Congress’ Facebook ignorance triggers calls to revive technology agency

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WASHINGTON — Congress had an agency designed to help senators avoid the sort of embarrassment they faced when trying to understand Facebook — but lawmakers stopped funding it 23 years ago and have resisted reviving it.

Now there’s talk the Office of Technology Assessment could make a comeback. A subcommittee will hear Tuesday from interest groups advocating its return.

Since the office wasn’t technically abolished but only defunded, bringing the agency back is as simple as attaching an amendment to a budget bill. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., has tried to do that for years; his latest attempt failed in July, 236-191, mostly on partisan lines.

Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, spoke against the proposal, saying there was already a technological research office within the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ nonpartisan watchdog. Yoder chairs the subcommittee that will hear testimony about the OTA.

The technology branch of GAO has two full-time employees and issues an average of two reports per year. The OTA had 140 employees when it was shut down and issued an average of more than 35 reports per year for the 23 years it existed.

“It’s a very small office, and the reports are largely driven by outside academics,” said Zach Graves, lead author of libertarian think tank R Street Institute’s report on the OTA, of the GAO office.

“OTA, on the other hand, was driven by in-house experts, who took the time to consult with multiple industry groups before issuing these in-depth, forward-looking reports,” he said. Graves plans to testify Tuesday.

The need for the agency was magnified this week during Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s public appearances before House and Senate committees.

Several members of Congress seemed to misunderstand even basics of how Facebook works. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked Zuckerberg how a free service earned money. The answer was advertisements.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, asked if Facebook could see emails he sends on WhatsApp, a messaging app Facebook owns. WhatsApp does not use emails and is encrypted.

Republicans in the past accused the OTA of partisan bias in certain reports. It was defunded when Republicans controlled Congress, but some notable Republican lawmakers supported bringing it back before the Facebook debacle, including Hatch and Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas.



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