Is your Representative really representative?
Over the last several months, there’s been a lot of discussion about data, hacking, and the American political process. During that time, we’ve seen one presidential front runner accused of deleting sensitive data, another invite the Russians to hack his opponent to retrieve the missing data, and the Russians accused of hacking the private online data of both major political parties as well as directly influencing the results of the November election.
While the nation was distracted by these serious hacking allegations, an unexpected culprit quietly emerged to do what the Russians could not: make the private online activity of all Americans available to the highest bidder. Last week, the US Congress moved to allow internet providers (generally cable or telephone companies) to collect and sell online browsing and app usage histories without user permission. Not the Russians. Not President Trump’s mysterious, 400-pound bedridden hacker. The US Congress.
We’re less than 75 days into the Trump Administration and I understand why internet providers would move quickly to take advantage of Washington’s dysfunctional political landscape to roll back planned Obama-era consumer privacy protections — sifting through and selling Americans’ private data to advertisers is potentially worth billions of dollars in additional revenue.
What’s less clear is why the Republican majority (not one Democrat voted for the measure) chose to prioritize this issue when it only benefits a few incumbent special interests at the expense of American privacy protections and confidence in the online marketplace, a key engine of the US economy.
This is less surprising to those of us who build new economy businesses and create jobs in Central Texas. We’ve been struggling with this misalignment of policy interests for decades. The Austin/San Antonio corridor, home of the most vibrant regional new economy ecosystem in the US, is represented in the US Congress by Rep. Lamar Smith, powerful Republican Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Transportation. Rep. Smith has a long track record that runs against the priorities of our new economy. And while Congress investigates hacking of our data by the Russians, why would members of Congress, like Rep. Smith, sell our data to the highest bidder? And without our permission.
Its also important to know that Rep. Smith is also a committed climate-change denier and scientific method skeptic who, in these same 75 days, advised that we get our news only from the Trump White House, that hard science is politically motivated, and that federal research and development activity should not compete with private sector interests.
In 2012, to the specific detriment of his Central Texas technology constituency, Rep. Smith leveraged the power of his role as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to introduce SOPA, considered to be the greatest legislative threat to the US online economy ever proposed. After global backlash, it was pulled as too radical by Republican leadership.
Any one of these might be considered an idiosyncrasy. Taken together, they represent a fundamentally different perspective than those driving the economies and interests of Central Texas. I’m not suggesting that the disconnect in every US congressional district is so stark but I do encourage America’s innovation and entrepreneur community to make its own assessments and, as necessary, develop alternatives.
There’s a long way to go until the 2018 elections. I encourage all members of Congress to keep their heads up and stay focused on the future. Work collaboratively with your colleagues and constituents to develop a productive and transparent agenda to support a 21st century economy; prioritize innovation, competition, and entrepreneurship as critical drivers of that economy; and develop the workforce to build it.
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