March 26, 2019

How Washington Will Tame Tech

“William Barr, in his January confirmation hearings to become the U.S. attorney general, entered into the lexicon a valuable, if redundant, expression to describe the biggest technology companies in the land. “I think a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers,” said Barr, an establishment Republican lawyer from central casting—and therefore an unlikely antagonist for Big Business. His locution stuck, heightening the sense that the “behemoths”—Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and a hand­ful of less-gigantic competitors—now face a greater regulatory threat than at any other time in their relatively brief existence.

The companies are fighting the onslaught in various ways. Microsoft, the industry’s journeyman of governmental warfare, is cleverly advocating regulation of a narrow slice of potentially creepy technology: facial recognition. Apple is pointing fingers, suggesting its data-privacy stance is holier than Facebook’s and Google’s. Facebook, in a preview of how the industry will battle its adversaries, has simultaneously called for some form of regulation while darkly warning of the unintended consequences of the wrong kind. (One argument certain to get Donald Trump’s attention: Regulate us too severely, and you’ll only empower our Chinese competitors.)

The situation is fluid, but it’s clear that legislators, regulators, and consumer advocates are fed up with big tech companies and that some form of stricter control almost certainly is coming. What’s more, in the U.S., regulating Big Tech might be the one subject that bridges the ever-widening political divide. Says a top policy executive for a major tech player: “This is where the libertarian right meets the populist left.””

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