What Makes a True Progressive in Communications & Tech Policy?

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April 10th, 2015

On April 1 the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) held an event to discuss its new report entitled “How Techno-Populism Is Undermining Innovation.”  The thrust of the report was to contrast the dangers of what it describes as “tech populism” with the virtues of what it calls “tech progressivism.”

The report begins with:

There was a time when technology policy was a game of “inside baseball” played mostly by wonks from government agencies, legislative committees, think tanks, and the business community. They brought sober, technical expertise and took a methodical approach to advancing the public interest on complex issues such as intellectual property rights in the digital era or electronic surveillance of telecommunications networks. But those days are gone. Tech policy debates now are increasingly likely to be shaped by angry, populist uprisings—as when a stunning four million submissions flooded into the Federal Communications Commission in response to its request for public comment on the issue of net neutrality; or when a loose coalition of protesters staged a dramatic blackout of popular websites in January 2012 to halt legislation that was intended to curb online piracy.

The authors seem to consider the mass-scale FCC comments and grassroots coalition building on tech issues as dangerous and destructive, in ways I find difficult to recognize:

Populism draws its strength from individuals’ fears, misunderstandings, or distrust, appealing to the prejudices of crowds and relying on demagoguery, distortion, and groupthink. Tech populists focus on maximizing self-interest and personal freedom, even if it comes at the expense of broader public interests.

I find the last reference to the “broader public interests” especially strange, since most of those I know who support net neutrality rules and strong privacy protections (whether expert or non-expert) strike me as genuinely very concerned about the public interest.

While there is plenty of room for thoughtful and respectful debate about how best to serve the public interest, the paper’s heavy use of straw-man arguments strikes me as an unfortunate example of the “demagoguery, distortion and groupthink” it condemns among those who seek to bring more citizens into the public policy arena (though exercised with a different style and mix of debating techniques).

The paper later notes that:

To be clear, the problem with technology policy debates is not that they have become more open and participatory, but rather that many, if not most of those who are choosing to engage in these debates do so from a position of fear, anger, or misunderstanding.

I strongly agree that communication policy debates should be based on facts, logic and a focus on the public interest.  But I think the paper is pretty biased in how it assigns responsibility for relying on “fear, anger and misunderstanding” (perhaps a close relative of FUD).

Related to this is the paper’s suggestion that it is irrational to embrace the “populist” view that:

[E]lites, especially big business and big government, will prevent useful rules from being established—or, if those rules are established, will find ways to bypass them at the expense of the broader public. They distrust the private sector because they believe corporations are driven purely by profit, and they distrust the public sector because they believe government is ineffectual and overbearing.

While this so-called “populist view” might be more accurate with a bit more elaboration and nuance, I disagree with the report’s suggestion that it is far from the mark in describing the reality of the political economy we’ve experienced in this country over the past several decades. When I consider actions taken and statements made by government officials (e.g., related to the Iraq War, NSA activities, financial reform, etc.) and some large corporations (e.g., in their lobbying and PR efforts to restrict municipal fiber network projects, neuter financial reform, etc.) I see valid, readily documentable reality-based reasons for distrust. And, to use the report’s own language, I’d rank these powerful institutions as among the most skilled and well-resourced purveyors of “fear, anger and misunderstanding.” They can, after all, afford to hire the most skilled practitioners of FUD, “truthiness” and other communication black arts.

Another concern I have with the report is that the event held to discuss it didn’t seem to include any expert presenters representing what its authors might consider the “populist” perspective on net neutrality and some of the other issues discussed in the report. I’d think that there would be at least one such person willing and able to share the stage without launching a fact-less emotion-laden diatribe. Perhaps some were invited to take part but declined. In any event, I suspect the lack of balance made the session less valuable than it otherwise might have been.

To provide some after-the-fact balance, I’d recommend reading what Free Press Senior Director of Strategy Tim Karr had to say about the ITIF paper and the related event. Here are some excerpts from what he wrote on Huffington Post:

Tech populism threatens innovation and the economy, argued ITIF President Robert Atkinson in his opening comments. Its practitioners, Atkinson said, are “emotional” and “self-interested.” Reason and the “benefits of progress,” on the other hand, motivate tech progressivism — which is really just another name for the cozy alliance between the corporate sector and government that had written tech policy for decades.

Tech populism elevates the input of the Internet masses, creating online vehicles for people to engage in the political process. Tech progressivism is a closed-door, gentlemen’s negotiation between businesses like Comcast, government actors that Comcast lobbies, and so-called experts like the Comcast-funded fellows at ITIF.

According to Atkinson and his colleagues, the public should trust that this insular process will lead to policies that serve all of our interests. Rather than engaging, people should just sit back and wait for the corporate-government pact to bestow its benevolent dictates upon us.

In this backwards equation, Atkinson casts newly engaged Internet users as straw men. We tech populists rely on mob rule and a distrust of authority, he claims. It’s the enlightened few, tech progressives like Atkinson and his corporate cronies, who must intervene in tech policy before we do any more damage.

Karr’s final point reminds me of times in our history when “the best and the brightest” in the policymaking and expert communities got it wrong, especially about big issues like war (think Vietnam and Iraq) and the economy, and used a combination of opaqueness, deception, straw-manning, and other (mis)communication tools to mislead citizens (and sometimes their representatives in Congress) about what was actually happening, what was at stake, and what could and should be done (the confident assertion that “there is no alternative,” or TINA, is a common technique for limiting the scope of the latter).

While chronic powerlessness can breed blind anger and resentment, chronic power can just as readily breed blind arrogance, aggravated by “theory-induced blindness,” among even the most well-meaning of “the best and the brightest.”

The more steps we individually and collectively take to lessen each of these tendencies, the better off we’ll be as a society.  My hope is that the Quello Center’s recently announced empirical study of net neutrality impacts will be a helpful step forward in that regard.

And the more tools and systems we develop to inform and empower citizens to participate actively and constructively in the policymaking process, the healthier will be our democracy, our economy, our society, and the environment in which we live.

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One thought on “What Makes a True Progressive in Communications & Tech Policy?”

  1. William Dutton says:

    Here is an example of tech populism in action in #India: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-32287811?ocid=socialflow_twitter

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