It looks like Deval Patrick will get the opportunity to shape policy in Washington after all — at least when it comes to the future of technology.
The former governor has kept a relatively low profile since withdrawing from the presidential race in early 2020. But maybe not for much longer: The Massachusetts Democrat has taken on a new assignment to help the eventual winner of that race, President Biden.
Patrick is cochairing the new Future of Tech Commission, an effort to offer guidance and insight to the White House, Congress, and agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission on how technology should be reined in, moderated, or helped along. By the end of the summer, the commission’s three cochairs and their staff will make recommendations based on what they have learned.
The commission holds the first of at least 10 “town hall” meetings next Tuesday. These events will be virtual, at least for now. The hope is to spark debate among experts — Tuesday’s panel will feature two from Harvard, and one from MIT — and solicit input from the public. (Registration is available at futureoftechcommission.org.)
The role of technology in everyday lives became more pronounced than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. Digitalization trends accelerated: online shopping, remote work, hybrid classrooms, telemedicine. But Patrick worries this increasingly essential tool isn’t available to everyone, and that it’s not used responsibly by everyone.
Those concerns are reflected in two of his personal priorities with this commission. One is universal, affordable broadband. Biden has already embraced this goal, but pulling it off is another story entirely. Patrick knows the challenges firsthand through his work as governor to deploy federal stimulus funds to expand high-speed Internet in rural parts of western Massachusetts.
Patrick, who recently returned to Bain Capital as a senior adviser, also feels strongly about addressing the spread of misinformation. He’s deeply concerned by how social media can amplify bogus rumors and enable social division to be used as a political tool.
Those discussions will likely overlap with questions about the concentrated power of Big Tech: the likes of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google. Just how much market power should these goliaths be allowed to have, and what are the repercussions?
Cochair Jim Steyer, chief executive of the nonprofit Common Sense Media, said the commission is approaching this endeavor with an open mind, regardless of the stances that Biden has taken. (The president, for example, has said he wants to revoke the “Section 230” rule that provides a liability shield to social media companies for comments made on their sites.)
Steyer said the commission will stress bipartisanship, as a way to develop practical legislation that can be embraced by a divided Congress. It is one reason former education secretary Margaret Spellings, a Republican, is also a cochair. Steyer worked with Spellings on a similar effort about seven years ago that expanded broadband access in schools. This new initiative, Steyer said, could lead to the most sweeping technology reforms since the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The emphasis on bipartisanship means it’s no accident that the state’s most prominent Republican, Governor Charlie Baker, and one of its most prominent Democrats, Senator Ed Markey, will kick off the event on Tuesday. (Markey will likely touch on several of his tech-related priorities in Congress such as a bipartisan bill he filed a few days ago to protect kids online.)
The town halls represent just one part of the commission’s fact-finding efforts. Staff members and cochairs are also meeting with top executives at tech companies, big and small, not to mention the various watchdog groups that aim to keep the industry in check.
Patrick is quite familiar with the power available to the executive branch of government, as well as the limitations. But he also is well aware that you don’t need to be in government to influence change in a meaningful way.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.