Restoring trust in big tech raises many questions, few easy fixes
As technology plays an increasingly dominant role in American’s day-to-day lives and big tech companies continue to bolster their sway among the nation’s policy makers, the trust gap between these firms and their customers grows wider and wider.
Regulators have identified a host of areas where companies can work to improve trust, widen the competitive playing field and foster technological innovation. Agreeing upon and implementing solutions is another story entirely.
The issue of rise in mistrust of the technology industry was the topic of a three-day series of discussions hosted virtually this week by Silicon Flatirons, a Boulder-based group devoted to fostering conversations among entrepreneurs, legal professionals, students and lawmakers. It is affiliated with the University of Colorado Boulder Law School.
Silicon Flatirons’ event was capped off Friday morning with a keynote discussion featuring the group’s founder and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, U.S. Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks and U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner Christine Wilson.
Regulatory discussions about big tech center on the government’s role to restrain private enterprises operating within a capitalistic framework and whether our current framework — characterized by legislative gridlock and ever-powerful lobbying groups — represents a truly free market.
According to Wilson, a Republican commissioner appointed by former President Donald Trump, regulators are meant to serve as “referees, not star players” during disputes over corporate power.
“There’s a fine line between policing the market, ensuring the rules are followed and actually picking the winners and losers,” she said, and some aggressive antitrust proposals cross that line.
Weiser, a Democrat who tends to advocate for a more hands-on regulatory approach, said that antitrust actions, “when done properly, can promote consumer trust.”
Consumer trust is not promoted, however, when big tech companies are seen to have special access to regulators and policy makers, Wilson said.
“It’s actually not capitalism that’s failed us; it’s crony capitalism that’s failed us,” she said.
One issue that particularly rankles consumers and sows distrust is data privacy.
“The public is looking to us to vindicate their trust and make sure these [mobile] devices [that gather and track user data] are safe,” said Starks, a Democratic Trump-appointee.
Regulators should take a more active approach and “lean into their authority to keep users safe,” he said.
Forcing tech companies to protect user data typically garners bipartisan support, Weiser said.
But “we have an institutional problem within the U.S. in that Congress is not able to function,” he said. “In the normal world, Congress would be holding hearings, understanding the problem and assigning solutions.”
In the absence of federal leadership, states have had to pick up the slack,” Weiser said.
Federal privacy standards would be helpful to companies, according to Wilson.
“Businesses need certainty and predictability,” she said. “The patchwork that’s emerging among the states is not the first and best solution.”
Social media giants such as Facebook, Weiser said, used to be more concerned about privacy when they faced greater competition.
But when a firm “buy[s] off your rivals or bury[s] them,” it creates an environment that’s “antithetical to free and fair competition and user choice.”
Even when regulators are able to apply conditions to merging firms, those conditions can prove hard to enforce, according to Starks.
It can be challenging “trying to figure out if there’s a monetary penalty or in some cases [regulators are faced with] the very hard task trying to unscramble the eggs,” he said.
In addition to encouraging competition and consumer protections, regulators are tasked with trying to ensure that all Americans have access to technology, specifically broadband internet, Starks said. This issue has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rural residents and people among low-income and minority populations are “being hurt, being disadvantaged — on top of their prior disadvantages — by the online learning gap,” Weiser said.
As President Joe Biden settles into power, regulators and tech companies alike will be keeping a close eye on how the new administration approaches the issues of privacy, consolidation and access, the panelists said.
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