It seemed like a typical morning commute for most New Yorkers on 8 January 2007, until a strong, gas-like odour permeated parts of New York City and nearby areas of New Jersey, forcing several schools and companies to evacuate, and interrupting traffic along some subway and train lines.
Emergency crews were unable to pinpoint any gas leaks or other causes, despite sending out a fleet of fire trucks and a hazardous materials crew. After 140 industrial facilities had been searched, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg declared that the crews had given up hope of finding the source of the mysterious odour.
While there were no reported casualties, the uncertainty caused anxiety and fear in a city where pungent odours can raise vague worries about a potential terrorist attack.
Fast-forward into the near future, however, and the series of events that bewildered local officials might have unfolded quite differently according to Eric Paulos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University.
The odour leaves traces of nitrogen dioxide that, in his alternate reality, are automatically detected by tiny wireless air quality sensors embedded in the mobile phones of millions of New Yorkers. A simple mash-up of the data overlaid on a Google map identifies the culprit - a dangerous incinerator that is not supposed to be in use.
City officials shut down the plant immediately and issue a text alert to calm nervous residents who fear that some form of chemical attack has been unleashed.
This account may be fictional, but it is not far-fetched. Like Paulos, technologists and science fiction writers have long envisioned a world where a seamless global network of internet-connected sensors could capture every event, action, and change on Earth.
With the proliferation of radio-frequency identification (RFID), satellite imagery, cheap personal video recorders, powerful mobile computing devices, and an array of internet-connected sensors, that vision of millions of New Yorkers participating (perhaps unwittingly) in an act of civic regulation is increasingly plausible.
Indeed, the question raised in this chapter is whether a combination of new technologies and citizen participation could unleash an era of participatory regulation, where citizens and other stakeholder groups play an active role in designing and enforcing regulations.
The idea is that just about every area of regulation today - from air and water quality to food safety and financial services - could benefit as a result of having a larger crowd of informed and empowered individuals helping to protect the public interest. While we do not envision a scenario where all citizens will suddenly participate en masse, even a small, well-organised group of highly motivated citizens with access to information can use social networks like Facebook and Twitter to make a big impact.
Regulatory agencies would need to open up, rethink old processes, and supply the tools and data that citizens would need to contribute meaningfully. But given the depleted state of regulatory agencies around the world, we think greater citizen participation in regulation would be a very good thing indeed.
The internet now constitutes a major force in "regulating" corporate behaviour around the world. Indeed, whereas corporations once regarded their primary duty as serving shareholders (and perhaps their customers and employees), it is now common for corporate leaders everywhere to regularly reaffirm their commitments to serve society and protect the environment.
For most business people and many leaders in government, the economic benefits of globalisation are patently obvious.
But a large and increasingly well-organised network of citizens is not so convinced. Rather than net job creation, they see jobs and investment dollars fleeing their jurisdictions. Rather than a global lifting of living standards, they see companies exploiting lax overseas labour laws and exporting pollution to developing countries. And rather than a neutral, rules-based trading regime, they see corporate lawyers writing the rules of international trade to privilege the needs and rights of corporations over those of ordinary citizens and their elected representatives.
This shift toward citizen oversight got started in the early 1990s, as public concern about the social and environmental performance standards of major multinational corporations gathered momentum.
In reality, multinational companies were just doing what the market demanded: taking advantage of open borders and a new pool of human capital to produce an ever-growing quantity of goods and services at ever-lower prices. In most cases, overseas investments brought jobs, prosperity, and higher standards to communities that had little access to the global economy, even if some companies made mis-steps along the way.
Indeed, many of the grave consequences forecast by activists - for example, that the economic might of global corporations would soon dwarf that of individual nations - proved to be highly alarmist in hindsight. Still, the feelings of suspicion linger and events like the global financial crisis have not helped endear corporations to the public.
In fact, public opinion polls reveal that more than eight out of 10 people in a cross-section of 25 countries think corporations should take on greater responsibility for solving social and environmental issues.
When companies are not responsive to these demands, corporate critics use the internet to pepper management with detailed inquiries, monitor private-sector behaviour around the world, and swap insights and intelligence with one another. Many companies are uncomfortable with such scrutiny, a feeling that only intensifies as social media continues to accelerate the speed at which critical messages can "go viral".
Abuse exposed by civil society groups
As technology advances, so too do the capabilities of organised civil society groups. Peter Gabriel's Witness, a human rights organisation, travels deep into the jungles of eastern Burma to document the military's persistent attacks on ethnic minorities and expose corporations like Chevron that still maintain links with the oppressive regime.
So far, iron-fisted government control over telecommunications has not prevented its members and supporters from posting numerous grainy, and sometimes gory, videos on YouTube. Witness even has its own platform called the Hub, an interactive community for human rights activists who can upload photos and videos to document abuses.
The site's arsenal includes a video advocacy toolkit, an online petitions app, interactive maps that plot the geographic location of user-contributed media, a mobile version, and direct cell-phone-to-Hub uploads.