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Summary:

Many technology enthusiasts have a worldview that sees the government as bungling or evil. This is both unfair and not helpful in deciding hard policy choices.

Why can’t the government be more like Silicon Valley? It’s a common complaint by those who contrast the fast, innovative tech sector against the plodding ways of Washington. It’s also unfair.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, for instance, just announced it is updating its rules for social media. The rules may “fall short” but, overall, the SEC’s initiative is a welcome effort to adapt policies to emerging technologies. In other words, the government gets it. And not just for financial reporting — regulators are also updating rules to account for the impact of new technologies on everything from crowd-funding to video rentals to the Patent Office.

In light of such progress, why then is the government so often reviled by the tech community? To see what I mean, look at recent stories (and related comments) involving issues like online privacy, file-sharing or the sad death of internet activist Aaron Swartz. These situations, which may reflect poor choices by individual prosecutors or bureaucrats, have served to reinforce an article of faith for many tech enthusiasts: that the government is populated by people who are malicious and intellectually inferior to those who read sites like Reddit or Hacker News.

The same phenomenon can be detected in headlines like “It’s a Crime for 12-year-olds to Read the New York Times Online” or “Senate bill rewrite leds feds read your e-mail without warrants.” These are examples of tech writers using hyperbole to reinforce an us-versus-them narrative that their readers take as a given. This narrative in many ways resembles the world of comic book protagonists.

While the press and tech readers are right to be vigilant, the larger caricature of bungling government fools is neither fair nor responsible. For starters, the people who work at places like the SEC or the Justice Department are not schleps off the street who can barely use a computer; instead, they are often top-of-the-class graduates who accepted less money in favor of more fulfilling work. The agencies they work in can be dysfunctional — like many big corporations — but the people themselves are not.

There is an even larger problem of looking at the government through the fast-moving prism of the tech community. Namely, the government is not supposed to resemble the tech sector in the first place — pivoting, rapid adaptation and “move fast and break things” are fine qualities for a start-up, but they’re ill-suited as a method of governing a democracy.

Don’t forget that the country as a whole looks nothing like the tech sector. America is not disproportionately composed of affluent white and Asian males, but instead contains a far more diverse population with a multitude of interests and incomes. This is the lens through which policy choices should be viewed — not through cliches that pit tech geniuses against bungling bureaucrats.

(Image by saddako via Shutterstock)

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  1. While I agree with your general premise that it’s not reasonable or realistic to expect the government to act more like the valley (although the government does already act like most big businesses), I think you are mistaken in dismissing as hyperbole the complaints about how poorly written laws are being abused by prosecutors. It’s a very real problem, as it sets precedents for future government behavior.

    I don’t see the abusive prosecutions as “us versus them”, but rather creating a legal environment where the government can selectively decide to put anyone in prison. For some reason, they have decided that breaking any agreement, however loosely entered into, is a crime if the agreement is established over the Internet (by just clicking on a box). While a company that breaks a written agreement and results in the loss of billions of dollars to the co-party is not guilty of any crime, the government can now prosecute, on the behalf of any company with a website, an individual who has gained nothing but annoyed or embarrassed that company. The laws are really political and corporate weapons, and you have trivialized their danger by associating the complaints about them with the relative handful of frustrated Randians that dot the tech world.

    1. Accidentally hit the comment key early …

      Amen. Another post along the same front validating the concerns:

      http://techliberation.com/2013/04/05/cfaa-and-prosecutorial-indiscretion/

  2. I second, third and fourth Keninca here. The problem is not that government is unduly burdened by the citizen’s silly liberties and constitutional demands. The problem is that the government shows open contempt for it’s obligations and sees the citizens as a barrier to reaching it’s goals, whatever they may be today. This blog post simply reminds us about how the government warns that they must be completely unleashed lest things go very badly for the citizens some day. Apparently, our liberties must be burned to protect our liberties.

  3. >In light of such progress, why then is the government so often reviled by the tech community?

    Because they pass around printed patch files? Seriously. This is the 21st century. We are all expected to obey the law? Fine, where can I download the law so that I may study it… *crickets*

    Why isn’t the entirity of the US legal code in a public github repo already? This is our government, and those are our laws we paid them to write. So let’s see the work boys. My boss expects to see my work. I expect to see yours.

  4. “For starters, the people who work at places like the SEC or the Justice Department are not schleps off the street who can barely use a computer; instead, they are often top-of-the-class graduates who accepted less money in favor of more fulfilling work.”

    LOL! That’s rich. As a former fed, I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement. Most are in fact schleps, and that’s about as nice a name as they deserve.

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