Opinion: A progressive tech platform for the 99 percent
Hillary Clinton's tech agenda doesn't address the most pressing digital issues. The US deserves a tech platform that defends privacy, protects the public from discriminatory algorithms, and ensures that innovation doesn't just benefit the wealthy.
Hillary Clinton's tech policy platform, released earlier this week, was particularly impotent on the most pressing digital issues. It glossed over critical topics such as the role of encryption for enhancing privacy and safety, and the critical need for greater transparency into how algorithms increasingly impact everyday lives.
In fact, Mrs. Clinton's tech platform ignores nearly all of the big problems, while Donald Trump (and Bernie Sanders) haven’t released anything meaningful at all.
Today, many of the largest corporations on the planet are putting constraints on technology’s potential to liberate. They are crafting business models that foster artificial scarcity, undercutting millions of Americans’ livelihoods, commercializing our most private information, and locking consumers into ever-increasingly oppressive digital fiefdoms. The current trajectory is bleak – spanning everything from health and education to social media, communications, and the devices in our homes, in our pockets, and soon, in our bodies themselves.
We cannot continue to kick the can down the road – bold reforms targeting key tech policy areas are essential to prevent detrimental outcomes; the right policies will not only protect consumers, but also will revitalize myriad areas of the US economy and return America to the forefront of technological and social innovation.
This tech platform is designed around the best interests of the general public – it is time to bring technology under the control of the people it was meant to serve, not the 1 percent who seek to use it to further exploit the unsuspecting and enrich themselves.
1. Glide paths for the sharing economy
Today’s dominant “sharing-economy” business models hold great promise, but are also a Faustian Bargain predicated upon shifting employees to independent contractors; circumventing health, safety, accessibility, and nondiscrimination protections; and displacing working class jobs with automated systems.
The implications for labor rights, antitrust oversight, and general quality-of-life of countless constituencies are manifold. We need societal transition planning as bold as the disruptive technologies that are shaping our lives – with forethought, we have the opportunity to prevent disruptive mass un- and underemployment, protect against anticompetitive business practices, and lay the groundwork for a positive sharing economy and 21st century civil society.
We need to update consumer and worker protection laws, make discriminatory algorithms transparent, ensure that workers and independent contractors are paid equitably, and develop educational and retraining programs for the millions who will be displaced by technological innovation.
2. Digital feudalism, algorithmic discrimination, and financial inclusion
We have entered a post-industrial age where data undergirds traditional mechanical, financial, and agrarian practices. Today’s national tech policies not only fail to spur innovation and quality-of-life improvements, but are detrimentally impacting many of the most-marginalized constituencies in the country. Our financial and retail systems are utilizing algorithms that engage in de facto discrimination against legally protected classes, thereby locking more and more families into digital fiefdoms where their socio-economic mobility is being increasingly constrained.
The solution is a proactive, national rethink of consumer protection law and a “system-wide upgrade” to update laws whose intent is clear, but are increasingly obsolete in their application and impotent in their efficacy.
3. Open curricula for education
An open curriculum (i.e., a public copyright license such as Creative Commons for content or GNU General Public License for software), is both a massive money-saver (recent research shows that cost savings for instructional materials is more than 50 percent) as well as an opportunity to create localized, tailored educational materials that better meet the needs of students and teachers alike. Currently, US public educational systems are paying billions of tax dollars for materials that are freely available.
4. Universal broadband and truth in telecom advertising
According to Pew Research Center and Federal Communications Commission data, the No. 1 reason roughly 100 million Americans are still offline is lack of access to affordable broadband. We need policies to drive universal access to low-cost, high-speed connectivity, and for the two-thirds of Americans already online, we need truth-in-labeling that addresses the quarter-of-a-trillion dollars in overpayments US consumers will make by 2025. The baby steps made thus far are necessary but insufficient to address both the digital and information divides that currently exist in broadband service provision.
5. Micro-generation and smart grids
The US Energy Information Administration estimates that 6 percent of all electricity produced is lost in transmission. Microgeneration helps keep power generation and ownership local, but requires an electrical system that enables two-way metering (i.e., that charge customers for power consumption and credit customers for power generation) and interoperability standards for interconnecting battery-powered vehicles (i.e., for storage of locally-generated power). With the series of breakthroughs in solar power and battery capacity we’ve seen in recent years, it’s time to develop far smarter electrical grids than have existed in previous eras.
6. User control over user data and data collection protections
Today, an increasing array of networked devices – fitness trackers, smart thermostats, smartphones, and automobiles – collect data based on their users’ activities. A cornerstone of 21st century consumer protections must ensure that consumer are able to access and control the data they are generating every minute of every day. Placing end-users in control of their data not only supports privacy rights, but also opens the door for innovators to develop a more liberatory, privacy-protecting “Internet of Things.”
7. Open technology for all public investments
The US spends billions of dollars every year on information technology, and tens of billions more on state-funded research and other grants. This represents an enormous investment by US taxpayers, who are often granted limited access to the tools, research, and data that we have so generously funded. Making the software, data, and research available to the citizen-investors who paid for their development in the first place will stimulate innovation, improve efficiency, and ensure that taxpayers get the value we deserve from the investments we make.
8. Lay the groundwork for intelligent transportation
With the coming disruption of autonomous vehicles, numerous changes will need to be made to existing laws. Crafting an environment that is friendly to autonomous/intelligent transportation with laws that both protect the general populace and create a meaningful glide path for smart vehicles will facilitate a host of society-wide, quality of life improvements, but must also be a part of a thoughtful transition plan for many of the 3.5 million professional truckers in the US who will lose their jobs.
9. Open standards for health IT and patient access to data
The US Veteran’s Administration has been in the news a lot for its failures, but one shining point in the institution’s history has been its development of one of the most sophisticated and successful open data health platforms on the planet. Today, we live in health-information “fiefdoms,” creating untold headaches for patients and doctors alike. The cost- and life-savings of an open, interoperable, health-IT system are staggering – strong government leadership to set standards and drive innovation would save billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives every year.
10. Make the US CTO a cabinet-level appointment
Technology policy begins at the top. Having worked with and watched three US chief technology officers struggle with their unenforceable mandates, it’s clear that the US CTO must be a cabinet-level appointment. Otherwise, we will continue to fail in our attempts to bring government operations into the 21st century. We need bold leadership in technology policy – mandated upgrades, not cheerleading and fluff PR – which can only happen with a CTO’s office that has the power to enforce policy and hold officials accountable who refuse to transition from 19th and 20th century thinking and bureaucratic practices.
Sascha Meinrath is the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State and director of X-Lab, an innovative think tank focusing on the intersection of vanguard technologies and public policy. Follow him on Twitter @saschameinrath.