The year ahead will bring momentous challenges to digital ecosystems, according to dozens of policymakers and industry analysts who offered their visions at the annual “State of the Net” conference. They focused on the digital divide, cybersecurity, privacy, Section 230 oversight and the encouragement (but control) of fast-emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence during the two-day virtual event last week.
Many of the public officials, in their remarks, also shot down the concept of “unity” as enunciated a week earlier in President Biden’s inaugural address. Their presentations offered a contentious glimpse of what’s ahead, frequently laced with interpretations of how the COVID-19 recovery process will affect telecommunications and media policy. The 2021 edition of SOTN presented an especially volatile annual amalgam of achievements and complaints; the event is produced by the Internet Education Foundation.
Among the three Members of the House of Representatives who spoke, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) was the most critical of President Biden – challenging his first-day-in-office action to reverse a Trump Administration order to protect the electrical grid. Rodgers, the ranking member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, also praised former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s spectrum policy actions.
Reflecting her interest in infrastructure – especially power grid issues, Rodgers chastised President Biden’s moves “to weaken the grid.”
“On his first day, President Biden issued an order freezing the … executive order from last year,” Rodgers said, citing the SolarWinds cybersecurity hack. “It’s incredibly disappointing that President Biden has taken this action to weaken our grid. I hope that the Biden administration will reconsider that decision as quickly as possible; our grid is too critical to leave it vulnerable to hostile efforts of China and other foreign adversaries.”
In broader statements, Rodgers pressed her support for emerging technologies, citing her sponsorship of the “American Competitiveness of a More Productive Emerging Tech Economy (the American COMPETE) Act” last year, which encourage U.S. leadership in Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, blockchain and other advanced projects.
“We must ensure emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are developed with western values to counter and isolate China,” Rodgers said. She heaped considerable praise on the FCC’s Pai for his “significant progress in bringing the next generation of wireless communications to Americans” and making “unprecedented amounts of spectrum available to the private sector for commercial deployment.”
Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) focused on cybersecurity and the digital divide, reflecting his role as ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee and on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He insisted that America needs “to better understand the nature and extent of third-party cyber-risks.”
“We need to rethink our fragmented approach to government security by centralizing authority,” Katko said. Although he cited the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) at the Department of Homeland Security as a natural focal point, he argued that CISA shouldn’t take authority away from the other agencies, but rather be “a good clearing house…[and] advisor” for the entire dot.gov cyber-realm.
“We need to whack the hell out of the bad guys when they commit these acts like SolarWinds,” he added, referring to the massive December hack that assaulted government and corporate networks.
Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), who sits on the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee, focused on the need for “coordination between the Judiciary and Commerce committees” as Congress plunges into the intertwined relationships between monopoly, privacy and use of consumer proprietary information.
“We cannot avoid the fact that user data is the coin of the realm,” Armstrong said. He described as vital the need for use of data during upcoming tech antitrust investigations, characterizing use of personal data as a major factor in dominant firms’ “anti-competitive conduct.”
“We must ask whether privacy measures are being used as a sword against competitors,” he said. “We must ask the same question when a company cites privacy as justification for consolidating its ad tech stack by requiring all ad purchases on its platforms to be routed through its demand side tools. … We cannot consider these issues in a silo. Tech antitrust and data privacy are intrinsically linked; our responses must acknowledge this fact.”
Citing COVID-19 Era Successes; Reducing Digital Divide
During a session on “Resiliency and Network Performance,” Matt Toomey, VP of broadband technology at NCTA: The Internet & Television Association, lauded cross-industry collaboration within the broadband sector during the past year; he characterized it as a way to “to keep America connected” by focusing on adaptive video technology.
“It's a testament to the adaptiveness of how … the video streaming guys work; it's just phenomenal,” Toomey said. “There's lots of evidence of collaboration across the board between operators and content providers.” He cited experiences in which engineers exchanged reports between their “war rooms … to make sure that content from content providers was able to get to ISP networks and … to make any adjustments in real time.”
Maurita Coley, president and CEO, Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC) cited the broadband achievements of the past year as a model for what should be addressed in other pending policy issues, notably in bridging the digital divide.
“Maybe you could call it ‘trickle up,’” she said, describing the need for an “emergency broadband benefit.” Supporting the Biden $3.2 billion plan for very low-income family subsidies that would include broadband benefits, Cole cited endorsements from top executives. She said it is “absolutely essential that everyone have access to broadband, not just during the pandemic.” Coley included senior citizens and tribal communities as needing support for permanent access to broadband services.
Evan Marwell, founder/CEO of Education Super Highway, pointed out how policy commitments can change the access equation. He noted that in 2013 only 10% of students had good internet access in their classrooms; by last year, that factor had risen to 99.7%. He cited the value of the impetus from the Obama administration.
Addressing the digital divide, Marwell said, “Somebody needs to step up and that somebody probably needs to be President Biden.” He urged that the President “set a national goal of connecting all of our households and our students.” Citing the need for better broadband mapping, Marwell urged more work on collecting “data about who isn't connected.”
“It's really hard to solve a problem like this if you don't know where the problem is,” he said. “The broadband benefit is a great opportunity to make progress in… tackling the digital divide.” And he criticized the FCC for not reserving “a portion of the fund for the unconnected.” He supported Coley’s recommendation “to make this benefit permanent.”
“The Biden administration needs a clear measurable goal that all of the different departments and agencies … [are] working towards that is measurable, and they need to track progress against it,” Marwell said. He added the need for a unified “implementation strategy.”
At a SOTN session on internet geopolitics, several top former federal officials plowed more deeply into these access issues.
Bruce Mehlman, former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Technology Policy at the Department of Commerce (G.W. Bush administration), pointed out the differing viewpoints of Democrats and Republicans on domestic broadband rollouts.
“There will be a lot of discussion … about digital inclusion questions such as, algorithmic bias or just the diversity within the workforce of tech companies,” said Mehlman, now a principal at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, a government relations firm. “Republicans have investments in rural access, and Democrats have investment in less-rural affordability.” He called that an opportunity for dealing and because “there is an imperative to get it done.” Mehlman also cited “the opportunity for platforms to empower civil rights groups” but warned that the challenge of operating in “a post truth world where everybody starts with their own facts.”
“Smart infrastructure makes all the difference. It can make a country far more productive, but it also enables the surveillance state. So how do you get the balance right on things like crypto?” he asked rhetorically. Praising the U.S. tech sector, Mehlman also warned that, “We need to do a better job at retraining.”
Daniel Sepulveda, a former deputy assistant secretary ambassador, U.S. Department of State (Obama administration) speculated on a proposal by former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler to create a digital platform agency.
“At some point of an agency specialized on digital platforms depending on size and scope and reach is, it's certainly possible, he said. Sepulveda, now senior VP for policy and advocacy for MediaMath, a global advertising and marketing technology company, observed that such plans may be affected by similar concepts being bruited about in Europe. He said he is “not personally convinced it's necessary.” Sepulveda said he expects that existing agencies – such as the FCC and FTC, which “have infrastructure” in place, could be “bulked up … to deal with the challenges that are posed by new digital platforms.”
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