Last year, I met someone who had previously worked for a big tech firm in its “free speech” unit. What had happened to make him come and slum it among us mortals in the (badly paid) policy world? Answer: the unit had been shut down.
It’s in this context that you should see the milquetoast response of the tech giants to the government’s “online harms” white paper published on Monday which the Open Rights Group has called “state regulation of the speech of millions of British citizens”.
It’s the very same reason that Mark Zuckerberg wrote an article in favour of regulation in The Washington Post last month. It’s not so much evidence of the famed startup’s recent decision to “pivot to privacy”, but the logical endpoint of years of triangulation.
For the first amendment advocates of buccaneering Silicon Valley, times have changed. A nudge here, a concession there, and now a full volte-face. Move fast and break things is out. Regulation is in.
There is, of course, good business sense in this decision. In fact, that’s the problem.
Facebook, one of the largest companies in the world, isn’t trying to protect the consumer – it’s protecting itself. It’s been an annus horribilis for the social media company, yet its profits continue to grow.
Now that the tide of public perception is turning, so Facebook and other tech giants are building a regulatory moat to protect their business interests – and it’s startups like those we represent at the Coalition for a Digital Economy who will suffer.
In research we published last year, 86 per cent of UK investors said that policies targeting the tech giants could hit startups harder. We’ve seen this already with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, and are likely to see it again with the Copyright Directive. Where European watchdogs thought that regulation would balance the market, it has actually tilted it further towards the tech giants.
In the UK, this conversation about reining in the platforms is coming in many different forms – from chancellor Philip Hammond’s digital services tax to the Cairncross review. But top of the list is the online harms white paper. In the words of Sajid Javid this week, it aims to address the “hunting ground for monsters” on the internet.
Strong words, but in short the intention is to make the tech giants face up to the harms their platforms have created. But the scope means that this isn’t just about social media – it’s about the whole internet. And the challenges of defining harms like misinformation or bullying mean that it’s pretty vague too.
When you build a massive, burdensome piece of ill-defined regulation, the people with the most resources to comply and the fanciest lawyers tend to benefit. Needless to say – those aren’t the companies who sit with us in our co-working space in Shoreditch.
So the question that will define the next stage of tech development is: do we want the digital market to be more like the telecoms or utilities sector, with a handful of regulated, massive players? Or will it allow the chance for organic (hopefully British) competitors to grow and compete with today’s tech giants?
The government already has an answer to this question from the Furman review into digital competition commissioned by the Treasury and published last month.
In it, Harvard professor and former Obama adviser Jason Furman and the panel wrote that digital regulation had “the potential to be complementary, but could also cut across each other if taken forward in isolation”, and the government “should ensure that pro-competition aims and functions are aligned with others, and that the regulatory landscape for digital businesses is kept simple”.
They were warning about things exactly like the online harms white paper, which will perversely embed the players who happened to be at the top of the market when the music stopped, and will reward the bad behaviour that the government intended to punish.
Furman argued for measures to broaden competition in the digital space, not stifle it. At the time, the government welcomed the report. They might want to give it another read.