Congress is often pretty ignorant when it comes to technology, but it has not always been that way. Nearly two decades ago, Congress defunded its Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which provided legislators crucial advice and insight into technology issues. If technologists, national security wonks, scientists, and good government groups come together, there is a real chance OTA could be revived. This would help move policymaking out of the hands of well-funded lobbyists and slippery national security officials and back to newly-empowered lawmakers.
Recently Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), the only physicist in Congress, offered an amendment on the House floor to restart OTA with a $2.5 million appropriation. Despite the support of a coalition of organizations, the effort to amend the 2015 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill was rejected 164-248.
However, the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee has yet to consider its appropriations bill, so an opportunity exists for progress in the upper chamber. To a large extent, that depends on Subcommittee Chair Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Ranking Member John Hoeven (R-ND), and committee members Mark Begich (D-AK), Chris Coons (D-DE), and John Boozman (R-AK). The committee is expected to markup the bill later this month.
The executive branch has come to realize the importance of independent technology assessment. The special commission established by President Obama to review the balance between national security and civil liberties—formed in the wake of the NSA spying scandal—recommended reestablishing OTA, but in the executive branch. The President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies issued a report explaining that policymakers lack independent, trustworthy advice on important technology questions. Specifically, the report recommend that "an Office of Technology Assessment should be created within the Civil Liberties and Privacy Protection Board to assess Intelligence Community technology initiatives and support privacy-enhancing technologies."
Here is the commission's reasoning (emphasis added):
Public policy is shaped in part by what is technically possible, and technology experts are essential to analyzing the range of the possible. An improved technology assessment function is essential to informing policymakers about the range of options, both for collection and use of personal information, and also about the cost and effectiveness of privacy-enhancing technologies.
Prior to 1995, Congress had an Office of Technology Assessment that did significant studies on privacy and related issues. The OTA was then abolished, and no similar federal agency has existed since. Because the effectiveness of privacy and civil liberties protections depend heavily on the information technology used, a steady stream of new privacy and technology issues faces the Intelligence Community…. Because the Intelligence Community pushes the state of the art to achieve military and other foreign policy objectives, assessment of the technological changes must be up-to-date.
We therefore recommend that the government should have an Office of Technology Assessment that does not report directly to the Intelligence Community but that has access to Intelligence Community activities. Congress is vital to oversight of the Intelligence Community, but it does not have an office to enable it to assess technology developments. The CLPP Board, with classified personnel and agency independence, is the logical place for this sort of independent assessment.
With all respect to the Commission's recommendations, OTA belongs inside Congress and should cover the entire range of technology issues. Debates over net neutrality, bulk data collection, copyright, and many others would be enlivened and better informed were OTA still around. With technology playing such a central role in our lives, the government should do all it can to strengthen its expertise.