- There’s a lot of talk in Washington about new laws or rules to govern Big Tech.
- Despite the talk, regulation is unlikely.
- The tech industry is already working to scuttle new rules, and public sentiment is in its favour.
There’s growing talk about regulating Big Tech. But you shouldn’t expect that talk to turn into actual action.
With more and more details emerging about how people linked to Russia tried to influence last year’s election via some of the nation’s biggest online services, policymakers have started earnestly entertaining the idea that the government needs to step in and craft new rules to govern those and other tech companies.
Next week, congressional representatives will grill the leaders of Facebook, Google, and Twitter about what happened on their networks last year and what should be done about it. Meanwhile, in perhaps the most serious effort yet to put in place new rules on Big Tech, Democratic senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar recently introduced a bill that would regulate political advertising on Google, Facebook, and other widely used online sites in largely the same way as such ads are regulated when they are run on television or in print.
New rules? Don’t count on it
But even though there’s bipartisan support for Warner and Klobuchar’s bill, don’t count on Congress passing it. Indeed, even though there is widespread outcry over Russia’s alleged meddling and growing concern over the power of the Big Tech companies, you shouldn’t expect Washington to do much of anything in the way of placing new rules on how the Facebooks, Apples, and Googles of this world go about their business.
Congress hasn’t been doing much of anything on any number of issues lately, so expecting it to do something about Big Tech may have been a stretch no matter what. And with
President Trump unwilling to commit to pushing for new rules, it’s even less likely Congress will pass something.
Big tech’s big lobbying effort
Even so, Big Tech isn’t taking any chances and is doing whatever it can to scuttle any efforts to saddle it with more government oversight.
Already, the Big Tech companies have been actively moving to weaken or quash any proposed laws or regulations. Industry lobbyists worked to water down Warner and Klobucher’s bill. Meanwhile, with her company at the center of the storm over fake ads, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, went on a charm offence in Washington recently, meeting with lawmakers and the press.
The tech giants are also ramping up their lobbying efforts. Combined, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Twitter spent $US14.2 million on lobbying last quarter, a sharp rise from the $US11.9 million they spent in the same period a year earlier, The New York Times reported.
Stepping up self-regulation
But Big Tech isn’t just relying on its lobbyists to persuade lawmakers new rules won’t be necessary. It’s also trying to show them it can get its own house in order.
In recent weeks, several of the tech companies have been stepping up their own efforts to weed out fake news and fake ads and to make their businesses more transparent to users. Facebook announced it will allow users to easily see who paid for the ads that pop up in their News Feeds. Twitter announced a similar plant and also said it would bar ads from a pair of Russia-funded news organisations.
I’m dubious that these companies can actually police themselves, given that they have largely failed so far in other areas, such as combatting rampant personal abuse on their sites. Even if they can do a better job of combatting and exposing fake ads and fake news, that would only address a small part of the larger concerns about their power and role and society. Still, their efforts are likely to be persuasive to lawmakers, particularly the Republicans in charge of Congress, who tend to be strongly opposed to new regulations that might constrain corporations.
The public loves its tech gadgets and services
And Big Tech has one other big thing going for it in its effort to battle new rules — public sentiment. The public at large overwhelmingly loves these companies.
It’s not hard to see why. Big Tech has become an intricate part of our lives. We use their products and services every day. And they have done a great job of making those products and services super-compelling.
Apple’s iPhone X is super cool. Google’s Gmail service is free to use and an easy way to send email. Amazon makes it insanely easy to shop. Facebook is great for keeping up with friends and family.
The public may be aware of some of the dangers these companies pose, but they seem largely focused on the day-to-day benefits they get from using Big Tech’s products. And without some sort of significant and broad public anger toward Big Tech, there’s little chance our elected representatives will push hard to regulate them.
So don’t get too distracted by next week’s hearings, the hubbub about Warner and Klobucher’s bill, or any other talk about putting new rules on Big Tech. The most likely thing that’s going to happen is nothing at all.
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