Fred Dimbleby is analysing the 2020 US election campaigns online for our US election podcast Will Trump Win?Here our resident digital detective explains why the election has helped to mask a major challenge to the power of technology's Big Tech giants... “We are unable to make contact with Mr Mark Zuckerberg."It wasn’t the ideal start to Wednesday’s hearing, involving some of the richest and most powerful people in the world.Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, had been called before the Senate Commerce Committee to testify along with the heads of Google and Twitter.
The technical difficulties of connecting to Zuckerberg set the stage for a hearing characterised more by partisan bickering than any real progress on tech regulation.
Few expected anything different.Republican Senator Ted Cruz had established the tone for the event days before, by posting a photo on Twitter comparing the hearing to a Boxing Match.He is shown in one corner, with the title “Free Speech Champion”, with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in the other corner titled “censorship czar”.
Cruz, and many of his Republican colleagues, saw this event as a “free speech showdown” – a final chance before the election to call out the tech firms for what Republicans view as their censorship of conservative opinion.
The hearing itself became a messy jumble of political catchphrases that did little to move the conversation forward.
And it demonstrates why tech policy has, for much of this presidential election, been a minor part of the conversation.I talked to Rana Foroohar, a US journalist and author, for Will Trump Win? about the reasons there has been so little discussion of this important issue on the presidential stage.(You can listen to a few snippets from our conversation in the episode player near the start of this article).She is the author of Don’t Be Evil – a book which explores how the technology industry became a modern monopoly and the threats that it poses to our way of life.
She says tech policy may not be suited to presidential politics, “these topics are very complex, and you do have to get into complexity. And there are very few people, even aides, in the Senate and the House that deeply understand technology enough to put the CEOs of these companies on a proper stand and do a grilling. I could count on one hand the number of senators and representatives who could do that, so there’s a lot of education that needs to be done."
Despite neither of the candidates focusing on the nuances of tech policy, many feel this is a vital moment to put in place stricter rules and regulations for the industry.Rana says, “big tech firms…have the black boxes, they know what the algorithms are, they own the data that goes inside and, to the extent that they can ring-fence all of that, they have utter power.”
She adds, “We are really at the dawning of a new kind of capitalism and we have a small and important window to make sure that it is put in service to liberal democracy and humanity rather than the other way around.”
And the stakes are high – change could be in the air for the tech firms regardless of who is in the White House.If Trump wins, she believes tech could become more connected with the national government, “Are you going to see these firms become government-esque entities? The sort of thing that comes to mind is the British East India Company where it’s a company, it’s a country, that’s a military…I could see that happening very easily under a Trump administration."
If Biden wins, Tech could be drawn in a different direction.
Rana hopes that, in a Biden presidency, “you would have a real think about a 360 trade digital and tech regulation policy for the 21st century. If you look at the businesses that are being formed in the wake of Covid, a lot of small businesses are being wiped out, but the businesses that are being formed are highly digital.
“Almost everything is going to start transitioning into the digital sphere, so it is very important that individuals and small businesses get to have access to data, which is that raw material, and to be able to play in this new arena which is where all the wealth is.”
Tech has not been a big issue in the presidential election.In the debates, Trump and Biden talked about fracking and the oil industry but stayed away from data gathering or anti-trust law.But the winner of this race could have a huge impact on the tech industry and ultimately on who holds power over all of our lives in the 21st century.Big tech has come under an unprecedented level of scrutiny and criticism in the last few years and it’s clear that, in either White House, tech reform is likely to be on the way.
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