If you’ve been following recent tech news, you’ll know that Mark Zuckerberg is starting a new foray into the world of politics. The Facebook founder joined forces with a group of wealthy techies and put up $20 million to fund a new non-profit organization with the intent of lobbying the US congress on issues pertaining to technology. The group’s first order of business is immigration reform, specifically making it easier for skilled engineers from outside the US to obtain permanent visas. Zuckerberg and 100 other tech leaders already wrote to President Obama earlier this month highlighting their concerns. However, the group is also expected to give priority to educational reform. Zuckerberg is no stranger to advocacy, having donated $100 million to a New Jersey school district in 2010 (around the same time The Social Network came out) and recently participating in a campaign to promote the teaching of programming in schools along with Bill Gates, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and many others.
That’s what is known so far. The group is still in its early stages, they have yet to make any public statements or even pick a name, leaving much to speculation about their future. The entry of a conglomeration of nerds into politics could bring a much needed scientific perspective to an array of critical issues. In that same vein, a gang of billionaires influencing political decisions regarding the regulation of their businesses is an broken record we don’t want to see replayed with the internet. So what exactly do we want to see then?
Protection of Internet Freedom
In 2012 SOPA and PIPA (along with other legislation around the world) threatened internet freedom by trying to grant government the power to regulate internet activity by blocking websites alleged to have infringed copyright. Widespread outrage and internet activism stopped them for a while but similar bills have appeared since then like CISPA. CISPA’s focus is cyber security as opposed to intellectual property and according to CNET it would remove legal barriers that prevent ISPs, cellphone companies and websites like Facebook from giving your data to the US government, even if the investigators don’t have a warrant.
Since it pervades every aspect of modern life, it’s understandable that some individuals want the law to have some sort of presence on the internet. However, if laws like this are to be made then people who understand how the internet works and the implications of government regulation should be actively participating in the process. For example, in its recent transparency report, Google released data about government requests for user information revealing that over 2012 the US government alone made 16,000 requests, 88% of which were complied with to some extent. Someone from Google would know better than anyone what kind of information governments ask for and thus how much or how little they should be able to ask for. However, at this stage Google doesn’t seem to be involved with Zuckerberg’s group and it seems that Facebook itself is actually supporting CISPA along with Microsoft and many others, which means either that they have reviewed the bill and it’s not as bad as some claim to be or that these companies in some way benefit from this legislation.
Promotion of Scientific Research
No developed nation can stay developed for long if it isn’t actively funding scientific research. Scientific research may not necessarily pay off in the short run but it contributes a lot to GDP in the long run. Cutting funding even by a little bit can be detrimental economically. A report from Research Councils UK estimated that in the UK, cuts of just £1 billion annually could lower GDP by over £10 billion. On top of that, some (if not all) of the most amazing technologies of the modern era were a direct result of government funding of research. The internet was a result of DARPA researching networking and Google’s self driving car technology is built on advances made by several universities in the DARPA grand challenge.
Although I am not particularly a fan of anything to do with the military and I am not personally invested in the US economy (not directly at least), there is an important message here. Groups like Zuckerberg’s have a responsibility to give a voice to the geeks that usually sit out of politics. By pushing for strong government support of scientific research and development, they can ensure that the US continues to create scientific advances that benefit us all and set a precedent for wealthy techies elsewhere to do the same in their countries. After all, there is no such thing as too much knowledge.
Being a Voice of Reason
Scientists don’t normally do politics. It’s not their thing. Why bother with all that headache? This unfortunately means there aren’t many people in government to represent science. That means that you end up with people in the US Congress who believe embryology is a “lie from the pit of hell“, the earth is 9000 years old and that there is such a thing as “legitimate rape” and some of them end up being on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
Again, I don’t want to get too much into US politics but this is a problem in a lot more places than just the US. Scientists for whatever reason are not always active in politics and are thus disenfranchised. While this is not the first time a group of scientists (yes, computer scientists count as scientists too) have tried to get involved, Zuckerberg’s group is unique in that it has a massive pool of money to fund itself from and it will be readily listened to by the media. In essence, if Zuckerberg’s group takes this route they can single-handedly give a voice to science in the US and give more legitimacy to science lobbies in other countries.
Zuckerberg’s new direction may come as a surprise to many but it was only a natural step for him to take. He changed the world once with some code he wrote in his dorm room but the question is: can he do it again from the seat of power? And will it be to the benefit of the rest of us?