As the United States continues to transition to a knowledge economy, entire regions are being left behind due to the automation of jobs, lack of computers and high-speed internet, and the impossibility for many employees to work from home. Panelists discuss the digital divide, why it poses a problem to U.S. economic strength and competitiveness, and possible solutions for bridging the digital gap.
With its Renewing America initiative, CFR is evaluating nine critical domestic issues that shape the ability of the United States to navigate a demanding, competitive, and dangerous world.
FEIST: Hi, everybody. Hello to those of you who are here in the room. It’s great to see—it’s great to see folks in person. And to those of you who are joining us virtually, welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on “The U.S. Digital Divide.” Today’s meeting is part of the CFR’s Renewing America series, an initiative evaluating nine critical domestic issues that shape the ability of the United States to navigate a demanding, competitive, and dangerous world.
My name is Sam Feist. I’m the Washington bureau chief for CNN and member of the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m joined here at the Council by Congressman Ro Khanna, Democrat of California. Perhaps appropriate for this event, he is—represents Silicon Valley. Also joined by Congresswoman Nancy Mace, Republican of South Carolina. In 1999, she became the first female graduate of The Citadel. Last year Congresswoman Mace and Congressman Khanna cosponsored the Rotational Cyber Workforce Program Act to assist the federal government in recruiting top cybersecurity talent. And so they have worked together on issues relating to the digital divide already. Joining us remotely, using some of the very technology that we’ll be talking about today, is Danielle Citron. Ms. Citron is a professor of law at the University of Virginia, where she writes and teaches about privacy, free expression, and civil rights, and is an expert on the intersection of the law and cyberspace.
So I’m going to moderate a conversation with our three panelists for about a half an hour, and then take some questions from here in the room, and also from those of you joining us remotely. But as we are here at the Council on Foreign Relations, and as we have what seems like a full-fledged war underway on the European continent, before we get to our planned topic, it would be remiss if I didn’t at least ask our members of Congress here about the reaction to the situation in Ukraine, and their thoughts as we—as the Russian attack enters day five. Congressman.
KHANNA: Well, thank you, Sam, for having us. Thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you to Representative Nancy Mace for her partnership, and being here, and to Professor Citron, who I admire her scholarship.
We start with a very basic premise: Putin’s invasion is immoral, it’s illegal, it’s unconscionable. It’s having real consequences, when you see some of the stories of young children who are having to abandon their parents. When you see—I saw this morning a mother who was fleeing Ukraine having to say bye to her son, who she knew was going to have to fight. And then you look at the resolve of the Ukrainian people, and it’s inspiring. We were in Munich with Speaker Pelosi about—a few days ago. And we met the mayor of Kyiv—6’7”, a boxer. He said he’s going to fight for his country. I mean, it’s been remarkable. I think this president has unified NATO. He’s unified a lot of the world. I wish that China and India had the guts to condemn Putin’s aggression, but the president has unified NATO, he’s unified our—many of our allies. And we’re going to have crippling sanctions. And I think he’s taking exactly the right approach.
MACE: And I will piggyback off. First, Ro, I want to say thank you for doing this together and, Sam, for having us both on. I think it’s very rare in politics today when you see both sides of the aisle coming together. And I think Ukraine is an example of that right now, where there’s been much division. It’s heartbreaking to watch some of the stories that I’ve seen. As much as I hate social media and I think it’s the cause of the lack of civility in our country today, because we have social media we’re all watching this unfold in Ukraine, and watching the heroism of President Zelenskyy, of the mayor that Ro just mentioned, of the people who are fighting for their freedom, fighting for democracy, fighting for their kids’ future. It’s awe-inspiring for the rest of the world. And I think the ability to see all this in real time, I think over the coming days and weeks will bring us closer together.
And it’s my hope tomorrow night when we see President Biden’s state of the union that we’ll see some of that, and what we can do for our—not only our allies in the world, but our partners and our friends who are fighting for the same ideals that we have here. And it’s heartbreaking, but it was—I think and too seeing everything unfold in real time has prompted the world, I believe, to act much faster than it would otherwise have. And I think, from that side of things, it’s been a very good thing. And I hope and pray that we can save the Ukrainian people and get them what they need to survive this godawful attack. Putin is a terrorist. We all know this. And I hope that in the U.N.—I hope that they’ll try him for war crimes, and those that are aiding and abetting him today.
FEIST: Thank you. Thank you both for that. So now we’re going to take the sharpest of sharp turns from war in Europe to the digital divide here in the United States. So let’s just start on a broad sense, Congressman, if you wouldn’t mind kicking it off. Talk a little bit about the digital divide here in the United States, and what you view as the biggest cause and, from your perspective, the best solution.
KHANNA: Well, my district is an example. And we have Apple, Google, Intel, Yahoo, Cisco, LinkedIn, Tesla, all in my district. In our surrounding areas there’s $11 trillion of market value. To put that in perspective, in GDP—and market value isn’t equivalent—but the entire Russian GDP is 1.6 trillion (dollars). We’ve got $11 trillion of market value in my district and the surrounding areas. Young people in my district are very, very optimistic about America, according to polling. They think the world is their oyster.
And yet, the reality is that so many communities across America do not have the same sense of economic opportunity. They’ve seen jobs go offshore. They’ve seen communities hollowed out. They’ve seen a brain drain. Some people talked about a one-way ticket out of their communities for their kids. And people don’t want to move. And so my view is that we haven’t done a good enough job giving people an opportunity for good jobs in a modern economy near the communities they live in. And this is something that we can address. We ought to be having public-private partnerships with land-grant universities, with HBCUs. We ought to be much more deliberate in these 25 million digital jobs that will exist by 2025 in having them distributed across the country.
FEIST: So, Congresswoman, let’s talk a little bit about the solution. In the last big economic crisis, we spent billions and billions of dollars on—investing in broadband. It also is now part of the latest infrastructure investment. Do you see this as a—do you see the solution mostly in the private sector, mostly in government? The congressman mentioned partnership. Where do you see the solution?
