Government should stay out of the way of innovation on the Internet

Last month, I traveled to California to visit with Facebook, Google and eBay, where I talked with developers, engineers, executives, investors and technology enthusiasts of all sorts. I feel like I learned a great deal during my visit, while realizing that I was only exposed to a sliver of our exciting and innovative tech industry.

All of the conversations I had reinforced my basic view that the Internet must remain free and that the government must stay out of the way as much as possible. Government doesn’t get much right, and it would be so wrongheaded to slow down this revolutionary engine of innovation with the shackles of bureaucracy. Washington dullards attempting to micromanage tech geniuses would be bad for everyone.

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Since that time, it was revealed that the National Security Agency has been monitoring virtually all of our phone data. We’ve learned that the federal government has been keeping tabs on our personal information by gathering data from some of the biggest communications and Internet companies in the world.

In other words, at the same time I was traveling through California worrying about government keeping its meddlesome hands off the tech industry, Big Brother was already involved.

Luckily, we have a Constitution to protect us. Unluckily, our government has made sport of ignoring it. 

I’ve co-sponsored a bill that says our online and private communications deserve Fourth Amendment protections, including third-party records. Today, so much of our lives are on the Internet and so much of our personal activity is visible in our financial statements. If the government wants to look at our private information, it should have to show probable cause and obtain a warrant. It makes all the sense in the world to issue warrants in pursuit of potential terrorists. It makes absolutely no sense to eschew constitutional due process for the purpose of targeting every citizen as a potential terrorist.

The constantly growing and evolving cyber world will continue to present new challenges. My message to tech and Internet companies during my California trip was that they must stand up and defend privacy. We already know that the government is intent on invading our privacy. If people start mistaking Google for government, then we’ve got a problem. People can’t begin to mistake Gmail for “Government Mail.” There has to be a distinction, and I think it’s in companies like Google’s interest to fight hard for privacy and to protect the contractual arrangement they have with their customers. 

In today’s high-tech world, we must ensure that all forms of communication are protected. Authoritarian regimes abroad are always seeking to clamp down on Internet freedom precisely because they fear the free exchange of information. We should be condemning them, not emulating them at home. 

We should keep government out of the way so that millions of entrepreneurs will can avenues to open and grow businesses. We have seen products once inconceivable, even in the wildest dreams of a science fiction fan, become consumer staples that make it easier for us to communicate and share experiences.

Today we can be connected to one another wherever we may be and whatever we are doing. 

As we continue our national debate about our immigration system, wherein some are skeptical about inviting more immigrants into America, I believe we should be welcoming more immigrants, and especially entrepreneurs and innovators. We should work to attract science, technology, engineering and math graduates to come to the U.S. and remain here. We should seek out and invite the best and the brightest.

I discussed some of these ideas during my recent visit to Silicon Valley, where it was reinforced in my mind that we must do everything we can to allow Internet technology to thrive, while protecting citizens’ privacy from government and those tempted to collude with Washington.

With the tech industry, as with most things, it is vitally important that government stays out of the way. These are exciting times that will inevitably present new challenges, — something America will no doubt continue to rise to. 

Paul has served as U.S. senator from Kentucky since 2011. He serves on the Foreign Relations, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), Homeland Security and Government Affairs and Small Business and Entrepreneurship committees.