We need to have a vigorous debate about what Americans might gain or lose if government officials succeed in forcing changes to technology services and companies as we know them.
One thing that’s standing in the way of such a debate is fearmongering by tech companies and their allies. They tend to decry anything that might alter how Big Tech operates as somehow helping China win the future. It’s an intellectually dishonest tactic and a distraction from important questions about our future. It bugs the heck out of me.
What prompted my eye rolling was how tech companies have responded to a recent flurry of activity that could profoundly alter life for America’s tech superstars, and all of us who are affected by their products. Several Democrats in Congress have proposed new laws to crack down on big technology companies. And the new chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan, has advocated for aggressive enforcement of monopoly laws to stop what she sees as big tech companies preying on consumers.
Those steps could unravel the status quo in technology, or not. We’re in a messy phase that makes it tricky to predict what Congress, states, courts and government enforcers might do to change the rules for tech companies — and whether it will do more good than harm.
But powerful corporations and people who support them aren’t grappling with the nuances. Publicly at least, they have responded as they often do, by essentially implying that guardrails on some U.S. technology companies create the conditions for China to take over the world. Somehow. Don’t ask how.
Here’s what an official at NetChoice, a group that represents Google, Facebook and Amazon, told The Washington Post about the crop of Big Tech regulation bills: “At the same time Congress is looking to boost American innovation and cybersecurity, lawmakers should not pass legislation that would cede ground to foreign competitors and open up American data to dangerous and untrustworthy actors.”
And this is what the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a policy group that gets funding from telecommunications and tech companies, said this week about the appointment of Khan as F.T.C. chair: “In a time of increased global competition, antitrust populism will cause lasting self-inflicted damage that benefits foreign, less meritorious rivals.”
Sounds bad! You might notice that these statements don’t name China, which is the magic word to make stuff happen in Washington. But that’s what they mean by referencing unnamed foreign rivals.
Yes, it’s reasonable for Americans to want strong U.S. companies in a competitive global economy. But making a handful of tech kings play fair isn’t likely to break them.
As for the security arguments, the logic doesn’t work if you think about it for more than two seconds. Does preventing Amazon from selling its own brand of batteries — as one congressional bill might do — hold America back from fighting foreign cyberattacks? Nope. How do proposals that might restrain giant companies from doing whatever they want with our personal information weaken America on the world stage? They do not.
There are absolutely legitimate concerns about China shaping global technology or online conversations in ways that clash with America’s values and interests. It’s right to be concerned about China’s participation in swiping America’s secrets. That has almost nothing to do with whether Americans would be better off if Facebook were prohibited from buying the next Instagram or whether Apple shouldn’t be able to give a leg up to its fitness and music services on iPhones.
Restraining U.S. corporate powers from enriching themselves at the expense of Americans doesn’t weaken the country’s ability to restrain abuses by China or support competitive U.S. companies. We can do all of it.
I get worked up about tech lobbyists’ policy statements because I fear that they’re a sign of tech superpowers’ refusal to engage in essential debates about the future.
Remember that behind the chaotic attempts in Washington and beyond to reimagine how these companies operate are meaty questions about technology in our lives: Would we have more control over our personal information, better shopping services and a more fair economy if Big Tech wasn’t so big or if there were more rules about how the companies operate? And how do we limit what we think are downsides from those companies without ruining what we think is helpful?
Those are the kinds of questions that policymakers are wrestling with, and they’re difficult ones. Everyone needs to be involved, including the tech companies that might be affected by new rules. That’s why tech companies do themselves and the public a disservice by distracting us with glib talking points.
Tip of the Week
What to do on Amazon’s Prime Day
Prime Day, an online shopping holiday invented by Amazon, will be this Monday and Tuesday. (Yes, Prime Day refuses to be confined to 24 hours.) Our New York Times personal technology columnist, Brian X. Chen, has suggestions on what to consider buying and what to avoid.
The first rule of Prime Day: Most deals promoted during annual shopping bonanzas like this aren’t great deals at all.
It’s not unusual to see discounts on products that hardly anyone wanted to buy. (Imagine the clearance section of a Sur La Table.) And for more desirable items, the discounts sometimes aren’t as steep as they have been other times of the year.
My rule of thumb for faux shopping holidays is to skip what any company describes as a “sales” section. Instead, jot down a list of items you are eager to buy and check to see if they’re available at lower prices during the shopping event.
To see if you’re getting a good deal, you can use price tracking tools like Camel Camel Camel, which shows the price history for a product listed on Amazon. Our product recommendation site, Wirecutter, will also be scouring Amazon and other retail sites during Prime Day to unearth the truly good deals — stay tuned on its deals page and read more of its tips.
Before we go …
She went from being an outsider to the boss: As a law student in 2017, Lina Khan published a scholarly article that helped sway many Washington power brokers to more aggressively regulate technology giants under antitrust laws. My colleagues David McCabe and Cecilia Kang write that in her new job as chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Khan may find it tough to put her ideas into action.
“Do you guys understand who Xi Jinping is?” Doug Guthrie believed in China’s economic potential, and Apple hired him to help the company navigate the country. My colleague Jack Nicas writes that Guthrie’s views evolved and that he came to believe that Apple’s reliance on China made the company vulnerable to government-imposed compromises that undercut its values.
Are you ready for ads in virtual reality? Too bad. Facebook said that it was testing ads that pop up in people’s field of view when they use Oculus, the company’s virtual reality goggles. (Facebook does, after all, make 97 percent of its revenue from selling ads.)
Hugs to this
Would you describe a moray eel as cute? Maybe? Researchers caught a moray eating on land, using a special set of jaws. Most fish need water to feed. Also it took the researchers more than five years to train the morays to eat this way. (I spotted this in the Today in Tabs newsletter.)
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