MACE: I think it’s all—I think it’s all of the above. And I don’t have the—(laughs)—I’m good, but not quite exactly as Congressman Khanna has. And so I have some little parts of my district. And when look at the digital divide, it used to be when you had a telephone line, and who didn’t. Who had one and who did not? Who had internet and then who did not have internet? And we’re seeing that same with broadband and internet. And it was really telling to me when COVID-19 happened, and I was a state lawmaker and we had issues with 5G and getting broadband in rural areas before I came to Congress.
But when we—when COVID-19 started, and I saw that in South Carolina we to put Wi-Fi on buses and put them in rural parts of the state, because there were kids that didn’t have internet. I struggled enough getting my kids who had internet to do the work, but there were kids that had no access at all. And so even just a few weeks ago my kids finally got out of virtual school and were back in person because of Omicron. But and I know how hard it’s been for us, and when we have virtual school how far behind my kids get. For every week it's like a month behind that we have to then catch up. I cannot imagine the families that don’t even have access to the internet and how far behind their kids are.
And it is a rich and poor, Black and White issue in the state of South Carolina. And I’ve seen that up close and personal. And so public-private partnerships, ensuring that the funding is used efficiently. I know in the state of South Carolina, for instance, we’re, like, 24th in spending in education, but we’re last in outcomes. So half the country spends more, half the country spends less. But our outcomes are far worse, because, I believe, we’re not investing our resources adequately. The investing in broadband into rural areas is definitely a great first step. Community block granting is another way that it can be addressed.
But, you know, seeing the—part of it’s education because part of it—equality. Everyone—we want everyone to be able to be treated equally, but the equity side of it, no one talks about that. Being able to have internet allows you to have the same kind of equity as someone who has it to get the right kind of training. Having iPads in school, having digital devices, you know, all of that access plays into the equity that oftentimes in rural areas or, you know, impoverished areas, they just don’t have. And so that’s all got to be part of the conversation, is having equity in that in terms of kids getting access to internet, for example. As one example.
FEIST: Let’s bring in our third panelist, professor out of the University of Virginia Danielle Citron. Let’s talk—let’s pick up where Congresswoman Mace left off on the impact from the pandemic. Talk a little bit about how the pandemic exacerbated the digital divide, how working from home, schooling from home was both made possible for many Americans, and at the same time it left a lot more behind.
CITRON: So thank you so much for having me. And it’s really wonderful to see the—Congressman Khanna, who I talked to when he was writing his book, and just to have both of you just to participate. So what I want to focus on is, you know, we sort of left our—we started to talk about the digital divide in education when COVID-19 hit. And I’ve been writing about online abuse and cyberstalking, invasions of intimate privacy. And when we sort of all took shelter, so to speak, when COVID hit, you know, we turned our workplaces into the computers in front of our screens.
And we’ve long known that, of course, for so many careers you have to be online, right, to participate, to be noticed. I feel like, Sam, you would say, of course, with journalism that if you don’t have a Twitter account, you’re almost, like, sort of not part of the conversation. And what cyberstalking does, and has long done, is often what we see are women—gender and sexual minorities and non-Whites more often targeted for abuse that is a combination of often privacy invasions and often the posting of people’s nude photos without their permission threats, or death and rape threats, defamation. So, you know, impersonating someone and suggesting that they’re available for sex and providing their home details.
And it’s that sort of online abuse that preceded COVID, right, that pushes people offline. It makes it impossible to get and keep a job and, frankly, to have a sensing that you are feeling safe at all, right? But when COVID hit, and we were forced all to be in our homes, intimate privacy violations—I’m the vice president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. And we found that intimate privacy violations—or the posting of nude photos without consent, hacking into people’s computers, secreting taping them and then sharing that, telling them that you have nude photos of them and then extorting more—those incidents went up over 200 percent.
So in the first six months of COVID, you know, as we’re stuck in front of our computers, more time on our hands to torment people and to hack into their computers, because we were doing everything in front of our home computers, right? And those cameras that are—I’m looking at my computer right now at work, right—capturing so much of what we do. We saw not—the kinds of effects of digital divide that I was thinking of when we first started talking about this panel was very much that we have these tools, but what happens is we marginalize people, mostly women and minorities, from using those tools, taking full advantage of them in their careers, to be able to get and keep a job—you know, Google is our C.V.—in ways that make it difficult—even more difficult. We talked about the class problem. Layer on that, you know, your gender, your sexuality, and minority status being targeted for online abuse that silences you and makes it impossible to get and keep a job. Even more so in the COVID era, we saw those abuses escalate.
FEIST: So, Professor, paradoxically, are you suggesting because we all—or, so much of America was trapped in our homes with our computers for upwards of a year and a half, two years—is there a silver lining in the pandemic, in that people either got more comfortable with the technology, got more comfortable with the risks that they were facing? Or do you see the pandemic as actually all bad on this front?
CITRON: Well, right, on the one hand, of course, we came to understand that networked tools are indispensable. Like, no longer could we trivialize online abuse and say, I think, just close your computer, you know, boys will be boys, no big deal. We live on these things, right? And so on the one hand I think that’s right, there is at least some education about how important these tools are. But there’s the downside, right? That is we saw incidents of sextortion, nonconsensual pornography, video voyeurism escalate not only in the United States but across the globe. South Africa, you know, Japan, South Korea, other countries saw it as well as we saw in the United States escalation of abuses of those technologies to torment, harass, stalk and to violate intimate privacy. So I think so many—it’s so true of so many technologies that it’s a double-edged sword.
FEIST: I want to talk about security and abuse of the technologies in a moment. But what the professor mentioned about everybody working at home made me think of, I’ll call it a character, but a person that you told us about in your recent book. His name is Alex Hughes. He’s from Kentucky, from a coal mining town. And he had very few technical skills. And all of a sudden, and I’m going to let you tell the story, today he’s now making upwards of $40 an hour as a software engineer. And so he may be the kind of person that I’m referring to, that is actually now benefitting from our networked country. But tell me a little bit about Alex Hughes and how we get more of them.
