In his March 17 New Republic article, “Our Naive ‘Innovation’ Fetish: Left, right, and center—everyone loves the buzzword of modern America,” Senior Editor Evgeny Morozov explores our collective obsession with innovation and argues that there is a danger in rallying around innovation to the exclusion of other values, such as equity.
Friends, that’s where we step in. In this Era of Innovation, the nonprofit sector can play an important role in ensuring that new technologies are designed and used in socially responsible ways.
Tech policy is about more than the Internet and data. The regulations we make determine our privacy, what information we have access to and how we exercise our voting rights. We young nonprofit professionals are often the default web and social media gurus at our organizations, and that makes us natural advocates for responsible tech policy. Whether you work in outreach, advocacy or organizing, on human rights, education or health, tech policy is relevant to the work you do and the people and causes you serve.
Still, tech policy is a huge field; how do you get started? I suggest bookmarking a news site on tech policy that is relevant to your work, such as The Center for Democracy & Technology for civic engagement, government openness and privacy, THE Journal for K-12 education and CNET for tech in politics. You can also check out TechTank, Brookings’ new blog about improving technology policy.
In my opinion, there are four tech policy issues that should be on every nonprofit professional’s radar because they could greatly impact our work generally as well as the communities with whom we work. These are the issues we should be talking about and advocating for:
1. Net Neutrality
This is the big one. In January, the federal D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the FCC’s Open Internet Order, ruling against net neutrality. “Net neutrality” is the principle upon which the Internet was built. It means a free and open Internet, where all data is treated equally and there is no differential charge or speed by user type, content, site, platform or attached equipment.
In essence, the appeals court ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to enforce common-carrier regulations, like no-blocking and nondiscrimination, because the agency had previously classified Internet service as an “information service” and not a “telecommunications” one — meaning they fall outside the FCC’s purview. It’s a little complicated, but for more easily digestible information about net neutrality, visit The Internet You Need, a project of Media Alliance.
ZeroDivide has applauded FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler for his vocal support of net neutrality and underscored what underserved communities stand to lose if this decision is not reversed. We are confident that with the FCC’s support and ardent advocacy by nonprofits and journalists, we can get net neutrality back. Visit Free Press’ Save the Internet to see how you can take action.
2. Online Privacy
In light of the recent disclosures of widespread NSA surveillance, online privacy has become a critical issue. There are several policies being debated that fall under this broad category: online privacy and data security, mobile phone tracking and warrantless tapping, and of course, NSA reform.
On February 11, a massive, global online/offline protest against mass surveillance dubbed The Day We Fight Back and led by organizations including the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Greenpeace, reached more than 37 million. As you may have heard, Google just announced new encryption standards to foil the NSA’s spying. You can take action and follow the various legislative efforts on the ACLU’s dotRights website.
3. Online Voter Registration
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 15 states currently offer online voter registration, with another four states having supportive laws on the books that have not yet been implemented. Does your state offer online voter registration? You can use this chart to tell. What’s so great about online registration, you ask? It lowers costs, increases the accuracy of voter rolls, attracts younger voters and, importantly, it allows people to register without the risk of discrimination and voter intimidation that have marred our nation’s recent elections and disenfranchised many low-income voters and voters of color. To learn more, Project Vote has a good primer.
4. E-Rate Reform
Earlier this month, the FCC asked for public comment on its plans to modernize its E-Rate program, one of four Universal Service programs that are designed to ensure all Americans have access to communications services. E-Rate is the program that provides schools and libraries with affordable telecommunications, broadband service and internal network connections. According to a recent survey, 72 percent of American schools have inadequate Internet infrastructure, which means students are missing out on educational opportunities. Any organization that works with schools or libraries should support this reform and consider filing comments, which are due by April 7.
The organization I work for, ZeroDivide, is a mission-driven consulting organization focused on the transformative uses of technology. Tech policy has always been part of our work. We were created as a community technology foundation in 1998 as the result of groundbreaking advocacy work by 134 community organizations during the telecom merger of Pacific Bell and SBC Communications. As the policy issues discussed above loom large above our impact areas, we are looking to deepen our engagement in tech policy over the next year. You can follow our work at our blog, http://www.zerodivide.org/learning/blog.