Public unhappiness over the “inappropriate” Republican push to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat weeks before the elections may actually build broad support for significant reform of the institution, said former tech executive and presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

Speaking at an opening session of the NYC Media Lab Summit’s second day, Yang ranged widely over familiar policy issues such as the need for a “data dividend” for people whose personal information is used without compensation by tech firms, and how a California ballot measure this fall could encourage other states to impose similar laws on tech giants. He also said the pandemic lockdown built support for the concept of universal basic income.

Those are familiar topics for those who followed Yang’s unsuccessful but idea-filled run for the Democratic nomination, in which he proposed a string of reforms to government institutions and to rebalance the relationship of tech firms with people and government.

But Yang said the biggest changes ahead might come from public unhappiness with GOP efforts to push through the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of conservative jurist and law school professor Amy Coney Barrett. Polls have consistently shown a significant majority of the population opposed to the quick push, instead of allowing the election winners to make that decision.

“I’m with the millions of Americans who think this is inappropriate this close to an election,” Yang said. “But it may lead to reform.”

Those reforms are overdue, Yang said, for an institution that has changed little the past 150 years. They might include ending lifetime appointments and replacing them with 18-year terms (equal to three terms in the U.S. Senate), adding new jurists every two years, and having “a number of judges greater than nine.”

The current nine-member court panel was established by Congress in 1869, Yang said, and could be changed by Congress.

“We can modify that,” Yang said. “There’s nothing in the Constitution.”

It wouldn’t be simple, however. The last time a change was attempted, during the Great Depression as Franklin D. Roosevelt grappled with a conservative court that repeatedly blocked his New Deal initiatives, set off a huge political fight that eventually forced FDR to back off.

Federal judges’ lifetime appointments might be even more complicated to change. They are part of the U.S. Constitution, and would require a more involved process of state-approved amendments. But Yang said such as change should be considered because of much longer life spans and other changes in American culture and politics.

Yang also called for support of “a most exciting development,” Prop. 24, a California measure on the November ballot that “elevates the treatment of data and privacy rights up to a level in California similar to what’s happening in Europe.”

“Our data is getting sold and resold for over $200 billion a year and we’re not getting any of that,” Yang said. “It turns out we’re actually being sold and re-sold.”

As often happens with initiatives that start in the country’s largest state, with about one-eighth of the country’s population, Prop. 24’s passage could have a big impact on privacy and data rights nationwide that otherwise are little protected now, Yang said.

“If this thing passes in November, I believe it will sweep the country,” Yang said. “Tech companies don’t like it much, but it’s hard for them to fight something that’s so obviously pro-consumer.”

He also said it may be time to revisit Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides “safe harbor” provisions for online companies if their users post libelous or otherwise problematic content.

“I believe Section 230 was written in 1996,” Yang said. “Think how different the world was then in terms of standards of Internet communication. Maybe you had a Geocities bulletin board. Facebook didn’t exist.”

Now, Facebook has a $750 billion market capitalization, and makes tens of billions of dollars each year re-selling data, even as the company maintains it’s not a publisher of content, but a platform on which others publish content, Yang said.

“Facebook’s arguments strike me as so ridiculous,” Yang said. “They say they’re not a publisher, but a platform. Then you look up and they’re the biggest publisher in the world. Pretending you have no responsibility for this stuff is painful. Government is doing us no favors. We’re relying on an archaic set of rules that have no relationship with what’s happening now.”

He echoed Day 1 keynote speaker Tristan Harris, a former Google
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design ethicist and founder of the Center for Humane Technology, who has been a prominent critic of “corrosive” social-media impacts on mental health, political cohesion and more.

“Social media is one of the key factors keeping us from actually agreeing on solutions,” Yang said. “You have to ask the massive tech companies which are driving engagement, where is mental health figured into their practices? It’s totally absent. They’re just trying to maximize ad revenues. Tristan is a hero for raising his hand and saying this is really destructive.” 

Separately, NYC Media Lab Managing Director Steve Rosenbaum called the $1,200 stimulus payments many families received during the pandemic a “dry run” for one of Yang’s favorite proposals, a universal basic income that guarantees modest monthly payments for all citizens.

“Millions of Americans got that $1,200 stimulus check and said, ‘Wait, we can do this, instead of just bailing out a mega corporation or mega bank?’” Yang said. “Everyone now knows it’s possible and it works. So this isn’t going anywhere.”

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