The internet is a “series of tubes.”
At least that’s how then Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican who was 81 years old at the time, tried to explain the World Wide Web on the Senate floor in 2006. The internet, he said, is not something you can just “dump things on. It’s not a big truck.”
In 2018, the late Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who was 84 at the time, asked the Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during his testimony after the Cambridge Analytica data leak how the popular social-media app makes money when it doesn’t charge users for the platform.
Zuckerberg reacted with a quizzical expression.
“Senator, we run ads,” he deadpanned.
Over the years, big tech and social media have often stumped Congress. Many tech leaders, tech-policy experts, and lawmakers themselves argue that the increasingly advanced ages of those in office is partly to blame for the inadequacy of Washington’s regulatory efforts for an industry evolving at warp speed.
“I’ve seen how fast all of this has changed, and it’s pretty disturbing, and we’re not willing to have more of a serious conversation,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a 49-year-old Connecticut Democrat and member of Generation X, told Insider. “I’m young enough that I know how to use the technology, but I’m old enough that I remember when it didn’t exist.”
As communications and technology grow ever more complex, Congress has been slow to craft policy that addresses urgent public concerns including data privacy, digital disinformation, net neutrality, and cryptocurrency.
Making laws that affect technology can be complicated, confusing even the most tech-savvy people. The tech sector has grown increasingly concerned about legislators’ lack of understanding when it comes to the industry’s needs.
“It’s really about trying to make the connection between a piece of technology and what it means for my constituents. And I think it’s incumbent upon executives to tell a good story, communicate effectively, and make the connection about why a member should care,” a former senior congressional aide who now works at a social-media company told Insider. “But I think politicians that are not digital natives just don’t have that personal experience that perhaps younger, more online Americans have for a better understanding of technology.”
The former aide, who was granted anonymity because of his company’s communication policy, added that he has a lot of sympathy for members of Congress — they’re expected to be conversant on every issue under the sun, from energy to healthcare to banking. The self-identified Gen Xer argued that Washington and Congress are a year or two behind the American people as a whole when it comes to a recognition of issues and adoption of technology, which he believes is due in part to an aging Congress.
“My big beef is that the baby boomers just won’t get off the stage,” the ex-aide said. “They’ve really stifled a generation. You really can’t name too many Gen Xers that have had any impact.”
And while Congress works on a committee system with experts and staff who understand the technology and the issues at play, the majority of politicians are not digital natives — and they are the ones who ultimately cast votes.
“It’s a problem, and not just limited to tech,” the ex-aide said. “With anything complex, it really takes a level of expertise. And as things get more and more complex, it gets more challenging for lawmakers to be able to wrap their heads around it.”
If in the past there had been a laissez-faire view that people in tech wanted Washington to leave them alone, that changed after events like the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal surrounding Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, said another former senior staff member on Capitol Hill who is now head of government relations at a software company.
“With the growth of these kinds of major tech companies, I think most of these CEOs will admit that they want to be regulated in the right way, and they want to have clear rules that they can play and compete with,” he told Insider. “And I think the thing to remember for the CEOs is that they’re not just operating in the US market, they’re trying to run multinational corporations that have to play in multiple regulatory jurisdictions across the world.”
Any kind of policy is hard, he added. “Age is a factor, but not the factor. This is a multifactor issue.”
Despite doubts among the tech community, some Capitol Hill employees say their ability to regulate tech is unrelated to their ages, especially those who serve on committees that directly handle these issues.
Heather Vaughan, minority communications director for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, said lawmakers are capable of understanding the ins and outs of tech with the help of other members on their committees, outside researchers, and experts in the field.
“As much as I understand the criticism that older politicians don’t necessarily have a handle on new technologies, it’s important to push back on that idea of ageism,” Vaughan told Insider in an email. “Obviously younger members tend to use social media more, but that doesn’t mean older politicians don’t or can’t understand a topic because of their age.”
Some members of Congress agree: They don’t think age or generation affects their legislative capabilities when it comes to technology.
“I don’t know if it’s an old versus young thing. I mean, some members just stay current on technology and some do not,” said Rep. Bill Foster, 66, a Democrat from Illinois.
Foster, the only current lawmaker to hold a doctorate in physics who serves on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, believes that Congress’ grasp of technology doesn’t need to be fully developed for lawmakers to write good policy.
“What they have to understand is not the nuts and bolts of the technology,” Foster said. “There are probably 1,000 people on earth that actually understand every single piece of what’s inside a cell phone. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be allowed or can’t be productive using them.”
Rep. Jerry McNerney, a 71-year-old Democrat representing Stockton, California, an area northeast of Silicon Valley, also doesn’t think generational gaps affect most members’ ability to legislate tech.
“You know, when I got to Congress I was 55, and I wondered if I would fit in with younger members, but the age doesn’t come into play as much,” McNerney told Insider.
But younger politicians in both major parties have raised concerns in recent years that older lawmakers aren’t well-prepared to handle tech policy. Among them is Sen. Josh Hawley, a 42-year-old Missouri Republican.
