Should lawmakers be required to understand technology? | The Tylt
With revelations that our cell phones are constantly tracking and sharing our location, social media is consistently manipulating the information we are given, and screens could be quickly degrading the brains of children, there are many important questions for tech companies to answer for. However, when Congress hauled Google CEO Sundar Pichai in for a hearing, many lawmakers seemed to only be able to ask questions about why rude things came up when they searched their names. Should we require our lawmakers to be digitally literate?
Should lawmakers be required to understand technology?
Members of the House of Representatives had the opportunity to question Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the myriad of ways the tech giant aids and manipulates modern life. Not only is the behemoth a major player in almost all aspects of modern life, the ways it functions are largely mysterious, even to those who work for the company, which leads to many concerns. Per New York Magazine:
The Google search algorithm is very complex, and even the act of logging every step taken by the program for every one of the millions of queries Google sees every day is a huge undertaking. But those same logs would go towards illuminating how automated software goes through its processes.
Let’s bring back the fast food analogy: Imagine McDonald’s made a machine that took a bunch of random ingredients and turned those ingredients into a burger. Maybe it doesn’t even use all of the ingredients, only the relevant burger ones. After years of tinkering with the machine, McDonald’s figured out how to get the machine to produce a burger customers love. Then, what if people started getting sick from those burgers? You’d probably want to know how the mysterious burger machine worked. Can you imagine if McDonald’s answered that with, “Well, the burger machine takes a bunch of ingredients and processes them and does it differently every time and we dunno precisely how it gets to the end-result burger?” That would be infuriating, and it is currently how algorithm-powered companies are responding to Congress.
However, members of Congress seem to believe they are already well-informed about how the different Internet technologies function. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas felt confident enough in his knowledge of Google's inner workings to argue with Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
Yet, that confidence seems to be misplaced. Rep. Steve King asked Pichai—again, the CEO of Google—why a rude message about him popped up on his granddaughter's iPhone. Pichai reminded King he did not work for Apple.
Not all members of Congress seemed confused about the way Google worked. Rep. Ted Lieu posited that "if you don't want negative search results, don't do negative things," pointing out the inanity of complaining to the CEO of Google about negative news.
Knowing the ways tech companies work is becoming increasingly important. Technology has changed faster than legislation could possibly keep up. A recent bombshell New York Times investigation revealed that our cell phones are tracking our locations and sharing that information with businesses far more than most of us could imagine.
At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information, The Times found. Several of those businesses claim to track up to 200 million mobile devices in the United States — about half those in use last year. The database reviewed by The Times — a sample of information gathered in 2017 and held by one company — reveals people’s travels in startling detail, accurate to within a few yards and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day.
These companies sell, use or analyze the data to cater to advertisers, retail outlets and even hedge funds seeking insights into consumer behavior. It’s a hot market, with sales of location-targeted advertising reaching an estimated $21 billion this year. IBM has gotten into the industry, with its purchase of the Weather Channel’s apps. The social network Foursquare remade itself as a location marketing company. Prominent investors in location start-ups include Goldman Sachs and Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder.
...“Location information can reveal some of the most intimate details of a person’s life — whether you’ve visited a psychiatrist, whether you went to an A.A. meeting, who you might date,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, who has proposed bills to limit the collection and sale of such data, which are largely unregulated in the United States.
“It’s not right to have consumers kept in the dark about how their data is sold and shared and then leave them unable to do anything about it,” he added.
According to Slate, several members of Congress did use their time during Pichai's hearing on more fruitful and important lines of questioning.
Multiple members of Congress on both sides of the aisle also pressed Pichai on reports that Google has been developing a censored search engine for users in China, an effort that the company calls “Project Dragonfly.” Pichai acknowledged that there was such an effort but said that there were no current plans to follow through with the project. He also revealed, during questioning from Pennsylvania Rep. Keith Rothfus, that Google at one point had more than 100 people working on the effort. Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline also asked, “Will you, Mr. Pichai, rule out launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China while you’re CEO of Google?” The CEO talked about the importance of providing information but would not make any commitments on this issue either.
Near the end of the hearing, California Rep. Eric Swalwell even seemed to elicit Pichai’s support for a national privacy law in the U.S. “I’m of the opinion that we are better off with more of an overarching data-protection framework for users, and I think it would be good to do,” Pichai said. When asked about the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, a thorough set of consumer-privacy policies, the CEO called it “a well-thought-out, crafted piece of legislation.”