For all the current scrutiny that Capitol Hill has placed on Silicon Valley, the average member of Congress, age 58 in the House and 63 in the Senate, still appears uninformed when tasked with questioning Big Tech executives on issues such as data privacy, online disinformation and artificial intelligence.
And although recent elections have ushered in a handful of tech-savvy lawmakers such as Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, rarely have candidates made technology policy a keystone of their campaigns.
But Ross LaJeunesse, a disenchanted former Google executive and one of the Democrats vying for the chance to unseat Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, is seeking to change that.
“Congress has not only neglected its oversight of tech companies, it has neglected its responsibility to ensure that the benefits of technology and the digital economy reach all Americans,” LaJeunesse wrote in a blog post on Medium last week. “For too long, tech companies have lobbied their friends in Congress to avoid meaningful regulation and oversight.”
A detailed, 10-point “tech reform” agenda released by LaJeunesse’s campaign last week covers a wide range of technology issues currently being debated in Congress, such as data privacy, cybersecurity and election security, facial recognition and net neutrality.
On privacy, LaJeunesse wants to pass legislation that would not only give customers control over how their data is used by companies but also give them a cut of the profits if companies make money by selling their personal data to third parties. He also wants to increase fines and penalties levied against corporations that allow user data to be obtained through cyberattacks and data breaches.
LaJeunesse is approaching facial recognition technology in a similar way, proposing legislation that would make facial scans the property of the person whose information is collected, not the company that collects it. The legislation would require companies that take facial scans “to obtain clear, informed opt-in consent from individuals before the facial scan is stored and used for any commercial purposes.”
LaJeunesse also wants to ensure that tech companies “uphold and promote human and civil rights.” Formerly Google’s global head of international relations, he left the company in 2019 after learning it was developing a search engine, Dragonfly, that could be deployed in China because it conformed to the government’s censorship regulations. (Google says it has since abandoned the project.)
“We need people in government who understand tech,” LaJeunesse told The New Yorker last month. “Government regulation is the answer because the minute that [Google chief executive Sundar Pichai] had to testify about Dragonfly, that’s when Dragonfly was dead.”
One of LaJeunesse’s proposals for holding technology companies accountable is to give their employees special whistleblower protections by passing legislation that “clarifies and guarantees whistleblower protections for employees of technology companies who disclose corporate behavior that is illegal and unethical, or threatens the rights, safety, or security of users.” The proposal would also require the Federal Trade Commission to establish a special unit for reviewing whistleblower claims by employees at technology companies.
He also wants to make sure Silicon Valley complies with antitrust laws. Amid ongoing antitrust probes of Facebook and Google by the Justice Department, the FTC and two coalitions of state attorneys general, LaJeunesse said authorities should rethink the current consumer welfare standard that determines whether a company has illegal monopoly power. LaJeunesse says that current standard relies too much on prices and does not account for the fact that ubiquitous products offered by companies such as Facebook and Google are free to use.
“It is imperative that we reevaluate this focus as companies and business models continue to evolve and raise new challenges beyond economic costs to consumers,” LaJeunesse’s plan says. “Issues like the market dominance of technology platforms and the amount of user data they have, and the impact this has on consumers’ privacy, autonomy, and agency must be considered.”
LaJeunesse’s agenda also includes priorities such as increasing access to high-speed internet for rural Americans and protecting workers from automation, an issue he says “too few people in Washington seem to know or care about.” He wants the government to develop a strategy for providing workers displaced by automation with job retraining, skills development and temporary financial assistance.
Simultaneously, the plan seeks to ensure that American children are provided with the tools necessary to “fully participate in the economy of the future” by calling on the Education Department to work with technology companies to develop computer science and other curricula. Speaking to The New Yorker, LaJeunesse said he believes technology can be an “equalizer” for children.
“Wealthy families always had access to more resources,” he said. “But, if you were, like, a poor kid in Maine, in rural Maine, you’re kind of stuck, and tech changed that.”
It’s unclear whether LaJeunesse will get the opportunity to turn his agenda into reality. In Maine’s June 9 Democratic primary, he faces a slew of candidates including Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. At the end of 2019, LaJeunesse’s campaign had about $376,000, according to the Federal Election Commission, compared with Gideon’s $2.77 million.