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What to make of the government’s strident new tone on ‘Big Tech’

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
President Joe Biden talks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 30, 2023, after returning from an event in Baltimore on infrastructure.

We may be excused if we conclude that something may have recently changed in Washington’s attitudes toward “Big Tech”: On Jan. 11, President Biden wrote an op-ed that was just short of a blistering attack. (I capitalize the term in deference to the president’s use of it, hereafter “BT”.) This was followed on Jan 24 by a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit against “BT” leader, Google, seeking to break it up. The lawsuit uses similar inflammatory language — and both stand in fairly stark contrast to the tone of recent Democratic presidents’ warm support for “BT.”

To no one’s surprise, “BT” and its supporters pushed back, citing the popularity and benefits of social media and the contributions that “BT” makes to America’s competitiveness, global influence, economy and national security. Also, to no one’s surprise, competitors of “BT” — from the technology, publishing and media industries — used these developments as an opportunity to air their grievances.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of the president’s message was its fairly inflammatory language. Anyone who has followed the president’s career knows that he — like most politicians — is no stranger to strident or accusatory language. But the president’s written use of phrases like “What’s more, social media and other platforms have allowed abusive and even criminal conduct” and “Big Tech companies have elbowed mom-and-pop businesses out from their platforms” set a tone that both contrasts with his Democratic predecessors’ and implies public outrage.

And while it’s common for Justice Department antitrust lawsuits to use strident language to justify their plea, an involvement by the attorney general along with filing statements like “one industry behemoth … has corrupted legitimate competition” tend to set a surprisingly outraged tone.

Without doubt, many Americans are highly supportive of this tone, including most privacy advocates (who believe that “BT” surreptitiously and harmfully invades the privacy of average Americans), many anti-trust experts and advocates (who believe that “BT” is either simply too large, illegally prevents desirable competition, or both), many supporters of former President Trump (who feel that he was wronged by “BT”), people concerned with what they view as intentional corruption of children’s values by “BT,” and businesses that have lost in their competition/dealings with “BT” and that believe the competition was unfair.

But there is little evidence to suggest that the public as a whole is outraged by “BT”.    

While the feeling of outrage suggested by the tone of these January messages from the government may not be widespread, polling does suggest that more regulation of Big Tech is broadly supported. As is often the case, it is likely that — aside from the groups that have an interest in breaking up or regulating “BT” — most of the public just wants to have their cake and eat it too. 

Nowhere is this more clear than in the relationships between the leading issues of privacy and “free” services or preventing hate speech/child predation. Advertising-supported media is as old as media and the benefit to users is that the media has income other than paying-for-use. (Full disclosure: I personally tend to be a “privacy hawk,” although many of my friends and family seemingly could care less.) 

American broadcasting was built on the financial foundation of advertising so that it appeared to be “free.” However, as long ago as the 1950s, broadcasters understood that the more refined the broadcast audience, the greater the value to the advertiser (consider beer commercials during football games.) But “narrow-casting” so that advertisers could address a desired market segment has limits. 

The advent of consumer-oriented, interactive media in the 1990s — starting with services like Prodigy and AOL — held the potential to break the limits of broadcasting by continuously electronically monitoring consumers, whose profiles would be valuable to advertisers. Many sought to use early online services to electronically create the holy grail of advertising “A Market of One.”

While this was impossible during the 1990s, over ensuing decades, this is more-or-less what has developed.

As retailers created membership clubs to monitor customers and credit card companies discovered that spending records were valuable, a data brokerage industry emerged to electronically collect, package and monetize virtually all of our personal information.

This in turn significantly financed the development by “BT” of enormously-useful, advertiser-supported, online video/photo/text/audio services, which we all think of as “free.”

It’s worth recalling that as recently as the early-1990s, consumers had to pay for e-mail, website, chat or other services.

The important issue remains, however, whether — if consumers fully understood the tradeoff between today’s “everything online is free” and comprehensive surveillance — they would choose to give up their privacy in return for “free” services? Affordability is undoubtedly the prime factor since, regardless of privacy considerations, most consumers would drop an online service if they could not afford it. Conversely, many consumers who could afford to preserve their online privacy would quickly do so.

Importantly, the relationship between “BT” privacy and advertising revenues is not black and white — it consists of shades of gray in which the value of social media to advertisers can increase or decrease depending on “BT’s” data collection practices.

Similar privacy dilemmas arise in efforts to protect children online or to prevent online terrorism and “hate speech.” For any “BT” social media provider to fully surveil for child predation, terrorism or “hate speech,” they must collect, examine and identify all content and its source — but doing so involves a high degree of surveillance, particularly if law enforcement and associated intelligence agencies have access to the collected data.

So, there are complicated tradeoffs between the benefits of “free” services, child protection, and preventing “hate speech” or terrorism on the one hand and protecting the privacy of consumers on the other.

It is clear, the president’s tone notwithstanding, that the subject of “BT” privacy is complex and that most consumers are uninformed, or at least apathetic. Moreover, consumers tend to have quite differing values. The principal issue, then, is the extent to which this should be resolved through government regulation, voluntary industry initiatives or technology tools.

Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C. He was a senior executive with Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 through 1994. He also directed internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 2000 and later served as Senior Vice-President & Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified on internet policy issues numerous times and served on advisory committees to the FTC and various UN agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.

Tags advertisers Advertising antitrust Biden Big tech Broadcasting child predators Child safety consumer data privacy Data privacy Donald Trump free services Google internet business Internet privacy Internet service provider Joe Biden online advertising online business online competition Privacy Social Media advertising social media platforms Targeted advertising tech policy Trump social media Trump supporters

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