Virtual Reality is Already Here and It’s a Gutcheck for Democracy

virtual-reality-gaming-headsetsThe following article was originally published by The Daily Caller on March 5, 2018.

It’s time to think about virtual reality differently.

According to a Nielson survey, Americans spend about 10 hours a day consuming media, while a study by the World Bank shows that about 6.4 hours is devoted to the Internet alone.

Americans may not be walking around in goggles and haptic suits, but our addiction to broadband media, and our dependence on the internet for news, culture, and commerce is starting to have negative effects in the real world.

As we split our time between the physical world and the internet – virtual reality – we need to ask an important question: are we taking steps to transport values like freedom, civility, good government, and free markets into cyber space, or are we leaving those good things behind? Recent events are showing that it’s the latter that’s true – and to protect against that, Congress should step up and legislate for the new, virtual reality.

At the macro level, the technology industry’s explosion is warping society in ways that we haven’t seen since the Industrial Revolution. Washington’s response to this has basically been to do nothing. Republicans and Democrats have allowed tech to grow with scant regulation and are permitting Silicon Valley to build monopolies that would make Andrew Carnegie blush.

A big reason for this is the red-hot love triangle between conservatives, liberals, and techies. For decades, Republicans have coddled Silicon Valley for its economic youth and beauty and held it up as the world’s best case for unregulated capitalism. But while San Francisco’s entrepreneurs have built billion-dollar fortunes on the policies that Republicans have upheld for them, they’ve been running around town with the GOP’s liberal opponents.

Silicon Valley heavyweights have succeeded in playing their moonstruck lovers off against each other to deflect meaningful regulation and competition. The results have been predictable. According to research done by Jonathan Taplin at the University of Southern California, Google has an 88 percent market share in online searches and advertising, Facebook has a 77 percent share in mobile social media, and Amazon has a 77 percent share in ebook sales. Another study pegged Google and Facebook’s share of all online advertising at 60-70 percent, or about the same market share that Standard Oil had before the government busted it. This should be a wakeup call for those who think the internet is still a free market.

Then there is the more personal issue of how we treat each other online. Kindergartners know the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But are people following this in virtual reality? Log on to Facebook for the answer. Five minutes there is guaranteed to make your blood boil from the ubiquitous political rants by “friends” that are so demeaning that they make you wonder if you are secretly hated in real life for your differences of opinion.

A lot of people want to blame Donald Trump for this runaway incivility. But Trump is in fact a symptom of a nation that spends six hours online each day has developed a tolerance for the web’s rancor. Think about it: Donald Trump talks to us in reality the same way that we walk talk to each other online. And so do his critics’ heroes. John Oliver and Rachael Maddow aren’t popular because they’re kind to their opponents. They’re popular because they eviscerate them right down to their core.

The third place where virtual reality is diverging from physical reality is in law enforcement. Take, for example, the privacy of your personal data. This past week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Microsoft Corp v. United States. At issue is whether the government can force internet service providers to turn over documents stored overseas.

This case would be a slam-dunk if the data in question was stored in filing cabinets and not microchips, because everyone knows that the United States government doesn’t have jurisdiction over foreign countries. But thanks to a law written decades before the phrases “You’ve Got Mail,” “Google it,” or “Facebook me” existed, it’s still an open question whether digital communications are subject to the same protections as printed records.

Microsoft’s case is another data point in Congress’s online regulatory pattern: do nothing and let the courts bail you out. That’s what happened when the Supreme Court ruled that police officers can’t search your phone without a warrant (Riley v. California); and it’s a bullet Congress dodged when the Department of Justice’s effort to force Apple to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone ended quietly after government spooks hacked into it by themselves. And speaking of warrants, did you know that the government can read all your emails that are older than 180 days without one?

These technological quagmires show how government is decades behind modernity, but there are signs that this trend is reversing. Recently, a bipartisan coalition of Senators introduced the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data (CLOUD) Act, which would create a framework for law enforcement to partner with our allies in cross-border investigations. This bill has already won the support of the public and private sector, with endorsements coming from the White House, 10 Downing, and Silicon Valley.

The past few months have also shown signs of broader reforms coming to cyber space. At one hearing, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) lamented that tech firms “know more about Americans than the U.S. government,” while Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) bored into Twitter for its unwillingness to cooperate against foreign intelligence agencies that use social media to manipulate the American public.

That might not sound like much but in Washington, moving legislation is like quitting heroin: the first step is admitting you have a problem. After that comes the hard medicine: re-balancing privacy, free enterprise, free speech, and consumer protection in the digital world, just as government has done from time-to-time in the physical. Neglect these values on one plane of existence if you like, but when you do – don’t be surprised if they decay in another.

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