Politically, America’s tech sector faces a landscape as embattled as the second Punic war. This much seems indisputable, given the regular accusations of political bias that the Snowflake Barons of Silicon Valley face on a regular basis, not to mention the bipartisan complaints about anti-market practices used by giants such as Facebook and Google.
This is a good thing: such self-appointed rulers of our minds need badly to be checked by the court of public opinion, and arguably by courts of law as well. However, theirs is not the only means by which the tech sector is seeking to monopolize America’s public infrastructure for itself. Another species of insidious tech sector dominance has become fashionable, particularly in Washington. In this new domineering approach, the goal has ceased to be control over the American people, and instead has become control over the American government’s critical infrastructure. If the leaders of Google and Facebook can be described as Snowflake Barons for their out of touch, quasi-totalitarian desire to police the thoughts of their consumers, then this group should be labeled the Swamp Techies, for their willingness to leverage political connections into unquestioned domination over public resources.
Their targets so far have been ambitious: in one case, America’s Global Positioning Systems (GPS) infrastructure. In the other, the data and secrets underlying America’s critical defense capabilities.
Begin with GPS. Recently, in the Hill, a piece emerged coauthored by none other than Bradford Parkinson, the man responsible for pioneering the concept of GPS. Parkinson, along with his coauthors — former Wyoming governor James Geringer, and retired Coast Guard admiral Thad Allen — warn against the push by a company known as Ligado Networks to commandeer key resources needed to facilitate basic functionality by GPS devices. If Ligado got its way, they warn, users of GPS technology could see their signals degraded, and the accuracy of their devices compromised, all so that Ligado can make a quick buck:
A U.S. satellite communications company called Ligado Networks is seeking FCC approval to transmit at frequencies near those used by GPS to become a national communications provider like Verizon or AT&T. Ligado would deploy as many as 40,000 towers across the United States and transmit a signal over a billion times more powerful than the GPS signal. If the FCC approves the Ligado application, the value of the company’s spectrum alone could increase by $10B or more.
The cost to America, though, could be staggering.
Multiple recent government studies have shown that such transmissions would severely impact many GPS users up to several miles from each tower. Much like driving past a powerful radio station’s antenna in your car and getting static on the radio, Ligado’s high-power signals would bleed over and disrupt GPS receivers, sometimes within miles of their antennas.
This is not the first time the people behind Ligado have attempted this. Years ago, they attempted similarly damaging actions while running a company called LightSquared — a company that was shut down and attacked by numerous lawsuits for the fundamental unworkability and danger of its business model. This happened in spite of the fact that the Obama administration went out of their way to try to shield LightSquared and propagandize on its behalf, due to the closeness of its founders with the Obama political operation. And, even though the Trump FCC, under the leadership of Ajit Pai, will likely be far less charitable to this power grab, the fact remains that whatever they call themselves, the Swamp Techies involved will likely not give up on their dubious and dangerous project, no matter how often it is repudiated.
Besides this already alarming project, the Swamp Techies have an even more alarming goal: the monopolization of the Defense Department’s critical secrets and data. This push, spearheaded both inside and outside the Defense Department, aims to transfer all the aforementioned secrets and data off of the multiple Cloud computing platforms on which they reside onto a single platform, run by a single company: in this case, Amazon. The ostensible justification for this move is that it enables information sharing more easily, and makes the distribution of data more efficient within the DOD.
This is dubious, but what is not dubious are the many, many downsides to the scheme: not least of all, the fact that putting all of America’s sensitive data on a single company’s servers makes it far easier to hack that data by simply hacking one company, rather than several. Moreover, conferring a monopoly of this size on one company would effectively kill competition within America’s cloud computing sector. Given that competition is the lifeblood of innovation, this is highly concerning. Cybersecurity threats are constantly evolving, after all: to get rid of the most reliable mechanism for innovating in response to them would be shortsighted at best. And, of course, there is the small problem that Amazon’s leader, Jeff Bezos, is deeply hostile to the President of the United States, at whose pleasure the Defense Department serves.
But, of course, those pushing this imprudent move in the private sector hardly care about such questions as maintaining the public trust or the security of American resources. For them, the prospect of hundreds of billions of dollars in guaranteed government subsidies, as well as a natural monopoly, and the extreme degree of unilateral power this would give them, is too much to pass up. Small wonder that many of those pushing this scheme within the DoD have a track record of public pro-Amazon partisanship despite their ostensible objectivity. Here, too, the Swamp Techies seek to seize as much control as possible under the cover of darkness.
Those of us who seek a more accountable, more honest, more competitive tech sector should not let them get away with this. And, while I speak as a longtime defender of the current administration, this is not a partisan point. America’s government is not something that should be administered or puppeteered by an unaccountable tech cabal, no matter how agreeable we may or may not find their politics. Our ability to not merely govern ourselves, but to live our lives in concert with technology, could be threatened by permitting initiatives like these to succeed. Those interested in not merely an accountable government, but an accountable tech sector, must rally themselves and resist the Swamp Techies, not as a way of frustrating technological advancement, but as a means of ensuring its capacity to proceed once Ligado and Amazon pass out of memory.