KHANNA: He is. I mean, he’s someone in Hal Rogers’ district. Hal Rogers calls that area silicon holler. And here’s the thing with Alex Hughes. It’s not that he’s a software coder for Facebook or Google. He’s making refrigerators and he’s making dishwashers. And he says, this is stuff I’ve known how to do—my family has known how to fix things. But now I have the basic technical skills to make them smart dishwashers and smart appliances. And I think this is so important about these digital jobs, these 25 million digital jobs. These are going to be the manufacturing jobs, the retail jobs, the health care jobs. This is not saying let’s turn coal miners into coders, which is appropriately mocked. This is saying let’s give people the technology, skills to have the new manufacturing jobs, the new retail jobs. And let’s see how we can do these in distributed teams.
So Alex Hughes is working with an Indian American who is the head of Interapt, and he’s working with African Americans in Atlanta, and folks in rural America. And you have all these people together on a project that is empowering more people for prosperity, and he doesn’t have to leave the place he loves. He has no interest in moving to Silicon Valley. He loves Kentucky and he loves his family there.
FEIST: So he’s doing a high tech job from rural south—excuse me—rural Kentucky?
KHANNA: Rural Kentucky in manufacturing. Now, one thing I think, to Professor Citron’s point, is it’s so important that these platforms, whether economic or whether in the workplace or whether in the public space, have basic equality. And one of the things, you know, the tech CEOs in my districts hide behind this idea of First Amendment marketplace of ideas. The marketplace of ideas presupposes inequality to participate. It presupposes that people have basic dignity. And so if you have either workplaces, online workplaces or online public spheres, excluding people because of their gender, because of their race, because of their sexuality, then that’s not censorship of viewpoint. That is excluding people as equals in either the workplace or public sphere. And we do need better thinking—and I know Professor Citron’s written extensively on it—on that issue.
FEIST: Congresswoman, how do we—we have over the last fifteen, twenty years seen lots of software jobs, high-tech jobs offshored because of two problems—two major problems. And you can add to the list. One, we didn’t have enough capable Americans coming out of school with the right background, the right technical training either because schools or companies didn’t give them to them, or they weren’t interested in it. And you can have software coders in India a lot less expensive than you can have in the United States. So how do we create more Alex Hugheses? How do we create an environment so that more young Americans, or older Americans if they seeking to be retrained, join that workforce, even from home? Even from eastern South Carolina?
MACE: Yeah. And that’s still an issue today, because we are so far behind. And we see some of our adversaries, like China, are so much further advanced than us. One example is when I was in college, I actually taught myself to code. HTML, but I would eventually get a job in the private sector with a company—a technology company and learn COBOL, C++, SQL, PHP. I had no idea these languages existed, and then all of a sudden I was learning them, because I didn’t learn it in college. But we’re seeing some folks in the private sector—for instance, Google announced last year that they are going to invest significant resources to create and find people that they can train for the future for technology. I’m seeing it in my district, you know, that my own alma mater, The Citadel, is investing in cybersecurity.
And they’ve gotten private investment as well to help stand up that program. I’m seeing it with our chambers of commerce, where they’re looking at community block granting or grant funding and trying to stand up cybersecurity hubs or any kind of technology hubs to have the workforce. And they’re actually, in this particular chamber, the Beaufort chamber, they’re focusing on veterans, right, who have now retired, and they try to train them. But one of the other things that we can do that I have noticed, and I have been, you know, bitching about this for thirty years probably, is the vocational side of this. So, you know, if you’re in middle school and your guidance counselor isn’t educated on what you can do when you graduate with a high school degree or two-year degree, let alone a four-year degree, there is opportunity. You don’t have—to be a coder or to be a network engineer, you don’t have to have a four-year degree. You can graduate.
And I have a friend of my family, he’s got a nineteen just turned twenty-year-old son who owns his own home now. And he’s a development engineer making 90K a year at twenty years old, doesn’t have a college degree, is not going to college. So guidance counselors at the middle school level, they’re really, you know, telling the families and the students what the opportunities are. And then, you know, if you don’t have the basic, you know, reading and writing and math by the time you get to high school, you won’t be ready for those jobs when you graduate high school. And so I think too, obviously, our education system, our public school system and educating students and their parents and their families on what the opportunities are in this space, and what degrees or certificates, or not, that you need to do a certain type of job.
And I know I’ve had these conversations with my own kids now, one in middle school and one in high school, but a lot of families just don’t know. And they don’t know what kind of things they need to study, and how to pay attention and know the basis to be able—the rudimentary things—to get some of those jobs when they get out of high school. Because they’re there. The opportunity is there. But most people just—a lot of folks just don’t know. And it’s just a matter of educating even our high school counselors, our middle school guidance counselors in schools, and understanding that you don’t have to have that degree. There are vocational opportunities. And they pay well. They pay really, really well.
FEIST: Professor Citron, tell me if this is—if this is far afield of your expertise, but whether it’s China, whether it’s South Korea, whether it’s India, they are turning out software engineers. They are—they are—from the very—it seems from the very beginning sending their kids on a path to be ready for the 21st century economy. And it feels like we are not in nearly the same way. We have—you know, are we graduating too many liberal arts majors in our elite universities? Or why are we not still in 2022 sending enough of our young people along these paths that are the key—that are a key, if not the key, to success in the 21st century?
CITRON: Well, to be sure, there’s an inequality story here as well. We know that in Silicon Valley—and this—Congressman Khanna can correct me if I’m wrong. But the majority of folks involved in the—you know, on the engineer side, the venture capitalists, the companies that—the folks in charge, and even the folks building services and tools are mostly male. And they’re mostly White and Asian men. And so, you know, women are just cut out of the story. And same is true for, you know, Black Americans and Hispanic Americans, or Latinx Americans. And so, you know, there is—there is a part of this that, you know, who is—Emily Chang wrote a book called Brotopia, right, that is, you know, who is involved and who is included. It often excludes women and minorities. And so we’ve got to do better there too. It’s not only Silicon Valley, but it’s a whole lot—(laughs)—right, of our tech sector is located there.
FEIST: But is it the system? Meaning, is the system giving men or White men advantages that aren’t available to people of color or women? Or is—are we, as a society, not encouraging younger people across the board, diverse backgrounds, men and women, to go into these fields? What’s causing the gap? You would think that the market would adjust for that, and that whether it’s via salaries or opportunities, that this would be self-correcting. But it’s not.
