Technology and Government: A Q&A with Congresswoman Eshoo

Designed by Emily Zhong

I worry most about the role of social media in spreading misinformation and disinformation, especially with respect to our elections.

Bio: Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo represents California’s 18th Congressional District, which includes Stanford and much of Silicon Valley. She entered Congress in 1993 and is a Democrat. Within the House Energy and Commerce Committee, she is the Chair of the Health Subcommittee, and she is a senior member of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. Congresswoman. Eshoo helped draft portions of the Affordable Care Act, contributed to the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996, and led the effort to create America’s first nationwide, interoperable public safety communications network following 9/11. She has been a tireless supporter of international religious freedom; championed efforts to encourage the next generation of clean energy technology; and promoted safe drinking water for American households. Congresswoman Eshoo is also a Congressional leader on campaign finance reform, particularly to increase transparency and disclosure in campaign advertisements.

Where do you see the most potential for technology to make a positive impact in government?

Technology impacts every part of society and government. One of the most important applications of technology in government will be climate change. It’s an existential threat to our planet and one of the greatest technical challenges humanity has ever faced. Solving it will require developing innovative solutions to generate clean energy, improve energy efficiency, build grid-scale batteries, and remove carbon from the atmosphere. As Chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Health, I also closely monitor technology in health care. Advances in genomics, personalized medicine, and biotechnology can drastically improve the quality of life for every person in the world.

Too many people fail to recognize the role of government in the development of technology. The latter half of the 20th Century saw two general purpose technologies (GPTs) that had a society-wide impact and made our region of Silicon Valley famous: the computer and the Internet.

Government plays two important roles with nascent technologies. First, it funds research and development (R&D). The first digital data transmission using ARPANET, a predecessor to the modern Internet, was sent in 1969 from UCLA to the Stanford Research Institute. The development of the network was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and other federal agencies. The federal government directly funded the development and maturation of the Internet. Last year I introduced a bipartisan resolution commemorating the 50th anniversary of this first message.1

Second, the government is one of the biggest customers of technology, especially the military and intelligence agencies. Surely the federal government will be a major customer of climate technologies too.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the next big GPT that is quickly becoming interwoven across all parts of society. Though government funded R&D led to many developments in AI (including many at Stanford), there is still much more work to do. Earlier this year, I wrote to the House Appropriations Committee urging them to allocate robust funding for AI R&D. Seventeen of my House colleagues joined my letter.2

Finally, I’m constantly monitoring other promising technologies that could have broad societal impact. For example, quantum computing could transform society and government by enabling ever more complex technical computing, and advances in genomics could improve the health of every person on the planet.

What are your leading concerns about how technology could negatively impact governance?

I worry most about the role of social media in spreading misinformation and disinformation, especially with respect to our elections. Misinformation and disinformation are also hampering our response to the coronavirus, efforts to increase Census participation, and many other critical government functions. In the 2016 elections, tech platforms became conduits for sophisticated propaganda to suppress votes and wreak havoc on our democracy. For example, in 2016 the Trump campaign targeted infrequent African American voters with ads designed to suppress voter turnout. Also in 2016, the Internet Research Agency, a Russian government-linked group, purchased online ads to negatively influence our elections. Misinformation and disinformation damage our democracy and must be combatted.

I believe the first step towards mitigating this problem is banning the microtargeting of political ads, which I’ve proposed in H.R. 7014, the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act. The legislation is supported by twenty leading organizations and experts, including some at Stanford.3 The idea is supported by a vast majority of Americans. I’ve also introduced legislation to criminalize the spreading of Census-related disinformation.4

The scale and impact of technology looks very different now than it did when you entered Congress in 1993. What has most surprised you about how discussions about technology in Congress have evolved along with this development?

The Internet was a nascent network in the early 1990s. No one could have imagined how widespread it would become.

The early Internet was limited to government and academia. When I joined Congress, the policy conversation was centered around ensuring a successful commercialization of the network. Now, one of the most important questions is how we ensure that every American has access to the Internet. Tens of millions of Americans still lack high-quality Internet, which is necessary for education, healthcare, jobs, information, and relationships today.5 

As our entire lives have transitioned online during the pandemic, this question has only become more pressing. In July, I introduced H.R. 7520, the National Broadband Plan for the Future Act, bicameral legislation that instructs the Federal Communications Commission to update the National Broadband Plan (NBP) to expand Internet access across the U.S., and study how the coronavirus has changed the online lives of Americans.6 We can’t afford the drastic internet inequality we have today. We must do better.

