Representatives use SXSW to advocate for tech-research funding, Cyber National Guard.

The United States Capitol Building, the seat of Congress, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Some legislators have an easier time attracting a sexy headline at an arts-and-tech conference like South By Southwest. Famous Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Elizabeth Warren did just that over the weekend with their respective, radical suggestions about government oversight.

Meanwhile, other members of Congress sat in poorly attended panels, and their low numbers weren’t helped with snooze-worthy names like “Politicians Yell at the Cloud” and “Politicians in Tech: When the Bubble Bursts.” But what these panels lacked in pizzazz, they made up for with fascinating context, direct from three House Representatives, on how starved our American Congress is in terms of staffing and support for understanding and tackling America’s biggest tech priorities.

The Senate is “woefully uninformed”

Conveniently for Congress’s most tech-fluent members, they had an easy reference point to use for their messaging. “There was a glaring lack of knowledge from Senators when they interviewed [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said on Sunday, in reference to a 2018 Congressional hearing. “They were woefully uninformed.”

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), seated at the far left, speaks with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (second from right) and O'Reilly Media founder Tim O'Reilly (far right) at SXSW 2019.
Enlarge / Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), seated at the far left, speaks with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (second from right) and O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly (far right) at SXSW 2019.
Sam Machkovech

What could help a body as large and overwhelmed as Congress get its tech facts straight? Takano focused his SXSW speaking time on one possible answer: a call to re-fund the Office of Technology Assessment, whose budget was nuked by the Newt Gingrinch-led Congress of 1995.

Since the OTA’s funding fallout, Takano says, members of Congress have found themselves without access to federally funded, tech-specific research on whatever the OTA deems relevant, in terms of either current-tech expertise or trend forecasting. What’s a representative to do, then? Takano used his own office as an example. His office receives enough of a budget to pay only three legislative assistants to research and brief him on every topic relevant to his constituents. “One of those [assistants] might be staffed with science and technology issues,” he added.

For another angle about his lack of working tech information, Takano cited the FBI’s 2016 battle with Apple over encrypted data on a suspected terrorist’s iPhone—along with one thing that went less reported: Congress’s eventual surprise to learn the FBI had cracked the thing anyway. (That means Congress didn’t find out about the crack much earlier than the public did.) In addition to questioning both Apple’s judgment and the FBI’s, Takano and his colleagues wondered, “What can Congress do in terms of its interests? What judgment can we make in this case?”

The representative steered most of his questions back to the OTA, and his fellow panel member, Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, was happy to echo this emphasis.

During the Zuckerberg hearing, “I watched 100 members of Congress ask questions about [topics like] encryption, autonomous cars, and modern advertising platforms,” Rosenworcel said. “I walked away from it thinking, ‘the only thing that was clear was that we need to build a common set of facts for the future.'” She explained that, without a pool of common-ground data for all of Congress to refer to on a regular basis, legislators will not be able to “figure out frameworks for this digital future.”

An alignment of stars

Rosenworcel recounted her time working in the early ’00s on legislation to open up access to airwaves that had been dedicated to analog broadcasts. It took a significant amount of work and lobbying to members of Congress, but she pointed to the bipartisan buy-in it received as a rare moment of “stars aligning.” Then she added, “We have to figure out how to help the stars align more often. A neutral body and office [like the OTA] would be a great way to do that.”

When asked by Ars Technica how feasible his OTA dream is in our current “starve-the-feds” administration, Rep. Takano expressed optimism about what he thought was a modest proposal: $2.5 million in the budget via appropriations process to reboot the organization, which technically still exists, and more traction on “engaging” Republican senators to sign on, which he insists is happening in terms of both the Freedom Caucus and a slew of “progressive” Republicans.

Join the Cyber National Guard… today?

Two members of Congress spoke at a SXSW panel on Sunday, March 10.
Enlarge / Two members of Congress spoke at a SXSW panel on Sunday, March 10.
Sam Machkovech

For Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), Congress’s deficit of information isn’t just easy Zuckerberg-joke fodder (which he took advantage of for a few throwaway quips). It’s also a national-security issue.

“There are only eight of us with a technical degree, out of 535 members of the House and Senate,” Hurd said in a SXSW panel later that same day. Hurd, if you’re wondering, is one of those; his computer science background led him to a gig at the CIA, followed by cybersecurity advisory work before he was elected in 2014. Thus, he says colleagues often seek his advice on cybersecurity issues, and the drum he’s banging in that respect, in his own words, “rhymes with China.”

