Facebook will be regulated, just maybe not by America
Watching the Senate committee yelling at lawyers from Facebook, Twitter and Google it was hard to know who to be most annoyed at.
The tech companies for pretending they have even a modicum of respect for the rule of law? Or the Senators for pretending there’s any meaningful chance they’ll introduce additional regulation to rein in Silicon Valley?
That second part is the one that most commentators seem to have overlooked, in their rush to excitement at tech companies being yelled at. Let’s not kid ourselves: Serious tech regulation isn’t coming to America any time soon. It sure as shit isn’t coming from Republican lawmakers, given that would mean acknowledging that Big Tech helped win the election for Trump. And it’s not coming from Democrats – not unless they want to lose some serious donors, and a big chunk of the state of California. Also: Big Tech vastly outspends most industries when it comes to lobbying. So here we are: Forced to watch what Sarah described as “not just thearer, but bad theater” while Zuckerberg, Dorsey at al continue bringing us closer to anarchy or world war III or both.
Or maybe not.
Absent from most of the discussion around this week’s hearings was acknowledgment that tech regulation doesn’t necessarily have to come from America. In fact, if Silicon Valley history has taught us anything, it’s that meaningful tech regulation almost never comes from America but rather from Europe.
Microsoft and Google anti-trust regulation: Europe. Regulation to curb Uber’s excesses: Europe. Laws to force Facebook to take down racist content and fake news: Europe. Unlike in the US, European lawmakers have no compunction when it comes to targeting overreach by American corporations. And the more arrogant the corporation, the more supportive European voters seem to be of those measures.
And therein lies Mark Zuckerberg’s real miscalculation in failing to appear before Congress in person. It’s not only Americans who are deeply troubled by Facebook and Twitter’s role in swinging the election for Trump: Facebook users (and voters) around the world are increasingly terrified and angry at Silicon Valley’s unchecked power. And outside the US – particularly in Europe – that angers is manifested in a growing movement to regulate dangerous and arrogant US tech giants.
At this point it’s a near certainty that a Western European government – most likely German or France – will use Russian election meddling as the casus belli for a legislative war against Silicon Valley. A war that won’t just affect the company’s business in Europe but across the world, just like automobile regulation passed in California ends up dictating rules for the entire country.
As I’ve written before, as goes Germany so goes the rest of Europe. And then the rest of the world.
So far, so serves Silicon Valley right. The problem is, of course, that foreign lawmakers aren’t going to stop with fake news. For years, politicians in the UK and mainland Europe have been quietly seething that they can’t break encryption on services like Whatsapp. Not only are there clear technical challenges but, most critically, there isn’t the popular support amongst voters for backdoor laws.
But fastforward a few months of stories about arrogant Facebook refusing to be transparent over Russian meddling and you can bet that resistance will start to soften. Laws in Europe and elsewhere that were supposed to force transparency in Facebook’s ad and news products will suddenly attract riders about encryption and security. European voters, keen to give Zuck a well-deserved black eye, will cheer as their rights are legislated away.