What the 2016 Election Reveals About the Future of Connectivity

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As the confetti is cleared away and residents in Cleveland and Philadelphia resume life as normal, what can cities learn from the intersection of technology and the conventions?

(Wikimedia Commons)
Whether they watched on television, on a computer, or on a mobile device via Facebook, Periscope, Twitch, or another stream, millions of people tuned into at least part of the conventions in real-time this year. (Wikimedia Commons)

The 2016 conventions were the most connected and virtually available in history by any measure. Once relegated to C-SPAN and highlight clips on the network news stations, video of this year’s national party conventions could be found in their entirety on a host of old- and new-media platforms, in both “traditional” 2D streaming video and 360-degree virtual reality. The variety of real-time streaming options present a major departure from televised coverage. Without cuts, commentary, or cable paywalls, they open up the conventions to more viewers than ever.

As the confetti is cleared away and residents in Cleveland and Philadelphia resume life as normal, what can cities learn about the intersection of technology and the conventions?

Citizens Expect to Participate Virtually

The 2016 conventions were also the most social ever, with millions of Facebook posts, Tweets, YouTube comments, and more shaping the mainstream dialog about the conventions. Inside the arenas, massive screens projected a curated selection of social media posts from party VIPs and ordinary participants in real-time. Increasingly, citizens expect to be able to actively engage with proceedings, even if they can’t attend in-person. Many cities are already streaming their council meetings, but as these streams shift to more social outlets, cities need to prepare themselves for the “wild west” of internet communities. The comments section of the official Republican National Convention YouTube stream needed to be shut down after about a day, after being flooded with inappropriate remarks. Balancing community engagement with civil discourse will be a challenge for all political and government events in the future.

Political Entities are a More Appealing Target to Hackers than Ever

Much to Democrats’ chagrin, the leading news story headed into their convention in Philadelphia was not their vice presidential pick, their speaker lineup, or the party platform, but the missteps of the party leadership exposed in a high-profile email leak. The Democratic National Committee emails exposed in this scandal represent a new era in cyber threats for the US: one in which hackers work not just to steal sensitive information and secrets, but to disrupt elections themselves through cyberattacks.

While the exact identity and motives of the attackers behind the DNC scandal are still not known, one thing is certain: political figures and organizations at all levels of government are becoming an increasingly attractive target, and they still lack the appropriate level of security to handle that threat. The DNC now joins a long list of government and private entities who have been the victims of either foreign government-sponsored cybercrime, or “hacktivists” of any nationality. Local governments, by their nature, are certain to draw the attention – and ire – of hackers at some point, and they must be prepared for this eventuality. And while local leaders have long known that they must take care with what they put in writing because of sunshine laws, they must now work with their technical leadership and staff to ensure that their communities’ data is not threatened because of a controversial council vote or statement.

The DNC breach also raises questions about liability for other organizations facing similar attacks. Leaving aside any potential financial information that may have been exposed by the breach, the organization may have failed to take actions it knew it should to prevent or limit the damage. Last fall, the DNC underwent a security risk assessment with a risk management firm. While it has not confirmed whether it acted on the recommendations made, failure to do so could expose the DNC to additional liability. Local governments may cite budget constraints as reasons not to invest in the staffing or infrastructure needed to protect their systems and their residents, but gaining an awareness of their cities’ specific vulnerabilities – and then failing to take action – could be an expensive bet.

Hillary Clinton Has Detailed Plans for Technology

As the election draws closer, both major party candidates will continue to release policy proposals on major issues. Perhaps the most thorough slate of technology policy positions has come from the Clinton campaign. In her “Initiative on Technology & Innovation” policy document, Clinton lays out a roadmap for her approach to workforce development, infrastructure investment, and regulation that hews closely to the course set by the outgoing Obama administration.

Of particular interest for cities are the plans focused on building out the nation’s digital infrastructure. The initiative includes proposals for a “Model Digital Communities” competitive grant program, which would fund regional proposals for streamlined permitting processes, “dig once” and “climb once” policies, and the creation or expansion of public-private partnerships to expand access to broadband for their residents. The initiative also proposes dedicating federal research funds to speed the deployment of a civic Internet of Things and a 5G wireless network. These proposals could support innovative local efforts to close the digital divide in their communities and create cutting edge infrastructure – provided they remain voluntary incentive programs, and not one-size-fits-all mandates.

The Democratic and Republican Platforms are Close Together on Tech

Both the Democratic Party platform and Republican Party platform affirmed by convention delegates in July contain similar calls for expansion of America’s broadband infrastructure as a driver for American innovation and economic growth. The Democratic Party platform proposes a national infrastructure bank to help fund investments in broadband and other kinds of infrastructure in both urban and rural areas. It also focuses on deploying next generation wireless service to expand broadband access in underserved areas and implement Internet of Things technologies.

The Republican Party platform shares Democrats’ call for increased broadband, but from a slightly different approach. Naturally, the parties differ in their assessment of the Obama Administration’s success in expanding access to broadband for all Americans, but they also differ in how to make progress. The Republican platform, with its increased focus on rural communities, calls for a prioritization of wireless technologies, rather than wired broadband infrastructure that may be cost-prohibitive to extend to rural households.

Finally, the problems of encryption and cybersecurity are likely to persist into the next administration and Congress, impacting future law enforcement work at all levels of government as more and more crime and evidence become digital, rather than physical. Both parties’ platforms strike a middle road, calling for enhanced federal cybersecurity protections and compromise between privacy advocates and law enforcement on encryption. However, the Republican platform does contain one noteworthy, and controversial provision – a “self-defense” approach to cybercrime, encouraging hacking victims to “hack back.”

…Except Where They Aren’t

However, the parties differ sharply over their support of the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules. Echoing the bitter partisan divide in Congress over recent FCC actions, the parties’ platforms remain wholly divided on net neutrality.

The Republican platform soundly opposes net neutrality, although it also opposes “new and expanded government powers to tax and regulate” the internet, perhaps echoing Congress’s decision to permanently ban taxes on internet access this year. The Democratic platform, on the other hand, states that “Democrats support a free and open internet at home and abroad, and will oppose any effort by Republicans to roll back the historic net neutrality rules.”

About the Author: Angelina Panettieri is the Principal Associate for Technology and Communication at the National League of Cities. Follower her on twitter at @AngelinainDC.