By Tom Still
MADISON – The inexorable march of information technology continues to revolutionize our global economy, just as it continues to create new challenges close to home.
Recent news stories in Wisconsin illustrate how the price of progress in our Information Age is often billed as a deferred payment. Citizens benefit from new technology in myriad ways, but those advances may clash other societal priorities – and present tough choices for policymakers. Here are four recent examples and the principles they test.
Protecting our privacy. Information technology makes it possible to handle mass amounts of data, some of which may be intensely personal and subject to abuse by thieves who use computers instead of guns. The latest example was the inadvertent release of 260,000 Social Security numbers by a state contractor that has been handling Medicaid and other health data, largely without incident, for more than 30 years. A year earlier, a different state contractor printed 171,000 Social Security numbers on tax booklets sent through the mail.
One rush to judgment is to quit using private contractors and hire only state employees to handle such data. Good luck finding that kind of expertise on any government payroll outside the most elite federal agencies. Even if states could manage to hire and retain that many IT professionals, the cost to taxpayers would wipe out the gains. A better solution is to inventory how many state agencies are collecting Social Security numbers, and to weed out collection efforts that aren’t necessary under the law.
Conserving our resources. Who among us doesn’t have an old personal computer sitting in the basement or an outdated cell phone sitting in a desk drawer? How to properly handle yesterday’s electronic devices in a way that conserves resources for tomorrow is an emerging issue for proponents of a state “e-scrap” law.
Electronic devices contain metals, plastics, glass and chemicals, most of which can be recycled for potential profit but which can also be harmful if discarded in a landfill or worse. Manufacturers, retailers, service providers, local governments and recyclers are coming to grips with the problem nationwide, including in Wisconsin, where a bill setting recycling goals and standards may reach a vote by March.
Supporters led by state Sen. Mark Miller, D-Madison, want the bill to follow market-based solutions that encourage producers to use safer materials, consumers to buy and dispose in smarter ways, and recyclers to avoid fly-by-night remedies. An informational hearing last week in the Capitol brought together the full range of interests, and Wisconsin may enact a law that would leverage markets through reasonable regulation.
Educating our children. A state court of appeals has ruled that an online school called Wisconsin Virtual Academy was violating the law by allowing parents to assume the duties of state-licensed teachers. The court also held the school in violation of a law requiring charter schools to be within the district that operates them. That’s because the academy is operated by an Ozaukee County district using curriculum offered by a Virginia firm.
As the legal and legislative battles wage on, both sides should keep some basic realities in mind. First, online education is a tool people want to use. Just look at the growth of private institutions such as Phoenix University or online offering by more traditional colleges and universities. Second, citizens still expect reasonable controls over online schools, especially when elementary and secondary students are involved and local property tax dollars are being used to support them.
Taxing ourselves fairly. A bill pending in the state Senate would place a 1 percent surcharge on video games and consoles sold in Wisconsin and use the extra revenue to pay for costs related to rehabilitating non-violent teenage criminals.
The so-called “Wii tax” is an idea that fails to distinguish between us and them. Video games don’t cause juvenile crime. The tax asks consumers who aren’t specifically tied to the problem to pay for a solution that doesn’t particularly benefit them. There should be better ways of dealing with a problem that affects everyone.
Information technology has changed our world in countless ways, and it will continue to do so. Managing that change will be a challenge so long as people innovate.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.