WASHINGTON, April 14, 2011 - In a town where there are as many opinions as there are issues, TechFreedom, a new think tank, aims to provide a non-partisan approach to privacy issues from a free market, libertarian stance.
The core focus of TechFreedom approaches privacy issues from two vantage points. One is to seek better protection from law enforcement intrusion, as seen in its efforts to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Second is in facilitating the least invasive government regulation of how the private sector uses data.
The non-profit’s Founder and President, Berin Szoka, said his previous work addressed these issues when he was the Center for Internet Freedom’s Director at the Progress & Freedom Foundation (PFF), a policy institute that focused on the digital revolution. But into his third year at PFF, he was ready for more independence in his work.
“It was like living in someone else’s house,” said Szoka. “They expected things a certain way and reputation lags by years so all of us [at PFF] were held to the positions and approaches that everyone else had taken before us.”
When PFF shuttered its doors in October 2010, ending a 17-year run, Szoka saw a space open up for a new think tank and he launched TechFreedom in January.
So far the organization has hosted a handful of events; filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court, pressing for commercial speech rights of pharmaceutical companies to use doctors' prescription histories to market brand name drugs; testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Net Neutrality, and published a book entitled, “The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet.”
ACADEMIA & PARTISANSHIP
Szoka notes one distinction with his think tank will be the interface it will provide for academics.
“There’s a lot of good work that goes on that is not well communicated to Washington. A lot of scholarship that does not have a lot of policy salience,” said Szoka.
Doubt remains, however, whether TechFreedom can connect a diversity of opinions from the academic sphere. Some consultants and academics in the field believe partisanship bleeds into the work most think tanks publish, exaggerating costs and benefits in the hope of persuading others.
“Most academics would be delighted to brief policymakers on any issue, without the need of a nonprofit organization as a go-between,” said Matt Jackson, department head of telecommunications at Pennsylvania State University. “If I were cynical, I would say this organization was created as a way to lobby on behalf of tech firms while appearing 'neutral' and therefore more credible than if the tech firms made similar policy arguments on their own.”
As for the group’s business model, like PFF, Szoka said TechFreedom will seek a wide variety of supporters, including companies that strongly disagree with each other on many issues but support the overall principle of a free market voice. He declined to go into further detail to disclose the group's funding sources.
Since the Microsoft antitrust case in 1998, the Internet and computer industry has more than tripled its lobbying efforts, spending $121.4 million in 2010 compared with $38.9 million in 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). What’s unique about this lobbying sector is the amount of change in its top spenders.
“You’re not going to see this type of churn in oil and gas, in manufacturing and agriculture,” said Dave Levinthal, communications director at CRP, referring to the high turnover rate in the tech sector. “Year after year, you see the same players [in those industries]. [In tech] there’s less of that.”
Levinthal points to Facebook as one example. In 2008, the company didn’t spend a dime lobbying but spent six-figure sums in 2010, according to CRP.
This might be the nature of fast growing companies: creating a government affairs presence upon expansion. But decades into the tech boom, staff at TechFreedom say traditional think tanks have yet to catch up with the changing “new economy,” providing an underutilized coverage area for the policy group.
“There are plenty that do technology work but they’re largely more on the regulatory side,” said Berkeley, California-based Larry Downes, senior adjunct fellow at TechFreedom and internet industry consultant.
Downes said he’s surprised traditional thinkers in this space haven’t made the transition to these new economic problems, especially as “they’re getting bigger and they’re so interesting and so complicated that you'd think that [issues surrounding technology companies] would be really attractive to them.”
As for what to expect coming down the pipeline for TechFreedom, the topics in the book it published will be the main guidebook for topics to tackle, which include Internet speech, censorship on the Internet, search engines and online transactions.
Four months since its commencement, lawyers in this arena say it is too early to gauge the effectiveness and success of this think tank yet but Szoka says he is satisfied with their “good start” thus far.