U.S. Rep. Greg Walden never expected that this would be the way he spent his last year in Congress. Walden, the top Republican and former chairman of the powerful, tech-focused House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has worked on technology and telecommunications issues in Congress since 1999 — and now, he says, he's spending all his time on "conference calls and telephone calls" and "hibernating" otherwise.
He won't say whether he's considering working in the tech industry after he leaves, but Walden owned and ran several radio stations in Oregon before becoming a politician. It's a background that has given Walden a soft spot for communications issues and made him one of the few members of Congress who speaks loudly and often about technology — specifically the need to unlock "innovation," often meaning light-touch regulation, in Republican parlance. The industry has changed enormously even since he became chairman in 2017 and the ranking member when Republicans lost the House in 2019, but Walden has continually battled Democrats over how far tech regulation should go and what it means to defeat China — especially now.
There's no shortage of skepticism from Democrats and consumer advocates about his policies. He's struggled to push forward legislation around autonomous vehicles over concerns that it doesn't go far enough to protect safety, and when he rolled out a 15-bill package with fellow Republicans last week to push forward an anti-China tech agenda, it didn't have any Democratic co-sponsors. The package pushed by Walden includes legislation that would require the U.S. government to create a specific plan for AI and bolster the industry's efforts on blockchain and quantum computing, among other issues.
And then there's his fervent support for the FCC's controversial repeal of net neutrality. Nevertheless, he's been a consistent voice on Capitol Hill on tech issues.
Walden spoke with Protocol from his home in Washington, D.C., about how Congress can defend against Chinese technological advances and digital privacy in the era of COVID-19.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You and your colleagues just this week rolled out an expansive package of bills geared toward giving the U.S. a leg up in the so-called "technological race" with China. Why is it important to win this aspect of the larger battle with China, and why should we focus on pouring money and resources into that fight right now?
The obvious answer has become even more obvious as a result of what we've endured in this pandemic, where we realize that we relied on global supply chains that can be constricted, that could in certain times be used against us. It is essential for our own national security that we incentivize innovation and manufacturing to occur onshore, not offshore, and that we clear out regulatory obstacles that are in the way of having American entrepreneurs lead.
Why do you think you've struggled to get traction with Democrats on a lot of these proposals?
Clearly, they're not anti-spending and they're not anti-innovation, and they're not against most of these things. I just don't know that it's their priority, and I can't figure out why. I actually think a lot of these bills ultimately will be bipartisan, but we don't set the agenda, we don't schedule the hearings, and we don't move bills in the minority. [Republican Rep.] Cathy [McMorris-Rodgers] and I felt pretty strongly that we needed to have a breakthrough moment here, to lay out what an agenda for America's future looks like when it comes to technology and innovation — and onshoring that.
Somebody described the future of vehicles as being a "computer platform with wheels," and we know that data is going to drive our transportation vehicles in the future, and they're both going to be receivers and transmitters of enormous amounts of data as they take us to and from locations. I want whoever pioneers that platform to share American values and America's ideas about privacy and data security and not China's. We have very different views on these matters.
So much of our tech ecosystem relies on China right now. What do you think are the most important steps for Congress, and the Trump administration, to take in order to disentangle our supply chain from Beijing?
First, we have to take action on the warnings we've been given about the vulnerabilities that we face from unreliable suppliers. So we passed legislation [the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act] the president signed this year to rip and replace vulnerable equipment out of our networks. Now, we need to fund that. The shorthand for that is the Huawei equipment.
We were warned about what a pandemic like the 1918 flu could do to the population. I don't think anybody ever warned us it would go this far, but we passed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act [in 2006], and we tried to take measured steps. And even with that, we now know there was more we could and should have done.
We've been warned about the technical vulnerabilities with our telecommunications networks, just as we've been warned about the cyber threats to our energy grid. The president just issued an executive order on the energy side. We need, as a country and as a Congress, to stop screwing around and get serious about protecting our power grid and our telecommunications networks from a potential cyber attack or infiltration or other things that we know are out there. That's what drives me in this. I want America to win in innovation, I want America to win in manufacturing, and I want to follow and implement the protocols and changes to protect our power grid and our telecom system.
Do you think the "rip and replace" effort is going to be stalled or delayed by the pandemic?
I hope not. Everything's hard during the pandemic, but at least we've got the legislation signed. I think there's an opportunity to get some money into that fund to be able to effectuate the removal and replacement of the equipment but, again, we need to continue our progress on spectrum, we need to continue our progress on some of these other initiatives so we'll have a more reliable manufacturing base — either with our allies or here onshore to make the most modern equipment. Getting to 5G is a classic piece of this, and getting to look at the O-RAN system and things like that to change how the software works and how the communications networks work, we can get to more secure networks as a result.
Republicans in the Senate recently proposed a COVID-19-era privacy bill to essentially ensure that data collected for coronavirus-related surveillance projects is kept safe and secure. Do you plan to get behind their efforts on the House side?
