressured to use the huge amount of discretion they have to require companies to bend over backward for entrenched interest groups.

That's essentially what's happened with dockless scooters. The vehicles emerged on city streets in early 2018 only to be declared a public nuisance and impounded en masse.

Come next week, four scooter companies will finally be allowed to operate under a new permanent permit program—which replaces a current pilot program—but only after they came up with detailed plans for boosting low-income ridership, furthering equity, adopting good labor practices, and conducting proper community engagement.

The city currently approves housing through a model similar to the one Yee is proposing. Developers have to meet a long list of requirements before being allowed to build, community groups have ample opportunities to provide input, and city officials often have the discretion to reject projects or heavily condition their approval.

This has proven pretty disastrous for the well-established development industry. It's anyone's guess what it will do to startups trying out new ideas to see what sticks.

NEXT: Trump Brushes Off the Threat of Free ISIS Militants Because 'They're Going to be Escaping to Europe'

San Francisco Technology Electric Scooter Transportation Policy Regulation

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

Please to post comments

53 responses to “San Francisco Wants to Require Companies To Get Permits Before Rolling Out 'Emerging Technology'

  1. This is the same Board of Supervisors that has declared the NRA to be a “terrorist organization.”

    What could possibly go wrong?

    1. Every laundromat will have to use existing technology forever, and be declared historic landmarks?

    2. Hey now! There’s nothing wrong with SF that a US military deployment of VX nerve has couldn’t cure.

      Think of it as ‘chemotherapy’.

    3. 1966: “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop.” — Time Magazine.

      1981: “Cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems.” — Marty Cooper, inventor.

      1995: “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” — Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com.

      2005: “There’s just not that many videos I want to watch.” — Steve Chen, CTO and co-founder of YouTube expressing concerns about his company’s long term viability.

      2006: “Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cell phone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.'” — David Pogue, The New York Times.

      2007: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” — Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO.

      1. 1876: “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” — William Preece, British Post Office
        1883: “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” — Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society
        1889: “Fooling around with alternating current (AC) is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” — Thomas Edison
        1932: “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable.” — Albert Einstein
        1936: “A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere” — New York Times (officially retracted in 1970)
        1946: “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” — Darryl Zanuck
        1970: “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make” — Paul Ehrlich
        1977: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” – Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC)
        1998: “By 2005, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.” — Paul Krugman

  2. Are there actually any products that would be affected by this new permitting rule that weren’t already subject to some other permitting rule? They already had separate regulatory structures for cars, scooters and bikes.

    1. Yeah, kinda hard to imagine that there’s not already a regulatory scheme for everything under the Sun, but apparently there’s still a few pencil-pushers, paper-shufflers, dead-beats, gold-brickers and Executive Assistant Chief Deputy Assistants in need of a job.

  3. As a city, you have no mandate to ensure anything of the sort, nor does anyone in the city governments have the expertise or the basic intelligence to make such an evaluation.

    1. Check out Thomas Jefferson over here.

    2. But, just think of the fees that SF will gain. I am sure approval will cost big bucks and SF sure needs the funds to implement its wacky ideas. Think of building inspection fees….same sort of idea.

  4. Isn’t the Office of Emerging Technology itself an emerging technology? Those fuckers better have a permit for that shit.

    1. Beautiful. Defining “emerging technology” is probably a career for several folks at the OET.

  5. Freedom means asking permission and obeying commands.

  6. …also intended to streamline things for businesses who are often unsure which city permissions they need to secure before rolling out their new idea.

    The answer is always all of them.

  7. Imagine the SFC BoS running a primitive village where people sleep on the ground in rags. OK, imagine this in a time frame 2000 years ago. Now imagine their legal restrictions on innovation (but will such noble aspirations for equality and community engagement).

    I guess either way, SFC ends up looking the same.

    1. “Sorry, Gurg, it will take us a few years’ worth of committee meetings and societal impact tests before we’re willing to let you use this ‘wheel’ thing in our village.”