“I do think there are significant generational differences in the Senate that cross party lines, and I think I’ve long thought that the tech issue is one of them where you really see some fairly significant generational differences,” Hawley told Insider.
Hawley said younger members are generally more critical of big tech.
“I think folks who are a little younger — I mean, listen, I can’t say I’m a young man anymore. I wish. But folks who are maybe younger, I think probably when it comes to the tech issue, in particular, just have been maybe a little more alert to it,” Hawley said.
The former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who helped form the middle-of-the-road Forward Party last year, has often castigated older legislators for their ineptitude when it comes to tech.
Yang noted in a July interview with Yahoo News — the same month he unveiled the new Forward Party — that the average senator is 64 years old. “The truth is that if you didn’t use some of these technologies, you don’t understand just how foundational their impacts are,” he said.
Data indicates that Generation Z is far more tech-savvy than older generations, and more than 95% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 49 said they own a smartphone, according to a study of Americans’ mobile-phone ownership by the Pew Research Center. The percentage of smartphone ownership drops significantly at the 65-plus age bracket, with 61% of Americans in this category saying they own one.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a 71-year-old New York Democrat, ranks among those who proudly cling to their flip phones. The senator has been spotted frequently around the Capitol talking into a dated flip phone.
Garrick Hileman, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and longtime researcher of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology, said there are some tech-savvy members of Congress who are older. However, he added, new technologies are more widely used by younger people, and users tend to understand technology better.
Hileman cited a conversation he had with Michael Casey, the chief content officer of CoinDesk, about the news site’s decision to allow its reporters to trade cryptocurrency.
From an ethics standpoint, a journalist reporting on an asset they own may lead to questions over their objectivity.
“What CoinDesk found is that reporters who are actually using the cryptocurrency can write more fluently and can better understand what it is they’re writing about,” Hileman told Insider. “And I think that’s true of any technology. If a member of Congress is actually using the internet, using email, using cryptocurrency, I think they’re going to have a better understanding of it.”
There are clear exceptions, he noted, but in general, younger people have a higher level of tech fluency than the baby-boomer generation.
When Stefan Eich, an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, attended congressional hearings on Facebook’s Libra, he was stunned by the low quality of the questions and the lack of knowledge displayed by members of Congress. Libra is a cryptocurrency created by the social-media giant in 2019 and wound down in January.
The vast majority of Congress, irrespective of party, had no idea what was going on, Eich said.
“Even if they had been given a question that someone had researched, at the very least, they were making mistakes when reading it out, and it was clear that they didn’t understand what they were saying,” Eich told Insider of the hearings.
But he said there were some members, largely younger, who nailed it.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress, posed some of the best questions, he said.
“That kind of confirms the suspicion that age might have something to do with it,” he said.
What was so striking to Eich, who is also a researcher of money in politics, was that the most effective questions weren’t very technical. Instead, they focused on power, Eich said.
“They used their knowledge of the technology not to ask questions that engaged on the level of technology, but were able to pierce through the smokescreen,” he said. “And those were the questions that the older folks couldn’t ask because they were so bamboozled by the tech.”
Ocasio-Cortez, 32, demonstrated her understanding of Libra by posing questions that went beyond the nitty-gritty of the currency’s framework. She asked Facebook’s cryptocurrency boss, David Marcus, why the social-media giant should be allowed to consolidate its various activities and a digital currency under one corporation. She also asked a question about governance over the reserve, in which she pointed out that the group of organizations Facebook formed to oversee the currency is largely composed of corporations and not democratically elected representatives.
“So we are discussing a currency controlled by an undemocratically selected coalition of largely massive corporations,” the congresswoman said.
Eich said older, less tech-savvy lawmakers also don’t attract the best staffers in the tech arena. Younger members of Congress tend to be better informed but also more aware of what they don’t know, he added, which allows them to hire the right kind of people to gain expertise.
“Experts are more likely to start looking for people who already show interest,” Eich said. “Why would you go work for that old senator who can’t even get his iPad started? You’re more likely to start working for a young member who’s actually interested in tech.”
But Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the governance studies program and the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, told Insider the generational gap will shrink over time.
“With every year, the workforce gets more tech-savvy, so as the workforce is more tech-savvy, then these disparities between age really tend to disappear,” Kamarck said. “My guess is that will happen in the Congress as well.”
While the net was rising in popularity in the 1990s and early 2000s, Kamarck was working for the Clinton administration. The young, baby-boomer president and vice president led a “reinventing government” initiative with the goal of encouraging a more tech-savvy US bureaucracy.
One idea to boost Congress’ collective tech IQ is for federal lawmakers to reconstitute a congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which House Republicans, led by then Speaker Newt Gingrich, defunded in 1995. The office “provided congressional members and committees with objective and authoritative analysis of the complex scientific and technical issues,” according to the Library of Congress.
Meanwhile, major tech companies continue to ramp up their federal lobbying spending, together spending more in 2021 than in any other year in history.
