Josh Peterson cut his teeth on technology the good old fashioned way – through hands-on experience building websites and doing social media for small businesses and music groups he played in. When he moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue journalism, he made it clear to many of his first contacts that he wanted to pursue tech and national security issues, and he subsequently began building policy expertise and a contact list of sources.
That path took him through writing tenures at Broadband Breakfast, the Heritage Foundation, the Daily Caller, and – as of the beginning of this year – Watchdog.org, where he is part of Watchdog.org’s early forays into specialized beat reporting.
The technology beat he covers while based in Washington, D.C. hardly seems the natural domain of someone who majored in religion and philosophy in college and plays local music gigs on the side, but Peterson says this background helps him see the forces of human nature at play amid all the technical jargon.
“Studying religion and philosophy taught me to critically examine the ideologies that motivate people, organizations, and businesses,” he said. “When I report on tech issues, I look for the political drama of ideological and business conflicts.”
Indeed, if there’s one thing Peterson consistently stresses in his reporting, it’s depth. One of his favorite things about reporting for Watchdog.org is that its focus on state and local governments gives him the ability to explore the deeper implications of federal level regulatory and legislative battles. This allows his reporting to go beyond the surface level he-said/she-said coverage that so many journalists are forced to resort to these days.
“Tech policy is highly political and ideological,” he said, “but it is driven by the competitive and innovative needs and goals of the companies involved in the tech and telecom sectors.”
The result is a fascinating mishmash of companies focused on meeting growing business and consumer demands and politicians and bureaucrats working to accomplish their political goals while serving their constituents. Often the two clash bitterly.
“That being said,” Peterson (pictured right) noted, “the parties involved do find ways to work together and find common ground between them.”
In a busy and complex world, the value of this kind of in-depth reporting that makes the issues digestible to everyday Americans is huge.
“Most consumers don’t care about the nuts and bolts of tech policy, and understandably so, because they’re busy with their own lives,” Peterson said. “What they do want is to get what they paid for regarding their devices and services.”
On one hand, the proliferation of social media and advancements in communications technology enable American consumers to more easily and effectively voice their concerns to their elected officials, but the PR campaigns that various organizations and companies run through the media often harness this same power and use it to distort the conversation with misinformation or a lopsided set of facts. This makes it harder for taxpayers to make sure that they get what they want from the companies they like and their government officials.
Like many issues, technological advances are a mixed bag in terms of how they improve the quality of government. The internet and Big Data, for example, have at times created opportunities for government waste and abuse.
“One of the original complaints of the pre-Snowden NSA whistleblowers was that the agency favored a bloated and expensive system for finding terrorists over a more efficient cost-effective system,” Peterson said. “Another example is the Healthcare.gov debacle – not only did a politically favored company build the system, but bureaucrats complicated the implementation process, enabling security problems to fester.”
On the flipside, however, Peterson noted that websites like data.gov and usaspending.gov give taxpayers more insight into the activities of their government, which in turn create opportunities for greater accountability, reform, and transparency.
When asked what is the most important story he has covered since coming on board at Watchdog.org, Peterson has a quick answer: the threat of EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attacks.
“Reporting on electric grid vulnerabilities and EMP attacks is critically important, because electricity is the backbone of the modern world and a severe attack would have catastrophic implications for our society,” he said, referring to a danger that sounds almost apocalyptic in scope but is in fact all too real.
From a tech industry standpoint, however, Peterson said the big story that has dominated the conversation this year is the continuing debate around net neutrality.
“The outcome of the net neutrality debate will have huge implications for the future of the tech industry from both a development and governance standpoint,” he said.
Interestingly, Peterson has found that the imminence of the Federal Communications Commission adopting net neutrality rules is simultaneously one of the most over-hyped and under-reported tech issues today. At stake are concerns that broadband providers will abuse their power to provide quality high-speed internet, as well as the opposite fear that the FCC will impose excessive regulations that rein in companies to such an extent that they stifle innovation and growth.
“Major coverage of the issue has generally been very one-sided,” Peterson said, “giving Americans only a part of the story of what amounts to a very nuanced conflict between incredibly innovative companies.”
Although the terms and details of the debate can be difficult to decipher at first, it is important for Americans to stay informed about tech issues and the government’s response to them simply because technology pervades nearly every bit of modern life. As such, governments in America and around the world are expressing increasing interest in technology’s implications for their citizens.
“The Founders believed that a well-informed citizenry was important to the success of the American experiment of self-government under the rule of law,” Peterson said, “and making the time to understand tech issues is important for the future of self-governance.”