U.S. Representative Ro Khanna talks Silicon Valley, initiatives at Stanford at press conference

May 21, 2019, 12:02 a.m.

Although Ro Khanna (D-CA-17) technically serves parts of Santa Clara County and Alameda County, he has garnered a reputation for being the “congressman from Silicon Valley” — the Bay Area’s “man in the middle” representing the region that houses the corporate headquarters of tech and business giants Apple Inc., Intel Corp., Yahoo, eBay, LinkedIn and Tesla.  

Khanna met with journalists from student newspapers across the Bay Area on Saturday, discussing issues ranging from climate change efforts on a national scale down to issues that concern Stanford and Silicon Valley’s obligation to responsibly develop technology.

Policy meets digital threats

Khanna showed concern for the potential threats posed by artificial intelligence (AI), concerns he responded to in a resolution (H.R. 531) he and Brenda Lawrence (D-MI-14) introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in February. The resolution, Khanna said, begins to create guidelines for the ethical development of AI, “making sure that it’s not used for discrimination, making sure that there’s transparency, [addressing] concerns about facial recognition and making sure we’re dealing with displacement and job loss.”

Khanna has also developed a set of principles, which he calls the “Internet Bill of Rights,” articulating the rights U.S. citizens should have when they use the Internet, such as net neutrality and control over personal data. He also noted that the progress Stanford has been making with Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) initiatives will be crucial to developing a proper framework.

At this point, the principles are still just principles — they have yet to be attached to certain legislation, which is a goal Khanna is working towards.

“Right now, we first need principles, then we can have legislation that would have the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] be an enforcement mechanism to make sure companies are complying,” he said.

Khanna sees that there will “absolutely” be room for policymakers to interact with people at Stanford and the rest of academia.

Tech expansion and affordability

“We need more affordable housing,” Khanna said. “And by that I mean not just for people who are homeless, but for teachers and nurses and others doing everyday jobs. We need to have more housing and rent-controlled apartments that are accessible to people in the middle income [bracket].”

When it comes to balancing affordability with the expansion goals of tech giants like Google — which is trying to develop northern San Jose into a campus of office and industrial buildings and housing units for their workers — Khanna said there “needs to be a mix.”

“I don’t think we should have this district turn into a place only for Google and Apple employees,” he said. “On the other hand, I do think have more housing is needed for some of these companies and their employees.”

Khanna added that while it is up to the city government to create balanced zoning policies, he thinks federal grants should be provided to cities that prioritize affordable housing.

Social media and climate concerns

Turning toward online political discourse, Khanna said that a fact-checking mechanism is a “necessary development” for a responsible social media platform.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I think that [social media platforms] have to put a lot more thought into their obligation as also platforms that carry news,” Khanna said.

The Internet also poses complications for policy beyond the rise of “fake news” and data privacy concerns. Khanna has openly opposed the FOSTA-SESTA package bill, or the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) in the House and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in the Senate, because it “criminaliz[es] sex workers and free speech.”

The bill, signed into law by President Donald Trump in July 2018, was designed to curb illegal sex trafficking online. Specifically, FOSTA-SESTA would hold website publishers responsible for third parties posting prostitution and consensual sex work ads. Khanna said the bill was “overly broad” in that it also criminalizes consensual sex workers, many of whom visited Khanna at his offices and shared stories of how the bill hurts a vulnerable population.

Khanna also expressed support for Washington governor and Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee’s ambitious $9.1 trillion climate plan which aims to reach near-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, which Khanna called “a big, bold action.”

“We need to make the investment that’s necessary in solar and wind and renewable energy,” he said.

Khanna has supported the Green New Deal (GND), a non-binding resolution that died in the Senate in March. It called for the federal government to address climate change by decarbonizing the economy, decreasing reliance on fossil fuels and providing new jobs in clean energy industries.

Khanna called on Silicon Valley to leverage its position as a technology hub to invest in innovative solutions for clean energy — “whoever wins the clean energy race … is going to lead the 21st century when it comes to the economic future,” Khanna said at a South Bay environment forum on Saturday.

Ultimately Khanna expressed his hope that there would be more philosophers and thinkers in Silicon Valley.

“STEM is important, and STEM education is critical to America’s economic future,” he said. “But so is arts and liberal arts education, and you need a balance of both. It can’t be all about the industry, and even the industry’s purpose has to be about advancing humanity.”

Nik Marda contributed to this report.

Contact Elena Shao at eshao98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Elena Shao '21 is from Suwanee, Georgia. At The Daily, she is a Managing Editor for News. Outside, she's studying political science. She also enjoys learning foreign languages and is hoping to pursue a career as an investigative and data journalist. Contact her at eshao98 'at' stanford.edu.

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