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The Techlash May Be Due for a Comeuppance, Say Gigi Sohn and Techdirt Founder Mike Masnick

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Gigi Sohn

November 9, 2020 — Two technology policy intellectuals said on Friday at the Reboot conference that the “techlash” may due for a comeuppance.

Gigi Sohn, distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology and Policy, and Techdirt Founder Mike Masnick critiqued the techlash movement as lacking in coherence and part of a misplaced concern.

“I feel like its mostly a manufactured concern over a legitimate concern,” said Masnick, referring to the fact that telecommunications companies and Hollywood studios spend far more on lobbying than even bit tech companies. “The public relations ecosystem manufactures narratives and print media loves to hold big tech companies accountable.”

The pair called for a better explanation of what the techlash movement is.

“There is a lot of people who are mad about certain companies and certain actions, but it is not coherent at this point,” said Sohn. “Anytime you try to drill down on what the problem is or how to fix it, you don’t get a comprehensible explanation.”

The techlash is a marker for broader societal issues

“People often don’t have a clear understanding, and may blame tech companies for larger societal issues,” added Masnick. “Things don’t go viral on social media until they first do on Fox News,” he said, offering an example of how the public backlash may be misplaced.

Currently, the four Silicon Valley giants – Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google – may be effectively being scapegoated for other policy failings in the media landscape. Referring to the fact that there is a much broader industry at stake that the so-called GAFA companies, Sohn said: “Tech is bigger than just four or five companies.”

Even in the October report excoriating big tech produced by House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline, D-R.I., “there was a slew of the things included, which made the critiques as nefarious as possible,” said Masnick.

In an attempt to offer possible solutions, Sohn said that Congress should revisit antitrust laws. “Antitrust law is broken and only looks at consumer benefits as reflected in prices,” said Sohn. “Congress should strengthen antitrust laws so they’re not meaningless, as they almost are now.”

The largest tech companies will emerge on the other side of the pandemic much stronger. While techlash rhetoric will most likely continue for some time, the vigor of the movement may be better positioned against current antitrust and other laws governing media companies, rather than against U.S. tech companies themselves.

The pandemic has been strengthening the hand of big tech

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an increased reliance on digital technologies, leading some individuals to foster more positive personal relationships with digital tech.

But others have been turned off by the surging influence the pandemic offered big tech corporations.

Although “techlash” was coined in 2013 by The Economist, it wasn’t until the the Democratic primaries leading up to the 2020 presidential contest that the techlash seemed to be gaining stronger political resonance.

See “Big Tech Gets a Big Lashing by Democratic Presidential Candidates, on Antitrust, Section 230 and Data Privacy,” by Drew Clark, Broadband Breakfast, October 16, 2019

And some of that stems from how, over the past few years, one tech executives after another has been hauled in front of Congress to testify about the harms that their companies are allegedly causing: Russian political interference, the toxic data dump from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, episodes of livestreaming the Christchurch massacre, and more.

Indeed, Andrew Yang’s long-shot presidential campaign seemed to be primarily about the threat that automation posed to American jobs.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., leveraged her longstanding criticisms of banking, energy and pharmaceutical companies to also call for a breakup of Google, Facebook and Amazon early in her campaign.

But it may be that the techlash movement has met its peak in the form of the Trump administration’s antitrust lawsuit against Google filed in October by the Department of Justice, or the apparent antitrust lawsuit that the Federal Trade Commission is preparing against Facebook.

“Half of Americans support the Google lawsuit,” said Sohn, citing recent data from the Pew Research Center, which found that 66 percent of Americans strongly believe the power of big tech is a problem for the U.S. economy. She also noted that 64 percent of people say social media has a negative effect, and over 70 percent say social media companies have too much power today.

Interestingly, however, the percentage of Democrats who believe that major technology companies should be regulated by the government more than they are currently has dropped significantly over the past two years.

It is only among conservatives who vote or lean Republican that that number rose, from 42 percent to 53 percent.

 

 

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Antitrust

American Innovation and Choice Online Act Advances to Senate Floor With Bipartisan Alliance

Klobuchar was able to rally Democrats and Republicans to support her bill, but its future depends upon a shaky alliance.

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar

WASHINGTON, January 21, 2022 – Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee have formed a tenuous, bipartisan alliance to curb allegedly anticompetitive behavior by large tech companies.

During a Thursday markup, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 16-6 to send the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, S. 2992, to the Senate floor. The bill would prohibit certain companies with online platforms from engaging in behavior that discriminates against their competitors.

There is a laundry list of violations and unlawful behaviors enumerated in the bill, including unfairly preferencing products, limiting another business’ ability to operate on a platform, or discriminating against competing products and services.

This bill would only apply to companies with online platforms that meet one of the following criteria:

  • Has at least 50,000,000 United States-based monthly active users on the online platform or 100,000 United States-based monthly active business users on the online platform
  • Is owned or controlled by a person with United States net annual sales or a market capitalization greater than $550,000,000,000, adjusted for inflation on the basis of the Consumer Price Index and is a critical trading partner for the sale or provision of any product or service offered on or directly related to the online platform

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the sponsor of the bill, referred to the bipartisan effort as “the Ocean’s 11 of co-sponsors,” featuring a diverse line-up of legislators, from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Miss., and Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., to Sen. Dick Durban, D-Ill., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Senators embrace specific and direct targeting of Big Tech

Klobuchar spoke directly about the need to target large companies, “We have to look at this differently that just startup in a garage – that is not what they are anymore. They may have started small, but they are [now] dominant platforms,” she said. “For the first time, the monopoly power is going to be challenged in what I consider to be a smart way.”

