6 Cringey Times U.S. Politicians Didn’t Know Tech

6 Cringey Times U.S. Politicians Didn’t Know Tech

Congresspeople — ok, let’s just call them the more “seasoned” codgers of congress — have routinely shown they have very little conception of technology. And while it may be cute to watch your parents call your new Steam Deck a “Nintendo,” it’s much less funny when a politician in charge of creating legislation impacting the tech scene doesn’t know which company makes Android phones and which makes iPhones.

Some have argued that tech companies actively benefit when older politicians make absurd statements about tech, especially as it promotes the idea that there shouldn’t be any regulation if Congress itself doesn’t understand what’s going on. Sometimes CEOs want to mislead, so why are we blaming politicians for being misled?

Yes, it’s hard for any individual to know everything, but as an aside, that’s why congresspeople have aids who can assist them with understanding just what they’re arguing and why. So, if congresspeople know they don’t know something, why don’t they simply search online for clarification before they put their lips to the microphone? We’ve seen this come up multiple times in the past, and in most cases, the execs get away with obfuscation because politicians aren’t focused on getting real answers.

Modern politicians know their role, especially at big publicized hearings meant to grill top tech execs. They don’t always come to these hearings to gain insight on topics as much as to dunk on whoever shows up to cater to their base. Some might even make the case that some politicians try to sound dumb on purpose in order to court the anti-intellectual side of the party.

Of course, sometimes it blows up in politicians’ faces, leaving big tech CEOs to return to their office towers with the calm sense their consistent (and sometimes looney) U.S. political critics seem to have no idea how to actually regulate them.

Tech regulation already moves at a glacial pace in the best of times, and that’s only when legislators actually seem to have some idea of what they’re talking about. President Joe Biden’s nomination to the head of the Federal Communications Commission Gigi Sohn, and plans to reinstate net neutrality, have been held up in congress because of partisan wrangling, and now even the Fraternal Order of Police is getting involved. Meanwhile, Axios reported that tech antitrust legislation is still trying to crawl its way out of congressional committee when no bill by August likely means its death.

So while you’re perhaps looking to laugh at regular legislative buffoonery, just remember as you read through that it’s all part of a politico ecosystem that regularly stalls real tech industry regulation.

Sen. Ted Stevens once described the internet as a waterpark waterslide

Photo: TIM SLOAN/AFP, Getty Images
Photo: TIM SLOAN/AFP, Getty Images

Ahh, yes, the event that spawned a million memes. It is one of the earliest and most-referenced examples of an old politician trying to wrangle concepts he doesn’t completely comprehend.

Back in 2006, then-Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens, the then-chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, was criticising a proposed amendment to a net neutrality bill that would restrict major cable companies and internet providers from charging additional fees that companies could pay to give their data higher priority.

“Ten movies streaming across that Internet, and what happens to your own personal Internet?” Stevens rambled before his words became even more rambly. “I just the other day got an Internet [email] that was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday… Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.”

Then things got very strange. Trying to relate the issue of vast amounts of data slowing internet speeds, Stevens said:

They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the internet. And again, the internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.

Though the quote isn’t as egregious as those who continue to quote “it’s a series of tubes” might think, it also became a slogan for those arguing for net neutrality. Open internet was the standard in the U.S. for years despite some pushback, up until it wasn’t. While the Biden administration and advocates have continued to champion open internet, big tech has largely dropped the ball, meaning it will take honest thought on behalf of politicians to keep the policy going into the future.

Sen. Roy Blunt wanted to sound tech-literate by shoving a bunch of buzzwords at Zuckerberg

In 2018, during a hearing with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that took place in the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica reports, the big man at Facebook was supposed to reckon with the platform’s policies on data privacy. Instead, it featured several old men who had very little idea how social media like Facebook even operates.

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt first revealed his family is a big fan of the Zuck, saying “My son Charlie, who’s 13, is dedicated to Instagram, so he’d want to be sure I mention him while I was here with you.”

He also revealed he had printed his Facebook profile address on his business card. Not only that, but the man tried and failed to get a grasp of how Facebook collects user data, specifically offline data. The confused Zuckerberg tried to offer a follow-up later, but Blunt continued.

“Do you track devices that an individual who uses Facebook has that is connected to the device that they use for their Facebook connection, but not necessarily connected to Facebook?” the congressman said.

Zuckerberg was confused by the stuttering response. Blunt went on to ask questions about cross-device tracking but did not seem to have a basic grasp of what was even being discussed.

The fallout from Cambridge Analytica is still ongoing, but Zuckerberg and others have managed to escape a good amount of liability.

Sen. Orrin Hatch legitimately does not understand how social media makes money

During that same 2018 hearing, in what could possibly be the most obvious answer for anybody, even those not regularly involved in the tech-sphere.

Sen. Orrin Hatch asked about Facebook’s status as a free website, to which Zuckerberg responded that, indeed, the site would always be free.

Then the senator asked a question that made Zuckerberg talk to the man like he was a 3-year-old.

“Well, if so, how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Hatch asked, to which the CEO blinked like a fish, then responded, “Senator, we run ads.”

“I see, that’s great,” the senator replied. “Whenever a controversy like this arises, there’s always the danger that congress’s response will be to step and over-regulate. Now, that’s been the experience that I’ve had, in my 42 years here.”

As if there wouldn’t be any need to regulate a company that was selling data to political actors, which is half the reason why Zuckerberg was sitting in front of them in the first place.

Rep. Steve King doesn’t understand how Google search works

During a 2018 hearing with Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, there was quite a lot of confused going around, especially from representatives who obviously did not have an idea of how Google worked, or much inclination at all to, you know… Google it.

Pichai was there to talk about privacy and data collection, two important subjects for a company that has routinely failed to give answers on either. Unfortunately, some congressmen took the time to focus on how Google’s search holds perceived bias against conservatives.

Take Iowa Rep. Steve King. He told the story of his 7-year-old granddaughter who got onto her phone to play “some kind of game a kid her age would play” who then supposedly saw an advertisement showing a depiction of her grandfather with some example of foul language, the kind of thing one wouldn’t dare to say at a congressional hearing.

“But I’d ask you, how does that kind of language show up on a 7-year-old’s iPhone?” King asked. He asked… Google’s CEO… about an iPhone.

Pichai seemed to take a long breath, then pointed out how his company did not make iPhones, to which King responded “It might have been an Android. It was a hand-me-down of some type.”

Rep. Steve Chabot is also confused about why Google doesn’t change reality for him

In that same 2018 hearing, Ohio representative Steve Chabot started by saying “I use your apparatus often,” adding that Google should create an online school to help people use the search engine, something that Congress could apparently make good use of. He then asked Alphabet’s CEO Sundar Pichai why when he googled the American Health Care Act, all the results were a negative reaction to the bill that Republicans tried and failed to push through congress.

“The bill would result in millions upon millions of people losing the great care that they were supposedly getting under Obamacare,” Chabot said during the hearing. “I would argue that was completely false. It wasn’t until you got to the third or fourth pages of results that you were finding anything positive about our bill.”

The congressman also complained about search results for their Tax Cuts and Jobs Act bill. He said that while he understood that it was a result of Google’s algorithm, he said “I don’t buy it.”

Pichai responded that there are also negative articles you will see on him if you typed his name into Google.

It’s only now that Google is finally starting to reveal how it uses people’s data, but how well dumb quotes like Chabot’s have obscured honest efforts to get Google to reveal how much information it collects.