Meta and Amazon.com both ranked in the Top 10 among organizations and companies in terms of federal lobbying spending during 2021, according to nonpartisan research group OpenSecrets.
And ByteDance, the parent company of video platform TikTok, went from spending nothing on federal-level lobbying in 2018 to nearly $5.2 million in 2021.
This year, ByteDance counts four former members of Congress — Sens. John Breaux and Trent Lott and Reps. Jeff Denham and Bart Gordon — among the 40 registered lobbyists it’s so far employed during 2022.
Congress hasn’t been completely oblivious to the pressing need to pass legislation to address the rapid advancements in technology.
For example, with rising concerns over semiconductor availability, Congress in July passed the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, which would provide $52 billion to boost semiconductor production in the US.
More recently, Twitter’s former head of security, Peiter Zatko, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about a whistleblower complaint he filed in August, in which he said the company deceived federal regulators, consumers, and board members about its security practices. According to Zatko’s complaint, Twitter’s servers were running out-of-date and vulnerable software, and executives withheld important information about the number of security breaches and lack of protection for user data.
In September, current and former social-media executives testified at a Senate hearing focused on social media’s threat to homeland security. They argued that companies including YouTube, Twitter, Meta, and TikTok prioritize profit over ensuring the safety of their users.
“Rather than address the serious issues raised by its own research, Meta leadership chooses growing the company over keeping more people safe,” Brian Boland, the former vice president of product engineering and marketing at Facebook, said during the hearing.
In June, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce introduced the bipartisan American Data and Privacy Act “to provide consumers with foundational data privacy rights, create strong oversight mechanisms, and establish meaningful enforcement.”
The legislation is still in the early stages, but if passed, it will require companies to explicitly disclose how they will collect, process, and transfer a user’s data, as well as allow users to download their own data from the internet within 24 hours of requesting it.
Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who’s worked with Murphy on legislation to protect people’s personal data online, is also a 49-year-old Democrat and member of Generation X. The senator, who sits on the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, has had several pieces of tech-related legislation signed into law. Most recently, President Joe Biden signed into law the Better Cybercrime Metrics Act, a bipartisan bill authored by Schatz that will help fight cybercrime and keep people safe from online scams.
Members of the Republican Party have recently escalated their attacks on Google over email spam.
According to documents published by The Washington Post in early August, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is blaming Google for its recent fundraising difficulties, claiming the company is boosting Democratic efforts through its algorithms.
The effort is being spearheaded by GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, 88, who argued that Google should function more like the US Postal Service, because sending emails to spam is the same as refusing to deliver the mail, the Post reported.
Relatedly — and after much debate —the Federal Election Commission, a bipartisan regulatory agency, in August approved Google’s request to launch a pilot program that helps political candidates avoid Gmail spam filters.
Over the years, private companies have attempted to crack down on dangerous speech, including hate speech, on their platforms, provoking heated debates over content regulation.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, or the “26 words that created the internet,” provides protections for users and social-media companies so they cannot be treated as the publisher of content from a third party. In May 2020, Trump issued an executive order to limit the scope of Section 230 and prevent it from silencing conservative voices. Biden has suggested abolishing it altogether.
Critics of the provision argue that it allows companies to blatantly ignore real harm being caused to users, while others argue that it only protects “neutral platforms,” though there is no mention of neutrality in the law’s text.
Tech companies highly favor the protections of Section 230, which help them to avoid lawsuits and allow the internet to “thrive,” Katherine Oyama, the global head of intellectual property policy at Google, wrote to Congress in 2019.
Jessica Seale, a public-policy professional and nonresident fellow at the Lincoln Network, a think tank that advocates for collaboration between government and technology, believes that quality, consumer-focused tech legislation remains stunted despite all these efforts.
She cited Meta’s campaign to push Congress to create social-media regulations, which started around 2019 with a Zuckerberg op-ed in The Washington Post.
“Since that op-ed, and possibly before, Facebook/Meta have been purchasing ad space and sponsoring the daily newsletters published by a lot of Beltway publications,” Seale told Insider, referring to Washington news outlets such as Politico, National Journal, Roll Call, and The Hill. “Despite the last three or four years of Facebook and Meta putting millions of dollars into this, the needle hasn’t really moved, even though there’s bipartisan outrage about the platform itself.”
With midterm elections around the corner, voters may be looking for more tech-savvy representation when it comes to keeping their data out of the hands of companies trying to sell it to third parties or to prevent the spread of election misinformation.
And as technology advances and companies need more from Congress to help protect users, not to mention their business models, younger staffers and lawmakers may have an advantage.
From baby boomers to Generation Z, the gap between who does and doesn’t understand social media and technology may only grow. Older lawmakers may not understand Meta’s business model or know how the internet works, but with younger members taking the lead on these hot-button issues, there may be hope for tech regulation yet.
Murphy pointed to Schatz as a member of this tech-savvy vanguard. “I don’t think it’s coincidental that people like Brian Schatz and others of my generation are leading the conversation about how to deal with and how to regulate these new technologies,” Murphy said.