Keeping up with technology

Dear friends and neighbors,

Growing up, you learn that you can be a scientist or an artist, you can engineer policy or engineer machines. But when you go beyond textbooks and into the real world, the most exciting fields are interdisciplinary, where you need to know some chemistry, some philosophy, some math and some law (or fill in your own favorite topics!). That’s why I’m dedicating this e-newsletter to talking about how policy and technology change each other.

The internet is a public policy win that started as a governmental and scientific collaboration. The government has changed the internet and the internet has changed the government by giving us new tools to communicate with each other and promote ideas. The writers of our 1889 Washington state constitution never would have imagined we’d be communicating over videos, e-mail, and voting apps. This session we’ve passed bills to ensure local districts, even condo association boards can also meet remotely. We’ve also passed bills to create greater access to telehealth and respiratory care therapists. But even in 2021, many legislators have had to vote by telephone when their internet went out. It’s even harder for people in areas without fast and affordable internet to go to school, get a job, work from home or even just find a vaccine appointment. That’s why I support allowing local partners and public utilities to offer broadband directly to their customers.

Public Broadband Act

I co-sponsored the Public Broadband Act which has passed the House and the Senate! HB 1336 removes the statewide restrictions that prevent Public Utility Districts (PUDs), ports, and municipalities from offering broadband services to their residents. Allowing public entities to serve folks is a big deal because it means there will be more options for those who are not being well served by the private market. Better broadband means more opportunities to work from home in rural areas and a better basis for economic growth in the future. But the big telecoms don’t want to see this competition because they enjoy their monopoly power, which allows them to provide slow speeds at high prices. This has been a fight playing across the nation in state legislatures. Over 3,000 people signed in to support public broadband, but Republicans offered 28 amendments to weaken the bill. The bill that passed out of the House is good for consumers and is on its way to the governor’s desk.

The Public Broadband Act shows how the laws we write today last well into the future, influencing technologies we’ve never imagined. The very first Washington State initiative, Initiative No. 1 to the legislature in 1930, created the public utilities that 90 years later may be providing broadband to homes. The conduit we lay in the next few years will hopefully serve our children and our grandchildren in ways we cannot imagine today.

Privacy

Policy doesn’t just build technology. Changes in technology also require new policy. We’ve seen the growth of big data and the ability to track internet users, including children, over multiple websites and social media platforms allowing data brokers to sell detailed and sometimes very personal information. Bills in both the House and the Senate seek to limit this by creating new privacy rights for our consumer data. Both bills would give consumers the right to decide what data companies collect on you, how it can be used, who can use it, and to have it deleted.

While the idea that you should have some control over your data is broadly popular, there are philosophical disagreements on the details about how you can use and enforce these rights:

  1. Should data collection should be opt-in or opt-out? Currently companies may offer opt-out features where you can request that companies delete your data or state that they are not allowed to collect it. Opt-in would mean they have to ask before they collect information about you. It might sound like opt-in is the stronger privacy provision, but groups like Consumer Reports point out that this would mean you are asked every time you visit a new website about data, would quickly be overwhelmed and click without reading. I support a third path, which is opt-out but one where a third party (a browser extension or a service) would be explicitly allowed to manage which companies can collect and use your data.
  2. What happens when your privacy rights are violated? One camp believes there should be a “private right of action,” which would allow an individual to sue a company that was violating their data privacy rights. The other camp believes only the attorney general should be able to enforce violations under the Consumer Protection Act in the Washington Privacy Act.

This is the third year that privacy proposals have been considered in the Legislature. And while we’re closer to agreeing on a path forward, it’s not clear whether a bill will get over the finish line this year. But what is clear, however, is that this issue isn’t going away.

New technologies

Solar energy is critical to addressing climate change and moving to a low-carbon economy. But solar panels are large, delicate and can have a long life even after being taken down from your rooftop. The recycling system as we use for soda cans or electronics isn’t a perfect model and won’t work well for this technology.

Originally, solar panel makers had until next summer to make recommendations about recycling, but COVID-19 significantly delayed their work. I sponsored a bill (HB 1393) to grant an extension so manufacturers have the time they need to make sure we’re responsible stewards of these resources, while not hampering solar panel production and making it more difficult to achieve our climate goals. On Wednesday, the governor signed my bipartisan bill, helping our laws to line-up with the timeline needed to make this technology best serve people and the planet.

I could write at least three more e-newsletters on policy and technology. We could talk about technology and social justice during a pandemic, like the Bellingham City Club just did, or how education is both changed by and changes technology by developing the next generation of Albert Einsteins, Elon Musks and Hedy Lamarrs. What I love about both policy and innovation is that they’re both about looking ahead and thinking about not just the world as it is, but what it can be. It’s about dreams. What are your dreams for the future? Where do you think public policy and technology lead us next? Let me know!

 

Stay well,

Sharon