This past summer I had an innocent conversation with one of my relatives who happened to be struggling with connecting to the internet on her newly purchased iPhone. When I told her she needed to either use data or to connect to WiFi in order to do so, I was met with the response, “Isn’t WiFi how they hack your information?”
Although I spent a few extra minutes explaining the concept of WiFi, I was not immediately concerned. The technological divide between age groups is often harmless and reconcilable.
However, this divide has begun to manifest outside of simple familial misunderstandings. Infamously, recent scandals involving Russian election interference through social media outlets and alleged conservative shadow banning on Twitter have exposed certain individuals to copious amounts of information about technologies they otherwise would have no reason to interact with.
Consequently, misunderstandings of the unknown have led to the development of misguided fears and notions among disconnected demographics with respect to what recent buzz phrases like “data mining,“ “social media,“ or “ad-based business models” actually entail.
As apprehensions concerning the privacy, security, and honesty of social media outlets have grown, the United States government has stepped in to assuage the damage in addition to providing potentially beneficial regulation.
Nevertheless, just as you would not entrust a serial thief to housesit, we as a public should not entrust a legislative body of disconnected senators to regulate the way firms like Facebook or Google develop their user interfaces and ad-centric business models.
Independent of Facebook’s acknowledged struggles with Russian advertisements interference during the 2016 election, the questions posed by Senators at the hearing reinforced the aforementioned divide.
In one instance, Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah asked of Zuckerberg, “How do you sustain a business model where customers don’t pay for your service?”
Business models driven by ad-revenue and in-app purchases have existed as staples of tech giants, and social media firms in particular, for years. As such, Senator Hatch’s question did not solely communicate a current misunderstanding of how Facebook generates revenue.
In short, technology has accelerated at a faster rate than the understanding of those who constitute the legislative branch of the United States Federal Government. This disconcerting trend was made evident during Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing on Facebook’s data and advertising practices.
Until recently, this growing divide went unnoticed, either for lack of caring within the U.S. legislature or for lack of awareness of the problem’s existence. In any case, legislators need to be held accountable for maintaining a level of technological literacy prior to regulating relatively recent technological developments such as cryptocurrencies, social media platforms, and search engines. This accountability should come in the form of a reimagined educational background for politicians.
The growing embeddedness of STEM in our everyday lives also calls for changes in the educational backgrounds of our legislators. Already here at Princeton, the Wilson School takes a relatively interdisciplinary approach by requiring coursework in statistics, economics, data science, natural science policy, and psychology in addition the expected instruction in policy and international affairs. Gradually restructuring the mutual exclusivity of political and STEM educational backgrounds would improve the authority and interactions legislators would enjoy when interacting with Silicon Valley’s companies.
On a similar note, China’s economic eruption over the last decade has largely been fueled by technocratic leadership. Despite the Chinese government’s ignominious censorship practices and shortcomings in handling social issues, their recent success exemplifies the merits of politicians with a working educational background in STEM.
Moreover, longstanding practices in society, like physical mail, have online parallels, email, that could benefit from analogous legislative protections but have been glanced over time and again. While opening or stealing mail that is not addressed to you is a federal offense, there are no laws safeguarding the privacy of emails.
Despite daily interactions via email outnumbering physical mail, we have not seen the U.S. government act in accordance with changes in the ways people communicate, both professionally and casually. While some members of Congress have noticed the need for contemporary email privacy regulations, they are few and far between.
The most salient difference between email and mail is that the latter is delivered by the United States Postal Service (USPS) and subsequently relates to a federal agency, which warrants punishing mail theft as a federal offense.
Having said that, the government should also consider the necessity to safeguard the information transferred daily via email, due to both the quantity and sensitivity of the contents. Even rudimentary confirmation emails following an online purchase can contain one’s name, phone number, address, and credit card information.
Currently, the contents of email exchanges are left to private parties whether that entails the user or the email provider. In both instances, security settings leave much to be desired. I have observed that a large majority of email users even struggle to prevent spam from cluttering their inboxes, let alone more nefarious communications.
As of now, regulatory trends have focused on impeding companies rather than addressing individual user interactions. New York already stamped regulations on Uber and Lyft that inhibit TLC licenses distributed to For-Hire Vehicles (FHV), thus undermining the business models that made Uber and Lyft so disruptive in the transportation industry. No longer can any individual with a car monetize that resource per request by willing customers.
In a similar vein, New York passed legislation requiring Airbnb to share its user data, shrinking aggregate demand for Airbnb’s services as customers who wanted to maintain a private corporate-client relation are now not able to do so.
In doing so, New York’s underlying motives seem targeted at preventing emerging tech-driven companies from disrupting the older institutions in New York City. Uber and Lyft represent strong competitors to New York’s taxi industry and undermine medallion owners. Relatedly, Airbnb disturbed New York’s rent-controlled real estate gold mine. As a result, all three companies have experienced regulatory constraints targeted at limiting their influence.
Considering the foregoing, the question arises whether recent regulatory measures taken against emerging tech firms are designed to improve and protect consumers or designed to preserve dated commercial norms in the city.
Moving forward, the development of appropriate regulation for an ever-developing tech sector requires two important modifications to the current approach. First, senators must develop a greater understanding and literacy of the business models that drive modern technological firms. Second, the legislature’s initiatives must shift from protecting the industries being disrupted to the improving consumers interactions with the new products.
Hunter Sieben is a sophomore from Ottawa Hills, Ohio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.