Politicians still don't understand the tech companies they're supposed to keep in check. That's a problem.October 10, 2020
- Big Tech companies have never controlled more of our lives. But, we don't have many politicians who understand the intricacies and nuances of technology to properly hold the industry accountable.
- Recent hearings in the UK and Australia show just how incompetent politicians are at understanding technology.
- Part of the issue is pride and part is due to generational differences. Regardless, we need politicians who can ask the right questions and create intelligent regulation for large tech companies.
- Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance journalist and the author of "YouTubers: How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars", and the upcoming book "TikTok Boom: China, the US and the Superpower Race for Social Media."
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
In June 2006, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the politician then in charge of the US Senate committee regulating the internet, stood up and began speaking about net neutrality.
"I just the other day got," began Stevens haltingly, every other word punctuated with "ums" and "errs". "An internet was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday. I got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up."
Stevens, then 82 years old, continued to the section of his speech that was most mocked, and remains infamous to this day. "The internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes."
Tech giants have never controlled more of our lives. The amount of data we give up to the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon is astonishing. Google, for instance, tracks every website you visit, YouTube video you watch, and if location tracking is turned on, where you go. We've never needed political oversight of technology more. The problem is we don't have competent politicians who are literate enough about technology to be able to probe and prod at what's going wrong. Instead of incisive questioning, they flail at tech representatives with the rhetorical equivalent of pool noodles.
Recent hearings show how little politicians understand tech.
Being a technology journalist means sitting through plenty of political hearings, and every one of them is an exercise in frustration.
Understanding technology isn't simple. It's constantly changing, and maddeningly opaque. Conversations I have with the people behind the technology — those coding the algorithms that power some of our biggest platforms — indicate even they don't fully understand how it all works together. But to think it's a subject whose understanding can be crammed last-minute with Cliffs Notes like a school exam underplays both the significance and the importance of tech in our day-to-day lives.
This is evidenced by two recent political hearings with TikTok executives in the UK and Australia. In the first, held by members of the UK parliament, TikTok's director for public policy in Europe was repeatedly quizzed on the app's issues. But rather than focusing on TikTok's many faults — its young userbase, its contentious and unclear moderation policies, and the addictive nature of its app — politicians instead focused on their latest bugbears, demonstrating the struggle they have in grappling with a technology their grandchildren use.
One politician, presumably briefed by his staff of researchers before the hearing, began an aggressive line of attack against TikTok, claiming they had been accused of "accessing information on people's Apple Macs, on their iPads, on their iPhones". TikTok's executive gently suggested the politician may have conflated the MAC address of phones (a unique identifier for devices connecting to a network) with the popular brand of computers.
Another inveigled against questionable content he encountered on the app, recounting how in the minutes before the hearing started, he had opened the app on his phone and encountered "trashy" content. (That "sexualized content" included, the politician said, "people jumping off piers into the water".)
"Are we not better than that as a society?" the politician asked, reaching his rhetorical conclusion.
This time TikTok's representative decided not to point out that what users see on their For You Page is determined by their prior engagement with videos — meaning the politician likely wasn't better than that at all.
Days later, on the other side of the world, Australian politicians also floundered. One senator quizzed TikTok's chief security officer, Roland Cloutier, on why TikTok and Douyin, China's version of the app, shared exactly the same source code. (They don't, the app has claimed in court filings.)
The same senator seemed to confuse user data, algorithmic code, and data that the app transfers in the form of video content, and didn't seem to appreciate the fact that all social media companies can be compelled to share data with other countries to help with law enforcement investigations under multi-lateral legal treaties.
The recent US antitrust hearings were filled with similar gaffes that exposed politicians' stunning lack of awareness of how the tech world operates.
Part of this is a generational issue, part of it is pride.
In the same way that placing a paper phone book and a rotary phone in front of a teenager will leave them stumped as to what to do, older politicians can't be expected to naturally know how platforms they never use operate. Their attempts thus far also indicate that the majority of them don't want to invest the time or effort to try and understand these platforms their younger colleagues innately know about.
Thankfully, there are bright specks of hope on the horizon. Brighter, tech-literate politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are now moving into positions of power and near single handedly bringing up the tech IQ of politicians.
Ocasio-Cortez's recent Instagram story, posted in late August, explaining the challenges of social media literacy in the 21st century, demonstrates her adeptness at communicating to a tech-native audience and understanding the issue with relying on social networks for news and information. It's no coincidence that her questioning of tech executives is also among the sharpest from politicians.
But part of what trips up politicians when trying to tackle tech is hubris. A little information can be dangerous when wildly misapplied — and politicians seem eager to do that repeatedly, as evidenced by strident questioning on why TikTok is hacking into your Apple Mac. Too many politicians think putting on a suit jacket and a tie, and sitting down behind a small sign with your name on it makes you an expert in every topic under the sun. They take a small nugget of information and assume it holds true for everything they're saying: tell them TikTok was born in China, and they assume it still is.
Worse yet, they treat all information equally. Too often they rely on reports and conclusions written by those with obvious axes to grind, or people who bring their biases to their research. One report often cited in the most recent TikTok hearings (which has been contradicted by other notable cybersecurity experts) is written in the tone of a YouTube script, rather than a straight forward, reliable, technical analysis of code. It was cited in the same breath as an FBI analysis.
Politicians often take a literal answer and read malice into it. Facebook could link your data to your name and use it to target you specifically, but it doesn't because they have no incentive to do so. TikTok could be asked to supply data to the Chinese government, but only through formal international treaties, a series of subpoenas submitted through the US Department of Justice, and on strictly limited bases — not underhand deals with hoodie-wearing hackers working as sleeper agents for the Red Army.
The issue of age is a simple one to solve: the old politicians will soon die, and they'll be replaced by digital natives who ask slightly less stupid questions. Those tech hold-outs who remain will be shamed into learning more about tech, for fear of going the way of the dodo. Until we get better, more moral and tech-literate politicians, we're going to careen from no regulation — which caused many of the issues we're reckoning with today — to bad over-regulation drawn up by people who still think the internet is a series of tubes, or that TikTok is hacking your Apple Mac.
Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance journalist and the author of "YouTubers: How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars", and the upcoming book "TikTok Boom: China, the US and the Superpower Race for Social Media."
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).
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