hughes_13

Public policy has a role in determining the future of technology and the extent to which tech companies can track us, Facebook co-founder and The New Republic owner Chris Hughes told Sarah Lacy at PandoMonthly in New York on Thursday evening.

“This language that we use to talk about big data and technological determinism as the future no matter what drives me crazy,” Hughes said. “The machines don’t control us. The technology and the software do not determine our future. We do.”

Hughes, who bought the liberal-friendly New Republic magazine a year ago and since has been transforming it into a media company, has a strong interest in politics, having played a leading role on the digital side of President Obama’s 2008 election campaign. When asked what he thinks about the government’s role in tech, the 30-year-old broke ranks with some of his libertarian counterparts from Silicon Valley who would prefer that the government keep its distance.

“The idea that technology is going to go in one direction, and we have no control over it strikes me as a really uncreative one,” he said, echoing comments he made in an editorial published in The New Republic after news of the NSA surveillance scandal broke. “I think there is a role for government to play.”

He spoke approvingly of the European Union’s debate over online privacy and said the US could pass laws to prevent, for instance, the use of facial recognition technology without consent. Whether you agree or not with the idea that privacy issues are getting out of hand, it’s a discussion worth having, he said.

“There’s a growing sense that the privacy is dead, that there is no right to privacy, and that the Europeans are crazy to talk about a right to be private,” he said. “They still view public policy as being possible to control the technology rather than the companies controlling our lives.”

Pressed on how good a job Facebook has done at protecting its users’ privacy, he said, “I think Facebook has handled it just as well as the other companies have.”

He also believed that the tech companies haven’t been “meaningfully at fault” in regards to cooperating with the NSA and its surveillance programs.

[Photo by Timothy Briner for Pandodaily]