Silicon Valley is known for rapidly churning out new tech products, while the pace of tech development in government can look different. How do you think technologists and government officials can work together to bridge this tech divide?

President Abraham Lincoln aptly stated that our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” This means our government is not some external agent; it is all of us. Let me explain how this quote applies to bridging the gap between Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C.

First, our country is blessed with the smartest technologists in the world, but our government “of the people” employs too few of these gifted experts. We desperately need more technologists in government. The Obama Administration set up many ways to encourage technologists to enter the government with programs such as the U.S. Digital Service,7 the Presidential Innovation Fellows program,8 and 18F.9 Nongovernmental groups also fund programs like TechCongress10 and the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship,11 which subsidize technologists to work for Congress. If you want your work to have a direct, positive impact on the lives of millions, I encourage you to consider working in government.

Second, our government is “by the people.” It’s incumbent on all of us to meet our sacred duty to vote and participate in the electoral process. Aside from voting, technologists could also build tools to encourage others to vote.

Third, our government needs to be “for the people.” Technologists need to spend time with government officials. I’ve met thousands of government employees, and they are dedicated to serving the public interest. When in-person meetings resume after the pandemic, periodically getting on one of the daily flights from the Bay Area to Washington, D.C., driving to Sacramento, or going to City Hall to meet with legislators and employees of agencies is very important, as is writing to and meeting with government officials and submitting your written views when agencies seek public comment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new technologies to the mainstream, particularly contact tracing and online communication. This rapid development has sparked discussions about the ethical and secure use of tech. What are you hearing from your constituents about these issues, and how do you balance their concerns with the urgency of the pandemic?

I’m grateful that many of the innovators I represent joined the effort to combat the pandemic by using tech to mitigate the spread of the virus. Google and Apple developed protocols that developers can use to build apps to notify individuals that may have been exposed to the virus. These innovations have the potential to save lives. However, the efficacy of these apps is premised on whether enough people trust that an app will protect their data.

Over 70 percent of Americans say they won’t use a contact tracing app, mainly due to privacy concerns.12 Public health technology only works if the public trusts the tech. To help build this trust, I introduced H.R. 6866, the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act, which protects privacy while ensuring that innovation can aid public health.13 Under my bill, coronavirus-related health data cannot be used for advertising, marketing, or to discriminate against anyone when it comes to employment, insurance, housing, or education. Tech companies and the government would be required to keep data secure and delete the data once the public health emergency is over.

The pandemic has also exposed security vulnerabilities in commonly used technologies like video conferencing tools. Cybersecurity must be a top priority for every company and for government, and it works best when companies, researchers, and government work hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, cybersecurity efforts operate in silos across the public and private sector, and even within government. For this reason I cosponsored legislation to establish a centralized cybersecurity coordinator – the National Cyber Director – in the White House. This legislation recently passed the House, and I’m working hard to have it enacted into law.14

Technologists and activists have raised concerns about racial biases in facial recognition algorithms that are increasingly used for surveillance and policing. How do you think these algorithms should be regulated to reduce harm to marginalized communities?

Police use of unregulated facial recognition technology (FRT) presents many civil liberties issues. As our nation experiences a long-overdue reckoning on racial injustices, we must ensure that biased technology does not exacerbate existing inequities in our criminal justice system.

On June 24th the New York Times reported that Robert Julian-Borchak Williams, a Black man, was arrested and imprisoned due to a flawed match using FRT. Unfortunately, this story is just a symptom of a much bigger issue. Repeated studies find disparities in FRT efficacy by skin tone and gender. A recent study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a federal agency, found that Asian and African Americans were misidentified by FRT between 10 and 100 times more often than white people.15 These disparities are unacceptable, especially when a technology is being used in policing and can impact a person’s liberties.

I recently cosponsored H.R. 7356, the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, to rectify these problems.16 The legislation establishes a moratorium on the acquisition, possession, access, or use of any facial recognition or biometric surveillance technology by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

I believe we also need a comprehensive approach to privacy. Americans are left vulnerable as our private information is stolen, abused, breached, and grossly mishandled. Companies track and sell our most private data such as our geolocation and the contents of our messages, and they face little or no consequences. I worked with Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren to introduce H.R. 4978, the Online Privacy Act, which empowers Americans to control their own data and holds companies accountable.17

Specifically, the Online Privacy Act protects individuals, encourages innovation, and takes a major step to restore trust in technology by:

·   Creating User Rights – The bill grants every American the right to access, correct, or delete their data. It also creates new rights, like the right to impermanence, which lets users decide how long companies can keep their data.

