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What Government Gets Wrong About Technology

For too long, tech has been someone else’s problem — something policymakers didn’t believe they needed to think about or even fully understand. It’s time to define what we want from a revolution that’s affecting everything.
Legislators in the Virginia General Assembly.
David Kidd
There was a time when American governments were drivers of technological change, sponsoring the space age and making the early investments that led to the creation of the Internet.

Those days are long over. Today, governments largely leave research and development to big companies and startups in Silicon Valley and elsewhere — private firms that aren’t necessarily incentivized to think about how their innovations can lead to ill effects for democracy and communities.

If government is no longer driving the technology story, it’s also not responding robustly to those that are. Historically, government tends to be reactive, with lawmakers seeking to address problems after they’ve already occurred. That makes it a bad fit for dealing with something rapidly changing and increasingly all pervasive as technology.

“Sometimes legislative policy works at the pace of a glacier,” says Florida state Sen. Jeff Brandes. “It definitely works that way when it comes to new technologies that are emerging.”

Even as technologies such as facial recognition and artificial intelligence are increasingly embedded in everything we do and interact with, there’s no one, inside of government or out, in charge of thinking about where it’s all headed. 

“We should not wait for the technology to mature before we start to put principles, and ethics, and even rules in place to govern AI,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

AI may become like electricity, affecting every industry, Brandes says. Yet we have no national policy or even serious dialogue about how, ideally, we might want its still-developing effects to play out.

“In the United States, we suffer from a tragic lack of foresight,” writes Amy Webb, a futurist and business professor at New York University, in her recent book The Big Nine. “The U.S. government has no grand strategy for AI nor for our longer-term future.”

The lack of digital policymaking at the federal level has opened up a policy space for states and localities to step in. New laws are being passed and bills are being considered that touch on everything from privacy and facial recognition bans to bitcoin and autonomous vehicle regulation. “The extreme polarization that we see in D.C. makes it difficult to have legislation on any front,” says Darrell West, founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. “A number of the states are stepping up to make major policy changes.”

Still, most of these changes are reactive. Governments are still playing catch-up when it comes to using tech. If you’re a slow adopter, it’s hard to think ahead as to what the future might hold. Many lawmakers lack basic understanding of how technology works, let alone how it’s changing. That leaves them ill-suited to help society navigate all the changes that we can see coming.

“Government has responded to technology without any positive, coherent vision of what we want the future to be,” says Nikolas Guggenberger, executive director of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.

When Lawmakers Don’t Get Technology

The average state legislator has to cast votes on a wide variety of issues, ranging from taxes and public safety through education, health care, environmental policy and much else. No one is expected to be an expert on everything.

Most lawmakers have one or two policy areas that they care about the most. For the rest, they largely take their cues from their colleagues on relevant committees, or perhaps the lobbyists they’ve learned to trust.

But in contrast with agriculture policy or workforce development, there typically isn’t a standing technology or innovation committee. Some states have technology fellows embedded in the legislature, but none has a Department of the Future charged with thinking about how technology is integrating with and changing everything. 

“It’s probably true that technology is outsourced by more offices than most other subjects,” says Lee Rainie, director of Internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center. “Some lawmakers care about a roster of issues, but beside the people who come from tech-heavy districts, it’s something that lawmakers don’t necessarily know how to think about well, except that they know that people have complaints.”

There are tech-savvy politicians, but most take a 30,000-foot view — technology is good because it’s creating great opportunities, or bad because it’s disruptive. Many lack basic knowledge about more mundane things like IP addresses or how encryption works. 

As Rainie notes, the sometimes ignorant ways in which politicians talk about technology — Ted Stevens, the late U.S. senator from Alaska, describing the Internet as “a series of tubes,” or Orrin Hatch, then a Utah senator, asking Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at a 2018 hearing how his company makes money — means “the face of the political class toward technology is people who don’t understand it.”

Technology is by its nature complicated, and always becoming more so. If you don’t have to think about this stuff for a living, it’s easy to let your mind glaze over when someone starts to talk, say, about the difference between edge computing and cloud computing. 

