This first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
There once was a group of technology experts whose job was to educate members of Congress on cutting-edge issues they needed to understand while writing tech-related legislation. But the Office of Technology Assessment was defunded in the 1990s — right on the cusp of some of the biggest technological leaps.
Today, tech issues, especially in relation to social media, are more relevant than ever, with implications for privacy, the economy, the distribution of information and the very security of democracy. Yet, in recent hearings with the social media giants who influence so much of society today, members of Congress came off as the tech-clueless grandparents many of them are.
With technological issues inevitably playing an ever-bigger role in our economy and politics going forward, some are calling for the revival of the old OTA. They’re right: It’s time to bring back the nerds.
In last year’s congressional hearings with Facebook, Google and Twitter, members of Congress displayed a level of technological ignorance that would have been amusing had it not been so disturbing.
Some demanded to know whether their email was being secretly read, unaware that they were talking to companies that had nothing to do with their email. They wanted to know if their cellphones were tracking their movements, not understanding the difference between software and hardware. Innocent to the ways of algorithms, they made clear they believe politically unflattering search-engine results are created by mischievous technicians sitting in cloistered computer rooms.
“How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, demanded of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during one hearing.
“Senator,” responded Zuckerberg, after a long, confused pause: “We run ads.”
It’s difficult to imagine any domestic topic more important for members of Congress to understand today than social media. America’s president uses it to interact with the public, announce policy and engage in personal vendettas. The Russians used it to deceive American voters and possibly affect the 2016 national election. The tech companies themselves use it to gather and monetize customer information — a huge but, to most Americans, mysterious economic market.
These behemoth, influential companies remain mostly unregulated. That’s in part because to regulate something, you have to understand it, and Congress mostly doesn’t. If knowledge is power, then the elected representatives of the people are going to be outmatched every time they face off with a Zuckerberg or Google CEO Sundar Pichai or Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.
Restarting the Office of Technology Assessment would give Congress its own stable of experts to make sure these tech giants aren’t manipulating them like Russian bots. The expense — even with the added cost of pocket protectors — would be a pittance compared to the value of empowering the people’s representatives with this necessary expertise.