At the outset of the meeting, there were more than 100 amendments proposed by members of the committee, but by its conclusion, more than 80 of them had been withdrawn.

One of the amendments that worked its way into the bill was a markup that exempted subscription-based services from complying with the legislation, allowing services like Amazon Prime and Netflix to promote their own content above others’.

“The bill strikes the right balance between preventing the conduct that hurts competition, while also ensuring that platforms can continue to provide privacy and data security features to their users, compete against rivals in the United States and abroad, and maintain services that benefit consumers,” Klobuchar said.

A fragile alliance between read-meat Republicans and progressive Democrats

Though there were big names on both sides of the aisle supporting the bill, the alliance seemed fraught. Despite being supportive of the bill, Kennedy made it clear that his support was conditional. “I am a co-sponsor of this bill, but this bill is going to change – it is going to change dramatically,” he said. “I hope to be in the room when those changes are made, otherwise I will be off this bill faster than you can say ‘Big Tech.’”

Some of Kennedy’s criticisms harkened back to Section 230 issues raised by former President Donald Trump – calling some of the targeted companies “killing fields for the truth,” and stating that “their censorship is a threat to the first amendment.”

Despite his criticisms, Kennedy echoed other senators, both Republican and Democrat, who emphasized that they did not want the perfect to become the enemy of the good. “All we have done [for five years] is strut around, issue press releases, hold hearings, and do nothing. So, this is a start.”

Klobuchar also received push-back from members of her own party, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., stating that she was critical of the bill because it is designed to specifically target large tech companies, many of which are based out of California (though she ultimately voted to advance the bill to the Senate floor).

Hawley rebuffed Feinstein in his comments, stating that he supports the bill for the same reason Feinstein refuses to. “[Feinstein] pointed out – I think rightly – that this bill is very specific and does target specific behavior – anti-competitive behavior – in a specific set of markets. I think that that’s a virtue and not a vice.”

The measure must be passed by the full Senate, as well as the House, before it goes to the president for his signature.

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Free Speech

Former GOP Congressman and UK MP Highlight Dangers of Disinformation and Urge Regulation

Will Hurd and Member of Parliament Damien Collins say disinformation on social media platforms a worry in midterm elections.

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Photo of Will Hurd from March 2016 by Paul Morigi used with permission

WASHINGTON, January 11, 2022 – Former Republican Rep. Will Hurd said that disinformation campaigns could have a very concerning effect on the upcoming midterm elections.

He and the United Kingdom’s Member of Parliament Damien Collins  urged new measures to hold tech and social media companies accountable for disinformation.

Hurd particularly expressed concern about how disinformation sows doubts about the legitimacy of the elections and effective treatments to the COVID-19 virus. The consequences of being misinformed on these topics is quite significant, he and Collins said Tuesday during a webinar hosted by the Washington Post.

The Texan Hurd said that the American 2020 election was the most secure the nation has ever had, and yet disinformation around it led to the insurrection at the Capitol.

The British Collins agreed that democratic elections are particularly at risk. Some increased risk comes from ever-present disinformation around COVID and its effects on public health and politics. “A lack of regulation online has left too many people vulnerable to abuse, fraud, violence, and in some cases even loss of life,” he said.

In regulating tech and media companies, Collins said citizens are reliant on whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and self-serving reports from companies that manipulate their data.

Unless government gets involved, they said, the nation will remain ignorant of the spread of disinformation.

Tech companies need to increase their transparency, even though that is something they are struggling to do.

Yet big tech companies are constantly conducting research and surveillance on their audience, the performance of their services, and the effect of their platforms. Yet they fail to share this information with the public, and he said that the public has a right to know the conclusions of these companies’ research.

In addition to increasing transparency and accountability, many lawmakers are attempting to grapple with the spread of disinformation. Some propose various changes to Section 230 of the Telecom Act of 1996.

Hurd said that the issues surrounding Section 230 will not be resolved before the midterm elections, and he recommended that policy-makers take steps outside of new legislation.

For example, the administration of President Joe Biden could lead its own federal reaction to misinformation to help citizens differentiate between fact and fiction, said Hurd.

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Antitrust

CES 2022: Patreon Policy Director Says Antitrust Regulators Need More Resources

To find the best way to regulate technology, antitrust regulators need more tools to maintain fairness in the digital economy.

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Larent Crenshaw (left), head of Patreon's global policy team

LAS VEGAS, January 7, 2021 – The head of Patreon’s global policy team said federal regulators need more resources to stay informed about technology trends.

Laurent Crenshaw told CES 2022 participants Friday that Congress should provide tools for agencies like the Federal Trade Commission to enforce consumer protection standards.

“I’m not going to say that big tech needs to be broken up, but there should be appropriate resources for federal regulators to understand the digital marketplace,” he said. “We’re are still living in a world that is dominated by big actors, and we’re debating about whether to even give federal regulators the power to understand how the marketplace is moving toward digital.”

Crenshaw of Patreon said that more resources were necessary at the FTC in order to understand the digital marketplace. Patreon is a membership platform that provides a subscription service for creators to offer their followers.

Such resources would empower the agency to place appropriate safeguards for smaller technology innovators. “So in 10 [or] 20 years, it’s not just the replacements of the current Google, Apple, or Facebook, but something entirely new,” he said.

Panelists echoed Crenshaw’s point that consumer welfare should guide competition policy. Tyler Grimm, chief counsel for policy and strategy in the House Judiciary Committee, said that antitrust should bend to the consumer welfare standard. “Antitrust should leave in its wake a better economy,” he said.

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