Silicon Valley oligarchs have plenty of reason to lose sleep these days, but the looming prospect of Nov. 1 has to be high on the list. That’s the day that executives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter are scheduled to testify in back-to-back hearings before Senate and House committees investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. “The nightmare scenario is Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, and Sheryl Sandberg standing at a congressional table with their hands raised in the air like the tobacco people,” says Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC, referring to the 1994 televised hearing where tobacco executives testified that cigarettes are not addictive.
A few years ago, such a comparison would have been unthinkable. Successful technology companies were widely envied as paragons of American business. No longer. Against the backdrop of the 2016 election, social-media platforms that had been viewed as free, frictionless, neutral connections to the world looked instead like tools to undermine democracy.
Now concerns about their outsized influence on public debate, the real cost of their convenience, their voracious appetite to swallow markets and competitors, and their control over Americans’ personal data have formed a fog of suspicion that has many in Washington questioning the lax rules that facilitated their rise—and has politicians and public figures on all sides taking on big tech to score populist points.
For Democrats, anti-tech rhetoric presents a way to “latch on to public anger,” says Franklin Foer, a former editor of The New Republic and author of World Without Mind, a new book critical of big tech. Last year, during a closely watched speech on the dangers of corporate concentration, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized the lack of antitrust enforcement against Google. (Staffers for the Federal Trade Commission concluded in 2012 that Google abused its dominance in search, but commissioners chose not to pursue a lawsuit against the company.) Aides to Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, say he plans to ask enforcement agencies to examine whether tech’s power is suppressing wages and [hurting the American middle class]( https://www.recode.net/2017/7/26/16035512/transcript-senator-cory-booker-google-facebook-health-
From the other side of the political aisle, Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California fumed at “tech monopolies” violating conservatives’ civil rights, after Google fired the author of a memo criticizing its diversity programs. Last month, former Trump aide Steve Bannon suggested that Google and Facebook be regulated like public utilities.
Then there’s Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “I’m obviously very anti-government, way out on the libertarian fringe,” Carlson tells WIRED. Still, his recent TV segments on Silicon Valley giants could have been cribbed from Open Markets Institute director Barry Lynn, a liberal crusader against monopoly power. “I’m not any kind of radical,” says Carlson. But “if Google doesn’t represent an antitrust violation, then there’s no such thing as an antitrust violation!” That mirrors Lynn’s position that anticompetitive behavior is hiding in plain sight. “You don’t need an economist to admit that there’s a fist in your face,” says Lynn.
Tech titans have weathered bouts of scrutiny before, largely unscathed. What makes this time different is that the calls to rein in Silicon Valley superpowers are coming from all parts of the political spectrum, from people who agree on little else. The concerns are born of tech companies’ dominance. Nearly one out of every two dollars spent online at US retailers goes to Amazon; 99% of the revenue growth from digital advertising last year went to Facebook and Google. Corporate executives are more afraid of what Amazon will do to their business than Donald Trump, according to a recent Bloomberg survey of earnings calls.
Populist Sentiment From Two Angles
For now, the opposition to tech is more a constellation than a coalition. There’s concern on both sides that tech giants have squeezed out competition. But the loudest advocates on the margins are appealing to very different constituencies. Some on the right seek to punish tech giants for a perceived liberal bias by making them legally responsible for content they publish, and censor. Progressives, on the other hand, have equated anticompetitive behavior from tech platforms with issues like income equality and prescribe more government intervention and accountability.
“You’re looking at populist sentiment from two very different angles,” says Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia on the House Judiciary subcommittee.
The divide, and Washington’s gridlock, make decisive government action unlikely. Conservatives are still wary of messing with an American success story. For all his rhetorical criticism, Carlson hesitates at the notion of breaking up big tech companies, instead urging further investigation and dialogue. Democrats may weigh the cost of alienating Silicon Valley donors, who disproportionately favored Hillary Clinton, even as the companies themselves donated more money to congressional Republicans last year. Congressional Democrats’ Better Deal platform pledges to ensure that “Wall Street never endangers Main Street again.” But it says nothing about Menlo Park or Mountain View.
Given those constraints, corporate enemies like NewsCorp, which is battling Google and Facebook over online advertising, may be a necessary catalyst for change. Or anti-tech sentiment could pick up steam outside Washington. “It’s going to be a district attorney in a state, who sees that the shortest path to the governor’s mansion is to create a populist argument and go after one or all of these companies,” Scott Galloway, author of The Four, a new book about tech giants, predicted on a recent Recode podcast.
Foer says he was surprised by how quickly opinion changed while he was writing his book over the past two years. “When I began I felt like I as taking on this totally quixotic cause,” he says. “By the time my book came out people accused me of mouthing conventional thought.”
