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Our Politicians Don’t Understand Tech and it's Time to Put Them to the Testby@leifnissenlundbaek
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Our Politicians Don’t Understand Tech and it's Time to Put Them to the Test

by Leif-Nissen LundbækFebruary 18th, 2022
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Our world leaders need a crash course in tech. Badly. The ineptitude our elected representatives' demonstrate in terms of both tech itself and the industry is, depending on your metric, is either frightening or laughable. Even Mark Zuckerberg struggled to contain a giggle when asked by Senator Orrin Hatch how Facebook makes money if users don’t pay for it. The older the politician, the less likely they are to understand Big Tech on any level. We need politicians who know this and who are prepared to legislate accordingly.

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Our world leaders need a crash course in tech. Badly.

The ineptitude our elected representatives' demonstrate in terms of both tech itself and the industry is, depending on your metric, either frightening or laughable. Even Mark Zuckerberg, whose ability to imitate normal human emotions is limited at best, struggled to contain a giggle when asked by Senator Orrin Hatch how Facebook makes money if users don’t pay for it. His response – “” – remains one of the most painfully encapsulating soundbytes of the entire Mark-Zuckerberg-explains-the-internet-to-Congress debacle.

In second place: Senator Lindsey Graham asking him “Is Twitter the same as what you do?” with the straightest of straight faces.


These are far from the only egregious examples. Remember David Cameron’s deal in 2014 with Britain’s major wifi providers to block pornographic content on public wifi networks, complete with a requirement for households with private connections to “opt-in”? It was an unmitigated (and predictable) disaster that did nothing to actually protect kids online.

Thousands upon thousands of British households said “absolutely not” to telling the government that they personally would like to see the internet in full – most providers saw between six and fourteen percent of households actually opt-in.

Not that it mattered, since a generation of kids raised on the internet have no trouble figuring out VPNs or using Reddit.

In Europe, what political tech literacy that exists is steamrolled by a totally fragmented approach and a failure to reach any consensus. Tired of waiting for the implementation of EU-wide legislation, the German government took steps in early 2021 to limit monopolistic market abuse on a federal level. This naturally ruffled feathers in Brussels. If it isn’t covered by the GDPR already, union states are left to their own devices and then scolded for responding in kind. France is targeting hate speech largely on its own, and with its own political ends. By the time this all comes to a head in Brussels, everyone will be frustrated and nothing will get done.


Political animals should be digital savvy 

Digital illiteracy varies from politician to politician, but the writing has long been on the wall in terms of governments’ inability to reign tech in – both to protect their citizens from predatory data mining practices and to protect the rule of law by limiting the flagrant dissemination of extremist content.

Enough is enough. Privacy is an undeniable human right in the modern world, and unmitigated surveillance in combination with rampant for-profit data collection are its single greatest threat. We need politicians who know this and who are prepared to legislate accordingly. We need politicians who know you can’t just “block porn” from the children of an entire country by setting up what amounts to a surveillance database – especially when, as with Cameron’s folly, that ban ends up a) not preventing children from accessing porn in any real way, and b) blocking sites offering sexual health resources instead.

Term limits are often brought up as a solution to this problem. The reasoning behind it has to do with age. The older the politician, the less likely they are to understand Big Tech on any level. Orrin Hatch is 87, after all, so this argument holds up at first glance. But that’s not the case across the board, seeing how 80-year-old Senator Bernie Sanders incorporated a comprehensive proposal to break up Big Tech in his latest presidential bid. Age isn’t the problem here.

So something else is amiss, and blaming old people for not “getting” tech is a dead end.

Pop quizzes as political qualifications

What might get us somewhere is an actual assessment with some political weight behind it. Test the politicians. It’s simple. Pass it, and you’re eligible to run. Fail it, and you’re not. It would go hand-in-hand with the standard petition signature requirement just to get on the ballot. 

If these legacy politicians are as poorly prepared by their aides for the assessment as they clearly were for the Cambridge Analytica hearings, then it’s time for them to go. If you don’t know what the right to be forgotten is, goodbye. If you don’t know the absolute basics on data collection and sale, you’re out. If you don’t know the difference between Facebook and Twitter, forget it. There’s no excuse for this anymore. Anyone who doesn’t have an ironclad grip on the basics (at least!) of data collection, privacy, and Big Tech has no place in the halls of power.

Let’s be realistic about how effective our elected representatives have been at dealing with Big Tech’s excesses and flagrant privacy violations. Did anything actually change after Cambridge Analytica? (Arguably no.) Calls to mitigate Big Tech’s monopolies and bring down antitrust penalties have, thus far, fallen on deaf ears despite widespread popular support. In Washington, Berlin, London, Brussels, and elsewhere, the ineptitude to deal with Big Tech and protect the privacy of their citizens stems first and foremost from ignorance.

With all due respect to the GDPR, which was a good step in the right direction but far from the only regulations we need, our governments need to get it together. As darkly hilarious as it is to watch Google CEO Sundar Pichai to Representative Steve King that the iPhone is made by a different company, it’s also just dark.

Our governments are failing their tech tests again and again. Maybe if they failed their individual tech assessments first, we wouldn't be in this situation.

About Leif

Leif-Nissen Lundbæk (Ph.D.) is Co-Founder and CEO of Xayn and specialises in privacy-preserving AI. He studied Mathematics and Software Engineering in Berlin, Heidelberg, and Oxford. He received his Ph.D. at Imperial College London.