A colleague was lamenting recently that working on tech policy these days feels a lot like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. What does something as arcane as copyright law have to do with anything when governments are giving way to fascists, people are being killed because of their race or ethnicity, and children are being wrested from their parents and kept in cages?
Well, a lot. It has to do with why we got involved in these policy debates in the first place. If we want these bad things to stop we can’t afford for there to be obstacles preventing us from exchanging the ideas and innovating the solutions needed to make them stop. The more trouble we find ourselves mired in the more we need to be able to think our way out.
Tech policy directly bears on that ability, which is why we work on it, even on aspects as seemingly irrelevant to the state of humanity as copyright. Because they aren’t irrelevant. Copyright, for instance, has become a barrier to innovation as well as a vehicle for outright censorship. These are exactly the sorts of chilling effects we need to guard against if we are going to be able to overcome these challenges to our democracy. The worse things are, the more important it is to have the unfettered freedom to do something about it.
It is also why we spend so much energy arguing with others similarly trying to defend democracy when they attempt to do so by blaming technology for society’s ills and call for it to be less freely available. While it is of course true that not all technology use yields positive results, there are incalculable benefits that it does bring – benefits that are all too easy to take for granted but would be dearly missed if they were gone. Technology helps give us the power to push back against the forces that would hurt us, enabling us to speak out and organize against them. Think, for instance, about all the marches that have been marched around the world, newly-elected officials who’ve used new media to reach out to their constituencies, and volunteer efforts organized online to push back against some of the worst the world faces. If we too readily dull these critical weapons against tyranny we will soon find ourselves defenseless against it.
Of course, none of this is to say that we should fiddle while Rome burns. When important pillars of our society are under attack we can’t pretend everything is business as usual. We have to step up to face these challenges however is needed. But the challenges of today don’t require us to abandon the areas where we’ve previously spent so much time working. First, dire though things may look right now, we have not yet forsaken our constitutional order and descended into the primordial ooze of lawlessness. True, the press is under constant attack, disenfranchisement is rife, and law enforcement is strained by unprecedented tensions, but civil institutions like courts and legislatures and the media continue to function, albeit sometimes imperfectly and under severe pressure. But we strengthen these institutions when we hew to the norms that have enabled them to support our society thus far. That some in power may have chosen to abandon and subordinate these norms is no reason that the rest of us should do the same. Rather, it’s a reason why we should continue to hold fast to them, to insulate them and buttress them against further attack.
Second, we are all capable of playing multiple roles. And the role we’ve played as tech policy advocates is no less important now than it was before. Our expertise on these issues is still valuable and needed – perhaps now more than ever. In times of trouble, when fear and confusion reign, the causes we care about are particularly vulnerable to damage, even by the well-meaning. The principles we have fought to protect in better days are the same principles we need to light the way through the dark ones. It is no time to give up that fight.