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4 tech problems America's lawmakers should fix

The U.S. Capital Building
Congress might want to take up one of these tech policies when it gets back in session. (image: Wikimedia)

Congress is in the middle of a recess, but the experience probably doesn’t feel much like a vacation to many representatives and senators.

Constituents are yelling at them in town-hall meetings about health care, tax reform, the budget and the environment, and other topics that have boiled over at the start of the Trump administration.

Perhaps you are among those cranky constituents. If so, please bring up the following tech-policy problems that could all be addressed by legislation that already exists — and in some cases, has spent years kicking around Capitol Hill.

Broadband privacy

The head-spinning rush by Republicans in the House and the Senate to block pending Federal Communications Commission rules banning Internet providers from selling the browsing histories of their subscribers without permission has gone over about as well as a Senate filibuster consisting of recitations of the browsing histories of randomly-selected taxpayers.

For instance, on Thursday night, constituents of Sen. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.) tore into him for backing that bill and suggesting they would have to wait for comprehensive privacy legislation covering not just Internet providers but sites like Google (GOOG, GOOGL) and Facebook (FB). One asked the senator if he’d sell his own browser history if the crowd took up a collection to pay for it.

There is a bill that would reverse this change — Sen. Ed Markey (D.-Mass.) has proposed one that would restore the pending rules. But S.878 has no realistic chance of passing with the current republican majority and president. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t ask you representative about it.

Email searches

Next up on the privacy checklist, we have the woefully overdue reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. This living fossil of a law assumes that email stored online for more than 180 days is abandoned and therefore shouldn’t require a warrant for law-enforcement investigators to search.

That was technologically unsound in the 80’s and in the age of webmail it’s absurd.

Sure, major email providers insist on warrants anyway, but are you sure you don’t have any data stored online with a smaller company that doesn’t want to tangle with prosecutors in court?

The House has already done its job by passing the Email Privacy Act, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R.-Kans.), in a voice vote — the closest thing to a unanimous vote. Senators, go and do likewise.

Border device searches

The odds of having Customs and Border Protection agents seize and search your phone when you return from an international trip remain below a hundredth of a percent — but CBP agents are also conducting those searches far more frequently compared to previous years.

Search and seizure.
The rules for search and seizure are far more relaxed at the border.

The latest numbers, from a CBP spokesperson: 14,993 arriving travelers had their electronic devices searched from October through March, versus 8,383 in the corresponding period a year earlier. Note that this spike in searches predates President Trump; the Obama administration bears responsibility for this too.

The Protecting Data at the Border Act, put forth by a bipartisan group of representatives and senators, would require CBP agents to get a warrant to search your device’s data, with exceptions for emergency situations.

Building out broadband

We keep having arguments over issues like net neutrality (the principle that your Internet provider shouldn’t block, slow or surcharge sites) and broadband privacy because so many of us don’t have a choice of broadband providers.

The FCC’s latest stats show that only 24% of census blocks have two or more providers offering downloads of at least 25 megabits per second. Worse yet, 29% don’t have anybody selling a connection that fast.

Many Democrats advocate letting cities and counties build their own municipal broadband networks, to which Republicans often reply: “socialism!” But tech-policy types on both sides agree that a “dig once” policy requiring that federally-funded infrastructure projects include conduits for new broadband connections would make it easier to build new networks.

Such a bill exists — Rep. Anna Eshoo (D.-Calif.) introduced it in 2009! But Congress keeps putting it off to the side. Yet another draft of this Broadband Conduit Deployment Act is now circulating, and you should ask your elected representatives about it.

You may have noticed that I haven’t even mentioned many other tech-policy points I’ve addressed here before, like the weak state of cybersecurity in the public and private sector or patent reform to stop patent trolls from sticking up businesses with bogus claims of infringing on vague patents that shouldn’t have been granted in the first place.

The fact that we’re waiting on legislation to make meaningful changes in those areas is another thing you might want to consider when speaking up to your hired workers in Washington.

More from Rob:

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.