McKaskill and Schumer

Why Politicians Don’t Understand Technology

McKaskill and Schumer

I think Senators Claire McCasgill (D-Mo.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y) are typical of the lawmaking world when it comes to thinking about technology. McCaskill, a second term member, has shown little interest in tech issues, though she has gotten an Apple Watch for her wrist and is ready to show it off. Schumer, the senior senator from New York and likely successor to Harry Reid as the Senate Democratic leader, wears his lack of experience with charm. His phone is the sort that is all but extinct in Washington (exact model not quite clear) and he looks proud of it.

A Senate leader is entitled to use the phone of his choice and I figure he has at least a BlackBerry hidden somewhere for messages (he could have an aide carrying it). But the lack of experience many leaders have with using technology helps explain why they have such a difficult time with the issues. And it is not a new problem.

Long history. For example, consider the history of telecommunications law. An antitrust suit led to the breakup of AT&T in 1982. The event knocked huge holes in federal communications laws, but Congress’ failure to act left a federal judge in charge of endless regulatory decisions for 12 years. Finally in 1996, Congress passed a new law that dealt primarily with the problems of the previous decade rather than the ones that were coming. Worse, lawmakers let special interests such as phone companies, broadcasts, and cable TV providers write their own priorities into law to dominate the parts they most cared about. Of course, we were anything but ready to deal with the explosion of the internet that began soon after passage.

Now we face a new generation of problems without fixing the old ones. Congress failed to come up with any legislation to address the handling of the internet by carriers. The Federal Communications Commission came up with its own net neutrality rules. The carriers, led by Verizon, went to court to overturn it and the District U.S. Court of Appeals told the FCC to rewrite it. The FCC finally redid it but it’s headed back to the Court of Appeals again.

Meanwhile, no one in Congress seems inclined to do something useful about it. The Republicans are in firm agreement with the carriers and conservatives to oppose government action because it’s the government. Democrats stick with liberals who favor more regulation and  support the generators of internet content. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler tried to find a middle ground and was opposed by both sides, especially the Democrats. The FCC has passed its own version but is being sued again and, if that fails, there will be another fight in Congress. Nothing gets done.

Personal experience. It would help tremendously if the lawmakers actually had some real, personal familiarity. The experience, I am convinced, would be better if members of Congress really knew about PCs and phones, how internet service was delivered to the houses of the public not in Washington or New York or San Francisco. How people in many places had real benefit of neither regulation or competition. Why do the politicians on one side support Verizon and AT&T while those on the other, Google and Netflix, without any real standing on why the companies take these positions and whether they benefit the public?

One fact is many lawmakers and executive branch leaders have little they must do themselves with technology. With rare exception, mostly with some of the younger members, few of the officials do much with computers or even phones. Schumer had a good time showing off his phone but it also helps to explain why the issues that need solutions are more the showplace for pointless action than steps that will really make a difference.

Published by

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

12 thoughts on “Why Politicians Don’t Understand Technology”

  1. I think lawmakers are playing dumb, and not even turning to competent advisers, because that’s a good excuse to let campaign-contributor-friendly legislation go through. Same as weapons being made then sent directly to mothballs while on-the-ground troops are missing equipment and not being cared for when coming back.
    With the lobbying/campaign contribution situation getting worse, and gerrymandering not being addressed, the only counterweight is newer companies’ desire for a level playing field. Politicians going to the highest bidder doesn’t seem like a good recipe for democracy, but that’s all that’s available for now.

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