Time to reign in the Internet-era robber barons

I have recently been listening to the tech investor Roger McNamee (most recently of Elevation Partners) on radio interviews and podcasts publicizing his new book, “Zucked,” in which he chronicles the evolution of Facebook, and which he argues, along with Internet and mobile giants Google and Instagram, threaten the integrity of our democracy and are tearing the fabric of our society.

McNamee is not your average commentator on such matters. He is a prominent tech investor, who was an early funder of Facebook, and formerly served as an advisor and mentor to Mark Zuckerberg himself. He’s had a front-row seat to the meteoric rise of this remarkable platform. And after listening to these interviews, I completely agree with him regarding the need for each of us as citizens to start questioning why these platforms are allowed to do so many of the things they are doing today, which are so manifestly causing harm, from harvesting and sharing user metadata without our knowledge or consent to designing products whose algorithms promote conflict and extremism for the sake of “stickiness” and ad revenue. Since much of this conduct is not explicitly illegal today, we need to have a serious discussion about what laws are needed to prevent the operation of these calamitous business models, and McNamee has elevated this discussion to a new level of prominence.

I also found myself angry and disappointed. As a Gen Xer, I am in the first generation to grow up with personal computers throughout my secondary schooling and adulthood, during what I think would be fair to call the heyday of personal computing. The giants of this age – let’s use Steve Jobs as the paradigmatic figure – were visionary and idealistic about how inexpensive computers could serve humankind. Now, the giants of the age of the Internet and ubiquitous connected devices – Mark Zuckerberg, and Sergei and Larry – are presenting themselves as idealistic (“connecting the world,” “don’t be evil,” etc.), but as McNamee points out, they have been able to operate as freely as they have by cashing in on the goodwill that tech companies built up over 50 years, from Bell Labs through a few years ago – destroying that goodwill on their way to the bank. Nobody ever had to haul Steve Jobs before a congressional committee to ask how Apple could allow the personal data and metadata of millions of its users to be publicly released without permission, or how its business model exposed its users to manipulation by foreign adversaries. (Indeed, McNamee cites present-day Apple as the one major tech company that could profit hugely from tracking its users, but instead chooses to safeguard user activity on Apple devices; by contrast, he says, Android and Chrome-powered devices are cheap because part of the cost is handing over your personal data to Google.)

If you were already concerned by what you knew about the data and metadata collection practices of the Internet behemoths – and I thought I was pretty well informed and realistic about these issues – I assure you that it is much more alarming than you thought. Just as the Carnegie and Rockefeller monopolies of times past played by rules that they created to further their own interests, the Internet giants of today are doing the same and will continue to do so until we pass laws to safeguard public interests and enforce existing antitrust laws against them.

As a lawyer who represents early-stage technology companies, I believe that it is critical to have a muscular regulatory regime in order to bring about an environment where new tech hardware and software can be trusted, and where innovation can therefore thrive. As a citizen, I believe that such regulations are essential to protecting our democracy; nothing is more important than that.

I have been off of Facebook since the Cambridge Analytica data release (I think anyone who is still using Facebook or Facebook Connect is crazy), and I am looking at ways to significantly decrease my exposure to Google. And as impressive and handy as these devices are, I will not be bringing an Amazon Alexa or Google Home device into my home until these companies are operating in accordance with enforceable legal standards. (Predictably enough, a few days ago it emerged that Amazon has a team of human reviewers listening to some its users’ audio clips.)

Listening to McNamee (and now, reading his book) has been a call to action for me, as I hope it is for others. We owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing these issues front and center.

Further information:
The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
Why Facebook and Twitter Can’t Be Trusted to Police Themselves by Renée DiResta and Tristan Harris
Free Speech Is Not The Same As Free Reach, by Renée DiResta

Categorised as: News and Views, soapbox