In the span of just a few decades, the world has moved online. Diplomats correspond with emails, money flows through virtual markets, and satellites beam data to our cell phones as we scroll through TikTok or Instagram. Yet, our regulations lag behind the pace of technological development. Recent events such as digital interference in elections by foreign actors, rampant misinformation over matters of national health and security, and cyber-attacks have been growing in severity and frequency, demonstrating the flaws in our current system of internet regulation. To ensure the healthy growth of the internet, we need to strengthen the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) program within the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The internet is fraught with risks, and we often take for granted the service without realizing the potential criminal activity we expose ourselves to. According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a division of the FBI, reports of internet crimes have risen from around 17,000 complaints in 2000 to nearly 800,000 in 2020. From 2019 to 2020 alone, there was roughly a 350,000 increase in complaints. We’ve seen firsthand the effects of internet crime on both personal and national levels.
Some of us may have relatives who are victims of phishing scams and fraudulent emails. Maybe you have a parent whose banking information was stolen online. Going on social media, you might see Facebook posts decrying COVID-19 as a hoax. If you’ve been watching the news for the past few years, you’ve seen the unfolding investigations over Russian online interference in the 2016 elections. You might have even read in the papers about the hackers that targeted our healthcare and energy systems through loopholes in the internet. Clearly, internet crimes are both widespread and severe, and the current laws are not stopping the continued growth of malicious activity. This means action has to be taken.
The current laws regulating the internet are ineffective, in part because the internet is still relatively young and there is less data available for lawmakers. Moreover, the ability for effective internet regulation was harmed by the dissolution of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995. The OTA was established in 1972, composed of scientists and experts with the goal of “[providing] early indications of the probable benefits and adverse implications of the applications of technology and to develop other coordinate information which may assist Congress.” However, it was gutted as part of a larger Congressional budget cut.
The dissolution of the OTA came on the cusp of the internet age, just a few years before the world started to move online. In 2019, the U.S. GAO established the STAA program, but it failed to reach the capacity of the OTA. To ensure the ever-growing internet is properly regulated, more funds need to be allocated for STAA so it can reach pre-dissolution OTA capability. Congress has recently shown support for the STAA, but more dramatic measures must be taken to match the speeds at which technology develops. Financial resources can come in the form of increased taxes on private multibillion technology corporations like Google and Facebook, and the process of increasing STAA capabilities can be expedited by executive orders.
Regulating the internet is a difficult task that requires balancing security with privacy and user freedom. We need to make sure the billions of new individuals joining the internet can take advantage of the numerous resources available while also avoiding the dangers of internet crime; we also need to make sure that our national security is never compromised again by agents using websites and social media. To ensure that we can take on these new challenges, it is necessary the STAA receives adequate funding so experts can assist Congress in crafting a safer, more usable internet.