·   Placing Clear Obligations on Companies – The bill minimizes the amount of data companies collect, process, disclose, and maintain, and bars companies from using data in discriminatory ways. Companies must also receive consent from users in plain, simple language.

·   Establishing a Digital Privacy Agency (DPA) – The bill establishes an independent agency led by a Director that’s appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a five-year term. The DPA will enforce privacy protections and investigate abuses.

·   Strengthening Enforcement – The bill empowers state attorneys general to enforce violations of the bill and allows individuals to appoint nonprofits to represent them in private class action lawsuits.

My legislation is supported by 20 privacy advocates, civil rights groups, consumer rights advocates, public interest groups, nonprofits, think tanks, academics, former senior government officials, technologists, private sector leaders, and authors.18

How do you keep up-to-date on new technologies and their potential impacts on the US?

When I first started in Congress, technology news was limited to local newsletters and press. Now every major media outlet in the country has a technology section, and many have reporters based here in our region. I find that the Washington Post and New York Times cover technology and tech policy exceptionally well. I also read technology-specific outlets and sites like The Verge, WIRED, Gizmodo, Protocol, and TechCrunch.

More importantly, I keep up to date on technology by hearing from my constituents. I meet with technologists from large companies, startups, and Stanford regularly. I cherish representing this region in the House, and I often tell my colleagues that my district is where the future is being created. One of the best parts of my job is meeting with innovators who are my constituents.

You recently introduced the National AI Research Resource Task Force Act, which passed the House in July. What are your hopes for how the Act will affect the landscape of artificial intelligence in the US?

H.R. 7096, the National AI Research Resource Task Force Act, is a bicameral and bipartisan bill that establishes a task force to develop a roadmap for a national research cloud (NRC), to pool large data sets, powerful computing, and educational resources, all of which are the inputs to AI research.19 This legislation will convene a group of technical experts across academia, government, and industry to develop a detailed plan for how the U.S. can build, deploy, govern, and sustain the NRC. Importantly, the NRC is an idea with its roots at Stanford’s Center on Human-Centered AI.20

This legislation ensures that the U.S. retains its global lead in AI research which is critical as we compete with China and so many other countries in the realm of technological developments. I’m thrilled the House passed my legislation, and it is a high priority for me to see that this bill is signed into law.21

As a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and Co-Chair of the Congressional Internet Caucus and the Medical Technology Caucus, you’ve worked on a variety of tech policy initiatives ranging from cybersecurity to broadband access. Which of these issues did you most enjoy working on, and can you explain how you addressed it?

I most enjoy working on forward-looking policies. The National AI Research Resource Task Force Act is an example. I want America to be #1 in everything! My legislation ensures America can retain its global lead in AI research for the decades to come. I’ve learned from conversations I’ve had with constituents about quantum computing, personalized medicine, and so many other future-facing innovations.

I want to see every person in our country have access to broadband. The House recently passed my legislation, H.R. 7205, the Nationwide Dig Once Act of 2020, which will expand the deployment of broadband internet service to rural and unserved communities across the U.S. by mandating the inclusion of broadband conduit – plastic pipes which house fiber-optic communications cable – during the construction of any road receiving federal funding.22

It’s just as important that we think critically about the negative impacts of technology, and how we can address them. Congress needs to protect user privacy,23 bolster cybersecurity,24 and confront disinformation.25 Protecting our democracy must always come first.

What would you like students who are building technology for the government to know?

A technology product or service is most useful when it solves a specific problem. Students interested in building technology for government should follow the same toolkit that technologists working on consumer or enterprise products use – identify the specific potential users, study the problem that technology may solve, engineer a prototype, take in as much feedback as you can, iterate your prototype, launch your product, and continue improving your product. Technologists in our region are exceptional at the later steps of this process, but the first two steps are critically important and underappreciated when it comes to government technology.

If you think the user or customer of your technology is “the government,” you need to get more specific. Over 20 million Americans work in federal, state, local, and tribal governments across thousands of departments, agencies, boards, commissions, courts, and legislatures. Identifying who specifically you are building technology for is an important first step.

Spend some time understanding how the specific government official or agency works. Too often, people ignore the current process. You may well conclude a current process is broken, but you need to do the work to understand it. Read government documents, talk to government employees, and study how things are done and why they are the way they are.26 Identify specific issues, then innovate and search for a solution.If you need help understanding the federal government, write to me or call my office.27 We’ll be glad to help.

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