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CES 2023 Explored Tricky Path Between Policy and Innovation

Discussions on cybersecurity, privacy, and technology competition brought politicos back to the tech trade show’s stage.

Between jokes and worries about technology -- from data privacy to ChatGPT -- there is a rising call for the rules of the land to be made clearer. Last week, that inevitably brought policymakers, including a delegation of US senators, to tech tradeshow CES 2023. Industry concerns were vented about regulation strategies and politicians shared some of their plans to develop new legislation that may affect the innovation community.

Speaking on stage and via livestream, Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), once again gave a state of the industry address, which this time included work the CTA was doing with the United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security and the World Academy of Art and Science. The collaborative effort called Human Security for All is meant to address a raft of insecurity issues people face including political, environmental, food, health, economic, community, and personal insecurity.

After jesting that the ChatGPT chatbot wrote his speech, Shapiro turned his attention to the regulatory sphere, which is poised to influence the next phases of innovation once again. The CTA’s role, he said, is to make sure government policies promote rather than hinder innovation and growth. Part of that, Shapiro said, includes ensuring low barriers to entry for anyone who seeks to get into this ecosystem, allowing startups to inhabit the space alongside larger incumbents

“It’s not a matter of saying we don’t want legislation or regulation -- we need regulation,” he said. Regulation would set ground rules, Shapiro said, so idea makers would not be required to ask government for permission before creating innovations.

He expressed concerns, however, about some recent policy moves that he believed might stymie growth in the tech scene. “We need rules that allow for competitive markets but don’t protect existing competitors,” Shapiro said. “Sadly, the United States Federal Trade Commission has shifted away from decades of bipartisan support for a standard that was simply, ‘What is the best for the consumer?’ when evaluating antitrust issues like acquisitions.”

He said the FTC instead shifted to a stance that supports what is best for existing competitors, which Shapiro called the antithesis of innovation and a free market, and potentially damaging to the country’s position of economic leadership.

Of late, US regulators and legislators have been playing catchup to international tech policy such as Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which went into effect in 2018. Some states such as California have stepped up with their own efforts to regulate aspects of technology, but national policy on such fronts is still being stitched together.

Top Tech Issues

In a separate session at CES, a trio from the US Senate shared some of the top tech issues the current Congress faces and outlined some national priorities on cybersecurity, broadband, and emerging tech. Senator Jacky Rosen of Nevada led the delegation to the stage. She sits on the Senate Committee on Armed Services; the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation; and several other committees.

Rosen said she intends to push to enhance the country’s cybersecurity. “We must invest in our cybersecurity workforce to do that,” she said. “We have to have the talent to do it. We have to nurture that talent.” This includes working with other senators on legislation to strengthen cybersecurity of healthcare and legislation to create cybersecurity apprenticeship programs.

Senators Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico and Mark R. Warner of Virginia joined her on stage to discuss their goals for policies to promote innovation and opportunities for the populace.

Luján said he plans to focus on such issues as closing the digital divide, especially in rural states, bringing attention to digital equity, and digital literacy. He said the Federal Communications Commission is working on digital equity definitions, rulemaking, and updating maps for high-speed broadband connectivity. This is part of the effort to address the digital divides in harder-to-reach communities. He had concerns though that some parts of the country might still be left behind in the process. “I don’t want to see definitions that create loopholes that people can hide behind to not connect to communities.” For example, “economic forces” might be cited as an excuse to skip over connecting minority neighborhoods with high-speed broadband.

Competition with China

A key current issue for the country, Warner said, is technology competition with China, which is also woven into security and political concerns. “Technology and national security are inexorably tied,” he said. Warner found it particularly concerning that entities in China have been at the forefront of 5G wireless, in some instances setting standards and protocols that other nations would follow. Other areas of innovation Warner said he and his colleagues plan to look at include artificial intelligence, quantum computing, advanced engineering, and synthetic biology. “All four of these domains may require a level of federal investment,” he said.

Warner said his tech priorities for the new year include putting certain guardrails on social media, particularly in response to alleged manipulations by Russia of US elections. “The fact that we have done nothing in this country -- from privacy to even something as basic as saying there ought to be the same reporting requirements on online political advertising as there is on TV and radio -- we are goose eggs.”

He said a lack of leadership at the national level when it comes to legislation on recent tech concerns has hurt the US, with policy decisions in Europe and California taking the lead. “I think we need to come back to a privacy bill,” Warner said. “I think we need to come back to -- all of these are bipartisan -- data portability and interoperability. We need to come back and look at dark patterns. I think we need to have the long, overdue debate about Section 230.”

That was a reference to part of the US Communications Decency Act that grants websites certain immunity from liability for third-party content that appears on their platforms. “I think there are ways to protect free speech, but do put some reasonable constraints around 230,” he said. “A lot of good has come out of social media but there’s also been a dark underbelly.”

Warner said he also wants to work on cybersecurity, eager to see more progress on cyber incident reporting legislation and basic cyber standards around IoT and connected devices. He said he intends to pay special attention to healthcare in terms of security. “Unless and until we can make sure that cyber protections are actually built into the development of healthcare systems, rather than bolted on, I don’t think we’re going to get this right.”

Part of the problem, Warner said, is the number of entities in the federal government that touch healthcare around cyber -- which he called “a spaghetti mess” and why he wants to rationalize the space.

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