This has been a milestone year for Internet policy. After a slew of significant public policy wins for the Internet — net neutrality and surveillance reform, to name but two — we are finally starting to see a movement to protect the public’s rights online.
But these issues are incredibly complex, and sustaining these victories will require a new cadre of digitally-savvy public servants who can seamlessly navigate both the technical and policy realms. Just as the environmental movement relies on ecologists to protect the oceans and the air, the movement to keep the Internet free and accessible needs leaders with tech expertise and Web literacy to inform the public dialogue.
The Internet has transformed how we connect and engage with the world around us, creating challenges and opportunities in every area of contemporary life. On one hand, the Internet can foster learning, organize global movements, distribute financial supports and expose injustices. On the other, it can be used to exert control, stifle legitimate discourse, entrench bias and concentrate power in the hands of a few.
While there has been positive momentum this year, research on where tech talent is headed is less rosy. According to a recent report, only 4 percent of computer science graduates went to work for the federal government. By comparison, about 70 percent entered the private sector.
This is a tech talent crisis, and the cause is no secret. For-profit tech companies draw a steady flow of computer science graduates with lucrative jobs, reducing the pipeline of Web literate leaders in the public sector to a trickle. But economic incentives are only part of the problem. Unlike Silicon Valley companies which tout innovation, risk-taking and collaboration, too many government institutions offer a bureaucratic and risk-averse culture.
The market will not solve this imbalance. We need to change the incentives if we are to attract the new leaders the Internet needs.
Attracting new, talented leaders willing to fight and defend the Internet is critical. Today’s computer science students can’t imagine a career path that leads them to Washington. This lack of technical expertise has real consequences. It’s the reason we saw tens of thousands of Americans unable to sign into the Healthcare.gov portal in 2013.
But the implications extend beyond dysfunctional Web portals. Unless we address the tech talent crisis, our ability to craft effective public policy will be at risk. As one member of Congress said during the Stop Online Piracy Act debate in 2011, it’s time to “bring in the nerds” who can explain the potential risks of ill-informed Internet policies.
The legacy of under-informed tech policy-making continues today. The federal government attacks encryption and wants back-door access to law-abiding citizens’ data without a warrant — even though the technical experts can prove this makes our online data less safe. This winter’s net neutrality battle spotlighted big telecom’s desire to — and near success in — undercutting the Web’s level playing field and introducing paid prioritization and fast and slow lanes.
Fortunately, there are bright spots. The U.S. Digital Service, for example, places digitally-savvy individuals within federal agencies to untangle complicated Veterans’ affairs, student loans and health care processes. The Department of Defense recently unveiled a plan to create more than 100 dedicated cybersecurity teams by 2018. And on state and local levels, municipalities are beginning to value digital intellect: New York City’s first-ever CTO, Minerva Tantoco, is working to enhance open data, create civic apps, and launch a Gotham-centric Tech Talent Pipeline.
The Ford Foundation and Mozilla are investing in leaders through programs such as the Open Web Fellowship, which helps cultivate the tech-talent pipeline. This year’s cohort of engineers, developers and activists just started working with nonprofits to help them and the government agencies they advise understand the technical impact of tech policy proposals.
Just imagine the potential of developing leadership opportunities and real career paths for Web literate, digitally-savvy public servants. What would the country look like in five years if our best and brightest engineering and computer science graduates viewed positions at the State House, on Capitol Hill, and with NGOs in the same way they currently look to Silicon Valley? We’d be able to safeguard the Internet we all love and rely on: a global, shared resource, open and accessible to all.
Dave Steer is the Mozilla Foundation’s director of advocacy, where he leads the nonprofit’s efforts to protect the open Web as a global, public resource.
Jenny Toomey is the Ford Foundation’s director of Internet rights, and spearheads the organization’s drive to keep the Internet open, innovative and transparent.