A bold, bipartisan plan to return the U.S. to the vanguard of 21st-century technological innovation

Instead of private companies — allow individuals to control their own personal online data

Published July 30, 2017 5:59AM (EDT)

 (Motus Global via AP)
(Motus Global via AP)

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Digital technologies like the internet and smartphones are transforming our lives and society. They are proving to be powerful tools for liberating individuals’ creative and entrepreneurial potential, as well as providing new educational opportunities and higher wages for marginalized people, both in the U.S. and around the globe. Unfortunately, in the U.S., outdated government regulations and weak consumer protections are undermining these opportunities.

What’s more, the Trump administration has not yet made significant moves to address this growing crisis: As of this writing, five key White House positions are vacant, without even acting directors or interim leaders to help the executive branch formulate U.S. science and technology policy.

As the founder of both the Open Technology Institute and the X-Lab policy and innovation organization, I have spent years at the heart of many Washington, D.C. battles over technology policyfighting for ideas that would best serve American workers and the general public. As technology spreads throughout nearly every facet of our society, including health care, transportation, education and electricity, the benefits tend to grab the headlines, while their costs are often downplayed or ignored outright. My work, and that of many other technology policy experts and public interest advocates, has focused on ensuring that the digital revolutions in our society and our economy bring the most freedoms and benefits to the most people, with as little oppression and harm as possible — a goal that is shared by a vast majority of the general public from across traditional political, socioeconomic, racial and cultural divides.

While many lament the current state of political bickering, my experience is that technology is a domain where panpartisan agreement is often possible. With this in mind, here are 10 big ideas that resonate across traditional political boundaries — common ground that yields solid support among lawmakers and constituents spanning the ideological spectrum from the libertarian right to the progressive left.

Transition to a real sharing economy

Today’s dominant business models hold great promise, but also great peril, for millions of working-class Americans. Many companies are using digital tools to shift work from traditional full-time employees to part-time independent contractors. At present, this lets them circumvent rules protecting full-timers’ health, safety and equal access to work. We need true portability of benefits — including better retirement savings plans and single-payer health insurance.

In addition, we need to address the effects of disruptive technologies, like those that will replace truckers with automated vehicles, full-time taxi drivers with part-time Uber and Lyft drivers and factory workers with robots. We need a modern-day Works Progress Administration for the tens of millions who will soon become displaced workers. It can be a way to retrain workers, and at the same time make badly needed improvements to roads, bridges and other key structures our economy depends on. With forethought, we can prevent mass unemployment and underemployment.

Protect consumers from technological barriers

In today’s post-industrial age, software controls traditional mechanical, financial and agrarian practices. But rather than spurring innovation to improve people’s lives, technology is blocking progress in key ways: for example, by preventing farmers from fixing their own tractors. The progressive left and libertarian right agreeMajor reforms to copyright and patent law are desperately needed to foster innovation and empower consumers.

Our current laissez-faire regulatory environment may have worked well when these were fledgling markets filled with small-scale startups. But today’s technology sector is dominated by a handful of corporate behemoths who’ve routinely engaged in what critics contend is anti-competitive behavior and consumer-disempowering business practices only barely addressed by current governmental oversight.

Businesses use complex algorithms that engage in harmful discrimination, such as showing higher-paying online job advertisements to men than women, or advertising arrest records services to people searching for “distinctly black names.” Retailers even charge different people different amounts for the same good or service, meaning only the most tech-savvy consumers are able to get the lowest price.

These practices make it harder for marginalized people to climb out of poverty, and more difficult for working-class Americans to spend their hard-earned money efficiently. While consumer protection laws clearly outlaw unfair pricing and require equal employment opportunities, the regulations enforcing these laws are increasingly obsolete and impotent. It’s time to update these rules of the road to make sure they meaningfully protect everyone from digitally mediated discrimination.

Free educational materials

Today’s textbooks, worksheets and other educational materials are often both outdated and expensive. They lock teachers and students into one-size-fits-all lessons, rather than encouraging the localized, tailored educational experiences that better meet the needs of students and teachers alike.

There are plenty of free resources available for teachers to customize their lessons. Public copyright licenses like Creative Commons can promote free sharing of useful information, much as open-source software can accomplish all the same tasks without buying costly licenses. Textbook costs can be cut in half if schools were allowed to buy so-called “open textbooks,” rather than paying shockingly high premiums to a handful of commercial publishers. And students learn just as well. We should be requiring schools to incorporate open, customizable digital technologies to personalize educational materials and teaching methods to better meet individual student needs.

Promote broadband competition

Roughly 80 million Americans don’t have high-speed internet access at home. The main reason for that is high cost. Things aren’t much better for the two-thirds of Americans who do have broadband: Collectively, they’ll be charged more than a quarter-trillion dollars more for internet service by 2025 in comparison to what residents in other countries are paying.

These negative consumer impacts are a direct result of extensive lobbying by Comcast and other media and telecom companies, who’ve created noncompetitive markets that hurt consumers and stifle innovation.

Policies that drive universal access to low-cost, high-speed connectivity are a must. Politicians of all stripes support creating or increasing competition, preventing price-gouging in communities served by monopoly broadband providers and encouraging companies to provide internet service in remote areas. It’s also worth reexamining anti-trust laws (and how they are enforced) to make sure they are properly applied, especially since telecommunications services have become critical Americans’ personal and working lives.

