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Summary:

Congress is supposed to write our laws, but it’s looking inadequate at doing so in the face of a rapidly evolving technology industry. The near-term passage of a bill allowing Netflix to share user data is too little, too late — and altogether too common.

If we’re to believe Hollywood star Matt Damon, the United States is in trouble (he used a more colorful, and concise, term). In part, he told Playboy, this is because elected officials are perpetually running for office and “don’t really get any benefit from engaging with long-term issues,” preferring instead to spent their time tackling in-the-now issues that might gain them a few percentage points in the polls. Whether or not Damon has accurately diagnosed the disease, he certainly has spotted the symptom.

In the world of technology, especially, the legislative progress is just too slow, too confining and, ultimately, too shortsighted. For proof, one need look no further than all the hubbub on Thursday about a forthcoming amendment to the Video Privacy Protection Act allowing video providers to share data regarding customers’ viewing habits. In this case, the amendment was spurred by Netflix’s desire to enable “frictionless sharing” between itself and Facebook.

More than a year later, an amendment, which just awaits a signature from the president, will give Netflix and Facebook what they want — no more, no less. (Congress didn’t even bother to change the term “video tape provider” to something more current and all-encompassing (although, in its defense, the term is defined broadly).) And, as my colleague Jeff Roberts has noted, now that Facebook doesn’t appear to be the kingmaker it once was, it’s probably too late for this bill to matter.

But the VPPA situation is just a microcosm of the bigger problem facing a technology industry that’s moving at a speed Congress and federal agencies can never hope to match. Laws can no longer address a single technology or a single practice at a single point in time, but must be visionary enough to remain relevant as technologies, social norms and business models evolve.

Technologically speaking, what’s popular today might be unrecognizable five years from now, so it’s the ideas that really matter. The bigger issue behind frictionless sharing isn’t just video data, it’s the social sharing of data among web applications in general. The bigger issue behind email privacy isn’t just email, it’s about the perception of private communications whether they’re done via SMS, Twitter or some yet-to-be-developed platform. The bigger issue around file-sharing isn’t so much copyright as it is entirely new methods for consuming content.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)  is at least pushing the discussion of new privacy concerns

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) is at least pushing the discussion of new privacy concerns

But issues such as web privacy and intellectual property are actually relatively easy to wrap our minds around. We’re headed down a path toward some real science-fiction stuff, though — driverless cars, facial recognition, connected glasses, $1,000 genomes, nanotechnology, etc. — and one has to wonder how the legal system will keep up. They’re novel enough individually, even more so when you consider the possibilities of combining data from all these sources to try and uncover some never-before-detectable insights.

Who knows what life-altering technologies will pop up that we don’t want stifled by archaic laws — or what scary use cases will pop up that we will want to regulate even if we don’t have laws to do it. Who will be able to draw the connections between technology and other cultural realms or personal liberties, and to extrapolate the potentially complex relationships between tech laws and these areas?

Even if some of its members weren’t seemingly out of touch and reactionary when it comes to technology, Congress can’t even pass a budget on time. Now we’re supposed to trust it to regulate a largely digital technology future that’s evolving at breakneck speed and disrupting every business model, communication medium and biological process in its path? Maybe Ray Kurzweil’s next gig should have been in the House of Representatives rather than at Google .

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Everett Collection.

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  1. The brazilian congress is way worse. We still have an unfriendly environment for innovation and investing, thanks to the middle age laws and taxes that the congress men never bother/want to change. Politicians and technology are two ingredients that don’t match.

  2. Wayne Collier Home Inspections Thursday, December 27, 2012

    I agree,while not the worst system in the world there is plenty of room for improvement. These guys have gotten way to cozy with the status quo.

  3. Legislation is not concerned with the future, but with codifying the present. As a result, it works best when there is relative stability in the social, political and economic environment. In a paradigm shift, such as we are going through at the moment, there is no agreed solution, or even question; therefore the law will always lag behind.

  4. Yeppers. Here I am saying much the same thing today, and it’s why C-PET (Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies) was set up 4 years ago . . . .

    http://t.co/yY2tte5i

  5. Well if they’d just block/ban 4chan they’d be doing a better public service than if they paid down the entire national debt.

  6. Congress isn’t capable of legislating, they are more interested in prostuting themselves at the expense of the citizens and the republic

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