One thing that’s standing in the way of such a debate is fear-mongering by tech companies and their allies. They tend to decry anything that might alter how Big Tech operates as somehow helping China win the future. It’s an intellectually dishonest tactic and a distraction from important questions about our future.
Several Democrats in Congress have proposed new laws to crack down on big technology companies. And the new chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan, has advocated for aggressive enforcement of monopoly laws to stop what she sees as big tech companies preying on consumers.
Those steps could unravel the status quo in technology, or not. We’re in a messy phase that makes it tricky to predict what Congress, states, courts and government enforcers might do to change the rules for tech companies — and whether it will do more good than harm. But powerful corporations and people who support them aren’t grappling with the nuances. Publicly at least, they have responded as they often do, by essentially implying that guardrails on some U.S. technology companies create the conditions for China to take over the world. Somehow. Don’t ask how.
Here’s what an official at NetChoice, a group that represents Google, Facebook and Amazon, said about the crop of Big Tech regulation bills: “At the same time Congress is looking to boost American innovation and cybersecurity, lawmakers should not pass legislation that would cede ground to foreign competitors and open up American data to dangerous and untrustworthy actors.” And this is what the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a policy group that gets funding from telecommunications and tech companies, said this week about the appointment of Khan as F.T.C. chair: “In a time of increased global competition, antitrust populism will cause lasting self-inflicted damage that benefits foreign, less meritorious rivals.”
These statements don’t name China, which is the magic word to make stuff happen in Washington. But that’s what they mean by referencing unnamed foreign rivals. Yes, it’s reasonable for Americans to want strong U.S. companies in a competitive global economy. But making a handful of tech kings play fair isn’t likely to break them.
As for the security arguments, the logic doesn’t work if you think about it for more than two seconds. Does preventing Amazon from selling its own brand of batteries — as one congressional bill might do — hold America back from fighting foreign cyberattacks? Nope. How do proposals that might restrain giant companies from doing whatever they want with our personal information weaken America on the world stage? They do not.
There are absolutely legitimate concerns about China shaping global technology or online conversations in ways that clash with America’s values and interests. It’s right to be concerned about China’s participation in swiping America’s secrets. That has almost nothing to do with whether Americans would be better off if Facebook were prohibited from buying the next Instagram.
Restraining U.S. corporate powers from enriching themselves at the expense of Americans doesn’t weaken the country’s ability to restrain abuses by China or support competitive U.S. companies. We can do all of it. Remember that behind the chaotic attempts in Washington and beyond to reimagine how these companies operate are meaty questions about technology in our lives: Would we have more control over our personal information, better shopping services and a more fair economy if Big Tech wasn’t so big or if there were more rules about how the companies operate? And how do we limit what we think are downsides from those companies without ruining what we think is helpful?
Ovide is a tech writer with NYT©2021
The New York Times