Technology in the Political World: Regulating Silicon Valley

 /  April 15, 2018, 6:54 p.m.


Gerrit Lansing served as the Chief Digital Officer of the Trump White House in early 2017 after spending two years as the Chief Digital Officer of the Republican National Committee. He invented a successful one-click donation app, Revv, in 2014. He currently works as a Senior Partner at the consulting firm IMGE, and is a Spring Quarter Fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. Lansing’s weekly IOP seminars meet from 3:30-5:00 PM on Mondays and will address a range of issues regarding political technology. This article is the first of a two-part series in conversation with Lansing.

The Gate: What brought you to the world of political technology?

Gerrit Lansing: Total happenstance—I got really lucky. I was working at The Heritage Foundation, helping out the old newspaper guys who would write op-eds for the think tank around the country. I spent the first summer calling eight hundred or a thousand newspapers to update their contact info. Right around this time online presence of the think tank was getting big, with a lot of sign-ups and traffic. This was summer and fall of 2008, so Obama was doing all of this cool new stuff. We just started experimenting and no one had any idea what the right or wrong answers were to any of it. One time I went to this talk and they gave me the Twitter account for the whole think tank. I tweeted like forty times and my boss was like “what the hell are you doing?”

From there I got a job on Capitol Hill as a “New Media Director”: basically what the “Digital Director” would be now. I worked for a congressman from the western suburbs of Chicago, Peter Roskam (R-IL-06). I was going to a lot of events and meeting people in political technology, so I got into political technology really by accident. I majored in Ancient Greek, so I did not have any plans or skills necessarily to go into the field.

Gate: But despite your lack of plans to enter the field of political tech, you ultimately co-founded an app: Revv.

Lansing: I eventually went on to run the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) e-campaign department. I did that for three years, and we changed up the digital department. During that three year period, we had major online fundraising problems because we had not been building things up like the Democrats had; we were way behind.

We were getting our butts kicked and there was pressure on me to fix it. One of the things I saw was that the technology and the platforms we were using, and the business models of these platforms we were using, were all wrong for what we needed. We needed something that could be used by everyone on the center-right in order to provide these network effects. So three of us went and founded Revv.

We got lucky on the tech I think, because it was the early days of Stripe, which is now this ten-billion-dollar monster that Visa is a big investor in, and so it was easy to build on top of that. Our big insight was in the business model. We had big years in 2015 and 2016, and a bunch of different presidential campaigns used Revv. Now we’ve got a new leadership team and a new CEO and we’re really getting into non-profits now. We’ve got the Boys and Girls Club of Washington, D.C., and we had a bunch of dog shelters randomly sign up last week. We’re trying to take a lot of the things we learned and gathered in politics out into a bigger vertical net.

Gate: The Cambridge Analytica scandal has stirred up many digital privacy concerns. As a creator of an app that handles sensitive information like voter data and credit card information, how did you account for user privacy when creating Revv?

Lansing: Very carefully. On the internet, design equals trust. Typing your credit card info somewhere is maybe the highest level of trust out there, besides maybe voting online. We put a high premium on having something that felt trustworthy: there were a lot of products out there that don’t. Part of the reason why I say I was lucky that we found Stripe is that we were able to design Revv so that credit cards never touched our servers. That was a huge risk element that we were able to offload.

The weakest points of any piece of software are the humans that interact with it. We took a lot of basic precautions on the developers and the people that have access to the information. Also, we do what’s called a white hat penetration test every year: someone hacks our program and tells us what to fix.

Gate: The Cambridge Analytica scandal involved data mining, whereas with Revv your users volunteer their credit card numbers, names, and who they want to give money to, implying consent to share information in a way that was absent from Cambridge Analytica. The point that you made earlier about “design equaling trust” is really interesting in terms of what people are willing to do online. Can you talk more about the difference between designing software just to seem trustworthy versus actually being trustworthy?

Lansing: The Analytica stuff is interesting, and it’s insightful to a large degree about a lot of these walled gardens like Facebook, where you and I are the product, not the consumer. The things that Cambridge was doing didn’t work, which is lost in this whole conversation.

I think the real scandal is how many apps that have done what Cambridge did. The Obama campaign was the first to figure this out, and there’s tons of other apps out there that have done that. This is really just the first chapter in this whole thing. There’ll be ten thousand more apps that people realize do this, and I bet they will constitute most of America.

I don’t necessarily feel that badly for people who thought they were joining this free service and that everything was going to be hunky dory. I’m in a privileged position because I am one of those marketers who understands the ninety percent that’s under the iceberg of how that stuff works. Obviously if people explicitly break the terms of service and privacy agreements then they need to be dealt with.

On the Revv stuff, it’s much more of a voluntary thing. We’re in the middle between campaigns, organizations, and causes and their supporters. We only work if the campaign or the cause is pushing people to us, which is a different spot to be in in terms of the funnel. We’re at the bottom of the funnel while Facebook is at the top: that’s where all of the data is, and that’s where you can monetize data really well.

