We need a political litmus test for tech and SOPA isn’t it

Ask Newt about SOPA or online privacy.

Imagine if your son or daughter created a brilliant mash-up for their English class that you thought was a perfect display of his or her personality, so you decided to share the mash-up on your family blog. Unfortunately, little Susie or Johnny included a brief movie clip or perhaps a fraction of a song in their class project, and suddenly your blog is gone thanks to a complaint from a rightsholder and the passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). If you want your blog back you can take the offending material down, and if you don’t want to do that, then you could sue arguing fair use. Regardless, it’s up to you to figure out what’s wrong and fight to have your blog re-instated.
A growing problem as the web and technology becomes more central to how we share, communicate and work is that an average person doesn’t know how abstract laws can affect their lives and the media doesn’t expose how well (or poorly) politicians understand technology. As a result, certain companies with lobbyists are getting away moulding our laws and policies in their favor and in the process they are going to hinder how Internet works and thrives.
Horror stories about SOPA abound, but what about your cell phone? Can a police officer search the contents of your phone during a traffic stop? Can a customs agent rifle through your laptop files as you return from a trip abroad? What about the history of your Google searches or checkins on Foursquare, can those be used against you in a court of law? These are not idle issues and instead of focusing on who is a socialist or paying  attention solely to where someone stands on social issues such as abortion or gay marriage, the broader media, politicians and citizenry need to start paying attention to and thinking about tech policy.
So while debates over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) will continue to rage as we head into an election year in the U.S. France, The U.K and other places, we should ask elected officials about how they view the Internet and how connectivity can change the world.
Thomas Friedman danced around the issue in his New York Times’ column Tuesday, when he suggested politicians need to be asked about how we can bring to bear the budding infrastructure we’re building to connect people and things to solve some of our problems. Sure the web is disruptive, and disruptive is scary, especially for politicians, but as technology becomes more engrained in our lives it also becomes a target for politicians. So we need politicians that understand it and view it as a tool, yes, one that can be abused, but also one that can be harnessed for society’s benefits, such as improving rural access to healthcare.
Rather than letting the web turn into a partisan issue kind of like spectrum policy has become, or letting industry interests try to cut the web off at the knees as the content industry seems to be doing with SOPA, it’s time to shape some questions that can help voters understand how politicians stand on various issues such as privacy, censorship and the real issues where the government’s views on technology will impact citizens’ lives. I’m not suggesting every Congressman must have a detailed understanding of what a DNS server is, but it’s time they stopped equating the Internet with nerds, and look ahead to how the web can improve government, lower costs and maybe solve some pressing problems.
Here are a few questions I’d like to see at the upcoming debates, but feel free to offer more in the comments below. Honestly, as citizens we also need to be thinking about how we would answer these questions (or want our politicians to answer them) as well.

  • As the Internet is changing the skill sets demanded by employers, what does the federal/state/local government need to do to ensure our educational system keeps up? Are there subjects we need to add? Procedures we need to change? Skills our administrators and teachers need? Infrastructure that should be as important as a chalkboard is in classrooms?
  • As people store more information online, what do you see as the biggest risks for consumers, corporations and governments? What laws need to change?
  • Can you name an area of government where you see adding connectivity or developing a program that uses connectivity could improve service and/or save taxpayers money?
  • Our digital footprints are forever and we’re now leaving digital records of every casual search, photograph, thought and place we visit. When much of this information was in a physical form, to get at this data required the government to justify the need to invade someone’s privacy. Our current laws don’t always protect digital information in this same way. Should it?
  • Do you consider our current wireline broadband market competitive? How do we keep improving it? Is fiber to the home to as many places as possible a good goal for the government to pursue, recognizing it could cost taxpayers billions?