Information Policy in 2016: Let’s Have Some Optimism

Let’s put some of that holiday cheer and a few of our resolutions for the new year to productive use

As we welcome the New Year, policy wonks appreciate that as the last year of a second-term president, this is a special year. That means major turnover is coming in senior posts in the Administration regardless of who wins the presidency. It also means that policy people should be beginning to draft their proposals for the next Administration.

Let’s begin with hope and vision. There will be time enough for lesser thoughts. Just think about what’s happened with digital technology since the Obama presidential transition of 2008. The “new sharing economy” was just beginning with the founding of Airbnb and Uber in 2008 and 2009 and the “the internet of things” had not yet emerged on the national agenda. The age of the smartphone, e-books, and social media had just begun—indeed the Obama presidential campaign was the first one to use social media on the internet as a major strategy.

So how can we advance our respective goals and leverage the wonders of the digital revolution? Too often, we policy people shun this laudable pursuit and focus instead on protecting the status quo for short-term gain. For example, in the world of copyright, many push for business models for the digital realm based on physical copies—protecting business as usual and old ideas of technology and information use—whereas so much more is possible in this second Gutenberg moment.

Another example is digital privacy. It is time to seek out ways of thinking beyond the “us versus them” paradigm. We need appropriate information technology and information access for national security and law enforcement reasons. We need robust privacy provisions to ensure that people are not subject to excessive data monitoring and information collection. The choice is not between one or the other: our country needs both.

Last year, we saw the big news that the Koch Brothers and Center for American Progress (and an ideologically diverse group of other organizations) are working together on the sentencing issue. Regardless of the causes, there is bipartisan agreement that having a couple of million Americans incarcerated on a consistent basis is not the right answer for anybody. They, along with other allies, founded the Coalition for Public Safety to advance criminal justice reform that addresses the over-criminalization and over-incarceration problem.

If diverse groups can put aside differences to work together on criminal justice reform, what about working together on policy issues for the digital age?

At the recent conference of the Re:Create Coalition, Michael Petricone of the Consumer Technology Association put it well: We need less focus on dividing the pie and more focus on growing the pie. Surely, there is huge potential for growth—for the economy and entrepreneurs, for individuals and communities, and for more opportunity for everyone.

So what can we do? We can begin by thinking and talking and writing in these terms—at least some of the time. And incorporate this thinking into our policy strategies and planning in the coming months.

We can also take action. For example, the aforementioned Re:Create Coalition was founded last year to work towards a balanced and fair copyright regime. The coalition includes organizations with a broad range of ideological perspectives—like the Coalition for Public Safety—in the recognition that the best chance for progress is to identify important areas of common ground and then move ahead accepting of some compromise. Other such coalitions could be created for other particular realms of information policy (e.g., aspects of telecommunications).

In the same spirit, organizations could also exert increased initiative to work with others to advance common goals on more discrete matters. For example, varied groups could come together to advocate for a streamlining of the 1201 rulemaking under the Digital Copyright Millennium Act (a triennial process for approving exceptions to the prohibition on the anti-circumvention provisions of this law).

Let’s put some of that holiday cheer and a few of our resolutions for the new year to productive use. Coming from the library community, I represent a constituency of people who are fundamentally helpful and hopeful by nature. And with a new Librarian of Congress on the way—an information leader with the knowledge and influence to play a key role in shaping the digital age for the benefit of all—there is the opportunity to leverage this appointment to advance information policy in the interests of all—across ideological, societal sector, and party lines.

Alan S. Inouye leads technology policy for the American Library Association. Previously, he coordinated the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee in the Executive Office of the President, and directed information technology policy studies at the National Academy of Sciences.

By Alan Inouye.