Government and tech leaders need to work together to address shared internet challenges
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Technology companies have come under substantial scrutiny from citizens and policymakers alike over the last year, which at least partially reflects the pervasiveness of the internet and technology in our daily lives.  The challenges that have contributed to this “tech lash” include online election meddling, “fake news,” law enforcement access to stored communications, online hate speech and terrorist activities, and ongoing consumer privacy concerns.

We have faced difficulties like these for many years, but they pose unique challenges in the online world.  Data breaches, identity theft, and deceptive election advertising took place well before the internet, but the scale and frequency have increased as they moved online, and so has the potential for harm.

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Business leaders and policymakers must work together to address these common challenges, particularly as we seek to maintain a balance between free speech and the openness that has made the internet flourish, with the critical need to ensure safety, effectiveness and credibility of online services. 

Since the dawn of the internet more than 20 years ago, it has been governed by three key principles.  First, that industry must play a leading role in policing itself and providing solutions, whether through independent action or collective action such as industry best practices or multistakeholder processes.  Second, full free speech rights apply to internet participants and create unique standards of responsibility for online content. Third, applying current law is the most effective approach to internet regulation, and new rules should be developed only where gaps in the legal framework are harmful to consumers.  Following these principles has balanced the benefits of technology with consumer protection, while allowing public norms and expectations to evolve almost as rapidly as the technology itself.

Still, there’s a clear need now for industry and policymakers to do more together to address the pressing challenges. As we look ahead to how we will work together to meet these challenges, we can look to recent success stories as guides to the future.

There are a range of examples from internet companies increasing corporate responsibility to address pressing new problems. In the area of combating online terrorism, industry cooperation has made substantial progress. In 2016, a collaboration between leading internet companies formed the Global Internet Forum to counter efforts to promote terrorism online. Through substantial new focus on technological solutions, research and partnerships with governments and civic groups, significant progress has been made—Twitter alone has suspended 1.2 million accounts "for violations related to the promotion of terrorism" between August 2015 and December 2017, 93 percent of which were found by the use of internal tools. This collaborative approach provides a model to combat foreign interference in U.S. elections and improve the transparency of online political advertisements. At the same time, the Federal Election Commission is moving to extend current rules to online advertising —this effort has already garnered substantial support and input from a wide range of stakeholders, including SIIA and other industry leaders.

On the legislative front, a critical new law enacted last month highlights the ability for a thoughtful, collaborative approach where current laws aren’t working.  The Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data (CLOUD) Act was passed by Congress as part of the omnibus spending bill to update the outdated legal framework governing law enforcement access to remotely stored data. This legal framework—created in the 1980’s before even the days of email—amounted to an untenable situation that threatened the ability of law enforcement, adoption of cloud computing, and ultimately public safety. After years of collaboration to craft a new framework—including legislative discussions involving the Department of Justice, industry and civil society—the CLOUD Act promises to enhance law enforcement and public trust in cloud computing, while also incorporating strong human rights protections that promise to raise the bar for around the world. 

With the pressing need to address data security and breach notification, Congress has also been conducting a thorough process towards a development of a national framework. This remains a shared priority for the technology industry, and continued collaboration could lead to a legislative solution to update the patchwork of state laws.

As industry and policymakers continue to grapple with some of today’s most complex issues such as foreign election interference, automated decision-making, cybersecurity, and more, it’s imperative to heed these examples. We have indeed entered an era where more is being demanded from technology industry leaders and policymakers, but we must not depart from the key principles that have brought us this far. Ultimately, new policies, either industry-led or legislative, need to be informed through substantial dialogue and collaboration in order to make a durable contribution to the problems we face. 

Ken Wasch is President of the Software & Information Industry Association, the leading trade group representing the interests of the software, digital content industries.