Pando

Failing New York Times says Trump will regulate big tech. WRONG!!!!!

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on January 4, 2017

From The Legal Affairs Desk

As part of my new year’s resolution to avoid having a heart attack before age 40, I’ve all but stopped reading news online.

Tech news, political news, fake news and real news; I won’t read it in a house with a mouse, or with a doctor on a helicopter.

One major exception to my rule: The New York Times, which I read both online and in print, some days in defiance of our President Elect and some days because of the crossword.

Today is a Trump day so, after scanning new news and political sections, I turned to my erstwhile Pando colleague Farhad Manjoo’s tech column. Another benefit of adding more Times to my diet: I’m reminded of how much I enjoy Farhad’s writing, even when I disagree with him.

Speaking of…

Today, Farhad revisits a theme from last year: The “Frightful Five” -- his Christiesque nickname for Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. Since he last wrote about the companies, Farhad argues, both the government and the wider public have become more wary of their mounting, borderline monopolistic power.

In 2017, much the same story remains, but there is a new wrinkle: The world’s governments are newly motivated to take on the tech giants. In the United States, Europe, Asia and South America, the Five find themselves increasingly arrayed against legal and regulatory powers, and often even against popular will.

The precise nature of the fights varies by company and region, including the tax and antitrust investigations of Apple and Google in Europe and Donald J. Trump’s broad and often incoherent criticism of the Five for various alleged misdeeds.

This is the story that will shape the contours of the next great era in tech: Five huge companies that can only get bigger are set against governments that increasingly see them as a clear threat to governing authority.

Of course, Farhad is absolutely right when he says that the Terrible Five have gotten far too big for their boots, and that the public has finally caught on to the risks inherent in that. Fake news on Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg’s stubborn refusal to prevent it swinging the election was a gigantic wake-up call for anyone who still bought into the Coupland-Judge myth of a Silicon Valley full of hapless nerds just tryin’ to build cool shit. Silicon Valley is still chock full o’nerds but they’re no longer the ones running the show.

As for regulators taking a closer interest: He’s right about Europe, for sure. I’ve written before about the influence of Germany in setting European regulatory policy. Reported proposals to fine Facebook half a million bucks for every false news story make that influence as clear as day.

Asia’s a big place but, given China’s historical antipathy towards American power, I’ll concede that one too. And maybe South America.

Where Farhad and I part company in our optimism, though, is the United States. Yes, in ordinary times, the kind of insane dominance enjoyed by Silicon Valley’s power players would likely trigger regulatory action. Even under the broadly Valley-friendly Obama administration, or an alternative history Hillary Clinton White House it’s easy to imagine the Justice department paying special attention to Facebook and Google, and possibly a couple of the others.

But what we have, as of later this month, is a Trump administration. Trump whose modus operandi when it comes to taking on corporate power we’ve already seen with air conditioners and car manufacturers. First he tweets a threat -- FACEBOOK TOO BIG AND POWERFUL. SHOULD BE INVESTIGATED FOR ANTI TRUST. UNAMERICAN!!. Then the media gets very excited. Then the CEO of the company in question announces something that makes Trump look good with his base -- Facebook to share all its data with the NSA to combat ISLAMIC TERRORISM -- or some shit, and all talk of oversight is forgotten in a flurry of tax breaks and photo ops.

On that front, the tech leaders are already ahead of the curve, having given Trump his gloating photo op back in December. It’s no coincidence that the companies most dominant and monopolistic were the ones front and center, gurning behind their bottles of Trump branded water. Then there’s Peter Thiel (a Pando investor, for God’s sake) and his eminence grise role in setting the new president’s tech policy, particularly when it comes to companies like Facebook where he remains a board member.

Unless Zuckerberg or any of the Trump-embracing tech giant CEOs decide to do the unthinkable -- to grow a spine and actually stand up to the fascist about to take the oath of office -- they’re sitting prettier than ever under Trump.

And more than ever, the world’s best hope of keeping the Crypto-Fascist Five in check isn’t Asia or South America or even Europe-as-a-continent. It’s Germany.