New Congress should start regulating Big Tech

New Congress should start regulating Big Tech
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Every passing week unveils more problems with Big Tech. From Facebook to Google to Uber and beyond, technology firms have disrespected our data, our privacy, and our norms.

Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google, often referred to collectively as FAANG or Big Tech, have indelibly changed the world, but their business practices, sheer size and market dominance are a very big problem for society. 

Under the spotlight of Congressional hearings, we have heard company after company reluctantly admit to a number of nefarious business practices. Policymakers are only now taking a clear-eyed look at what has been apparent for years and is now a foregone conclusion — Big Tech needs regulation, and now.

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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 doing so, 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.

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 alone, it is not heresy to ask whether an antitrust review is in order.

It is appropriate to consider whether industry self-regulation, which has been around for over a decade, should remain an option. It 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, but there is never a wrong time to do the right thing, and that time is now.

There is a basic framework for success in self-regulation. It begins with a set of well-established principles which industry members agree to accept and be bound by. Next is an independent body to oversee adherence to the principles and act as a quasi-judicial body. Next is a transparent process for dispute resolution. And last, but not least, is a strong enforcement mechanism, which can be backstopped by government action, if needed.

For decades, this model has been used quite effectively by the advertising industry. Successive chairmen of the Federal Trade Commission from both parties have endorsed the regime. It has worked in advertising to children, alcohol advertising, advertising of videogames, infomercials and a few other categories. 

When it comes to privacy, however, self-regulation has been elusive. For whatever reason, online companies have been either unwilling or unable to develop a credible self-regulatory system to address the fundamental concerns of consumers and Congress.

Privacy regulation is where any self-regulatory system must begin, not end.

After that, Congress needs to delineate all the bad business practices that are rampant in the technology sector, particularly in FAANG and Big Tech companies and develop an omnibus technology bill to address the issues.

There is plenty of help available both inside and outside the Beltway. The White House can convene another tech summit, and Congress easily can empanel a bipartisan Select Committee. Meantime, industry can begin to draw down on its bottomless reserves to finance an effective, independent self-regulatory regime under the direction of the independent national Better Business Bureau, which has deep experience in monitoring major industries.

The FAANG, Big Tech juggernaut is so pervasive and complex there is no single panacea for its ills. But concerted Congressional and White House action, along with monitored self-regulation, would be good for all Americans, and it is long overdue.

Adonis Hoffman is chairman of Business in the Public Interest, Inc and adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He is a former chief of staff and senior legal advisor at the FCC. Follow him on Twitter @AdonisHoffman.