KHANNA: Well, it’s both. Because the studies show that at a young age African Americans, Latino Americans and women actually have a higher interest in computer science, up to about twelve or thirteen, than boys or than people who are Caucasian. And then something happens, you know, a whole host of a complex factors of why Silicon Valley needs to do better in being more inclusive. I mean, it’s just true that it hasn’t been inclusive enough. But it hasn’t been inclusive enough not just in terms of race and gender, but also in terms of geography and in terms of rural communities, and in terms of the heartland. The way I look at it, if China’s four times as big, we have to be four times as productive. And we don’t have a person or community to write off.
One of the things—I agreed with a fair amount of what Representative Mace said. I don’t want to hurt you in your district so I’m being careful how much—(laughter)—to agree with you here.
FEIST: Don’t be too nice.
MACE: We’ve never argued before, we so we’re good. (Laughter.)
KHANNA: But the point—
FEIST: She couldn’t come from a more red district, a more blue district, but OK.
MACE: I’m purple, but yeah.
KHANNA: But the point is that some of the training and the vocational training of others, it hasn’t led to a job. And so a lot of people, they come and they say, OK, you’re telling us, get a training, get some degree, there’s no job at the end of it. And we have to be much more intentional. It may not be a four-year degree. It may not be even a two-year degree. But it’s got to be something in collaboration with the private sector that’s actually going to lead to employment. Otherwise, you’re setting people up for disappointment. And I think we can do this. And I said, if the president were to announce a goal at the State of the Union we’re going to have a million digital jobs in rural America, a million digital jobs in Black and brown communities, and I’m just going to convene people, the CEOs and educational leaders to do it, I think we could make a lot of progress.
FEIST: I’ll speak to my own personal experience. I have a daughter who’s in college. She’s a computer science major. Her classes are two-to-one male, but the job market is desperate for females because they’re trying to balance out their workforce. So it’s—at the end of the day there are opportunities for women, but it does seem to be—there does seem to be a gap somewhere from the beginning of high school into college of getting women interested in it. So.
MACE: No, for sure. I mean, I taught myself to code. (Laughs.) You know, it just kind of fell in my lap, so.
FEIST: Any big companies out there watching, if you need a coder or two—
MACE: I’m not as good—don’t ask me to do it anymore. I can’t do it.
KHANNA: But it’s—you know, it’s a huge issue. It’s an issue, of course, on the recruiting, but then it’s also an issue of when they get to these companies the retention. Are they going to be promoted? Are they going to be in leadership? Are they going to get funded if they have a new company? So it’s not enough to just say, OK, we’re going to get you an entry-level job. Why is it that—the amount of funding, I think I read—and I cite this statistic in the book—but women entrepreneurs, and Latino women entrepreneurs, it’s less than 0.5 percent of the entire venture capital funding.
And here’s why people should care. Even if you don’t care about the technology, all of the wealth gains in the stock market in the last ten years has been driven by tech. Most of the huge wealth generation is being driven by tech. Nine of the ten richest countries—wealthiest companies are tech companies. Most of the billionaires are tech entrepreneurs. You’re not going to solve the racial wealth gap in this country if you don’t solve the racial wealth generation gap. And if you have entire communities or gender excluded from the modern architecture, the modern economy, or entire communities excluded, that is a huge problem. And that’s what we have today in many ways.
FEIST: I want to talk briefly before we start to take some questions about a different digital divide. And that’s—I’ll call it the security gap. Even as we are here talking about Ukraine, we know that Russia has capabilities that we—that there’s concern might be unleashed even on the United States during this conflict, and that there is a gap between the ability of the United States, both individuals, companies, and government, to protect ourselves from mischief makers, and the capabilities of the mischief makers. So I just want to talk about that. As I said, it’s a different kind of digital divide. But is the United States government, is the United States Congress taking this seriously enough? How vulnerable would you say we, as a both country and also individuals, in this society?
MACE: Well, we are very vulnerable. And we saw—one of the reasons Ro and I worked together on our first bill, the cyber rotational workforce bill last year that passed, I guess, in the summer of last year, you know, there were eleven federal agencies that were hacked in 2020 by Chinese or Russian-aligned individuals or hackers. It is a problem. Not only is it a problem at the federal government, but also state and local governments. You read stories all the time of them being hacked. But then also in the private sector. Last summer, we had Colonial Pipeline in the southeast. They were hacked. And it affected, you know, gas prices. They spiked for a period of time, for several weeks. We’re looking at our electrical grid. I mean, we have issues I believe, you know, all across the board, which is why, you know, cyber is the next—
FEIST: And at the individual level—
MACE: The individual level as well, right.
FEIST: As Professor Citron mentioned, whether it’s identity theft or hacking into your computers that can affect us as individuals.
MACE: Yeah. And one of the statistics I’ve read recently, like, 40 percent of all Americans don’t know what phishing scam is, right? And so this is deeply concerning. But, you know, we are so far behind. And I don’t want to hit the panic button, right, but we’ve got a lot of issues we’ve had to address this year, and now we’re all on Ukraine and Russia, but is cyber the next war front with Russia and of this Ukraine issue? What’s going to happen next with either, you know, banking software, financial software pipelines, you know, the gird, you name it. They’re all vulnerable. And it’s not just us. It’s our allies around the world. I mean, everyone’s got to work faster and harder because you’ve got China and Russia on our heels. I don’t know if you’d agree.
KHANNA: I agree completely. I mean, we need a Manhattan Project on cybersecurity. I think when it comes to our most sensitive weapons, I have confidence that the Pentagon has made great strides in protecting that and protecting some of the most sensitive nuclear secrets and things in laboratories. But my concern is, what about all the general infrastructure, the critical infrastructure? What about private companies? What about CNN? What about NBC? What about—there are a lot of vulnerable targets other than just the Pentagon that could cause extraordinary damage to American society. And I don’t think we’re nearly where we need to be in the protection of all of the infrastructure and private businesses. And we’re not nearly where we need to be in terms of the digital literacy of being aware of these attacks as individuals, as Professor Citron talked about, the identity theft and all of the terrible things that people can do online through hacking.
MACE: And the other thing I’m going to add to that too is in the private sector, you know, sometimes there’s this issue at the state level or the federal level, you get hacked, you then need to spend millions of dollars on attorneys, and then you’re getting fined by the government, so that takes away resources from the company to try to beef up their security. Some of the policy needs to—I think we need to rethink some of our policy to ensure that companies have the resources to be more secure and have the knowledge and expertise to protect themselves and their customers and individuals across the board.