Gate: Have you as a co-founder of an app rethought the way you do things in the wake of these Cambridge Analytica discussions?

Lansing: We really haven’t, because we’re not in advertising. I have a freakout about once a quarter about security and then we go and fix, add, and double-check things. To me it’s more of a security thing of protecting Personally Identifiable Information (PII) than of monetizing that PII: it’s just a different business model. This is an important point, because I think some people will get dragged into this who are doing great things with data aggregation.

Here’s a vision of the very near future. You get a rare disease and you go to the hospital where they type in all of your information to find that there’s a hundred million examples of your scenario from around the globe. The doctor can see all the outcomes that have ever existed, so the doctor can choose treatment path B7, because for your demographic that has yielded the best result. The only way to get to that point is if you have a hundred million people’s case studies in one spot. Now, the security of all that is a separate thing, but that has immense value. You’re going to get better faster, and it’s gonna be cheaper for the whole system and the public. We’re gonna be wrestling with this stuff for awhile. I’m glad that we are because I don’t love the walled garden that these social media companies have become. I’m pretty libertarian in that I want to be able to punch “the Man” every once in a while. I think that it’s interesting that it’s this data thing that’s gotten people so riled up, but it’s not a destruction of the media industry. I still don’t think the mass ninety-nine percent of people really understand it all.

Gate: Do you think these companies have a duty to make sure their users understand their user privacy agreements?

Lansing: Two or three apps that I use have pushed updates to their privacy policy recently in a much more friendly format. I wonder if they’re all doing that just to get ahead of the Facebook thing, which is what I would do if I were in this situation. I think that smart companies will start seeing this as a way to build brand loyalty and customer loyalty: to be super up front and clear.

So many products used to have different drug facts and nutrition facts. Then the FDA made a regulated thing and that’s why you see all the food labels in black and white. It’s easy to see—I know right where the sugar thing is, it’s in the same spot every time. Maybe there’s something there with a format you have to adhere to, so you always know.

Gate: So a standardization of privacy policies?

Lansing: Yeah, that’s exactly it. There’s a really cool potential future where we all have all the information. It could be ten years, could be forever. I’m reading this really cool blockchain book right now, Blockchain Revolution, that discusses this new distribution of blockchain data. With blockchain, data is not centrally located like it is on Facebook; it kind of belongs to you or me. Apps can request certain pieces of information from me. I can give it out piecemeal, however I want.

Gate: You talked earlier about the benefits of centralizing data in your hospital example. How can we balance centralization standardization without enabling tech monopolies?

Lansing: According to this book, blockchain could thread that needle, but it would require a fundamental reorientation of the power structure, where we’re much more in control of our data, and companies are just borrowing from us to deliver better services or information that’s relevant to us. It would live outside the walls, whereas right now everything is in the castle and we are outside.

Gate: We’re the product, as Tim Wu would say.

Lansing: Right. In the public’s eye, there is this perception everything is going to get fixed in three months. In fact, Facebook is going to make billions of dollars for years and years and years. Everyone who’s forty-five and older in America goes on there to discuss cable news every day. They’re not gonna get off of it: it took them ten years to get on it, so it’ll take them ten years to get off.

Gate: Do you think that the onus is on Congress to regulate these companies? Do you think that the free market will keep these companies in check on its own?

Lansing: Especially in the tech industry, I would say never underestimate the speed and effectiveness of a startup dismantling the old industry, but never before in history has one entity controlled so much information.

This is that Tim Wu book, The Master Switch. Every time that a company gets so big in a communications medium, it’s been regulated. That happened with movies and phones, and AT&T is a perfect example. The example here is that the Facebook algorithm is basically a utility: people can clearly see how I got any piece of information and why it is being delivered to me, and that would help the media companies compete on that platform. They can use it like the public TV spectrum today, where you have to give a fair amount of time to each candidate or whatever.

Those are some of the lines where Congress could have some kind of model on how to proceed with regulation. I am pretty confident that no one in Congress understands the data aggregation and the Cambridge stuff, because you can hear in the questions that the Senators ask like, “you don’t know anything about that” and “your staff is giving you this question but they don’t really understand it either.” That is worrisome, because 2020 is approaching quickly, and I’m sure Russia is constantly trying to mess with us. So there’s urgency. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the changes Facebook announced have a really positive effect in terms of outside influence. But the privacy and the algorithm, helping one side or the other—those are problems I don’t really know how to solve and I think it takes probably outsider influence to do so. Zuckerberg said we’re one year into a three-year fundamental change for how Facebook does this stuff. I think he feels like his company is probably at risk here.

Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the Gate. Image provided by Garrett Lansing.

Elizabeth Crowdus


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