New York State

Is Allison Fine the tech-savvy boost Congress needs?

The former NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation board chairwoman talks health care, data privacy and closing the tech knowledge deficit among lawmakers.

Allison Fine

Allison Fine Courtesy of Allison Fine 2020

Rep. Nita Lowey’s announcement that she would not seek reelection in 2020 has left a sizeable power vacuum in New York’s 17th Congressional District, with several Democrats lining up to take her place, including state Sen. David Carlucci, Assemblyman David Buchwald and lawyer Mondaire Jones. And in the past two weeks, two women have joined the race: former Obama administration official Evelyn Farkas and Allison Fine, the former board chairwoman of the NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation.

Fine, who has made her pro-abortion rights stance a pillar of her campaign, is also attempting to distinguish herself with her background in technology, including as a founding board member of the tech community organization Civic Hall. Fine spoke with City & State about Roe v. Wade, Congress failing to lead on tech issues and why she doesn’t buy into being labeled a progressive or moderate. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You are the former chairwoman of the NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation board. You founded the Network of Elected Women. You’ve written three books about online activism. Coming at this race with somewhat of a more national profile than your opponents, how do you pitch yourself to voters in New York’s 17th Congressional District?

I grew up here and live here now. I raised my three children, three boys, in the district. My tech work has focused on how we’re changing as people and communities, and how to connect us to one another and use the tools to give everybody a voice, hopefully for good. (That) also means I’m an expert in how tech has been used for bad. So my focus is on how we put the pieces back together for jobs, for our communities, for our personal lives, for this new century. Because the solutions from last century aren’t going to work anymore. We have new problems, and we need new solutions.

In what ways does a national profile help you – whether that’s fundraising or attracting high-profile supporters?

It certainly helps to have a national network, which I have both through my tech work and my NARAL work. But the district is my home. This is where I’m from, and I care deeply about how we’re living, and how our kids are growing up here.

You’ve included abortion rights as a major priority in your campaign for Rep. Nita Lowey’s seat, now that she’s not running for reelection.

Like Nita, I will be the No. 1 advocate in Congress for supporting women’s autonomy and women’s health. There’s no question that this administration is trying to take away a woman’s right to an abortion. And they’re packing the courts with judges to do just that. But they’re not done with that. Then they move on to making it difficult to access contraception and making it difficult for Planned Parenthood to do its work. At a very fundamental level right now, we have a struggling democracy because we have a struggling middle class. They go hand in hand with one another. And we can never have a robust middle class again if women don’t have equal access to economic opportunities and health care.

You’ve said that you support a public option for health care but don’t think taking private insurance away is feasible. What’s your rationale for that?

In an ideal world, there would have been a public option created as part of Obamacare. It wasn’t possible then, (but) I think there is the political will to do that now. And I believe by doing that, private insurance companies will either figure out how to lower their prices and compete with the public option, or they’ll go out of business. So the long-term opportunity here is to create a really robust public option. But I don’t think it’s all politically feasible to take something away from people – even something we don’t like. Nobody likes to have something taken away from them.

Just having the option taken away, you’re saying, is difficult.

It’s un-American.

You have also made data privacy a pillar of your campaign – something we don’t see a lot of candidates doing. What, in your mind, might federal data privacy legislation look like?

I think it’s similar to what the European Union has done with the General Data Protection Regulation. It’s about flipping data privacy over. Right now, data regulations and data privacy – both within the federal government and in corporations – favor those institutions over people. So we need to flip that over. We need to give consumers much more responsibility and power in controlling their own data and controlling their own privacy.

How would you ensure that a federal data privacy law is adequately robust?

The reason we’re not seeing leadership out of Washington, D.C., on this issue is that too many incumbents are in the pocket of Big Tech. I don’t take any corporate PAC money and I understand these issues well, and I’m ready to stand up for consumers and users of tech. There’s no question that there needs to be federal legislation that creates a common understanding of data privacy and protection in every state. And I want to fight for that.

Where do you stand on breaking up Big Tech?

Big Tech is not one thing, right? Google is not Facebook is not Amazon. They’re very different kinds of companies. And Google certainly has a stranglehold on search, and there should be ways of trying to introduce competition there. I think the biggest problem we have in terms of anti-competition right now is Amazon. Every retail store in the country is feeling the lack of competition because of the lack of regulation and taxation on Amazon. And that’s a huge problem. We’re going to be looking at a future, very soon, of desolated downtowns and retail stores. There ought to be more action to try to forestall that and have at least more competition online for retail.

When Amazon HQ2 was coming to Queens, did you support HQ2 before it was canceled?

I’m not really ready to say. I’m going to take a pass on that one.

We’ve also seen tech executives like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appear before Congress, and it’s become clear that some lawmakers have a very hazy idea of how these companies work. How serious is this gap in tech knowledge among lawmakers?

I think it’s an incredible deficit that we have. And I think that’s why so little action has taken place. I think so many people in Washington think of tech just with their own framework – that it’s brick-and-mortar retail, and it’s not at all. You have to understand that it’s not just the size that’s the problem with these companies. It’s the DNA, it’s the makeup of how they operate, how they use data, and that is so vital. And if you don’t understand that, you can’t figure out how to regulate them.

What’s your impression of the other candidates in the race for the 17th Congressional District?

I don’t want to be in the business of criticizing other Democrats. I will just talk about me, and I think that people want somebody who understands their communities very well. And, frankly, this is a woman’s seat. And I don’t think a Congress that is 23% female has any women’s seats to waste.

Would you call yourself a progressive Democrat? A moderate? Where do you fall on that spectrum?

I think that’s kind of a false dichotomy. I’m not sure the continuum still holds up. I am strongly, strongly in favor of creating job security for people, for jobs that don’t look like what they used to look like. This is just a huge issue, that so many people are freelancing or are contract or gig economy workers. And we need to make sure they have the benefits and the security that they deserve as employees.

Something like California’s AB5, which would force many gig workers to be treated as employees? Is that something you think should be happening at the federal level?

I think it absolutely should. And I think it’s essential, frankly, to making sure that we have a middle class in America, a growing middle class. First of all, everybody deserves protection as workers, and there should be the opportunity to take your retirement account with you, to take your sick days with you, of course to take your health care with you, and to take your union with you, as we move from job to job.

Finally, we’re in the thick of impeachment proceedings right now. What’s your impression so far?

I think (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi did exactly the right thing. There was no question that for the good of democracy and the good of the country the president has to be held accountable for basically trying to shake down Ukraine for personal political purposes. The impeachment hearings are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, which is holding the administration fully accountable for their actions. And it doesn’t matter where it goes from there. The point is, nobody’s above the law and we have separation of powers in the federal government for just this reason.