      1. Suppose someone lets go of this “wheel” and it rolls down the hill (we have lots of hills) and smashes Og’s licensed grub stand?

      2. Carmen were smart enough to use clubs, and properly licensed point-ed sticks To dispose of caveprogtards.

  8. I would love to see companies literally ignore San Fransisco. Provide their services up an inch of the SF border, but no further. Have that damned place descend back into the technological dark ages.

    New cheaper clean energy? Tie off the powerline at the border to SF doesn’t get it. Recall all robots. Have software check on the zipcode and refuse to work if it’s inside SF. Just build a wall around the damned city.

    That’s what they want, why deny it to them?

    1. You know who else wants to build a wall?

      1. Mother?

      2. But he wants to build it along the wrong border. He should build it against San Fransisco and then make Daly City pay for it…

      3. Roger Waters?

  9. Think of all the thick envelopes being pushed across that desk.

    1. I’m sure whoever’s lobbying the council for the position already is.

  10. This is how sups get in on the ground floor of new tech money before the public. Note Al gore was an honorary investor in google, honorary as in his only investment was his name, while a senator. Its where he got most of his fortune

  11. Fucking commies

  12. Dealing with streets full of shit and junkies is not what anyone on the Board of Supervisors signed up for.

    1. Unless it’s to stop business owners from keeping their property free from shit and junkies, that is.

  13. The language in the moronic proposal is too much for me. The “common good”, ugh; I wish the would at least pretend to not be socialists.

    1. Oh! You mean for the ‘commie good’. I was confused.

  14. The city’s a giant hazmat site. We should regulate pizza delivery robots!

  15. City officials are now concerned about the net costs vs benefits of emerging technologies? Have they figured out the cost vs benefits of pooping in the street yet?

  16. California’s new motto: Land of Bad Ideas

    1. Sounds even better in Latin

      Malum terra Ideas

      Ought to be on a banner somewhere

      1. Fiat Stulti

  17. The Golden State is now known as The Fool’s Golden State.

  18. Those evil technology companies are disrespecting San Francisco law. Only feces and used needles can be left on public streets, they’re not for scooters and robots.

  19. If only they had passed this law before some damn fool strung a bunch of streetlights, and let them stay up later thinking up more madness – – – –

  20. I’m surprised that they don’t require people to get a permit to breath.

    1. I suspect they are working on taxes to exhale carbon dioxide – – – – – – – –

  21. “San Francisco Wants to Require Companies To Get Permits Before Rolling Out ‘Emerging Technology’.”

    SF would be smarter if they would clean up all the human feces that plagues its streets and endangers its citizenry.
    Oh, wait.
    That makes sense.
    I keep forgetting that we’re talking about California here.
    My bad.

  22. San Francisco tells technology, “Go emerge somewhere else.”

  23. This is just a formal way for California to set in stone the presumption of that which is not permitted is illegal by default.

    Those scooter and bike programs are a waste no matter how you slice it, and there’s a reason they failed everywhere they were tried. They really want to ban vehicles and put you on an electric scooter you rent from the city, but for some reason that never works out.

    1. Both the scooters and the bikes remain popular where I am. I don’t have any problems with them, personally. I’m fairly certain the local governments’ only problems with them is that the appropriate bribes weren’t tendered to obtain the oligarchs’ permission.

  24. Another unneeded law. They already have laws against littering which could be enforced against all the dumb scooter and bike rental companies.

    1. No littering, but shitting on the street or sidewalk is totes ok.

  25. There would be no San Francisco if the current crop of local legislators had been around at the city’s inception.

  26. “”When I tried to ban the delivery robots, I was seen as anti-tech,” he said at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “A few weeks later when hundreds of scooters were dumped on our sidewalks, everyone understood.””

    No, he was seen as a lefty ignoramus. Especially because SF pays people to show up here and dump on the sidewalks.

Comments are closed.