Tech companies are more than happy to exploit the black box nature of their businesses. They have no desire to disclose the full objective of what they might be up to — how they’re scraping and selling people’s most personal information, for example.

“It’s not that different from other areas of knowledge and expertise, except that things change so rapidly in technology,” says Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit in San Francisco that defends civil liberties in the digital realm. “This creates massive problems because it makes politicians susceptible to stories from industry lobbyists who accentuate the positive but don’t talk about the negative.”

Lack of technological literacy not only makes it easier to fall for a company’s line, but also leads lawmakers to make demands that simply can’t be fulfilled. Not understanding how filters work, for example, can leave them puzzled as to why social media companies are able to block child porn but not communication among terrorists, or libelous speech. 

“We just try to fix with a patchwork approach the most egregious problems we see,” says Guggenberger, “and have not been able to positively define what we actually want from this technological revolution.”

The Public Sector Lags Behind

There have been complaints that government is too slow and unresponsive for longer than anyone has been alive. The sense that government is sclerotic has only been exacerbated by technology. The standard now for customer service on the Internet is seamless, instantaneous and efficient. It’s fair to say that governments, on the whole, don’t offer that level of experience.

“After a disaster, people will say, ‘Why can Walmart use its supply chain to get everything that we need, even before we know we need it, to their stores, but government can’t get inspectors in place, can’t process loans, or make emergency payments or set up a website so that we could do things on our own,’” says Rainie. “They also see their neighbors just sort of hacking together a distributed response mechanism at the neighborhood level that can’t be duplicated by the mayor or city council.”

Technological breakthroughs may be touted by news outlets on a daily basis, but in government people are often stuck using old computers or running programs using languages that are the software equivalent of speaking Latin. Procurement for technology is still handled in many agencies as though the needs aren’t any different than buying office chairs.

There are tech-talented people in government who are enormously frustrated by the fact that they routinely diagnose problems that could be cured with off-the-shelf apps available now, but which might be outdated by the time they get approval to install them. Vendors swap stories about projects being delayed for weeks at a time because agency rules won’t let them do something as simple as picking up power cords without going through a whole process.

The fact that the public sector is behind the times when it comes to tech implementation has its effects on how policy gets made. It’s clear that lawmakers are often informed by personal experience. Mass transit systems get more attention when lawmakers ride the subways.

“Government is a technology laggard,” says West. “Even now, as the technology revolution is sweeping the world, the public sector is not using it to its full potential.”

Ignorance Has Been Bliss

What we used to call high tech really started taking off following Ronald Reagan’s presidency during the 1980s. American governments have since tended to take a more libertarian or neoliberal approach that’s skeptical about regulation.

It’s clear that policymakers are starting to think more skeptically about technology, given rising public concern about data breaches and how both private companies and governments are using their information. Tech companies find themselves increasingly under populist attack from politicians on both the right and the left.

As governments start to get more ambitious about regulating tech, they need to get smarter. Last year, a law took effect in California that requires disclosure from certain types of bots. Earlier versions of the bill didn’t seem to differentiate between bad bots, such as those that spread malicious or false information in the virtual political sphere, and ones that can be helpful, for instance by alerting people about earthquakes or tornadoes.

“You get outrages of the day and lawmakers say, ‘I want do something,’ and you can pass a bad law,” says Ryan Singel, a media and strategy fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.

In order to have effective regulations regarding IT, it’s essential not only to understand technology better, but to have a firm sense of desired outcomes. As a society, it’s critical that we ask what we want out of tech and where we want it to go.

Despite the growing “techlash,” it’s important that as lawmakers seek to address problems with technology, they keep their eyes on both its benefits and their own first principles, says Brandes, the Florida state senator. Technology is not only a world-leading industry for this country, but something that has either the capacity or potential to save and prolong life and make companies more profitable and efficient, among other virtues. 

To make the most of it, lawmakers need to get out of the habit of only responding in a reactive way to perceived problems, while keeping their eyes on what’s wanted most. 

“The world is changing so quickly, legislators need to focus on the ideas that will change our future,” Brandes says. “While we need to focus on privacy and individual liberty, we need to make sure we’re not hamstrung by the laws, either.”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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