Many people theorize how the constant presence of technology impacts politics and shapes our current political landscape for both bad and good. Technological changes over the past decade have brought forth concerns for data privacy, the spread of misinformation and the overall globalization of the economy. The complex relationship between technology and politics is not new. From navigating everything from federal surveillance to climate change to space exploration, changes in technology continuously blur the lines between the public and private sectors. Today we’re still questioning what the role of governments and policymakers should be to influence the direction of digital innovation. So how do politics impact technology today, and how can elected officials create more effective, positive tech policies for the future?
Responsibility of Governments to Sustain Open Source to Support Societal and Economic Progress
When illustrating the strength of democracy in the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln advocated for a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This idea of a community-driven body that serves the public good is a philosophy that also applies to open source software and the open web. Many view open source technologies as a public good that benefits all people without being owned by any single entity. However, while open source software is free to use and supported by a collective community, these platforms still require continuous maintenance and investment. In an ideal world, people would contribute to open source out of pure passion and altruism, but the truth is that all common goods require some degree of oversight and funding to continue to survive. That’s why public institutions like libraries, highways or NASA have dedicated federal agencies that oversee certain projects.
Governments have a duty to support public advancements, which is why open source leaders have advocated for more government agencies, at the local, state and national level, to support open source, both through contributing knowledge and resources and by utilizing public code to create their own digital services. Government institutions funding and requiring the use of open source software offers advantages both to the public and the institutions themselves. Using open source software over proprietary software can save time and resources and increase productivity. The UK government has already implemented a Technology Code of Practice stating that open source technology should be preferred where possible to make these technologies more accessible and visible to the public.
The demand for governments to embrace more open and transparent policies in regards to how they use technology is expected to increase as people grow wary of the influence of Big Tech companies and politicians face ethical and moral dilemmas around personal data use and the right to privacy.
The Battle Against Big Tech Monopolies and the Fight For Net Neutrality
“Data is the new oil” and the idea of data as a valuable resource for business has become a popular concept. In 2017, The Economist published a story examining how tech giants like Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon achieved global dominance from collecting user data and selling this information to advertisers. However, the growth of these Big Tech companies has led to another concerning comparison with the early-20th century oil tycoons: the need for strong antitrust laws to prevent predatory prices and anticompetitive powers in the market. Anti-monopoly policies have long been a way to give consumers more choice in where and how they shop. Encouraging more market competition also benefits consumers by requiring companies to be more innovative in their products and services rather than becoming complacent if they’re controlling the entire market as a default option.
In July 2020, the CEOs of Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple were called to publicly testify in Congress before the United States’ House Judiciary Committee to defend their business practices against monopoly accusations. “Because these companies are so central to our modern life, their business practices and decisions have an outsized effect on our economy and our democracy. Any single action by any one of these companies can affect hundreds of millions of us in profound and lasting ways,” said Representative David Cicilline during the hearing.
As part of this aggressive push for more tech oversight from legislators, Congress later published a 450-page report that concluded that all four tech giants engaged in anticompetitive behavior and negatively used their power to destroy smaller competitors in the marketplace. The report also recommended giving the Justice Department and Federal Trade Committee more power to regulate how technology companies operate in the marketplace and limiting how these companies acquire businesses in adjacent markets. This same debate over bringing customers greater choice in what technology and services they use also gained global attention as part of the fight to maintain net neutrality.
Net neutrality regulations ensure that web users are free to enjoy whatever sites they choose without interference from internet service providers (ISPs). Under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), broadband providers do not have the legal authority to slow down or block online content to consumers. However, ISPs have frequently lobbied the government to soften net neutrality protections. This conflict came to a head in 2017 when the FCC removed previous net neutrality legislation. Both tech companies and consumers pushed back on these actions out of fear that the move would turn the internet from a widely open and equal space to a pay-to-play monopoly that limits full access to these essential services unless customers can afford to pay premiums. Several states, including Washington, Oregon and California, have responded by passing their own regulations banning state agencies from doing business with providers that don't adhere to net neutrality. As this fight rages on, it brings into question the public value of an open web and internet accessibility against the desires of private corporations to grow demand and competition in the market.
Holding Technology Companies Accountable for the Spread of Fake News
The far-reaching impact of Big Tech has also raised concerns for the influence of social media algorithms on public and political perceptions. After widespread claims of election fraud spread following the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Twitter updated their civic integrity policy to include a stipulation against “posting or sharing content that may suppress participation or mislead people about when, where or how to participate in a civic process.” This action followed the implementation of a feature that labeled potentially false or misleading tweets with disclaimers that informed readers that the information they were seeing had not been verified. Facebook’s Oversight Board, run by independent panelists, also recently ruled to uphold suspensions on Donald J. Trump and other accounts that had spread false information that may contribute to the risk of violence.
These actions sparked conversations about the rights of free speech online and if digital companies are obligated to be more active in monitoring what information they present and the impact it has on public perceptions and safety. Some people believe that the federal government should also take a more active role in the oversight of these digital platforms. There have been proposals for a public agency that can monitor social media and tech platforms to ensure that they’re meeting a set of standards for posting content.
How Governments Can Make A Difference by Sponsoring Technology Innovation
Technology, data and the power of the web will only continue to accelerate every year. From advancements in artificial intelligence, automation and digital communication, the tools people build have the power and potential to change how we experience all parts of our lives. The responsibility of governments and institutions will be to steer the direction of that change to something that is more positive for society than harmful. We’ve already seen many ways that government policymakers and technology providers have worked together for good. The United States’ and the Soviet Union’s Space Wars landed a man on the moon and environmental policies like the Clean Air Act have helped protect the environment. In 2020, the United States invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to mobilize manufacturers to accelerate and prioritize the development of supplies and equipment to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, there has also been global political debates over the World Trade Organization’s proposal to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines to more quickly bring these vaccine shots to other parts of the world. However, those who oppose the waiver argue that removing patent protections would slow future biomedical innovation and add strain on manufacturers.
While there are some that disagree with politics influencing technology, for extreme challenges that will impact world public health or safety, like a global pandemic or climate change, the urgency and impact of these efforts may outweigh the objections. Commercial organizations succeed off a supply-and-demand model. These big businesses won’t change how they operate unless there is a clear incentive and value for them to do so. Therefore, the government must first enact policies that encourage a demand or offer funding for technologies that positively influence human health, the environment and information accessibility. These “technology-push” policies are mutually beneficial to both the businesses and the public interest, allowing for faster adoption of new technologies and letting people set the path toward the future they want to see.