President Biden published an op-ed yesterday in the Wall Street Journal warning Big Tech that his administration was working — in fact, has been working — to curb its worst abuses. But these “main principles of reform” sound familiar enough.
The editorial begins by thanking the tech sector for its hard work (and contributions to GDP, it is understood) and immediately begins to lament its depredations of children and otherwise vulnerable people.
“I am concerned about how certain industry players collect, share and exploit our most personal data, deepen extremism and polarization in our country, tilt the playing field of our economy, violate the civil rights of women and minorities, and even put our children at risk,” the president wrote.
He cites three main areas where the federal government must intervene: privacy, algorithmic accountability and competition.
Regarding privacy, his concern is that companies “collect, use and share highly personal data”, primarily for ad targeting. He says the White House is “developing new privacy rules for commercial data.” Good! The industry has been pushing for federal rules for years — of course, it was because they didn’t like California’s, but they certainly asked for it. The time to establish them was a long, long time ago – they take forever to figure out and then lead to dozens of court cases that define their finer contours, as we have seen in Union efforts European GDPR.
We’ve seen privacy bills come and go, but like everything else, they fall prey to partisan politics and that seems unlikely to change. But at least we have a glimpse of the challenges ahead with California’s consumer protection law and other state-led efforts. And the FTC may also be preparing to take a chance.
The second issue is that the technology must “take responsibility for the content it delivers and the algorithms it uses.” For this, he proposes to reform article 230, which is a Pandora’s box that everyone has had on their desk for years but that no one seems to want to open. Do too little and nothing changes; overdo it and the tech sector reels under a hail of lawsuits. Easier to complain about than trying to thread that needle, it seems. Algorithmic transparency may be easier to achieve, especially if one were to tie it to AI-related policy and issues of protected classes and categories.
Finally, we must “bring competition back to the technology sector”. On this Biden is clearly banking on the ascendant Lina Khan, president of the FTC and sworn enemy of Amazon, Meta and now Microsoft.
“We recently secured a significant funding increase for our antitrust enforcement officials,” Biden writes. Khan and others have complained that the FTC lacks the funding, authority, and manpower (not to mention the inclination, under some administrations) to take on the industry giants who are buying up competitors out of thin air. was not. Creating a new antitrust team with a new antitrust philosophy (ask Khan about that) might actually accomplish what Biden wants.
But of course, this isn’t the first time someone has complained about things like Facebook buying Instagram and WhatsApp. The systemic advantages given to those who can afford to lobby the government have allowed all of this to happen – remember that many “big business Americans…stifled by dominant incumbents” came and went while Biden was vice president or senator. So we’ve heard this song before. What happens afterwards? Usually nothing.
While Biden’s op-ed doesn’t add anything to the debate about technology’s excesses and potential cures, it’s not meant to. Instead, it serves as a public statement of its (reluctant) opposition to the problems of the tech world. “You have it out on your own, my friends,” he seems to be saying. Perhaps this legislative period will be full of the long-promised nips and kinks that technology desperately needs and even asks for. Unfortunately, as he notes in the last paragraph:
“There will be many policy issues that we will disagree on in the new Congress, but…let’s unite behind our common values” for tech reform, he wrote. Good luck, Mr. President! This time, it’s sure.