FEIST: Professor, just on this subject, take this down to the individual level. Congresswoman Mace said not quite ready to push the panic button, or maybe you are ready.
MACE: I’m close. I’m close. I’m really close.
FEIST: But individuals, the reasons that people’s computer cameras pop on, or because—or they—phishing expeditions will have them pull money out of their bank account, or they lose their identities because individuals in this country are also not careful. Maybe that’s because of the digital divide. Maybe it’s because we don’t talk about it enough. What do you see as the problem and solution there?
CITRON: We certainly have—play a role in our own insecurity. I always say when I give talks that we’re kind of the bug in the code. You know, we are our own worst enemy in many respects. But, you know, when we’re talking about impersonations and cyberstalking, intimate privacy violations, there’s really nothing victims can do. So it’s—I think the way we often trivialize, you know, nonconsensual pornography or other forms of identity theft and say, like, oh you did something wrong, to the victim, right? You shouldn’t have shared those nude photos. You know, what do you say to someone, like, you can’t exist in the 21st century, right? That we want to shut down sexual expression? You shop online, you are vulnerable to identity theft, right?
So I think, to be clear, there’s only so much individuals can do. But you’re right that we are foolish. We are—right, we click when we shouldn’t click. We don’t think. And that’s true of whether we’re speaking online or opening documents, right? And so I do think, as the Congresswoman was suggesting, in emphasizing education, right? That we need to educate each and every one of us. And it’s not just young people, but it’s—like, wish—one of my students once said, we should have a—need a license to use the internet. (Laughs.) And I thought that was hilarious, but, like, I laughed knowingly thinking that’s not a bad idea. (Laughs.) And so we can’t quite do that, but it certainly—we need to work more on education, certainly.
FEIST: So now I’d like to take an opportunity—give you an opportunity to ask questions, both here in the room and those of you joining virtually. If you have a question raise your hand, stand up, the microphone will come over to you. And then identify yourself and your organization, and you can ask your question. Yes, ma’am, we’ll get to you first.
Q: Thank you all for being here. My name is Joy Basu. I’m a White House fellow placed at the Department of Justice. Can you hear me through this mask?
Q: OK. (Laughs.) I will try to enunciate.
But both of you, Representative Mace and Representative Khanna, talked about the fact that you’re on the stage together. In so many ways, the digital divide is emblematic of other divides in our country, real and perceived. And I’m curious if you could talk about the way that our own disunity and polarization is subject to disinformation and therefore a national security risk, and the ways in which, you know, our adversaries—Russia, China—prey upon those divides to create havoc, whether that’s on our soil or in cybersecurity, and what people like you can do to help heal that not only for the sake of our own kind of civility, but also for our national security. Thank you.
KHANNA: Well, I think you raise a very important point. And the discord, the polarization of American political life is a huge vulnerability. And it’s a polarization that has led to alternative views of reality. I think Representative Mace and I are an example of people who really disagree on core issues. I am for Medicare for all, she is not. I am for free public college. I’m sure she is not. But when it comes to our conversations, we speak with respect, we speak with an understanding of trying to see where each of us are coming on with the facts and where we’re coming on in seeking common ground. We may have common ground on jobs.
And so I don’t have a Pollyannaish view of Congress. I don’t expect that Representative Mace and I have to vote on the same issues. We can vote and disagree on 80-90 percent. My problem is that we have lost the sense of basic respect. We have a view of—the first instinct is to attack the other person, to not see that maybe they’re coming from an alternative perspective based on their upbringing, their community, and to try to empathize and understand and find common ground. And that’s I think what we need more of in this country to unify the nation.
MACE: And I would agree. And I would say if I could get everybody off of social media for twenty-four hours, I think it would do a lot of good. Because it’s just emboldened people to be really nasty. And I live in a purple district. I represent—I got, you know, both sides almost equally. I won my seat by one point. And, you know, I see it from the far right and the far left. And I see disinformation on both sides. And, you know, and so when the government’s wrong on an issue, like we’ve been up and down and back and forth on COVID-19, you know, that just sows distrust, right? And so there’s a gap in the—I believe largely because of social media and what’s going on digitally—has helped create this gap, has helped create this division, has helped create this hatred.
And I’ve had my house spraypainted. I’ve had my car keyed. I have ten cameras inside and outside of my home. I now have six guns and I carry everywhere I go when I’m back home in South Carolina. And so I see it. And so there’s a gap up here too even of just finding ways to work together. And I’ll hear it from both sides—we’re going to do to them what they’re going to do to us, and vice versa. Well, that’s not OK, because with a 10, 15, 20 percent, 18 percent of where we agree, we ought to be working together. And this is an example of the cyber side of things. We cannot let our disagreement get in the way of progress on this issue or we’re going to lose. And the risks are severe, they’re significant, and very few people up here think long term or are thinking about the impact, because they’re only thinking about the next election.
I don’t—I mean, I’m indifferent to that. I want to do the right thing for the people that I represent, my constituents, my state, and my country. And so that’s why Ro and will go do interviews together, we’ll work on stuff together. We don’t agree on the vast majority of things, but where we do we’re willing to work together. We’ll agree to disagree. We’ll walk away friends. And that’s what we need more of. But instead on social media you want to have these people on both sides, again, that want to be social media influencers. The crazier things they say, the more TV that they get. I think the media has contributed to this, because if you say crazy things you’re then going to cover it and it becomes clickbait.
FEIST: She was pointing at me, but she didn’t mean me.
MACE: I’m just saying—(laughter)—it’s all, it’s everything, it’s everyone. But both sides are contributing to the problem. And, you know, we don’t have bold, middle of the road, pragmatic leaders, that are very bold, to fill that gap. And, you know, I hope that in the next election or the one after that we can have more folks like Ro and I who are willing to work together. You know, we’re going to disagree—
KHANNA: Are you announcing our candidacy here? Is that—(laughs)—
MACE: No, I’m just saying—but I mean—
FEIST: We’re going to take the show on the road.
