A Dose of Reality at State of the Net

John Perrino / Mar 12, 2023

John Perrino is a policy analyst at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Amie Stepanovich interviews Travis LeBlanc at the State of the Net 2023. Photo by Internet Education Foundation/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The halls of a D.C. conference center two blocks from the White House were packed for the 19th annual State of the Net conference last week, with standing-room only sessions on content moderation, AI, and telecommunications policy.

Many of the top tech officials in the U.S. government took center stage, including keynotes by Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter, Assistant Secretary of Commerce Alan Davidson, FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington and Acting National Cyber Director Kemba Walden.

In his keynote remarks, Deputy Assistant to the President and Principal Deputy United States Chief Technology Officer Alexander Macgillivray described the gathering as “a collection of techie-legal-policy wonks all put together.”

While the halls were buzzing with excitement, on stage, there was a dose of reality, as speakers agreed that Congress is unlikely to act on many of the most pressing tech policy issues.

Many panels focused on either AI regulation or Section 230 and content moderation issues, along with a telecommunications track on how to deliver and make internet connections faster and available to more people. User safety, privacy, security and equitable access were overarching topics.

The tenor of State of the Net discussions reflected that internet policy is both at a crossroads and a standstill. In many ways, not much has changed over the course of nearly two decades of the conference — the U.S. still does not have a national privacy law, Section 230 has remained largely unchanged, and concerns about equitable internet access and spectrum bandwidth are still top of mind.

Online safety concerns have reached a similar fever pitch to the late 1990s. The Communications Decency Act passed in 1996, while the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act became law in 1998. More than two decades later, with the proliferation of social media and online video and gaming services, few government rules exist beyond those decades-old laws.

The complexity of internet policy and new technologies do not pair well with polarized politics. That leaves some of the largest companies in the world to set rules of the road for online life. It’s a frustrating dilemma, but it seems D.C. has come to terms with that reality.

R Street’s Adam Thierer, who said he has attended State of the Net since the first conference in 2004, summed up the challenge for governing internet technologies. “It’s so iterative that it’s kind of messy. It lacks precision,” said Thierer. “People want certainty and they want silver bullets… There is no moment where this is done, it’s just a constant, ongoing challenge… that is legitimately frustrating.”

Of course, the reality is that no change in public policy is better than the wrong change.

Challenges for internet access, online safety, and content moderation are rooted in thorny issues and will still be here in the coming decades. Incremental progress achieved through standards setting bodies, industry and the cross-sector development of best practices is not glamorous, but it should be applauded.

While principles for responsible design and cross-sector research, standard setting and the pursuit of best practices are not an end state, this collaboration is necessary for iterating with constantly changing technologies. It’s a necessary interlude to policy making, a responsibility that ultimately sits with Congress.

Perhaps one reason the conference continues to grow is that the implications of the discussions it hosts cut across every sector of the economy and public life. Today, “all policy is tech policy,” Deputy United States Chief Technology Officer Alexander Macgillivray said in his keynote remarks.

Coverage of the conference highlighted key points of discussion:

  • Panelists — including Mary Anne Franks, professor at the University of Miami School of Law; Alex Abdo, litigation director at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, NetChoice CEO Steve DelBianco; and Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel at Free Press — sparred over interpretations of Section 230 and the potential implications of the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzalez v. Googleand Twitter v. Taamneh.
  • Travis LeBlanc, a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), called on Congress to reform intelligence agency surveillance. PCLOB is tasked with oversight of privacy and surveillance in the government's counterterrorism efforts, including administration of FISA Section 702, which expire at the end of 2023, but are expected to be reauthorized. LeBlanc told the conference that the Board has written hundreds of pages of a report on the subject that should be released later this year.
  • White House Office of Science and Technology Policy official Alexander Macgillivray called for more AI expertise in government. “How we as a country establish strong boundaries for AI while pushing hard to realize its many promises is hugely important,” Macgillivray told the conference.
  • Jonathan Kanter, the Justice Department’s top official for antitrust issues, drew a comparison between the questionable business practices of big tech companies and those of the oil industry during the time of Standard Oil's dominance.
  • Acting National Cyber Director Kemba Walden discussed the Biden administration’s new National Cybersecurity Strategy. “It reflects every part of the cybersecurity community — large enterprises, not-for-profit, civil society, academia — it is a national cybersecurity strategy,” she told attendees.
  • National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Administrator Alan Davidson told the conference the tens of billions of dollars Congress dedicated to broadband network expansion last year finally offers a chance to address the digital divide. A panel on “Achieving Digital Equity” including Katie Spiker, National Skills Coalition’s managing director of government affairs; Deborah Lathen, president of Lathen Consulting LLC; and Annette Taylor, director of the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy for the North Carolina Department of Information Technology underscored the importance of getting the roll out of the funds right.

While change in tech policy may come more slowly than many at the conference might like, the State of the Net remains an important forum for D.C. to grapple with these issues. On to year twenty.


John Perrino
John Perrino is a policy analyst at the Stanford Internet Observatory where he translates research and builds policy engagement around online trust, safety and security issues.