Summary:

When U.S. lawmakers and policy experts get tired of fighting ideological battles over the past, they might want to put a little effort into helping improve the country’s future. Here are four technology issues that could help improve the economy and outline Americans’ digital rights.

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photo: U.S. House of Representatives

Technology is becoming more integrated into every aspect of life both in America and abroad, but the laws that govern it can’t seem to catch up. When they do, they’re often inadequate, shortsighted and burdensome to a fault. Some of this is unavoidable because of the fast pace of innovation, but there’s also a lot that lawmakers can get right if they’re willing to give certain issues the attention they deserve.

Here are four technology issues that might presently be the most-pressing ones facing the United States (although most of these are global issues, as well). There are probably some big ones missing (I suspect some might point to intellectual property or net neutrality); feel free to share your ideas in the comments. Unfortunately, while it’s relatively easy to spot the challenges, it’s a lot harder to come up with solutions.

But that’s why legislators get paid the big bucks, right?

1. Privacy

Privacy is probably the most-important issue right now — or at least the most popular — but it’s also probably the most difficult to solve. In part, that’s because privacy is a multifaceted issue in which various constitutional rights, consumer rights and even civil laws all play a role. NSA spying, warrantless searches of online accounts, facial recognition, target advertising, the right to be left alone — they’re all important discussions that converge and diverge at multiple different points.

The biggest challenges will be figuring what areas to focus on and then balancing the myriad interests involved. Areas such as national security, technological innovation, the cloud computing economy, and even common etiquette among friends all stand to suffer or benefit depending on what actions are or are not taken.

Harder yet might be solving solving these problems across national borders. Privacy laws and regulations that vary from country to country will make it more difficult for companies to do business via the web, more difficult for citizens and consumers to know their rights at any given time, and could foment a serious lack of trust among national governments.

2. Taxation

Just like privacy laws could affect the state of the cloud economy, tax laws — and not just the dreaded internet sales tax — threaten to do the same. That’s not necessarily good or bad, it’s just reality. And in terms of what’s going to drive corporate policy around things like international expansion, data center location and other business decisions, taxation will probably have a more direct impact than will privacy regulations.

AOL Services CTO and former Microsoft data center executive Mike Manos offered up some interesting thoughts on his blog last week. Essentially, he argued (about European governments, but it applies to U.S. states, as well) that attempts to squeeze more tax revenue out of companies that do business with their citizens will result in both geographic exodus from certain locations and probably higher costs for consumers of web services.

Taxes are a little less dicey than privacy, but they’re still an important geopolitical issue. How can we talk seriously about economic globalization when the web — an earth-flattening framework that in theory knows no national borders — is governed by a patchwork of different laws, each one trying to extract money from web companies at every turn?

3. The definition of “publish”

Never before has it been more important to lay down some sort of framework for figuring out the rights and responsibilities of individuals and entities that disseminate information. The web has made it very easy to publish information and even to garner an audience for it, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to protect desired behavior, quell the nasty stuff and let users know where they stand.

One of the issues that come to play here is service provider and user immunity for erroneous, defamatory or abusive statements published on online fora. Another is the ongoing debate about who’s provided protection from criminal prosecution under journalist shield laws. Even lawsuits over the “celebrity” nature of Facebook users (granted, this one settled) open up interesting debates about the line between reporting the news, posting a status update and profiting from someone’s name.

There are lawsuits that might end up drawing new boundaries on some of these questions, but statutory guidelines that cross platforms and state lines seem like a better idea in many cases. The challenge, as always, is making people think before they act without putting too big an onus on service providers to police their sites or too big a chill on the open exchange of ideas.

4. Income inequality and the digital divide

It’s no news that the United States currently has a wealth gap the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1930s, but the role of technology in closing gap is often overlooked outside Silicon Valley. The role of technology in exacerbating the gap is probably overlooked everywhere.

The iPhone: revolutionary if you can afford it. Flickr / Mat Honan

The iPhone: revolutionary if you can afford it. Flickr / Mat Honan

I’m not saying there’s a connection, but there’s something disturbing in the fact that 9 million people ordered new iPhones last week while the House of Representatives threatened to eliminate food stamps for nearly 4 million people. Whatever value there is in having access to new technology, or even just being online, gets lost pretty fast when you’re struggling just to feed your family. Smartphones, data plans, and even broadband connections are expensive and probably not justifiable expenses for many families.

Some very large companies monitor employees’ social media accounts and can fire employees for posting comments that will never be seen outside a small circle of people and have no effect on the company’s overall image or health. Talk about keeping the wage earners in line.

Aside from that digital divide, there’s also the digital divide between rural and urban America, between cities with competitive service providers and those without. There’s a big difference between 1Gbps fiber connections in Austin, Texas, and 15Mbps satellite connections in some other areas, especially when they cost about the same. And, no, wireless broadband is not the same thing and it’s even less valuable because of its inflated costs.

For people who can afford access to the internet, though, or even to maker spaces, technology has the potential to be a real boon. Laws should probably make it easier for industries such as massively open online courses to expand their reach and credibility, and there’s an argument to be made for teaching internet skills (beyond Facebook) the same way we’ve historically taught students home economics or woodworking.

The cold, hard truth is that technology — as a foundation or just as a conduit of information — is the future, and those who don’t have access to it probably won’t have a very bright one.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user Mat Honan.

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