MACE: We both need to get reelected and pulling to, but it is—it has contributed, I think, to the vast majority of divisions in this country. And it’s part of that problem. But also again, that’s why I said with Ukraine, I don’t think the world would have moved quite as fast—I mean, a week ago, you know, no one was putting SWIFT on the table. Well, guess what? It’s now there, right? And so without that technology, we would not have responded as quickly to the issue with Ukraine and Russia. I truly believe that. And that was what I was thinking this weekend and the last couple days, like, my God, we would have never known about President Zelenskyy and his leadership and his heroism, as Putin, you know, hides in Moscow in the Kremlin, without that. So it’s a double-edged sword. And it’s incumbent upon us, elected leaders are the federal, state, and local level, to do a better job.
FEIST: Ukraine is an example of an issue that we have—that it’s clear over the last few days that almost everyone in America agrees on, right? Democrats, Republicans, everybody in between. Do you think that some of the issues we’ve discussed today, digital divide and cybersecurity, are areas where there’s been enough agreement in the country to actually get things done in Congress? Or has it become one of those things that, well, we may kind of agree but it’s not worth us working across the aisle to get something done?
KHANNA: I do think that we can find agreement on these issues. I mean, particularly I think most people in Congress believe that our values as Americans as a nation of free enterprise, of democracy, of pluralism, of being welcoming of immigrants is the ideal model of the world. That it’s a better model than the authoritarianism that China represents, and it’s a better model than the dictatorship that Putin represents. And if you want America to lead in the 21st century, we’ve got to have the jobs and we’ve got to have—
FEIST: But does that lead to legislation?
KHANNA: Well, it has, yeah.
MACE: Well, we’re one of the few doing that. In fact I was just sitting here thinking of how many cybersecurity bills have passed in the last year. And we’ve been so focused on other things, and there have been a lot of issues our country is facing right now, with COVID-19 and elsewhere, but we have got to be doing a hell of a lot more than we are right now. It can’t just be Ro and I doing a few cybersecurity bills every year. That’s just not going to work. We’ve got to do much, much more and be more productive than we have been thus far, at least in my first year.
FEIST: Other questions? Yes, sir, in the back.
Q: Hi, there. My name is Razi Hashmi. I am a CFR term member and I work at the State Department in the Office of International Religious Freedom.
So Sam began talking about the abuse of tech. And my colleague here talked a little bit about disinformation. Secretary Blinken had talked about, in his confirmation hearing, about digital autocracies and digital democracies. And we’re seeing, you know, the targeting of religious minorities across South Asia. We’re seeing the targeting of journalists. We’re seeing, you know, the targeting of civil society in general through social media and other means. You talked, like, a good analysis of the problem, but in terms of diagnosing and really targeting effective strategies and measures that can combat this, what do you see as working either here or abroad? And do you mind talking about this a little bit more extensively? Thank you.
FEIST: First I want to go to Professor Citron, start there, and then we’ll come up to our members of Congress.
CITRON: I look forward to enlisting both of our members on the stage to join me in thinking about valuable ways—first of all, thank you so much, both of you, for doing all you do. It’s really an honor to have folks of integrity and folks I admire. So thank you. I don’t want to not say that.
Section 230 of the Decency Act is a federal law passed in 1996 that provides a legal shield or legal immunity for user-generated content. And there are a few exceptions, but for the most part what we have seen is it’s—there is legal immunity for the under-filtering of content, that is leaving content up that is illegal, destructive. And what we see is that the courts really broadly—have broadly interpreted the statute. Not only that it’s an immunity that when you don’t take something down and at scale it’s very difficult, but sites whose raison d'être is abuse, is illegality, right, we can’t allow that.
And so, you know, one piece of the Section 230 debate that I think folks get right is that we need to condition that immunity for the under-filtering provision on bringing the statute back to where it originated, which was good Samaritans blocking and filtering offensive content. That we should secure the immunity, but only where providers employ reasonable content moderation practices in the face of clear illegality that causes serious harm. So the scofflaw sites wouldn’t be able to do what they do without facing responsibility and liability.
So I don’t know if I’m going to have some support on the stage. That’s OK if not. (Laughs.) But one piece of the story is that our digital—our gatekeepers, right, our online service providers, are immune from responsibility. And it has led us to a place where there are sites whose—you know, have run amok. And so we need to I think condition the immunity on responsible practices.
FEIST: Even Facebook, and they run ads all the time talking about it’s time to update our internet regulations. Do you believe it’s time to do as the professor said, take a look at Section 230 to try to eliminate some of these abuses, or do our—do American values of free speech and free expression fight that?
KHANNA: I definitely think it’s time to look at Section 230. Let me give you an example of something narrow that I think could attract widespread support. Even under Brandenburg, the seminal case of First Amendment law, you can’t have imminent incitement to violence, that that’s not protected under the First Amendment. You can’t have imminent incitement to illegal conduct. Before January 6th, there were, on Facebook, the private security went to Zuckerberg. And they said: There are posts that are specifically at a time and place targeting Vice President Pence, a Republican, to assassinate him. Let’s report this to law enforcement. Let’s take this down. They did nothing. And by the way, Section 230, I didn’t believe Section 230 protected that. It protects it. They don’t have any obligation to take down speech that is illegal under Brandenburg.
So a start would just be to say if you have court-ordered findings that something is not protected speech under the First Amendment—and a lot of stuff I think online is not protected—that would be a start. We can see whether to go further. And then to the human rights question, you could give people—where there are gross human rights violations on these platforms, like Myanmar, give them some access to American courts.
MACE: Yeah. And I would say as long as it’s not violating the First Amendment, the problem we get into with disinformation and misinformation is who’s judging it right? But if you’re talking about illegal activity, I think that’s where you can draw the line. That’s much different, if it is illegal activity versus something that someone disagrees with. And so in the age of COVID-19 you’ve got both sides. You know, there’s all kinds of science flying around. And so, you know, making sure that—you know, for me, as someone who is very much sort of small-L libertarian leaning—I want to know what the other side is saying, even though I disagree with it. I want them to say it out loud, right? There’s part of that that needs to know what the source of this information is, who’s saying it, and why they’re saying it. But when you get to illegal activity, I think that’s where you can draw the line and see some reforms in that regard, and it’s not violating speech, pretty much.
