At Saturday’s All Tech Is Human: San Francisco conference, Ethics In Tech founder Vahid Razavi and EIT board member and journalist Brett Wilkins sat down with Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) to discuss online privacy, net neutrality and the global climate protests — but not killer robots.

McNerney, a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, is also the co-chair of the House Artificial intelligence Caucus. The West Point graduate, who also earned a PhD in mathematics, was featured on a Tech and Policy panel at Saturday’s event. He is a co-sponsor of HR 1644, the Save the Internet Act of 2019, which would rescind the 2017 Federal Communications Commission order ending net neutrality and make the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order the law of the land.

Razavi: I saw you on the panel talking about privacy and AI; I wanted to ask about your stance on the issue of privacy. Google has our search history. Facebook has our data. There’s no one regulation that governs it. What are your thoughts on a Privacy Act or some other national solution to address the issue of privacy?

McNerney: People in this country are definitely concerned that they’ve lost control of their data. The question is, what do we do about it? California passed a pretty good law, CCPA — the California Consumer Protection Act — and I think that’s a pretty good start. That law will be improved over time, which is important. At the federal level, we have a responsibility as well. We want to make sure that all people in this country have some level of protection and we want to make sure there are guidelines to keep these companies from going off the rails, as we’ve seen with Cambridge Analytica-type scandals and the altered Pelosi video. We need to make sure there are rules these companies understand and can follow. The question is, where does federal law fit in with California law? I can’t come home and tell Californians that I’ve voted for something to make their data less safe. So I’d like to see California have some exemptions from whatever federal law [we’ll have], especially if the federal law is weaker than California law.

Razavi: One of the things Ethics In Tech is concerned with is the level of government access to private data. A lot of that data resides at third-party organizations, like contractors that work on behalf of government agencies. How do you secure that data? Are there any concerns that you have about the way in which data is being shared within government agencies or with government contractors?

McNerney: Data has risks. First of all, we need to make sure that data is secure. Data needs to be encrypted and stored in a safe place. We need to know who has access to the data, and there need to be rules on how data is shared. For example, the HIPAA laws protect people’s health information, and we need something akin to that with regard to all of our data. I share your concern. We don’t want third-party organizations out there with data in a way that they feel like that can share that data for profit.

Wilkins: [FCC] Commissioner [Jessica] Rosenworcel has said the FCC is on “the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the American public and the wrong side of the law” for rolling back net neutrality. You’re a co-sponsor of HR 1644, the Save the Internet Act of 2019. The bill has passed in the House but Senate Republicans and the Trump administration have said they will kill it. Net neutrality is overwhelmingly popular among the American people. Besides voting Republicans out of office, which isn’t going to happen everywhere, how can we the people help win back net neutrality protections? 

McNerney: Net neutrality was a rule that was created by the Federal Communications Commission under [former FCC] Chairman [Tom] Wheeler, and it was a good rule that protected [against] throttling, paid prioritization and blocking. It gave the Commission the authority to handle new cases that may not have been understood at the time. I think it was a good rule. I don’t understand why the new chairman [Ajit Pai] wanted to overturn that law. I’ve had conversations with him and I can’t really get why he wanted to do that. I protested very loudly, I had a town hall with [former FCC] Commissioner [Mignon] Clyburn at the time and I heard from thousands of my constituents — maybe 8,000 — in favor of net neutrality rules. So the public is squarely behind net neutrality rules and if we continue on this current path without net neutrality protections, what’s going to happen? Companies might block things that are against their interests but are in the public interest. They might favor companies that they want to do well and block or slow down data from companies they don’t like. So there’s a lot at stake here. You asked what we can do about it. Well, there’s a lot at stake here. We need to keep the pressure on. We need constituents to let their [members of Congress] know that this is important to them. If people are outspoken on this issue I think it will continue to make a difference and I think we have a chance to pass [HR 1644] in the next Congress.

Razavi: [Last weekend] millions of people went out on the streets and tech workers joined students protesting for climate action. What kind of message does that send to politicians in Washington, DC when you see millions of people in the streets fighting, as you have fought, for environmental protection?

McNerney: A little background — I spent my career developing wind energy technology because I know about the issues of climate, and I’ve known about them since I was in college back in the 1970s. After 9/11 we had a chance to curtail our oil interests and President George W. Bush did the opposite. [His administration’s policies] made sure we increased our fossil fuel usage. We’re in trouble now. We’re behind the eight ball. The climate is changing but it’s not just changing; there’s a latency in the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere. We’re just now starting to see the effects and those effects are going to grow over time unless we take extremely strong action. We need to almost eliminate carbon emissions by 2050. We need to mechanically remove carbon from the atmosphere and we need to think about how we can protect the climate in the long run. The lever has been pulled for carbon emissions every decade, every year. We need to figure out how to pull that lever back. We need to look at all possible tools, and there’s a real urgency to do that.

Razavi: One of the areas I’m really concerned about is our dependence on fossil fuels we use to maintain our technology infrastructure, like data centers and other facilities…

McNerney: (interrupts) I’ll tell you one thing — we shouldn’t be sending troops to Saudi Arabia. That’s the worst thing we could possibly do. We’re going to depend on fossils fuels for the next decade or two, but we need to make a transition. If you look at the transportation sector, there’s a pathway now. There are electric vehicles and they’re very efficient. We have renewable energy. And we have to go to nuclear power. These are things we’re going to have to do. We have agricultural practices that can suck carbon out of the air and sequester it in soil and make that soil more productive and better for water storage. So there are a number of things we can and must do if we want to survive these enormous impending changes.

Razavi: One last question from me, and it’s about AI and drone strikes. It seems like autonomous vehicles…

McNerney: I’m not going to answer that question. I’m not going there today.

Razavi: Autonomous vehicles we’re working on developing, do you think that autonomous vehicles or robots that have the ability to kill should be treated like land mines and should be banned, or is it something that…

McNerney: I’m not going to go there.

Please subscribe to receive the latest newsletter!
We respect your privacy.