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At Techonomy 2017: Debating Tech’s Impact on Democracy

Speakers share a firm belief that more transparency can be a big step forward. Photo credit: Paul Sakuma

A shudder ran up the collective spine of the Techonomy 2017 conference as panel after panel highlighted the danger of technology running ahead of corporate ethics, public policy, and the law.

The conflict was most pronounced in a far-reaching discussion Tuesday entitled “Can Tech and Government Save Democracy.” The conversation, as one participant characterized it, was “enlightening but not encouraging.”

Jon Fine, executive director of editorial at Inc. Magazine, kicked off the conversation by saying that the great platforms have been “weaponized,” and asking how “the town squares should be policed?”

His question ignited immediate debate. Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, questioned the analogy. “The platforms are not the town square,” he said. “The town square is a public space. The platforms are company towns. The company sets the rules and extracts value from the participants. They are unaccountable. They are the exact opposite of the town square.”

Minnie Ingersoll, COO at Code for America, added that the debate has conflated two different but related problems: foreign interference in the US elections and the fact that the platforms control what their users see. She argued that there are different solutions for those problems, and that we need to be clear about what problem we are taking on.

Molly Turner, a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and a former senior executive at Airbnb, said there is a disconnect in perceptions between the platform companies and the public. “Their core belief [meaning the companies] is that they don’t control speech,” she said. “Do we really want them to be the arbiter of speech? I don’t see a good solution here.”

Rotenberg advocated a more decisive – and aggressive – solution: regulation. “There can be a good outcome when we have a stable regulatory framework,” he said. He harkened back to Ralph Nadar’s crusade for car safety as an example of government intervention leading to safer outcomes without inhibiting innovation or revenue. Nader, he said, did not advocate shutting down the car companies when their cars proved extremely dangerous. Rather, he successfully pushed for regulations that ultimately made cars dramatically safer.

Tim Hwang, founder and CEO of FiscalNote, said regulation is anathema to the core beliefs of Silicon Valley leaders. “Thinking about regulation should be part of the product design from the beginning,” he said. “But the culture of innovation in the Valley bucks authority.”

As tech companies grow to scale, there is time lag “between the responsibilities that comes with their size and owning up to it,” added audience member and long-time tech journalist Steve Levy.

The theme of unintended consequences was explicit and implicit in just about every session over the course of the two-day retreat in Half Moon Bay, California, and was the subject of many hallway conversations. There may be no clear solution for the challenges posed by net giants short of government intervention. But that is a prospect most thought unlikely. Instead, many speakers shared a firm belief that more transparency – in algorithms, privacy policies, emerging AI capabilities, and in data security – can be a big step forward. That transparency, however, will not come without persistent, ongoing pressure from the public, the press, and policymakers. And there is no assurance, most agreed, that such pressure will come.

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