FEIST: The case the congressman mentioned, Brandenburg case, you can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater. That the two of you agree on. Do you think that that’s the kind of thing that enough members of Congress could agree on? It seems like a basic floor, but the Congress sometimes doesn’t take the opportunity to do something. Instead, they will frequently do nothing. Sorry, don’t—not mean to cast aspersions to our two members here. But that seems like something that most Americans can agree on.
KHANNA: Well, let me be blunt. I think—I think we could agree on a narrow, court-ordered, illegal conduct.
MACE: Very narrow.
KHANNA: I think the challenge is that everyone wants to reform 230, but they have different views. There’s 100 different views in Congress. Some people say, well, the problem is that there’s too much hate speech and we need to have more content moderation. Other people say, no, the problem is the content moderation is exclusively—
FEIST: But would your side be willing to take something instead of nothing?
KHANNA: I would. I mean, I think—I think if—I think where you could get some consensus on both conservatives and Democrats is saying if something is clearly illegal, under—by a court. In fact, I thought it was such a cliched idea I was not going to even mention it in the book. I though, surely that couldn’t be the law. But these platforms have things that under Brandenburg—by the way, Brandenburg is a brilliant case, in my view. I love that we have a strong First Amendment in this country, the strongest in the whole world. No one—but there are things even that tradition that are illegal that social media companies are allowing on there. And that, to me, is a start, to get rid of that.
MACE: But therein lies the problem. I mean, we can’t even get safe banking done, which is going to come up for, like, the seventh time, and it’s overwhelmingly popular, and then it gets stuck in the Senate. This lack of consensus-building and working together to get some of the smallest things done, and we seem unable to do it.
FEIST: Well, that’s the perfect—letting the perfect being the enemy of the good. Maybe we’ve just now foreshadowed the next Khanna-Mace or Mace-Khanna bill we’ll see in Congress. (Laughter.)
Go back to our audience here. Yes, sir, in the front row. Just wait for the microphone, please.
Q: Hi. Zaid Zaid from Cloudflare.
To talk a little—to go back a little bit more to the digital divide, we’ve seen over COVID-19 people working from home remotely, mostly white collar, of course. But what does—we have a lot of tech companies specifically and a lot of other companies as well that are allowing people to work from home more. What does this do for opening up opportunities across the country, so you’re not—everyone’s not concentrated in Austin or in San Francisco, in Silicon Valley, or on the—along the East Coast? And how do we see that opening up opportunities for women and for minorities as well, that most people can do their job anywhere, and not just on the—in the specific tech hubs.
MACE: Well, it certainly opens up opportunities, right? If you’re a working mom, I know when my kids were first born I wanted to work, but I wanted to stay home. I ended up working from home, started my own company because the company I was with wouldn’t allow me to work from home. But it broadens the opportunities especially for moms and for women, and also dads too, for those working families to be able to do it work, to be able to work and take care of the kids at home and everything. So from that perspective it certainly opens up opportunities for people.
And you can live your best life. You might be working for a company in Silicon Valley, but you want to live in Charleston because you like the golf that’s there, and we have great food and beautiful beaches. (Laughter.) So and you can do it all—you can do it all.
KHANNA: We got nice beaches too. (Laughter.)
FEIST: So is Silicon Valley OK if all of your employees were living in Charleston?
KHANNA: You know, we’ve got a lot of opportunities—
MACE: You might have more golf courses, though.
KHANNA: They say, how are you saying you’re fine with distributed jobs? I say, our home prices are too high. People can’t afford to live. The traffic is terrible. They wouldn’t mind if there’s opportunity distributed. And frankly, we need talented people. These companies are struggling to get enough talent. So the forced remote work experiment I think gives an opportunity for decentralization. But we have to really think to make sure that it’s inclusive and be intentional about it. But, yes, I think that there is going to be more opportunity in looking at that not everyone has to come to Sand Hill Road, and not everyone wants to come to Sand Hill Road.
The thought experiment I often give in my own district is I go to Palo Alto, which is right outside the district, and say, how many of you want to move to South Carolina? And no hand goes up. And I was like, why do you think they all want to move here, right? I mean, people—the myth is that people think, oh, in a place like the Bay Area everyone is cosmopolitan. No, people there are very attached to the place. They love the place. And I think we—one of the things I think would help is just visiting more often. We have so many stereotypes.
Like, people think, oh, Bay Area, it’s not a religious place. Actually, Milpitas is called the holy city. They have enormous amounts of churches, enormous amounts of different religious institutions. And then if you go to Paintsville, and people say, oh, do they get tech? Well, one of the young people there, they understood—they could have talked about the transformation of the digital economy as well as someone in Silicon Valley. So I think we come with all of these stereotypes that we have to break down just by visiting each other and listening to each other.
MACE: And then on the same hand though, too, I’ve heard from companies that want people to come back in more often, and the employees they don’t want to come back. So as much as it is an opportunity for people, it’s also a challenge for businesses because now with this forced work from home with those with the white-collar jobs that can work from the computer, now when they’re being asked to come back, well, they don’t want to. So, you know, there’s this strange thing going on in the market, but I don’t know how it ends, but.
FEIST: Let’s take a call from someone out there who is watching us on one of the home computers, most likely. Go ahead with your question.
OPERATOR: At this time, we have no questions from the virtual audience.
FEIST: OK. No problem. Any questions back here in the room? Yes, sir, front row.
Q: There we go. Green now. Chad Manske. Thanks for a great panel today.
I really loved your book. And it made—there was some irony there I thought in the district you represent yet the issues you uncover really bring to fore some challenges that we’ve been talking about today. I love the story of Princess. And my question with Princess—and for those who don’t know, she was otherwise underprivileged, had an opportunity to get out of her condition and become a coder and make a better life for herself. So how do we proliferate and market these programs more? Is legislation an answer? Are more grants an answer? And also, if you could tackle the issue that you talked about with the Walmarts and the Amazons about health care, and the contract status which gets to some loopholes with the workforce there doing a lot of the digital backbone work, so to speak. Thank you.
KHANNA: Thank you, Chad.
