IS GOVERNMENT THE ANSWER TO BIG TECH?

December 8, 2021

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Many people in the media and politics are pushing to punish Big Tech for their various “crimes” and transgressions. There’s a lot of anger in the air, and with so much smoke, I wanted to give my take.

People are mad about so many things — tech companies are censoring people too much or too little, designing highly addictive products, violating our privacy, etc. Some of these complaints are overblown, and others are worth considering.

I worry about the addictiveness of tech products and the ways that social media and screen time are harmful to people’s physical and mental health. As a parent with kids in high school and college, I can see how much these anxieties are affecting families today. That doesn’t mean there’s a silver bullet solution.

First, banning addictive features, like infinite scroll, might sound nice at first, but this is not realistic. When has banning anything ever really worked? Addictive stuff is out there in the world, and we’ve all got to learn to live with it. The answer to addiction is for people to educate themselves and their kids about how to stay healthy.

Quite a few others actually want some of these companies to be forcibly broken up. People who want to break up the big tech companies seem more interested in punishment than solutions. A corporate breakup is pretty much the most aggressive intervention a government can make, and this 20th century solution to a 21st century problem might not help with addiction, data privacy, censorship, etc. As with previous forced corporate breakups, the benefits are uncertain and unintended consequences are almost certain.

Market-based solutions have a better track record than dramatic government action. Give people the right information and markets can harness the collective intelligence of millions of people to find the best path. What is the right information? Our user data.

Companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others are generating enormous wealth by accumulating detailed dossiers on all their users. While this data has fuelled tech company valuations into the hundreds of billions of dollars, it’s hard to understand what is being, or has been collected on each of us. Allowing individuals to see, control, and even “own” their data might be enough to tame the excesses of tech companies. Don’t like what they’re collecting or how they’re using it? Move the data to another company.

Since this data derives from our own actions, it seems like a reasonable and modest government intervention to make tech companies allow us more visibility into and control over our information. Data portability would have the added benefit of making it much easier for startups to gain traction, helping solve the “monopoly” criticism, that big tech is squashing innovation. None of this requires breaking any companies up.

The whole consumer technology industry is still so young. The iPhone has barely been available for a decade, and all the mobile apps, social media, communications tools, and games that comprise the new tech economy are even newer. It’s only normal that this new industry would experience growing pains, so let’s not overreact. We don’t need to ban technologies or break up companies. A little intelligent reform should be enough.

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