Our ‘modern’ Congress doesn’t understand 21st century technology

When Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before House and Senate panels earlier this month, he explained how his company uses the data of millions of Americans. This particular set of hearings was urgent because our elected leaders have realized the power that lies in Facebook’s hidden trove of networked knowledge — its potential to violate privacy and the menace it poses to the integrity of our democratic institutions.

Facebook is a business that sells social connection; its algorithms are made for targeted advertising. The data that users provide via friends, likes and shares makes the company’s model lucrative. But connecting a person to a pair of shoes cannot be the same engagement algorithm that we use to build a cohesive democratic society. Watch any hearing on Capitol Hill.

It’s a durable, if old-fashioned bridge between leaders and citizens. Informed deliberation could be a lot more compelling, but it can never compete on the same turf with funny GIFs and targeted videos. Algorithms optimized for commercial engagement do not protect public goods like democratic discourse. They are built for shareholders, not citizens. To the contrary, they can exploit and damage democracy’s most precious resource — civic trust.

One hundred cardboard cutouts of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg stand outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. Advocacy group Avaaz is calling attention to what the groups says are hundreds of millions of fake accounts still spreading disinformation on Facebook. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Congress is the world’s most powerful representative assembly. Yet, like much of the U.S. government, it does not have adequate 21st century technology knowledge or modern digital infrastructure for citizen input, much less interaction. Until we have an alternative that protects civic engagement data, the prevailing business models that rely on selling social connection will continue to be the equivalent of strip-mining democracy.  

If we think we can use a corporate profit model for civics, we will get an increasingly coarse and volatile public life. Malevolence is cheap, and conspiracy scales quickly. Junk news costs little compared to credible journalism. When clicks are the currency, the shortest path to a sale is vulgarity or shouting, which often stops inclusive participation altogether. It’s true that crowds are sometimes rowdy. But our democratic institutions are supposed to moderate this behavior, and they are decades behind the private sector, which also struggles with online civility standards.

Another challenge is the scant institutional capacity our democracy has for coping with a digital world. For decades, Congress has purged its own expertise, especially on technology. The result is that it can’t match the White House when it comes to policy, and it relies on the narrow perspectives of lobbyists more than ever. Congress does make available a great deal of information but — like a banana republic of data– it lacks the resources to purchase the analysis products for its own workflow or to create a competitive version for itself.

The longer we wait to build modern engagement capacity for our democracy, the more citizens will pay the price. In a political system awash with anonymous money, Congress is not building an integrity engine to audit the supply chain of data into policy. It is not optimizing the underused capacity of public serving knowledge already on Capitol Hill. It’s actually not far beyond  hot lead type. Even the computer science interns still carry around three-ring binders full of hard copy letters to sign.

Congress got a lot of attention for the Facebook hearings — much of it negative. But instead of focussing on the inadequate interrogation of Mark Zuckerberg, Americans should consider creative possibilities to enrich democratic discourse.  

What if one-third of the committee hearing questions were open to colleagues with subject matter expertise from either party in either the House or the Senate? How about a preparatory “question challenge” to the verified citizens of the districts of the committee members? What about a curation platform to vet and incorporate audience feedback within the hearing itself? How about a stack exchange for the fresh questions so the rest of us watching from afar could rank them? And, why doesn’t Congress already have a computational intelligence capacity for every committee — one that could assist human staff with complex input in real time or asynchronously?

This future-dream is a steep hill, but it is not impossible. Until our governing institutions develop public-serving standards and systems, let’s follow the lead of truly modern democracies and put the civic engagement data of our nation where it will be safe and not for sale — in our collective hands. The urgent task for Congress and the rest of us is to restore civic trust. How about a series of follow-up hearings on who should be the information intermediaries for 21st century democracy?

Given the current international political climate, multi-lateral talks are another steep hill to climb. But we’ve looked abroad for common good norms in the past. We can start now by recognizing that open democratic standards are a modern source of power and influence. Iceland created a civic nonprofit to engage citizens and protect their data. Estonia already gives a digital identity to online businesses. Starting next month, Facebook will adhere to the European Union’s privacy rules for the U.S., Europe and Canada. Identifying and upholding these promising practices is vital in a world where the reputation of democracy is at stake.  

In an unfortunate step backward, the Facebook hearings returned us to the old familiar Russia versus the West framework. But it is worth remembering how — in the last century — democracy won the Cold War because of off-shored norms.

Forty-three years ago, 35 national leaders gathered in Finland to collaborate on reducing tensions with the Eastern bloc, then dominated by the Soviet Union. The resulting Helsinki Accords championed Rule of Law and Human Rights. These Western democratic norms became the guide posts of Eastern Europe’s dissidents. In then-Czechoslovakia, the Charter 77 movement drew strength from exposing the hypocrisy of their government, a signatory to the accords. The norms were ultimately successful in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Democratic societies require trusted connection in order to survive. They also need credible, capable institutions. If we Americans want to rebuild our national confidence, we’ll need a digital engagement system that optimizes for human dignity, not corporate dollars. The first step is for Congress — our most democratic institution — to fund its own digital capacity. Even then, it will need trusted, privacy-protecting partners.

There is no IPO that monetizes engaged citizens, there’s just a society that sticks together enough to keep talking, even when a lot of people are fed up and angry. Once we decide to protect the public trust, we can succeed and even lead again. But to be cautiously hopeful and paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, let’s offshore our democracy’s civic data norms until we can keep them ourselves.