Events in the past few months have heightened fears. Investigators have uncovered new ways that Russian operatives used Facebook and other tech networks to disrupt the 2016 election. Amazon moved decisively into brick-and-mortar retail, and America’s kitchens, with its purchase of Whole Foods. The Wall Street Journal reported how Google pays academics to parrot its point of view. European regulators fined Google €2.4 billion after finding the company rigged search results to disfavor competitors. When Lynn praised that verdict, he was forced out of Google-backed New America Foundation.
Scott Cleland, a political consultant who worked in the George H.W. Bush administration, was struck by how few of Google’s usual defenders rallied to its cause after the EU decision. In 2015, when European regulators zeroed in on Google, then-President Obama called enforcers protectionist and senators wrote strongly worded letters of caution. But in June, “It was crickets other than counting on one hand Google’s most reliable voices in Washington,” says Cleland. “Everyone likes this notion of tech’s under attack and Washington’s coming for them,” says Bradley Tusk, a former campaign manager for Michael Bloomberg and political fixer for Uber and other tech clients facing regulatory scrutiny.
Tech companies adjusted poorly to the shifting political winds and are now, awkwardly, attempting to correct course. Both Facebook and Google increased their lobbying expenditures in the first half of this year. Bloomberg reports that Facebook has hired two crisis PR firms. Tech giants also are showing new-found flexibility on certain issues. In September, an internet trade group that includes Google and Facebook agreed to consider changes to a key portion of the Communications Decency Act that shields tech companies from liability for material users post on their sites. The changes are part of a bill to crack down on sex trafficking, but tech companies had previously resisted any amendments to the law.
Tech’s New Attitude in Washington
Congressional staffers say they’ve detected a more solicitous attitude from technology-company representatives in recent months. A Facebook representative called Sen. Al Franken’s office to ask if Franken planned to play a role in the NewsCorp effort to allow publishers to band together to negotiate with advertising giants Google and Facebook. In September, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who will be at the November hearing, to discuss the Russia investigation.
A few days later, Schiff told WIRED that it’s “probably only a matter of time” before Congress looks at broader questions, including “the degree to which Americans now get their news from social-media companies” and unintended consequences of their algorithms. “That may mean that more is called upon from the companies themselves [or] it may mean the government needs to do more to insist on greater transparency,” says Schiff.
Concerns about the power of big tech have been raised for years, most often from competitors. But the complaints gained little traction in the Obama administration, which maintained close ties to Silicon Valley and Google in particular. One example: Four of the five FTC commissioners who voted to settle with Google in 2013 were Obama appointees. EU regulators sued Google over very similar charges and won a €2.4 billion fine and other changes in Google’s business.
Now, however, tech companies find themselves estranged from the party in power. Garrett Johnson, cofounder of Lincoln Network, a right-leaning policy group based in San Francisco, says tech companies are scrambling to find a toehold after years of failing to cultivate deep relationships with conservatives.
Even the progressive values tech companies use to deflect skepticism are being turned against them. Chuck Johnson, a controversial blogger and owner of the right-wing site GotNews, says platforms like Twitter should be sued if they ban right-wing users. “People thought it was kind of joke when I was censored from Twitter” in 2015, says Johnson. “I warned people about the dangers of saying they were a free-speech platform.”
For a glimpse at how pressure from the edges has pushed tech’s influence into polite conversation, consider the odd friendship between William Kristol and William Galston. After every presidential election since 1992, Kristol, a conservative commentator who served in the administration of George H.W. Bush, and Galston, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and veteran of the Clinton administration, have debated the outcome at Harvard. “We always do it when the rubble is still bouncing and we’ve always been on opposite sides of wherever the battle line was,” says Galston. Last November, the duo was startled to discover common concerns, so they agreed to collaborate on a centrist agenda to get America back on track. After six months of interviewing experts across the political spectrum, they issued a policy paper in September. The first priority: challenging the titans of technology.
“They have been the golden guys,” Kristol says of big tech companies. “It’s a fantastic story and the movies are fun to watch. I like them personally, the ones I know, but at some point you have to step back” and reassess. “This isn’t a moral judgment, it’s just a structural change,” given the companies’ market power, Kristol says.
Considering limits on and breakup of Big Tech could be a useful joint New Center/liberal/neo-libertarian project. https://t.co/p8dNC2URiN
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) August 30, 2017
For his part, Galston says, “The people in the tech world have amassed through innovation, hard work, and first mover advantage, vast power and wealth and the ability to shape conversation, commerce, and American society.” But, he adds, “The assumptions about that relationship that guided the last 10 or 15 years [are over]. We are now going to have a different kind of conversation, one focused as much around accountability as innovation.”
From the time they started working together, the men agreed that if an idea had merit, “we would be willing to show up in the same sentence with people with whom we would not ordinarily break bread,” Galston says. “The fact that this issue produces some unusual bedfellows, we regard it as a plus rather than a minus.”