You know, Princess—a couple things that struck me about her story. One, she talked about how many people didn’t have laptops growing up and didn’t have any access to computers. And for all these folks in the valley, they all think they’re self-made. And they’re self-made in the sense that they weren’t handed millions of dollars. But they all had access to computers at a very young age. They all had access to good schools. They all had access to health care. And so part of it is making sure that we’re getting people those basic things. And before you could get also a computer, you need a decent preschool. I mean, you need education, the basics, whatever you’re going to do. And then I think the courses and certificates that Princess got that got her employed in technology, there was a focus on what the private sector needed and a match between that.
And too often I think—you know, the Democrats, we focus on the education part, but we probably don’t focus enough on the private sector part and is this actually going to lead to a job? And my view is that Republicans focus and the private sector part and not the education part. And there’s got to be a match. Let’s figure out practical education that’s actually going to lead to a job. It doesn’t always have to be a four-year degree. And there are a lot of these programs out there. And let’s scale that. And a lot of that doesn’t even require that much legislation. It requires some legislation. It just requires a better vision.
MACE: At the local level.
KHANNA: And on Walmart, and I don’t want to get—you know, we could separate—because I have very strong views on some of the politics. But let me say one point that I think is relevant. Two-third of people don’t have—have jobs that have nothing to do with computers, nothing to do with Zoom, nothing to do with laptops. They are physical jobs. And we have to remember that the value that’s being created in the digital jobs should help empower people whose jobs are not digital jobs. And if we don’t do that, we’re also going to be aggravating the digital divide.
FEIST: Professor, talk a little bit about this issue, we touched on it earlier in the hour, that it seems that the pipeline of our young people is stuck and needs to get fixed while they’re in middle school or high school. Why isn’t that happening? It seems so obvious, obviously, as we talk about it here. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot happening on that level.
CITRON: It’s true. What I found in my work—so, I have a new book called The Fight for Privacy—you know, we—even in independent schools, that are schools that are resource rich, hardly have courses on, like, civic education. And if they have them, they’re solely focused on almost, like, the literacy question of, like, can you believe what’s on Google, right? But questions about online abuse and intimate privacy and deep civility and digital citizenship, they just don’t get to it. And so I think it’s just—could be a lack of both resources, time, teacher, frankly, you know, funding for afterschool efforts. We just—we don’t do a good enough job, in part because schools just don’t have the time and the money to spend on the kind of literacy that I think we need, that they teach.
FEIST: So we’re going to wrap it up. But before we do, I’d just like to give you guys a final thought. And I will say again that I really appreciate, and on behalf of the audience, the two of you coming here, sitting side-by-side, sharing what you agree on—which, as Americans, there is always more that we agree on than we disagree on, it’s just not always reflected in the United States Congress. So seeing a Democrat and a Republican here on stage talking about the issues that they agree on is refreshing. And I hope we’ll see more of it. Maybe we’ll have you on CNN. Maybe we’ll have you back to talk about other issues at the Council—
MACE: We’ve done it before. (Laughter.) We do Fox News too. We do—(laughter)—
FEIST: That’s fine too. (Laughter.) But just sum up what we’ve talked about and what you think you’re most hopeful about as we try to tackle this issue. We’ll start with you and then we’ll finish with you, Congresswoman.
KHANNA: You know, I’m incredibly hopeful about the United States. I think we don’t say that enough. What we’re trying to do is incredibly difficult, to become the first multiracial, multiethnic democracy—major democracy in the world. I mean, Canada, Australia, Britain, Germany are 80-something percent White. We’re 60 percent White non-Hispanic country. When my parents came to America in the 1960s, 90 percent of immigration was European. That’s 15 percent now. We are trying to figure out how do we build this great democracy? And I’m confident we will succeed. But it’s not going to be a linear line. One way we will succeed is if we empower people economically to have the tools to succeed and live in their communities, if they so desire. And that’s why I’m so passionate of working with people like Representative Mace on expanding digital opportunity, being pragmatic about expanding economic opportunity. And that’s a place that doesn’t have to divide us in Congress.
MACE: Yeah, and I would agree. And thanks, CNN, too for bringing us together. There’s not enough of us working together. And I think what’s lost on this debate about any issue, really, is the goal is the same. Like I have the same goal that Ro has. But how we get there is obviously very different sometimes. And just getting us in a room to try and figure out, how do we hash this out? Where can we find consensus to try to get something done? I don’t want to walk away here and say, what did I accomplish?
In the last—in the first fourteen months of my being in Congress, I passed four bills, right? And so even though I’m a Republican, I’m in the minority, I said I would work with anyone who was willing to work with me. And we need more of that, and not less, because it takes so long to get anything done up here. If we’re going to be so divided we can’t even talk to each other or shake hands, and we’re just going to shout from the steps of the Capitol or inside and out, that we’re not doing the job that we were hired to do. And so that’s why I’m deeply grateful for Ro for working with me on these issues, and for all the other members I work with across the aisle as well.
It’s just—we’re unicorns I feel like sometimes in that, because Americans they want a—and immigrants too, like Ro’s family—they want to come here to the freest country in the world. They want to raise their family, they want to work and retire and be the most prosperous that they can be. And we cannot offer those opportunities if we continue to fight with one another. And so I’m going to be up here working my ass off and working hard. And I hope we can have more folks up here on both sides of the aisle that are willing to do that, and that are not afraid.
It takes courage. When Ro came to me for the first time to work together I said, what? Did I hear you right? Do you know who I am, right? But it takes courage and it takes confidence to not really care about the bows and arrows we’re going to get thrown our way for working together. I mean, you can’t even—you can’t even say, hey, we’re working together without—you know, at least me, anyway—getting ratioed on Twitter. I learned very quickly when I got sworn in what ratio means on Twitter. But I don’t care, right? And we need more people that are willing to work together and not care about the attacks that are going to come their way, that will deliver results and do what they said they were going to do.
FEIST: Well, amen to that. Let’s hope to find more Congresswoman Maces and more Congressman Khannas out there in this Congress and in future Congresses. And look forward to continuing the conversation. So I want to thank all of you for joining. Thank you for those of you who joined us remotely. A video of today’s meeting will be posted on the CFR website soon. And thanks for joining the Renewing America Series here at the Council on Foreign Relations. Good afternoon. (Applause.)