Things are changing for "big tech." Rattled by proven cases of gender and racial discrimination, sinister privacy practices, rapacious competition, and rampant disregard for consumers, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple and Uber, among others, are no longer the centerpiece of progress. With the bloom off the rose, it is time to regulate the technology sector.
While it has taken Washington a very long time to see the forest beyond the trees, European regulators are reigning in big tech. From the General Data Protection Regulation(GDPR) to the right to be forgotten, the European Union has begun to restrict technology’s reach into the lives of its citizens. It has been a long battle requiring clear-eyed notions of the public interest and a balancing of commercial versus consumer rights. They lost their infatuation with Silicon Valley over a decade ago.
Not so with America, where big tech has held sway in Washington since the Clinton era. They have marched to a different beat, promoted a different standard, and played by different rules — all with a smug sense of entitled exceptionalism. Eschewing the traditional ways of Washington, Big Tech has flaunted its outsized fortune in the face of legacy industries like advertising, broadcasting, finance, media and telecom, which are heavily regulated. When questioned, the companies have hidden behind the veil of innovation and reminded critics of their importance to the global economy. Notable contributions to be sure.
But let’s be clear. Congress became enamored with big tech more for its valuations than its values. It became blinded by the bling and oh-so-cool chic of Silicon salons. It brushed past the glass ceilings, closed doors and exclusions of the Valley to tap into its lobbying largesse. In so doing, Congress abandoned its main duty to protect us all. Today, policymakers need to demand more from their privileged patrons in the tech sector, especially as society becomes more, not less, dependent on technology.
We live in a world of smart phones, smart grids and smart cars, where companies store, collect and share more information than man has ever known. "Big data" has become such a big part of our lives and lexicon that it is no longer ominous. Every time we swipe our credit cards, like our Friends or visit our favorite website, we tacitly add to the big data pile.
In this new environment, we abide by a simple social contract: companies give us their goods and we give them our data. Online, our barter becomes more complex. Scores of invisible intermediaries access and collate high volumes of data through tools and techniques unseen and unknown to most of us. Mystical algorithms and analytic technology allow Facebook and Google, among others, to track our searches, scan our email, cross-reference our contacts, and mine our data to deliver ads and make lots of money based on what we do online.
The breadth and depth of information amassed by these two companies alone, surpasses everything collected by all retail, financial, media, healthcare, telcos, communications, utility, entertainment and nonprofit firms combined. Oh, and that goes for the U.S. government too.
Facebook and Google offer an opaque suite of free, easy, and consumer friendly apps which are must-have accoutrements of modern communication. From email to social media to mobile music, who can imagine daily life without them? Yet when consumers blithely accept those freebies, we consent to a constructive social contract. Relinquishing personal information as a condition of free and continued use concedes privacy. While the equity of the exchange is debatable, the loss of privacy is not. The Facebook debacle has given us a glimpse, but only time will tell the true cost.
But this cozy compact has begun to fray. Today's digitally conscious consumers expect and demand more control over their own data. They want to determine when, where and how they interact electronically with banks, stores, and advertisers. Even though collected data can inform innovation and improve services, transparency, choice and consent are the consumer mandates of the day. We have seen the global fallout when massive databases are breached and witnessed the standoff between Apple and the FBI over a deadly terrorist's cell phone data. Yet, even as new revelations unfold on data security the rules affecting privacy are lost in the cloud(s).
Congress has been too relaxed in its regulation of the tech sector, allowing a hands-off, laissez-faire policy to take root when stricter oversight was warranted. Given the massive size and market capitalization of Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google (FAANG) alone, it is not heresy to ask now whether an antitrust review is in order. At the same time, it is appropriate to consider whether industry self-regulation should remain an option, albeit remote. Although it has been around for over a decade, the industry’s own privacy self-regulatory program has yielded minimal success.
Regulating tech will require Congress to balance many competing interests without sacrificing the investment and innovation which characterizes the industry. It is a daunting task to be sure, but there is never a wrong time to do the right thing and the time is now.
Adonis Hoffman is chairman of Business in the Public Interest and CEO of The Advisory Counsel, Inc. He is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and served in senior legal posts in Congress and at the FCC.