Information Technology and Innovation Foundation logoA new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) warns that scaremongering tactics from tech sector lobbying is preventing real dialogue on issue that matter to American consumers.

The report summarizes its findings as follows:

“The problem is not just that populist policies are wrong, but that populists’ use of fear, distrust, and confusion are detrimental to objective policy debates and undermine the public good.”


Putting forward the term “Techno Populism” – or tech populism – to describe this growing trend, the organization this week gathered together a group of experts from various disciplines to debate just how damaging the phenomenon could be.

The group included the ITIF’s president Robert D. Atkinson and moderator Grant Gross from the IDG News Service, joined by Larry Irving, Elliot Maxwell, and Bruce Mehlman. Between the five, the legal, technology, and policy perspectives were well represented. This made for an enlightening discussion, which you can watch in its entirety below, and provides a balanced backdrop for the concerns raised in the foundation’s report.

Scare Tactics

Scare Tactics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The principal concern  is that fact-based reporting and rational debate takes a back seat to unrealistic Doomsday scenarios, as appears to be the case in recent examples such as SOPA/PIPA and the recent surge of “public interest” in net neutrality.

While these subjects are undoubtedly important to both industry players and the consumers they serve, one side has been particularly skewed in the way it puts forward its argument, leading to unfounded outrage that distorts legislators and the policies that they craft.

Tech populism is a problem because it masquerades as grassroots action, but is really just tech lobby manipulation.

The big companies behind these movements – and the foundations they use to rally public opinion – are masters of manipulation. They know they have the technology  press in their pockets, eager as many outlets are to repackage a press release and call it news. They also know how easy it is to cast existing industry players as evil corporate entities, then play off that to position themselves as liberators.

Witness the aftermath of the Edward Snowden leaks for one such example, where major names in the tech sector that had once handed over our personal data to the NSA with little fuss, suddenly cried foul and called on the government to show more respect. Too little too late, in the cold light of day, but add a little spin and a short public memory and you have technology’s corporate giants established as champions of our individual rights.

Of course, lobbying is inherently biased and neither side sticks solely to the facts. But tech populism has taken things a step further.

Tech populism throws off the shackles of statistics and reasoned argument, preferring to resort to scare tactics and whipping up the kind of frenzied emotion we see so often and easily sparked online. From this base of outrage it allows the corporate money that feeds it to convince political leaders to pass legislation favorable to the tech sector, lest they offend the angry mob that results.

A fair and reasoned exchange of opinions, based on data and studies provided by both sides, is where lobbying should end and policy – making should begin. Twisting public emotion, and by extension public opinion, to sway legislators before those debates occur is  unacceptable.

But this is what we see happening on almost every issue that affects the tech sector, and why tech populism is the beginning of a trend that we should actively work to curb from U.S. politics.