The time is now.
Government regulation, public pressure, worker action — all these and more are needed to rein in the big tech companies, which have been allowed to operate largely unhindered for too long.
That was the view of most participants at The New York Times DealBook conference task force — made up of eight technology experts in the public and private sectors — looking at the question of “How Big Should Big Tech Be?”
“I think we have lived for decades now with no regulation, so to speak, of tech,” said Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook and now the co-chair of the nonprofit Economic Security Project. “And the time’s come due for regulation, for structural solutions and for a general cultural rethinking of how to ensure that these platforms are working for us rather than us working for the platforms.”
The challenges include increasing concerns about how private data is collected and used; the spreading of false information that could influence the 2020 election, by both foreign and domestic actors on social media; and whether behemoths like Facebook, Google and Amazon should be split up.
“I definitely think we need market regulation,” said Gabriel Weinberg, the founder and chief executive of the search engine DuckDuckGo. “I think it’s the only way to correct systemic market failures.”
But addressing the myriad issues is not a one-time affair. “I’m worried Congress is thinking that we’re going to pass one privacy bill and be done for 20 years,” he added.
And one tool will not resolve all the different and complex issues, said Noah Phillips, commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission. First, “we need to ask what is the harm that we’re solving and how does the remedy address that harm?”
If the question is competition, he said, then that’s what antitrust laws are for. Privacy, on the other hand, will require other approaches. And therein, he and others have said, lies the crux of the dilemma.
For there to be any change in how the big technology companies are operating, most agreed that there must be a confluence of several factors: a strong congressional mandate, leadership to address long-term needs, more resources for agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and a public willingness to lose some of the ease and convenience people now get through companies like Amazon.
Steve Huffman, the chief executive of Reddit and the only head of a social media company in the room, said: “When it comes to regulation it’s the detail that matters. I don’t want to see regulation that’s knee-jerk or comes from a position of fear.”
But he acknowledged, “The state of our political discourse is as toxic as it’s ever been in my lifetime.”
Mr. Huffman said Reddit was not following Twitter’s lead in banning political ads — something Facebook has refused to do. He said he believes such an action favors incumbents, but Reddit is considering enabling comments on all political ads. Currently, those who buy the ads can decide whether or not they are open to comments.
Such discussion reflects “a healthy debate about how we treat political ads in this country,” Mr. Huffman said. “While I don’t agree with their decisions, I also don’t really agree with the status quo.”
Some said, though, that the workers inside companies can make a bigger difference than government officials coming in from the outside.
“I’ve seen more regulation go bad in technology than produce good,” said Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist and the head of Craig Newmark Foundations. “I’ve been working with line workers, grunts, my fellow nerds in these tech companies who are now actively working to try to get their management to do the right thing, and that’s beginning to bear fruit.”
For Kate Crawford, a co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University, which aims to understand the social implications of artificial intelligence, it isn’t a matter of choosing between government intervention or worker and public action, but advocating for both.
“The question isn’t whether regulation works or do we need it,” Ms. Crawford said. “I think we absolutely need it, but the question we have to ask is ‘Is it going to be enough?’”
She said collective action by workers at companies like Google, investigations by the news media and institutions like hers were all shining a light on the workings of the major technology companies as never before.
On the question of whether the big tech companies should be broken up — as Elizabeth Warren has advocated in her presidential campaign — Mr. Hughes said it was now clear that a majority of Americans want that.
“In a time when Republicans and Democrats can’t really agree on anything, there seems to be a pretty wide bipartisan consensus that we should be paying more attention to this,” he said. “Now the question is, where does that go, and how does that develop over the next year?”
But Ms. Crawford warned that breaking technology companies into smaller entities would not necessarily solve the problem.
“If we move from 10 major players to 100 but don’t question the underlying business model, is that really going to address this very complex set of problems?” she asked. “Why are we not talking about, essentially, the sort of rapacious excavation of everybody’s biometric information, location data, the use of everything that is available to train A.I. systems? Why are we not looking at labor practices in terms of contract work forces?”
Or as Alexa von Tobel, the founder and managing partner of Inspired Capital, noted, “You can be a really small company with incredible A.I. and quantum computing and owning data of enough people and be very, very dangerous.”
While the challenges can seem overwhelming — and at times the conversation steered toward the apocalyptic — Mr. Hughes, for one, was optimistic.
“We can get regulation right. We do it with airlines. We do it with pharmaceuticals. We do it with the F.C.C.,” he said. “We have come to a cultural agreement in the United States that when private industry is crucially important in our lives, we have to ensure that it works for the people.”
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