Move deliberately and rebuild American tech leadership
Facebook’s long-time unofficial motto was “move fast and break things.” We now see that this was a mistaken approach to building and governing a content platform. But some members of Congress who are seeking to hit back at Facebook seem to have been inspired by this same motto. Rather than taking a thoughtful approach and examining the consequences of new antitrust regulation on U.S. competitiveness and national security, the motto of these lawmakers seems to be: “Move fast, break the American tech industry and see what happens.”
We’ve tried the “move fast and break things” approach. It’s time for a new, more deliberate approach — a real effort to grapple with the benefits and harms of the tech industry and to build a regulatory framework to govern and promote the sustainable growth of American technology companies, while squarely taking on the challenge from techno-authoritarian states such as China and Russia.
What we should not do is overreact to the “Facebook Files” by passing recent bills introduced by Rep. David Cicilline (R-R.I.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) that have nothing to do with the harms described by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. These bills threaten to exacerbate those harms by creating hundreds of even less scrupulous mini-Facebooks that are beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement and would eliminate the ability of consumers to rely on app stores to provide protection against the next social media harm.
These bills would turn a blind eye to abuses by Chinese companies such as Bytedance and Tencent, and would actively require U.S. companies to provide their Chinese and Russian rivals with access to data about U.S. businesses and consumers, preferential treatment on U.S. devices and platforms and an easier path to acquiring U.S. intellectual property and technologies.
That can’t be the lesson of the Facebook Files — that if only TikTok had control of more user data, these harms could have been avoided. Unfortunately, many are rushing to react to Haugen’s important disclosures with legislation that distracts from the important task of developing tech guardrails and risks creating an even less responsible content ecosystem.
Instead of fundamentally dismantling America’s tech industry, we need smarter ways to build up tech governance at home and abroad. The first and most critical step Congress can take is passing a comprehensive privacy law drawing on the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the recent Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act to ensure that the harms we’ve seen from Facebook won’t happen again, and to shape global standards on privacy that make it clear to consumers what and how their data are used.
On content governance, we must protect and empower kids and families online, while developing a shared understanding and assessment of how companies can responsibly manage harmful content, like dangerous misinformation, on their services. On emerging technologies, Congress should examine stronger AI regulation to ensure democracies are in control of this valuable technology.
We’ve all heard about the “Brussels effect” — where laws that are written in Europe are quickly adopted by other regimes, both for good and for ill. By taking our own affirmative policy steps, Congress and the Biden administration can build up a “Washington effect” to counter European tech restrictions and to show the rest of the world that there is a democratic tech alternative to the authoritarian measures coming out of China and Russia.
In addition to regulation, Congress should drive investment in the U.S. technology supply chain. This includes leveraging the hundreds of billions of dollars that technology companies are pouring into research and development and passing the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act and the CHIPS Act — to strengthen U.S. leadership on technologies like quantum, semiconductors and AI that are necessary to outcompete China.
Congress and the Biden administration should work with the EU and other democracies to address rising cybersecurity threats and build a regulatory environment that protects and secures digital infrastructure against malicious nation-state actors as well as cybercriminals. And the U.S. should fight back when other countries try to seize IP, data and revenue from U.S. companies and the U.S. tax base — whether that’s coming from authoritarian rivals such as Russia and China or from trading partners in Europe.
In short, we need a strategic vision of tech governance that addresses problems related to Facebook but also strengthens American leadership. The path we’re on right now, with the bills from Rep. Cicilline and Sen. Klobuchar, accomplishes neither of those goals. Let’s use the opportunity we’ve been given by Frances Haugen to move forward with a smarter approach.
Lindsay Mark Lewis is the executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute.