If the US government is good at anything, it’s failing at technology
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U.S. lawmakers are not only technologically illiterate, but technologically incompetent. In a world that depends on hardware, software, and technology services like ours, this is dangerous.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and overseas governments have repeatedly demonstrated their lack of knowledge on key technology issues. This hinders their ability to enact real change and certainly leads them to draft ineffective and sometimes meaningless legislation.
Three recent examples, one of which is not from the United States, perfectly illustrate this point.
The latest examples of technological stupidity
On Friday, U.S. Senators Tom Cotton, Mike Braun and Marco Rubio introduced a new bill aimed at banning app stores from supporting transactions in China’s digital yuan, or even hosting apps. who use the currency.
Beyond the fact that this is likely to be a political view with a touch of xenophobia, the so-called American Defense of Authoritarian Digital Coins Act does not make much sense either.
According to lawmakers, the Chinese government will use the currency to “control and spy on anyone who uses it.” The trio of politicians described the possible support of the digital yuan in US app stores as a “significant financial and surveillance risk”.
The problem is that no one in the US will use the digital yuan in their day-to-day life to shop or buy subscriptions in the App Store. There’s no reason to use a “digital yuan” to buy an app when you could buy it in US dollars with your credit card attached.
Also, there is no support for this. Apple accepts in-app payments and in-app purchases in national currency. In the US, it’s the dollar. You cannot currently purchase an app with Bitcoin, Dogecoin or any other digital currency.
In addition, all purchases made through the App Store are shipped through Apple’s payment processing systems. Payment receipts sent by Apple to developers do not include personal information, so there is no real risk of massive financial surveillance of US citizens.
There are valid concerns about the privacy and security implications of the digital yuan for Chinese citizens in China. No one buys the life of Candy Crush with the digital yuan in the United States. Such scenarios are unlikely to develop soon, despite what cryptography enthusiasts may tell you.
It is a strange and useless law, and underscores the lack of technology literacy among U.S. lawmakers. However, there are other bills and moves to regulate technology giants that may be more reality-based, but only offer overly simplified solutions due to a lack of concrete knowledge of how technology works.
Take the American Choice and Innovation Act, which Senator Amy Klobuchar recently revised to address concerns about its radical changes. While antitrust concerns are valid, overly broad bills can have a lot of unwanted side effects.
The bill is also incredibly murky about how it defines dominant platforms and how regulations will be enforced. A better understanding of the technology ecosystem and how individual businesses operate would lead to a clearer bill with better rules.
Of course, technological illiteracy is not unique to the US. The European Union, for example, is pushing for a mandate to require all devices to use a USB-C port. The main problem is that devoting a specific piece of technology to the law does not take into account the pace of progress.
Before USB-C was a de facto standard among the tech giants, the mandate was, and still is, micro USB today. It is no exaggeration to say that USB-C will be phased out for something else, and could even be replaced by a portless solution. Making USB-C the standard through the law makes no sense.
And these are just the three most recent examples. There are many more.
If Congress hearings on technology are known for anything, it’s the legislator’s glasses
In June 2006, then-Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska compared the Internet to a “series of tubes,” illustrating his minimal understanding of how it worked. The phrase was widely ridiculed, mainly because Stevens headed the Senate committee responsible for regulating the Internet.
More than a decade later, not much has changed. From Google CEO Sundar Pichai on the grill of an Apple iPhone to a legislator who doesn’t understand Facebook posting ads to make money, technology illiteracy among U.S. lawmakers is startling and embarrassing.
During a congressional hearing, this lack of competence causes lawmakers to ask stupid questions that are not relevant to any topic in question. It can also make it easier for tech giants to get out of awkward and essential lines of research.
In an online environment whose main currency is the snark, these examples can be fun. But they also point out the shameful lack of knowledge that many elected officials have about even the most basic technological concepts.
Harmful effects also extend beyond hearing. Without at least one baseline of technology literacy and no good answers to important questions from technology executives, effective legislation is an opportunity.
Incompetence is just gasoline on the fire of division and uncertainty
Of course, ignorance is not the only obstacle to practical, U.S.-based technology legislation. There is also the issue that lawmakers in both political camps cannot agree on how the rules to curb Big Tech power are adopted.
Undoubtedly, there are very clear lines of partisan disagreement regarding technological legislation. One side is concerned about censorship, for example, while the other is concerned about misinformation. One might think that there might be one thing in common somewhere in this Venn diagram, but it is clear that there is none.
The issue of hyperpartism is only exacerbated by the fact that the debate over technology platforms is often divorced from reality. Without a firm understanding of something like Section 230 or how the technology giants’ business models are set up, the debate between lawmakers will be based on political discussion points that have little, if any, factual basis.
There is also the issue of nebulosity, as is the case with the laws of the right to reparation. Lawmakers, advocates, citizens and businesses cannot agree on a comprehensive solution to the demands for the right to redress because there is no concrete definition of how it could be.
It could be easier to reach a joint agreement on issues, and it would certainly be easier to write a definition, if all legislators had the knowledge and resources to become better acquainted with the technological issues they are addressing.
If a senator doesn’t even know how Facebook makes money, he or she won’t be able to write effective laws that prevent the company from abusing user data or letting misinformation run rampant.
There used to be a US office designed to help with this, but it’s long gone
The United States had a solution for technological illiteracy. He established the Office of Technology Assessment in 1972 with the aim of educating and informing both the House and the Senate about the complex scientific and technical problems of today. He was instrumental in the initial digital distribution of government documents not only to the federals, but also to the public.
The OTA was a bipartisan office ruled by 12 members of Congress: six Republicans and six Democrats. It had a staff of 143 people who were mostly scientists, with a few support people.
It cost the federal government about $ 22 million a year in the early 1990s. about the problems and technologies of the moment.
Of course, government officials were not even able to understand technical issues without the OTA in 1995. Over the years, the problem has only gotten worse.
There are still some people who do a type of work similar to what OTA did, but mostly it’s a skeleton staff of non-scientists from the Government Accountability Office. Beyond not being scientists, this group is underfunded, understaffed, and unprepared to handle increasingly complex matters.
Of course, it is not clear to what extent the concept manned by a skeleton crew helps with the problem if this inability to deal with complex scientific or technological issues is deliberate. The European Parliament’s Technology Assessment (EPTA) does about the same tasks, with about the same endowment, and doesn’t seem to help you make decisions either.
Nor is it clear whether the government’s inability to legislate on technological issues effectively is deliberate or simply incompetent.
Retaining the technology giants is necessary, but it must be based on knowledge
Concentrations of power are dangerous. This is the idea behind monopoly laws and the US government’s own system of checks and balances. However, pursuing power concentrations without the slightest literacy on relevant issues is also dangerous.
It is certainly a bad idea to let big multinational corporations like Facebook or Google out of control, especially when many of them have a long history of scandals, abuses and other controversies. Antitrust law here is probably justified, as long as it is based on knowledge.
Resolving political partisanship and the lack of agreement on how to correct specific problems will obviously be more difficult, if not impossible, to fix, but the lack of basic technological understanding among politicians on both sides of the aisle only makes the situation is insurmountable.
Doing something is important, but it is essential to understand the pros and cons of a specific area before legislating effectively. Ignorance on this issue will only lead to bad laws that can negatively affect the rest of us, and that may not even do anything to curb Big Tech.
However, given the U.S. government’s history of technological incompetence, we’re sure we’ll continue to see bad laws coming out of the halls of Congress.