I commend Sen. [Roger] Wicker and the effort there to protect individuals' information in the COVID era, certainly, and it's ironic that there's a lot of consensus around doing that. There should be consensus around nationwide data-protection legislation that's based on American principles and values, as opposed to the hodgepodge we have emerging state-by-state. I've long believed that we needed to do whatever it took to come to terms with a nationwide data privacy and security bill. I think we need to get there. Trial lawyers are the biggest obstacle to that, and I want to make sure that we don't create another patent troll bar for privacy. I think COVID-19 and the calls for privacy nationwide, interestingly enough, might help us in that effort.
So you're more focused on the nationwide privacy effort than something that's specific and tailored, like a couple provisions on data privacy right now?
It's not that we wouldn't do those that are tailored and specific to this crisis — if that's all you can get done, it's all you can get done. But if they work and are necessary in a COVID-19 era, why wouldn't they also work and fill a nationwide void in a non-COVID era?
It seems like the pandemic has ushered in a fundamental shift in how the public is thinking about data privacy issues. For years, public opinion has soured on the idea that large tech companies should be allowed to collect reams of personal information about individuals with basically no accountability. Now, there's somewhat of a pivot as even diehard privacy activists say we may need contact tracing. Has the pandemic and its fallout changed how you view data privacy at all?
No, it hasn't affected me that much in my outlook. I've said from the beginning we should have a nationwide policy. Consumers need to be able to clearly know what data is being collected, how it's being used and have some options that they can choose in those areas. And I've often said publicly that these big data companies need to be clearer with their consumers, and they'll spend less time with lawmakers as a result — not that they don't love spending time with us. But the long and short of it is, if they're taking care of their consumers and doing the right thing, then there's less likelihood they're going to be dragged to Capitol Hill for doing the wrong thing.
There's this tension between the power of data collection and your right to your privacy. The power of the data can be very positive, in terms of acquisition of products and services, or the answer to any question in the world, a few keystrokes away. And it's free — except for the data you donate. That's the exchange. You're the payment and then it's, "What's it worth to you to get that information?" I think as long as consumers understand that, and are being told the truth about that and that there's disclosure that's understandable, then they'll let the market work. But when you have every state trying to do it differently, and then the international situation with various countries or regions doing it differently, it sets up some real challenges.
What do you think of Apple and Google's plan to help facilitate digital contact tracing in the U.S.? Do you think the U.S. government should partner with the tech industry to roll out these apps?
I think it would be very positive. We know that contact tracing is going to be an essential part of safe and healthy reopening of our communities and our commerce. But again, I think we have to have full disclosure and understanding of what that means and how that works, and keep it focused on the positive and important health benefits of the technology. It's going to be essential that people understand what is and what is not being collected, what is and what is not being used, and that they have an option to weigh into that. Because it could rapidly spin into some pretty bad places in public debate if people think they're just going to be tracked and traced everywhere they go every minute of their life, without their permission, and all their friends and neighbors will be able to know — that's a pretty big deal.
I do think that there's a role for technology in this space to help, and I think again, I always try and keep my consumer hat on — I'd want to know if somebody I've been in contact with has tested positive so that I can then protect others in case I'm positive. I want that ability to opt in or opt out.
What are your thoughts on the broadband provisions that are in the recent Democratic package they released? You talk a lot about the digital divide, you've discussed it for so many years — is there anything in there that you're compelled by that you would get behind?
We're still working our way through it. This is hard for me to say — despite the 3 trillion, it actually doesn't fully fund the Broadband DATA Act, so that's kind of ironic. But we obviously weren't consulted in any of this, and I understand that was their plan all along, and obviously there are lots of places in there where we can work together on some of these things. But I do worry that the voluntary commitments of some of the carriers — to waive fees, to do all of the things they've done in this emergency — are laudable, but I hope it doesn't become "every good deed goes punished" by the federal government, so what you do voluntarily in the crisis becomes mandatory in statute. I think that's not the way to go. I know we need to close the digital divide, I've supported that for a long time. We're still going through it.
Clearly, the telehealth [provision] makes a lot of sense, but there's some issues there. And remember we've done some hearings on the telehealth, and some states have done amazing work with very little money. There are a whole bunch of barriers we need to break down on telemedicine, and they have during the emergency. Those ought to stay down, but there's more work to do.
You're leaving at the end of this year — do you think there's any possibility that you'll end up yourself back in the tech industry in some capacity?
I have no idea what I'm gonna do. I'll tell you one thing: This isn't how I expected to spend my last year in office. It's just so weird. I'm spending my life on conference calls and telephone calls and hibernating otherwise, like we all are. I just don't know.
Is there one tech policy priority that you really want to see enacted by the time you leave at the end of this year?
I really hope we can continue to break down barriers on telemedicine and get more of rural America connected. And it's not just rural, I focus on that because of my district, but I know there are urban areas that aren't appropriately connected, either. As this pandemic has slapped us upside the face, and you realize pretty quickly there are lots [of people] in the country that can't do distance learning because they don't have any access to wired or wireless connectivity at a speed that's useful, if there's any. And the same for telehealth and telemedicine — I think as hard as everybody's trying to work our way through the pandemic, you could be a year dislocated one way or another, or two, before we get back to what it once was, and so the importance about the resiliency and adequacy of our networks and the ability to bring all Americans online that want to go online, those will be priorities. I think we've made a lot of progress — but, boy, we're going to have to put in work.