At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this week, world leaders joined what seems to be growing chorus of calls to regulate technology, a field dominated by U.S.-based firms.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for instance, said a focus of his country’s chairmanship of the G20 this year would be to advocate for a set of international guidelines for how data is used.
“I would like Osaka G20 to be long remembered as the summit that started worldwide data governance,” Abe told the Davos crowd.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, said international rules for how data is used would ease opposition to the tech industry from those worried by the rapid pace of technology’s evolution.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called for more robust tech sector oversight, while Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan urged more coordination in such efforts.
But on the outskirts of the Swiss confab, a prominent voice countered those arguments. Jack Ma, co-founder and outgoing executive chairman of Alibaba Group, spoke out against tech regulation.
“I’m not a person who likes regulation first,” Ma said at an event sponsored by Alibaba and the World Bank. He argued that humans “are at the very, very early stage of technology.” Saddling the industry with far-reaching rules at this point would be premature, he said, using the metaphor of a young child. “We should not make a pair of shoes for a three-year-old boy and say, ‘All your life you have to wear these shoes,'” he said. “We know so little about the future.”
Ma made his comments as he hailed the positive societal changes brought about by technology.
“From my experience, I think technology has empowered the small business—the women, the disabled, the rural areas,” he said. That outlook is in line with the business Ma has built: At the core of Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce giant, is a platform for small and mid-sized enterprises to sell to Chinese buyers.
Ma’s stance on regulation is especially notable since it’s at odds with Beijing. The Chinese government’s heavy hand interferes with tech companies and censors what citizens can view on the Internet.
Ma also chastised the fear of technology that he said was palpable at the World Economic Forum—concerns about job losses, data security, and tech monopolies. But nobody worries about what happens if technological advancement stalls, he said: “Then what will our kids do?”