Last month there was a hearing on possible reforms to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. In a particularly stunning display of arrogant ignorance, House Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) illustrated his complete inability to understand how behavioral ad targeting works.
I stumbled across the video thanks to an article on one of my favorite blogs, BoingBoing.net (to watch the video: bit.ly/StupidTexasCongressman). In the video, Gohmert questions a poorly prepped Google ad rep on how email ad-targeting works. The rep makes the tragically poor assumption that the man questioning him has a basic understanding of how the Internet works today, and this spirals into a grandstanding performance by Gohmert, filled with pompous self-satisfaction, erroneously convinced he’s championing for his constituency.
For the uninitiated, it works like this: When you buy a targeted email ad, what you’re doing is telling Google: “I run an auto shop that specializes in Audi repairs. Can you serve up this ad for discounted Audi tires whenever someone from Longmont mentions an ‘Audi A6’ in their email?”
This all happens in an automated fashion. At no point are you, the shop owner, provided with any of the context of those emails, who the individual people were, or who they were talking to. You’ll get some limited, aggregate demographic reporting along with information on the number of times your ad was served and clicked on.
Granted, Google’s certainly got its share of privacy issues we should be discussing where things like search history and Gmail access controls are concerned, but we’ll never get to the root of these issues when they’re being decided by people who don’t understand what they’re actually going to be passing laws on. That’s dangerous.
It’s not a far cry from the incendiary debate last month on our own Capitol Hill around firearms regulations. Regardless of where you stand on the topic, one thing was evident: a LOT of people who are charged passing legislation on firearms know very, very little about firearms. If you don’t know the difference between a clip and a magazine, or semi-automatic vs. fully automatic, or bullet vs. shell … how can you be trusted to write any sort of legislation on the topic?
And that’s not exactly “new” technology. Guns, magazines, clips and bullets have been around a LOT longer than the Internet. Moore’s Law dictates an ever-increasing rate of innovation where computer technology is concerned (well, not exactly, but that’s the way most people have adopted its meaning), yet we have entrusted the legal care and feeding of it to a group of lawyers who spend more time campaigning than they do listening. They’re hopelessly in over their heads when it comes to technology.
It’s long past time for a culture shift in Congress. We’re in desperate need of a new generation of legislators who come from much more nuanced and varied backgrounds than: lawyers. Writing law should be done by people who understand the topics as opposed to the people who simply understand Roberts’ Rules of Order. Otherwise, we’re going to end up slaves to our own devices—facing prosecution if we do things like decide to use our cell phone on a different carrier.
And yeah, that one’s out there too.