Technology touches every aspect of our lives, highlighting why tech policy is one of the most important issues of our age. Yet when it comes to politics, both at federal and local levels, we rarely question whether candidates for office understand technology, and if their ignorance could influence policymaking.
In 2011, the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) threatened internet freedom. Introduced by Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), these bills sought to crack down on internet piracy and protect intellectual property. This would have given the government the power to shut down content-sharing websites. Major websites like Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, and Facebook came out in strong opposition against SOPA, claiming it would lead to a loss of internet freedom. In fact, it would have led to the loss of the internet as we’ve come to see it today.
So, how exactly do bills like these get proposed, and why do our representatives think they’re a good idea? One answer is that bills reflect the tug-of-war among competing interests. But another answer is that representatives aren’t tech savvy.
The average age of The House is 57 and the average age of the Senate is 61. Our representatives did not grow up with the same access to news, information, and constant connection to people as have millennials. Patrick Leahy has been in office since 1975; what are his technical qualifications to represent American millennials?
The use of technology in congressional offices would shock most of us. Some members of the House still use Internet Explorer or have little access to open-source cloud based software (like Google Docs). Representative Cathy McMorris has stated, “What we’re seeing is a 19th-century institution often using 20th-century technology to respond to 21st-century problems”.
Government is slow to change and we can see that in its own use of technology, but the problem does not exist only in Washington, D.C.
When living in Berkeley, I needed to buy parking passes for my street. I had to prove that I lived in Berkeley but had stopped receiving paper electric bills. So, I pulled up my latest bill on my phone but the cashier refused to look at it. She said that she couldn’t take my phone from me and that I had to go to the electric company office to get one printed. I could pay my bills on the internet, but I still needed a paper one to prove my residency.
So, how do we solve the technology gap? I often wonder if D.C. is too far away from the heart of innovation in the Bay Area, but with all the tools we have today, maybe it isn’t the 2,800 mile distance that’s the problem. The problem is the people we’re choosing to represent us.
It would be wise for the American public to search for their local, state, and federal candidates online to find out what their use of technology in their everyday lives looks like. Are they active on social media? Do they value technology as a means to be more effective and efficient? Until we start to value that in our representatives, we will continue to see bad policy being made on technology and internet freedom.