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Tech backlash misses the real damage tech giants do

THE techlash has officially arrived.

The unbridled power of big tech is now in the cross hairs of Washington. The Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department are divvying up behemoths like Facebook, Google, and Apple to begin investigations into all manner of behaviours, even as politicians are tripping over themselves to render judgments about breakups and antitrust and new regulations.

The cavalry has finally arrived. Shouldn't I be thrilled?

After all, I've been banging on for the past two years about the tech potentates' immense clout, sometimes sloppy management style and stubborn refusal to take responsibility for the consequences of the tools they create.

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But I am not thrilled and here's why: The very same agencies and legislators now screaming for blood have for decades ignored any sensible regulation of Silicon Valley, afraid of killing the golden geeks.

Just a year ago most could not have cared less about the ballooning power of tech over so many aspects of American life. More to the point, they have stayed stubbornly ignorant of how all this tech stuff actually works.

Now, though, they are coming in with guns blazing in a way that looks thoughtless and is likely to prove pointless. They remind me of a legal-pad-carrying Avengers team that's going to take a lot of what's good about tech down with what's bad. The obviously planted leaks about the unclear parameters of the Justice Department investigations could be the harbinger of a disorganised and possibly draconian crusade that could reduce this industry, one of our national treasures, to a pile of rubble.

Look, I strongly support the need to regulate tech and put up solid guardrails, especially since the sector has had pretty much no oversight ever. So far, there has been only self-interested self-regulation that looks like a mishmash of reactive and haphazard decisions by executives who seem to remain ignorant of human nature. These are people who still don't get the fact that neo-Nazis are not just nice guys who want to use their platforms to chat about the best tiki torches and how to get your whites whiter.

But I digress. If regulators had applied some pointed pressure only a decade ago, when all the same warning signs were there, we could have prevented the mess we find ourselves in now, with rampant disinformation, egregious privacy breaches and in-plain-sight addictive elements built right into the medium.

Consider, for example, Google's 2008 attempt to take over Yahoo's search in a deal that was clearly overreach. I was flabbergasted at the time that the government seemed to be hesitating to stop Google from amassing what amounted to an 80 per cent share of the market.

As I wrote then: Google "cannot be allowed to have a monopolistic share of the market. It is bad for advertisers, it is bad for consumers, it is bad for innovation". In that case, federal regulators eventually blocked the move, but its timidity was to become a trend.

There were many other acquisitions that could have used another look-see. Did they truly believe the FTC consent decree in 2011 was enough to bring Facebook to heel? Was Uber's follow-no-rules approach not enough of a clue that the "move fast and break things" mentality that pervaded tech was a problem?

It was the same playbook over and over, as those in charge of watching out for the rest of us allowed the creation of companies too big not to fail that have stifled competition and hurt consumers.

So naturally, now comes the payback. But it feels too late, and in many ways it goes too far. The threat to break up the biggest companies is little more than rhetorical tech slamming that will not accomplish anything beyond making Senator Elizabeth Warren sound tough (she is tough, but not on this). Breaking up companies takes forever and is a drastic way to do what could have been done via actual laws now in place or intelligent changes in antitrust laws.

At the same time, in other ways, the regulators are being too feeble. Sure, the endless grabbing of data by tech companies is offensive. But our government not even trying to pass a national privacy bill to protect users is more so.

Instead of just reacting, we need our government to be creatively proactive.

Regulators should be thinking about how to use federal incentives to spur small business creation to bring meaningful jobs and new innovations to this country; how to persuade investors to spread more venture capital beyond the three states (California, Massachusetts and New York) that get most of it; how to push for a more diverse workforce and fund ambitious education programmes, which other countries do without pause; how to anticipate the human impact of the next group of technologies like artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and innovation; how to create the most forward-thinking infrastructure plan to modernise our cities; and how to encourage tech to focus on innovations to combat existential issues like climate change, and food and water shortages.

But hey, at least they are all over the regulation of electric scooters. Meanwhile, techies are moving on to pogo sticks. Speaking of bouncing and crashing, the stocks of all of these companies swooned on June 3 with investors fearful that far-ranging scrutiny would pull the emergency brake on the digital gravy train.

Call it the techlash whiplash. NYTIMES

  • The writer - editor at large for the technology news website Recode and producer of the Recode Decode podcast and Code Conference - is a contributing Opinion writer.