March 29, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
Politicians used to love the tech industry, but now the relationship is on the rocks.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have turned up the heat on tech, expressing concern about the industry’s power and influence. But consumers cherish the tech services they love, and the country can’t afford a destructive falling out. It’s time for policymakers and the tech industry to get some relationship counseling.
If tech’s first political chapter was characterized by hands-off regulatory exceptionalism, its second chapter has seen a wild swing in the opposite direction — the “techlash.” What must come next is a dialogue between policymakers and the tech industry and an agreement on rules that value the things that people love about tech while mitigating its excesses.
How did we get here? For this generation of tech companies and politicians, it was love at first sight. As the nation recovered from the dotcom bubble, tech seemed to light the path to a more accessible, advanced society.
Silicon Valley rapidly democratized access to goods and information and gave voice to the marginalized, all while supporting millions of high-quality jobs. Wikipedia let anyone with an internet connection become an armchair expert on the topic of their choice. Amazon and eBay brought e-commerce to the masses. And social media facilitated conversations between friends and strangers across vast distances — both geographic and social.
For a long time, policymakers and tech companies were headed toward a happily ever after where the industry would continue to grow, innovate and create jobs. Congress gave the industry ample space to flourish, passing bans on internet access taxes and intermediary liability protections for user-generated content sites.
But tech’s political honeymoon would not last forever. Politicians began to grow understandably skeptical of the industry as the Obama era drew to a close. Wariness toward tech simmered in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Even as the public relies on and appreciates technology more than ever, the rhetoric from Washington makes it clear that politicians no longer think tech is cute.
So, what comes next? Like any maturing industry, tech needs new rules. But those new rules need to be smart responses to defined problems — not hasty overreactions disconnected from consumer sentiment.
Moreover, policymakers’ focus on the largest tech companies obscures the rich diversity of the industry — and the disparate impact of regulation on smaller companies. Millions of Americans enjoy the services and innovations of companies like Patreon, Airbnb and Etsy. While Google may be able to withstand sweeping privacy regulations or Section 230 reforms, small tech companies — and the millions of consumers and sellers who depend on them — may not.
Instead, policymakers and tech companies should embark upon a new, more mature phase in their relationship. The industry should help policymakers prevent the times when technology hurts consumers, while preserving the good that technology brings to society — including high-quality jobs, lower prices, ready access to information and more.
Other industries, including food, banking and airlines, have followed similar paths to regulatory maturity. For example, there’s a federal regulation that limits the time planes can spend idling on the tarmac to three hours before giving passengers the option to deplane. No one, including the airline industry, objects to that rule, because it strikes a balance between consumer protection and air travel logistics. Policymakers should pursue similarly smart, targeted regulations for the tech industry.
In any long-term relationship, counseling helps partners set new rules, surface each other’s concerns, and reach mutual accommodation. It’s time for policymakers and the tech industry to start talking again.
Adam Kovacevich, a former Democratic Hill aide who served as senior director of U.S. public policy at Google, is CEO of the Chamber of Progress, a new center-left tech industry policy coalition promoting technology’s progressive future.
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