June 27, 2019

Political issues around big tech companies

The technology industry has an increasingly complex relationship to government and politics, most importantly in three areas:

Here’s some of what I think about that, plus links to a lot more.

1. For a long time, I’ve maintained:

The first point is now widely accepted. The second unfortunately is not; laws and regulations generally state who may or may not record, keep or decrypt particular kinds of data, rather than what particular uses they may make of it.

2. Another threat to freedom has arisen as big as that from privacy/surveillance: a many-fronts push for censorship. It would ultimately be calamitous for free countries to agree that the threat of “Fake News” and other dangerous online partisanship justifies general censorship, by governments or “platform” tech companies as the case may be, yet that is exactly the path we seem to be on.

Fortunately, there are less dangerous ways to address the same challenges. I expect to make as much fuss about this issue in the upcoming decade as I have about privacy/surveillance over the past one.

3. There are increasingly many calls to break up large internet companies, under existing antitrust laws or perhaps new ones. There is some precedent for actual breakup of technology companies, mainly the 1982 breakup of AT&T/the Bell System in telephony and a couple of rounds of divestiture by the GE/RCA/NBC broadcasting/electronics companies in 1932 and 1942. More important, perhaps, have been less-than-breakup agreements to promote or allow competition, such as Bell’s 1956 agreement to license its patents for free, IBM’s 1956 agreement to compete somewhat fairly in professional services, IBM’s further agreement in 1969 to “completely” unbundle hardware, software and services, and Microsoft’s tolerance of independent web browsers.

As for some particular, recently suggested competition-protecting ideas:

And whatever happens otherwise in competition enforcement, I’d support antitrust exceptions for certain technology research and study — certainly in multiple security-related efforts, and perhaps around language understanding as well.

4. One interesting note is how commonly tech-related policy issues turn out to be non-/bi-partisan.

Of course, there are exceptions, for example:

5. And finally, government procurement of technology has been a costly mess for many decades, worldwide, occasional improvements such as those during the Clinton Administration in the United States notwithstanding. And the cost is not just in money; with better knowledge management technology, the FBI might have connected dots to prevent the 9/11 attacks.

Private-sector large-enterprise technology acquisition is no picnic either, but it’s a lot better than government’s. Government contracting procedures have got to be changed.

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