Harnessing the tremendous power of tech is hard for everyone. Social media companies are struggling with their role as platform providers (where they are not responsible for content) versus their role as content modulators (where they commit to taking down hate speech, information that incites violence, etc.). They’ve yet to develop good solutions to the content-modulation problem. Crowdsourcing (allowing the crowd to determine what is valuable), third-party vetting (employing a fact-checking service), advisory groups, and citizen-based editorial boards all have truth, trust, and scale challenges. (Twitter alone hosts 500 million tweets per day.)

The tremendous challenges of promoting the benefits and avoiding the risks of digital technologies aren’t just Silicon Valley’s problem. The solutions will need to come from sustained public-private discussions with the goal of developing protective strategies for the public. This approach was successful in setting the original digital rights agenda for Europe, ultimately leading to multiple digital rights initiatives and the GDPR. While GDPR has been far from perfect in both conceptualization and enforcement, it was a critical step toward a culture of technology in the public interest.

GAZETTE: What do you see as foundational longer-term solutions?

BERMAN: Today it is largely impossible to thrive in a digital world without knowledge and experience with technology and its impacts on society. In effect, this knowledge has become a general education requirement for effective citizenship and leadership in the 21st century.

And it should be a general education requirement in educational institutions, especially in higher ed, which serve as a last stop before many professional careers. Currently, forward-looking universities, including Harvard, are creating courses, concentrations, minors, and majors in public interest technology — an emerging area focused on the social impacts of technology.

Education in public interest technology is more than just extra computer science courses. It involves interdisciplinary courses that focus on the broader impacts of technology — on personal freedom, on communities, on economics, etc. — with the purpose of developing the critical thinking needed to make informed choices about technology.

And students are hungry for these courses and the skills they offer. Students who have taken courses and clinics in public interest technology are better positioned to be knowledgeable next-generation policymakers, public servants, and business professionals who may design and determine how tech services are developed and products are used. With an understanding of how technology works and how it impacts the common good, they can better promote a culture of tech in the public interest, rather than tech opportunism.

Interview was edited for clarity and length.