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X-Lab Prepares for Tech Policy Battles in the Far Future, Three Years Off

BY Sam Roudman | Tuesday, May 13 2014

Sascha Meinrath, thinking about the future, presumably. Source: Peretz Pertansky, Wikimedia Commons

For the past seven years Sascha Meinrath and his team at the New America Foundation have made the Open Technology Institute a force for promoting a more open, accessible internet. He has informed internet policy, and built innovative tools, like the Commotion mesh network. He has also found that much of the work of being a tech policy guru comes in reacting to crises–from Snowden’s leaks to the potential death of net neutrality.

“Bad things happen and then we leap into action and do the best we can,” he says. “Then all of the sudden everyone is like ‘Oh my god. This is so horrendously bad.’ And then we’re trying to fix what’s clearly broken.”

To set the tech policy agenda rather than react to it, Meinrath is starting up a new program under the New America foundation called X-Lab. He says the project will “convene small groups of people that are taking a long time horizon on the work that we’re doing.” It will unleash technologists and wonks to guide developing technology in directions that protect individual rights, and avoid a slide into one of the many flavors of dystopia looming over the horizon.

“We need some sort of vanguard that is looking at the battles that are coming down over the next three or five years,” he says. In tech policy circles, that’s the longview.

Different projects at X-Lab will develop policy, technology, and business models. X-Lab will take Commotion Wireless, and try to spin it into a for-profit venture that will feed money back into its open source development, and allow the project to wean itself from government and foundation grants. Commotion takes a variety of different software and hardware tools, and makes them more useful by consolidating them under a single umbrella organization. A number of other X-Lab projects will do the same. The Circumvention Tech Audit Lab will develop tools to avoid surveillance, review tools to ensure their efficacy, and fashion itself as a seal of approval and quality for them that will be recognized globally.

The Circumvention Tech Audit Lab will be “developing a full supply chain that goes from identifying need, all the way through to legal protection of users of these technologies,” says Meinrath.

Other X-Lab projects will focus on protecting privacy from the networked sensor panopticon commonly referred to as the internet of things, plan for the disruptions to manufacturing and retail to be wrought by the development of 3-D printing technologies, plan for the future of war, and find common ground between intelligent transportation systems and a decentralized energy grid.

Meinrath imagines X-Lab as a home for interventions that might be too risky for a normal policy shop. One example he gives is setting up a cheap DIY cellphone tower on an Indian reservation to provide free cell service. “Those systems which will work with your off the shelf cellphones, are using the same frequencies that have been licensed to the big four telcos,” he says, “I would argue that tribal authorities never gave up their spectrum rights.” Demonstrating such a system could be transformative for other underserved communities, but also invite legal challenges. “You can imagine why a traditional think tank or 501c3 would never touch that kind of project,” he says.

It’s not completely clear when X-Lab will either. Meinrath says he is in contact with two or three funders interested in supporting X-Lab, which he says will be a “multi million dollar effort.” He has lined up a number of organizational partners –extant groups that work on a problem under one of X-Lab’s thematic umbrellas– but two contacted by techPresident indicated that no collaborations are yet underway. Meinrath expects the Circumvention Tech Audit Lab to be funded this summer. X-Lab’s website says the first round of fellows will be announced later this month.

“It just takes a long time for some of these wheels of bureaucracy to finally churn something out the other side,” says Meinrath. Apparently, planning for the future takes time.