Rampell: The internet is being policed by a series of rubes

Too many in Congress have too little understanding of 21st-century tech to regulate it effectively.

By Catherine Rampell

Here’s the bad news: We can’t trust Silicon Valley to police itself. That has become abundantly clear from the many scandals involving Russian disinformation campaigns, Cambridge Analytica, Twitter bots, secret data breaches, Google geo-tracking and the like.

Here’s the other bad news: We can’t trust Washington politicians to police it, either.

The expansive Luddite Caucus has no idea how 21st-century technology actually works, nor any apparent motivation to learn.

President Trump and other Republicans have lately complained that tech companies are allegedly muzzling, purging or “shadow-banning” conservative voices. Most recently, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, aspiring speaker of the House, tweeted on Friday: “Another day, another example of conservatives being censored on social media.” He added the hashtag “#StopTheBias” and called for Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey to “explain to Congress what is going on.”

The cause of McCarthy’s complaint?

He was annoyed that a tweet by Fox News host Laura Ingraham, retweeting a Drudge Report missive, wasn’t immediately visible to him because Twitter said it contained “potentially sensitive content.” As a Twitter executive pointed out, this was due to two factors: The Drudge Report has flagged its own tweets as “potentially sensitive”; and McCarthy had set his Twitter account preferences to hide any tweets flagged this way.

In other words, McCarthy was censoring his own Twitter feed, something he could easily reverse by changing his account settings. Confronting face-palming mockery, McCarthy nonetheless doubled down, still claiming political persecution.

This is hardly the only time that politicians have flaunted their digital illiteracy.

We’re now a dozen years past the infamous “series of tubes” speech. Yet our political leaders still don’t seem to have learned much about those “tubes” or the cyber-sewage that frequently flows through them.

Consider a recent, noncomprehensive history.

These days Trump lashes out at private companies that suspend nut jobs and neo-Nazis, decrying that “censorship is a very dangerous thing & absolutely impossible to police.” But in what feels like a million years of crazy ago, then-candidate Trump said he planned to hobble recruiting by the terrorist Islamic State by asking Bill Gates to “clos[e] that internet up in some way.”

This was a baffling proposal, not only because Chinese-style, government-enforced internet censorship would run afoul of the First Amendment. The other problem was that the Microsoft founder-turned-philanthropist does not, uh, “control” the internet.

After his election, Trump moved on to complaining that “the whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on.” Yet he also professed to personally “know a lot about hacking.”

Who is his apparent lodestar for cyberwarfare? Not his all-purpose son-in-law Jared Kushner, though Kushner does possess the rare talent of knowing how to search Amazon. No, Trump’s real gizmo guru is his school-age son, whose interwebs wizardry led Trump to determine that “no computer is safe.” Trump said this in response to a press question about cybersecurity policy, adding that sensitive information must always instead be sent by courier “like in the old days.”

Which is, you know, not a remotely relevant strategy for thwarting cyberattacks on the nation’s critical infrastructure, election systems, electronic health records, financial transactions or other digitized operations that hackers are targeting. With such technological sophistication, it’s unsurprising that a year and a half later, Trump decided to eliminate the White House’s top cyberpolicy role.

Trump has said many times that he never uses email, but he’s far from alone: Lots of lawmakers — including Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, Lindsey O. Graham, R-South Carolina, and even Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York — have more or less proclaimed the same, with pride.

With digital dinosaurdom seen as a badge of honor, it’s no wonder that congressional hearings ostensibly about Facebook’s dodgy data practices devolved into clumsy, confused — and bipartisan —queries about: video bloggers; how Facebook can possibly make money if it’s free to users; and how to get rid of ads for chocolate.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some politicians out there who seem to know their way around the information superhighway. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, who represents part of Silicon Valley but has called for stronger privacy rights, is among them. Sens. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, and Mark Warner, D-Virginia, as Senate Intelligence Committee chair and vice chair, respectively, have shown an inclination to ask tougher questions of tech companies on Russian interference.

But the problems infecting the tech sector go well beyond those limited areas, alas. And, generally speaking, our policymakers are ill prepared to protect the public from those who wish us harm — or even from companies willing to profit off that harm.

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @crampell.

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