Modernize the electricity grid

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 6 percent of all electricity produced is lost in transmission. Allowing people to generate power at their homes, through residential solar panels and wind turbines, helps keep power generation and ownership local while also making the entire electrical grid more robust.

However, scaling up this approach, called distributed microgeneration, requires an electrical system that enables two-way metering — a smart utility system that credits customers for power generated and charges them for power consumed. We also need open standards for interoperability between battery-powered vehicles and local grids, to help store locally generated power. And we need financial supports for consumers to deploy microgeneration solutions, in much the same ways we’ve done for other energy efficiency efforts.

Modernizing our electrical grid means integrating a host of new digital technologies — from enhancing two-way communications among different components of the grid to enabling micro-payments among local consumers and micro-generators — all of which will improve efficiency while simultaneously lowering the cost of energy.

Give users control of their data

Mass surveillance — including of gun ownersMuslims and African-American leaders — limits Americans’ freedom.

An increasing array of networked devices, such as fitness trackers, smart thermostats, smartphones and cars, collect information on their users’ activities. Consumer protections in the 21st century must ensure that we have access to and control over our own data.

We need to expand upon the work of pioneers in privacy-protecting devices like Freedom Box and BlackPhone, to give individuals control of the data their activities generate. This also opens the door for innovators to develop smart connected devices that serve as part of a more free, more privacy-protecting “Internet of Things.”

Because the Federal Trade Commission is unwilling or unable to step in, Congress will likely have to act — the way it did to protect children online and patients’ medical records. A comprehensive framework that places consumers in control of their data is essential in an era where companies increasingly fail to protect our private information.

Make software and data open to all

The United States spends billions of dollars every year on information technology, and tens of billions more on government-funded research and other grants. This represents an enormous investment by American taxpayers. Yet the public often gets only limited access to the tools, research and data that we have so generously funded.

Software, data and research results should be available to the citizen-investors who paid for its development. This will, in turn, stimulate innovation, improve efficiency and ensure that taxpayers get the value we deserve from the investments we make.

In addition, reviews of grant applications should ensure applicants’ prior work has accomplished the results that were promised. We cannot afford technological “bridges to nowhere” that eat up money while providing no real tangible benefits or improved scientific understanding.

We must make smart government investments that avoid duplication of existing private and nonprofit open technology initiatives. This means focusing on support for innovations that maximally benefit the general public (and not just corporations and their major stockholders). Federal research money should be a public investment in a public good.

Lay the groundwork for intelligent transportation

As autonomous vehicles become more common, we’ll need to update laws about traffic, insurance and liability. New rules will protect the general public and create real opportunities for smart vehicles to prove their value.

The first major effect from autonomous vehicles will be the large-scale displacement of drivers who currently work in the trucking and delivery sector. The country needs a transition plan for the country’s 3.5 million professional truckers who may lose their jobs to autonomous vehicles in the coming years. Without a plan for putting truckers back to work, millions of American families will suffer economic disaster. We cannot ignore the coming economic and social impacts of technological innovations.

Standardize medical record storage and transmission

Regardless of its other shortcomings, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has also built one of the most sophisticated electronic health platforms on the planet. The rest of us, however, live with separate health information fiefdoms — databases controlled by large insurance companies like Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Community Health Systems.

Having all those data locked up in proprietary systems creates tempting targets for hackers. That’s bad, but much worse is how hard it is to transfer patients’ health records among doctors, hospitals and insurers. We should use open and nonproprietary technologies to make electronic medical records more functional and eliminate redundant paperwork. It’s the 21st century: we shouldn’t have to keep filling out the same information on clipboards every time we go to a doctor.

Even more importantly, the life and cost savings of an interoperable health IT system are staggering. If doctors knew what others were prescribing to their mutual patients, they could all but eliminate negative drug interactions that cost hundreds of dollars every time they happen — not to mention causing over two million serious drug interactions leading to over 100,000 deaths every year. With 40 percent of Americans on four or more medications at once, the direct savings from this improvement alone would be in the tens of millions of dollars a year (far more than enough to pay for the systems initial development and ongoing improvement).

Focus government on technology
Given its role in countless facets of our lives, technology can no longer be an afterthought in our governmental deliberations. The head of the National Institute of Standards and Technology should be empowered to set executive branch technology and online security policies and implement the best practices they’ve already developed. NIST should receive the budget and decision-making authority necessary to implement reforms across governmental units.

In addition, NIST should mandate the use of encryption by default for all government IT systems. And Congress should promote strong encryption in society at large by banning federal entities from demanding back doors or other unbelievably bad ideas that undermine our collective security. Together, these actions will help ensure that Americans’ communications and data are as secure as they can be.

We must forge a bold new trajectory for a 21st-century civil society — one that prioritizes individual liberty and consumer empowerment. Otherwise, the detrimental impacts of new digital technologies will continue to undermine our livelihoods, our happiness and the underpinnings of our democratic society.
The Conversation
Sascha Meinrath, Director of X-Lab; Palmer Chair in Telecommunications, Pennsylvania State University

By Sascha Meinrath

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