Building our Technology Policy Future

Encryption. Autonomous vehicles. Blockchain. Fake news. AI. Cybersecurity. The list of complex technology policy issues confronting our society is dizzying — and only growing. How can we ensure that our government and social institutions have the skills and capacity to confront these new challenges? And how do we inspire a next generation of leaders with expertise in technology and public policy to guide our society through these coming challenges?

Two decades of digital developments have democratized communication, made knowledge more accessible, and created new economic opportunities around the world. But they also raise fundamental questions about privacy, security, consumer protection, transparency, and political power — and how policy-makers should address them.

These policy challenges have exposed gaps in our collective ability to keep pace with change and to make thoughtful decisions about the social implications of new technology. They also draw attention to an opportunity: to improve the programming in schools, higher education, and other skill-building programs to train a next generation with the capacity to fill these gaps.

Government and civil society have largely taken a careful and humble approach when making policy about technology, and with good reason. The benefits of technical innovation have been real, and risks from heavy-handed intervention are high.

But several factors now underscore the growing need for capacity to engage on tech policy. Technology has an increasingly central impact on our everyday lives. Billions are now online. The Internet in an essential component of civic life and economic opportunity — from doing our homework to finding a job. Technological change is having a disruptive impact on our work and our social interactions. The pace of that change is only increasing, and the future stakes will be even higher.

Yet just as the need is growing, our level of tech policy capacity remains low. Fewer than 40 of the 535 U.S. Senators and Members of Congress have a technical education. None of our Supreme Court justices have a background in technology. Tech policy expertise is hard to find in our cabinet secretaries or senior political leadership, and key White House science and tech policy positions remain understaffed today and chronically under-resourced.

A noteworthy example of this phenomenon can be seen in the encryption debate. Encryption is an essential tool for protecting privacy and security online, but also raises challenge for law enforcement investigations — as starkly revealed in the debate about Apple iPhone encryption in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings. What we learned is that engineers cannot make these decisions alone without an informed understanding of policy tradeoffs; and policy makers cannot make choices without some clear understanding of the technology ramifications.

After years of debate on encryption we have developed a corps of technology policy experts in the field. But without years of effort, how will we develop similar capacity on issues like AI, cybersecurity, and fake news, which are front and center today?

The good news: There is evidence that the next generation of technologists and young policy leaders are keenly interested in these problems. Young engineers today are more mission-driven, seeking ways to deploy their knowledge to improve the world. Many young people in other fields now see technology as an essential part of their education. Nearly 80% of Stanford undergrads will take the introductory computer science course before graduation. And innovators at schools ranging from Princeton, MIT, and Harvard’s Kennedy School to Miami-Dade College and Arizona State University are working to give young technologists broader skills and sensitivity to social issues, and to give future policy and business leaders greater awareness of technology.

What we need now is a concerted effort to build the field of public interest technology, in ways that include a strong “technology policy” component. Educators and students we have spoken with have flagged a need for —

  1. Real-world experiences that will expose students to tech policy work in government, industry, and NGOs — including summer internships, apprenticeships, and fellowships.
  2. Curricular offerings that expose technologists to policy issues, give policy students better technological intuitions, and build interdisciplinary skills.
  3. Clearer career paths for those interested in pursuing tech policy,, including better connections with jobs, better understanding of the roles that exist, opportunities to meet technologists working in the public interest, and improved hiring practices.
  4. Sustained scholarship to support faculty and student research and academic programs at the intersection on technology and policy.

Other ideas and needs exist. Every public interest technologist today has a story to tell of how they got started in this new field. Educators around the world are experimenting with new approaches to train and inspire tomorrow’s tech policy leaders. We seek to collect those stories, and to develop and share successful programs and practices. We welcome input from the growing community of practice in this space.

The Mozilla Tech Policy Fellowship itself is an effort to surge our community’s tech policy capacity. New America is also focused on this work; its new Public Interest Technology Initiative (where I also serve as a fellow) is a direct attempt to bring more technology capability to non-profit groups and within communities.

Further building the pipeline of capacity will be a focal point for some of us at the upcoming Mozilla Festival in London — come join us if you are there. We look forward to continuing the conversation, both in the U.S. and internationally.

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