How More Regulation for U.S. Tech Could Backfire

21 February, 2018 / Articles
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If 2017 was the year that tech became a lightning rod for dissatisfaction over everything from the last U.S. presidential election to the possibility of a smartphone-driven dystopia, 2018 already looks to be that much worse.

Innovation and its discontents are nothing new, of course, going back at least to the 18th century, when Luddites physically attacked industrial looms. Hostility to the internet appeared the moment the Web became a commercial technology, threatening from the outset to upend traditional businesses and maybe even our deeply embedded beliefs about family, society, and government. George Mason University’s Adam Thierer, reviewing a resurgence of books about the “existential threat” of disruptive innovation, has detailed what he calls a “techno-panic template” in how we react to disruptive innovations that don’t fit into familiar categories.

But with the proliferation of new products and their reach ever-deeper into our work, home, and personal lives, the relentless tech revolt of the last year shouldn’t really have come as any surprise, especially to those of us in Silicon Valley.

Still, the only solution critics can propose for our growing tech malaise is government intervention — usually expressed vaguely as “regulating tech” or “breaking up” the biggest and most successful Internet companies. Break-ups, which require a legal finding that the structure of a company is enabling anti-competitive behavior, seem now to have become a synonym for somehow crippling a successful enterprise.

Of course, nobody thinks technology companies should be left unregulated. Tech companies, like any other enterprise, are already subject to a complex tangle of laws, varying based on industry and local authority. They all pay taxes, report their finances, disclose significant shareholders, and comply with the full range of employment, health and safety, advertising, intellectual property, consumer protection and anti-competition laws, to name just a few.

There are also specialized laws for tech, including limits on how Internet companies can engage with children. In the U.S., commercial drones must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. Genetic testing and other health-related devices must pass muster with the Food and Drug Administration. Increasingly, ride-sharing and casual rental services must meet some of the same standards and inspections as long-time transportation and hospitality incumbents.

There are growing calls, likewise, to regulate social media and video platforms as if they were traditional print or broadcast news sources, even though doing so would almost certainly run afoul of the very free speech protections proponents are hoping to preserve.

But perhaps what tech critics really want are more innovative rules. Traditional regulations, after all, were designed in response to earlier technologies and the market failures they generated. They don’t cover largely speculative and mostly future-looking concerns.

What if, for example, artificial intelligence puts an entire generation out of work? What if genetic manipulations accidentally unravel the fabric of DNA, reversing evolution in one fell swoop? What if social media companies learn so much about us that they undermine—intentionally or otherwise—democratic institutions, creating a tyranny of “unregulated” big data controlled by a few unelected young CEOs?

The problem with such speculation is that it is just that. In deliberative government, legislators and regulatory agencies must weigh the often-substantial costs of proposed limits against their likely benefit, balanced against the harm of simply leaving in place the current legal status quo.

But there’s no scientific method for estimating the risk of prematurely shutting down experiments that could yield important discoveries. There’s no framework for pre-emptively regulating nascent industries and potential new technologies. By definition, they’ve caused no measurable harm.

In particular, breaking up the most successful Internet and cloud-based companies only looks like a solution. It isn’t. Antitrust is meant to punish dominant companies that use their leverage to raise costs for consumers. Yet the services provided by technology companies are often widely available at little or no cost. Many of the products and services of Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft — the internet giants referred to by the New York Times as “the frightful five” — are free for consumers.

More to the point, break-ups almost always backfire. Think of the former AT&T, which was regulated as a monopoly utility until 1982, when the government changed its mind and split the company into component long-distance and regional phone companies. The sum of the parts actually increased in value — except for the long-distance company, which faded in the face of unregulated new competitors.

Then, over the next 20 years, the regional companies put themselves back together, and, with economies of scale, reemerged as a mobile internet network and Pay TV provider, competing with cable companies and fast-growing internet-based video services including YouTube, Amazon and Netflix. What started as a regulatory punishment for AT&T led to an even bigger network of companies.

On the other hand, the constant threat of a forced divestiture can be disastrous for consumers and enterprise alike. IBM prevailed against multiple efforts to break it up along product lines, but was so shaken by the decades-long experience that the company became dangerously timid about future innovations, missing the shifts first to client-server and then to Internet-based computing architectures, nearly bankrupting the business.

Microsoft, similarly, was so distracted by its multi-year fight to avoid break-up both by U.S. and European regulators that it lost essential momentum. It mostly missed out on the mobile revolution, and hesitated in responding to open-source alternatives to operating systems, desktop applications, and other software apps that seriously eroded the company’s once-formidable competitive advantage. (The company is now growing a cloud services business, but is still far behind Google and Amazon.)

These examples hint at an alternative to random and unproven new forms of regulation for emerging technologies: simply waiting for the next generation of innovations and the entrepreneurs who wield them to disrupt the supposed monopolists right out of their disagreeable behaviors, sometimes fatally.

Today, it might seem that the companies in the frightful five have unbeatable leads in retailing and cloud services, social media, search, advertising, desktop operating systems and mobile devices. But the landscape of business history is littered with the corpses of supposedly invulnerable giants. In our research on wildly successful enterprises who fail to find a second act, Paul Nunes and I note that the average life span of companies on the Standard & Poor’s 500 has fallen from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today.

In the early years of the internet age, a half-dozen companies were serially crowned the victor in search, only to be unseated by more innovative technology soon after. Yahoo and others gave way to Google, just as Blackberry faded in response to the iPhone. MySpace (remember them?) collapsed at the introduction of Facebook, which, at the time, was little more than a bit of software from a college student. Napster lost in court (no new laws were needed for that), leaving Apple to define a working market for digital music. And who remembers the alarm bells rung in 2000when then-dominant ISP America On-Line merged with content behemoth Time Warner?

The best regulator of technology, it seems, is simply more technology. And despite fears that channels are blocked, markets are locked up, and gatekeepers have closed networks that the next generation of entrepreneurs need to reach their audience, somehow they do it anyway — often embarrassingly fast, whether the presumed tyrant being deposed is a long-time incumbent or last year’s startup darling.

That, in any case, is the theory on which U.S. policymakers across the political spectrum have nurtured technology-based innovation since the founding of the Republic. Taking the long view, it’s clearly been a winning strategy, especially when compared to the more invasive, command-and-control approach taken by the European Union, which continues to lag on every measure of the Internet economy. (Europe’s strategy now seems to be little more than to hobble U.S. tech companies and hope for the best.)

Or compared to China, which has built tech giants of its own, but only by limiting outside access to its singularly enormous local market. And always with the risk that too much success by Chinese entrepreneurs may one day crash headfirst into a political culture that is deeply uncomfortable with the internet’s openness.

That solution — to stay the course, to continue leaving tech largely to its own correctives — is cold comfort to those who believe tomorrow’s problems, coming up fast in the rear-view mirror, are both unprecedented and catastrophic.

Yet, so far there’s no evidence supporting shrill predictions of a technology-driven apocalypse. Or that existing safeguards — both market and legal — won’t save us from our worst selves.

Nor have tech’s growing list of critics proposed anything more specific than simply calling for “regulation” to save us. Perhaps that’s because effective remedies are incredibly hard to design.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

 

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