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Tomorrow’s tech policy conversations today

A 3D printed Facebook logo is seen in front of displayed coronavirus disease (COVID-19) words in this illustration taken March 24, 2020. Picture taken March 24, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
A 3D printed Facebook logo is seen in front of displayed coronavirus disease (COVID-19) words in this illustration taken March 24, 2020. Picture taken March 24, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

The speed with which the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the public conversation about technology is extraordinary. Just two months ago the New York Times was running scathing editorials about the perils of smartphone surveillance, while the Democratic candidates for president sought to outflank each other in their criticism of Silicon Valley. With the backlash against Big Tech in full swing, the question up for debate was not whether the tech industry should be regulated, but instead how aggressive those regulations should be. 

Today the “techlash” has all but faded from view. With most Americans under lockdown, the Times now uses smartphone location data to document the levels of social distancing by county. Meanwhile, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, has become the first major party candidate to run a fully virtual campaign. And the election that was supposed to be a referendum in part on the perils of the technology industry now hinges instead on which candidate has a better plan for leveraging its full promise and potential. 

Faced with a global pandemic, the techlash has been put on hold. Yet the issues that drove it haven’t gone away. A decade in the making, the backlash against the technology industry stemmed not from a single overriding concern but several overlapping ones—particularly anti-trust challengesprivacy violations, and online harms. The extent to which the pandemic will reset the broader tech policy conversation depends on how it intersects with those issues. In each case, Big Tech is likely to become even bigger and more powerful than before. 

Market power and antitrust action

As the scale and market power of Big Tech has grown, so too have calls for antitrust action. Those calls culminated in recent years with unprecedented, multi-billion dollar fines in the European Union and a historic plan by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, to break up the largest American technology companies altogether. 

Yet the push for greater antitrust activity has now waned. Amid widespread financial shock, the technology sector is the one pillar of the global economy that hasn’t buckled. The infrastructure and services provided by the largest technology companies have helped to keep the economy afloat and society connected. And the longer the crisis continues, the harder it is to envision policymakers cracking down aggressively on the industry their constituents most rely on to weather the storm. 

The pandemic thus promises to ease antitrust pressure on Big Tech, at least in the short term. And with the largest technology companies far better positioned to ride out the recession than their smaller competitors, their market power is only set to grow. 

Privacy and data protection

As digital platforms and social media exploded in popularity over the past decade, their growth was largely funded by targeted advertising and fueled by personalized data. 

From the Beacon debacle to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, how that data should be collected, stored, and accessed has been a point of profound contention. Over the past few years, as the European Union imposed the General Data Protection Regulation and the state of California passed the Consumer Privacy Act, the trend had been toward greater regulation. As recently as February, the European Union even published a major paper calling for new restrictions on the use of personal data in artificial intelligence applications. 

Yet the pandemic has already caused regulators to rethink how data should be governed. The European Union’s data strategy is now being revisited in light of concerns that it might bar companies from sharing useful public health data. And when Apple and Google recently announced a new COVID-19 contact-tracing protocol, Germany and France both strongly objected—not because the protocol would do too little to protect individual privacy, but too much

With pressure mounting to reopen the economy as quickly as possible, policymakers are now more likely to relax privacy protections than strengthen them. 

Disinformation, hate speech, and online harms 

Five years after its founding, a Twitter executive famously billed the company as the “free speech wing of the free speech party.” The message could not have been clearer: As a matter of principle, the platform would not seek to remove content unless obligated to, and thanks to the First Amendment and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, it was obligated to remove very little. 

Although Twitter was more vocal about its reluctance to moderate content, Facebook and YouTube were also initially hesitant to identify and remove problematic material on their platforms. That laissez-faire attitude opened the door to the Islamic State’s unfettered use of social media early in the Syrian civil war, as well as Russia’s online disinformation campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Although the platforms ultimately instituted new policies and procedures to try to prevent similar abuses from happening again, by the time they did so it was too late. Policymakers and the public at large had already started to question the platforms’ motives and interests, setting the stage for the techlash to come. 

The novel coronavirus, by contrast, has already done what the Islamic State and Russian operatives could not: force the major platforms to proactively moderate content. The same company that once portrayed itself as the protector of free speech recently deleted a tweet sharing inaccurate public health information by the president of Brazil. Meanwhile, Facebook and YouTube have taken similar measures of their own. Although far from perfect, the platforms’ approach to COVID-related disinformation has demonstrated a sense of urgency and maturity that was conspicuously absent in prior crises. 

Tech policy and the pandemic

The tech industry is likely to end the pandemic even more entrenched and powerful than when the crisis started. Prior concerns about the industry’s market power, privacy practices, and content moderation policies—all of which posed a major challenge just months ago—no longer enjoy the same political salience.

Of course, that is not to say the problems that drove the backlash have disappeared altogether. Indeed, in a country whose unemployment rolls have grown by over 25 million in four weeks, the concentration of so much wealth and power in so few companies remains a profound policy challenge. Likewise, with even more of our work and lives now taking place online, the security and integrity of our data is more vital than ever. 

Yet the pandemic has reset the relative importance of those issues. Managing the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath are now the biggest policy challenges we face—and so long as that remains the case, the techlash will remain on hold. 

Chris Meserole is a fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution and deputy director of the Brookings Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative. He is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.