“The Chinese make it clear: they wanna be on newest edge of tech and define the future,” Hurd says. “They are, at best case, tied with us in that respect, worst case ahead. It’s truly a battle—an existential threat to our economy [and] our position in the world.” Hurd didn’t explicitly connect the dots of how China’s stature figures into a cybersecurity matter. (Other panels at SXSW revolved around China’s human-rights record in terms of monitoring its citizens and other online-related matters.)

Instead of advocating the re-funding of the OTA, however, Hurd suggested seeding the future of government. “The talent I want begins in fourth grade,” Rep. Hurd said. “We have to start preparing our kids for jobs that don’t exist today.”

Hurd didn’t use his SXSW time to propose funding or programs that begin at the primary school level, however. Instead, he advocated for college-level initiatives like the Cyber National Guard, which would pay college tuition in exchange for an equal number of years working for federal institutions like the Department of Commerce or Department of Health and Human Services.

“20 work days a year”

Hurd would also like for Cyber National Guard graduates to be loaned “20 work days a year” by their employers to return to federal departments, where they’d contribute to either digital infrastructure or national security initiatives. This regular assistance from grads, conceivably, could replicate what Takano seeks from a rejuvenated OTA. (Currently, nothing within the federal government is designated specifically as the “Cyber National Guard.” The closest we found in a cursory search was the National Guard’s existing “cyber careers” initiative.)

To this measure, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) added an intriguing point about why the federal government should assist computer science students with debt.

“China has hacked [companies like] Equifax,” Swalwell reminded the crowd. With that data, he said, “you can piece together who our intelligence community is and what their financial vulnerabilities are, then use that to compromise people.”

He further reminded the crowd that student debt is the third-largest debt sector in the United States. “We need to figure out how to provide relief as quickly as possible, both as recruiting tool and to double down on national security.”

To the point of a more robust educational pipeline for all ages, Swalwell reminded his panel’s members that Silicon Valley’s emphasis on H1B visas reads as out-of-touch by his constituents. He described a mother attending one of his regular town hall meetings and responding to the topic of those visas.

“‘[In some ways,] you’re telling me my kid in school right now can’t compete, that you’re giving up.’ That’s where we have to get this right. We need to invest in our own educational system so that every community, not just Silicon Valley, believes that we put enough into their kids’ education that they can compete. I don’t wanna see us lean too heavily on recruiting the ‘best and brightest’ and making parents in America think we’re giving up on their kid.”

“Did the GDPR destroy the world?”

Reps. Swalwell and Hurd didn’t advocate for exactly how they’d get the ball rolling on these “yay to education!” initiatives in terms of funding or Congressional process. And every government representative in the two panels confirmed that the federal government simply can’t compete with Silicon Valley’s ability to pay more money for top talent.

One of these panels included O’Reilly Media co-founder Tim O’Reilly , who said the solution, for now, is one of leveraging the government’s ability to call to service. (“Some folks are ‘post-economic’ in Silicon Valley,” he said, referring to successful engineers and data scientists who’ve become burnt out by bigger companies.) But he’s seen firsthand that city, state, and federal leaders often don’t recognize an opportunity to work with private contractors who want to build smarter digital systems.

O’Reilly offered an anecdote about a team from Code for America that had ideas for increasing the efficiency and accessibility of an online food-stamp application in California. The app suffered from being poorly designed for smartphones and having a one-hour time-out that forced applicants to refill its many pages all over again. Thus, anyone who tried to fill the application out on a library’s public terminal was often forced to start all over, since those terminals timed out after 30 minutes.

Code for America had to do the legwork to get a single municipality to sign onto the program, O’Reilly said. Only then did more cities—and later the entire state—pay attention to the system’s success. “Now we’ve built the front-end for all official California [food stamp] applications,” O’Reilly said. “The outside-in strategy gets adopted as people see that it works.”

Without a more official pipeline on city, state, or federal levels for this kind of public-private collaboration on public digital works, then, progress will likely be as slow-moving as the federal government. All attendees of both panels at least agreed that such slow movement has its benefits, particularly in terms of checks and balances.

And in terms of bipartisan agreement, Hurd—the most prominent Republican at these SXSW panels—confirmed that his party is waking up to digital-rights issues like data breaches and data ownership. He wants Congress to create and manage a “national breach standard” as opposed to juggling 27 different rules (his count) about how personal information leaks are managed. He went on to indicate that he’s changed his tune about data privacy standards in the past four years. After advocating for a stronger national standard about data privacy, he added, “Did the GDPR destroy the world? No!”

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