The Obsession With Big Tech Is Distorting the Big Picture

We won’t build a better internet by focusing exclusively on Silicon Valley giants. Real solutions require a broader view of US tech policy.

A crowd of small figures is agitating in front of a digital giant of ones and zeroes amid a ruined urban landscape.
André Wee

The early days of the modern internet saw no shortage of bubbly optimism over the novel technology’s potential for transformative, near-Utopian change. While the internet has delivered on much of this innovative promise, many of its earliest evangelists seemed to think human nature wouldn’t be coming along for the ride.

We’ve learned some hard lessons in the years since. America’s largest technology companies now find themselves routinely under fire for monopolization, labor abuses, failure to police hate speech, and even genocide. Technology that’s designed to connect us has fueled an extractive data economy that monetizes and manipulates us. Social media platforms have been weaponized for division and polarization. “Smart” gadgets and services that are marketed as tools for easier living have left us vulnerable to a parade of surveillance and privacy abuses.

Most of the blame for this collective failure has focused on Silicon Valley giants, often for good reason. Large tech companies are so enamoured with maximizing revenue, market share, and ad impressions, that they have failed to adequately protect customers from disinformation, propaganda, and bad actors. But the public’s collective obsession with Big Tech is creating a bizarre shortsightedness in US tech policy — one in which policymakers have effectively given carte blanche to other tech sectors. 

For example, while Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple face heightened antitrust scrutiny from state and federal lawmakers, the opposite is true of “big telecom” giants like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. This is despite decades of the same — and in some cases notably worse — practices that abuse privacy, competition, and consumer welfare.

The result is a patchwork of politicized policy that doesn’t come close to fixing the internet’s toughest problems.

Big Tech’s problems are a symptom of a broader disease that US officials often refuse to see, much less seriously address.

The Federal Communications Commission recently all but obliterated its authority over telecom providers, gutting popular consumer protections at the behest of telecom lobbyists. The FCC and the Department of Justice similarly rubber-stamped the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, ignoring ample evidence showing that the deal was likely to erode competition, raise rates, and eliminate thousands of jobs.

Why is Big Tech getting blamed for the entirety of the internet’s ills while telecom monopolies face little to no government scrutiny? According to Electronic Frontier Foundation telecom lawyer Ernesto Falcon, considering that former Verizon lawyers oversee both the FCC and DOJ, this inconsistency isn’t coincidental. 

“Dating farther back than the breakup of the AT&T monopoly, the telecom industry has long had deep and pervasive influence in government,” Falcon told The Reboot. “Undoubtedly they’re both behind the scenes, and public support of efforts to go after the tech industry is really meant to try to keep the eye off their own monopolization of broadband access.”

Silicon Valley is certainly no stranger to lobbying. But part of telecom’s advantage in dictating the cadence of US policy is that the industry is closely tethered to the government’s surveillance apparatus, giving it additional leverage in conversations with lawmakers who are preoccupied with national security. The telecom sector also isn’t the only beneficiary of inconsistent antitrust enforcement and regulatory policy. The adtech sector has managed to avoid scrutiny under the din of our Silicon Valley obsession, despite a rotating array of various surveillance and location data scandals

This double standard is well exemplified by the controversy this year over the popular video-sharing app TikTok. While Donald Trump had threatened to ban the app to prevent Chinese intelligence from getting a hold of US consumer data — forcing a fig leaf stateside arrangement with Oracle and Walmart — experts were quick to note that implementing such a ban wouldn’t make our data any more secure within the scope of our broader policy failures.

“TikTok is in the news because of China,” noted the security researcher Bruce Schneier. “Addressing the broader issues is actually hard, and goes against a considerable amount of lobbying dollars.”

Banning China-connected apps like TikTok and WeChat doesn’t address longstanding security problems in US wireless and satellite communications networks. It doesn’t address the collection and sale of location data to dubious middlemen. It doesn’t address the lack of security and privacy standards in Chinese-made “Internet of Things” devices that are attached to US networks with reckless abandon. 

Legislators claim to care deeply about small businesses, competition, and innovation, yet they don’t modernize antitrust law for the Amazon era, nor do they adequately fund or staff privacy regulators who are tasked with protecting markets and consumers.

Graham Webster, a research scholar at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, is one of many policy specialists who are quick to point out that, despite being the focus of federal actions, TikTok is among the least of the internet’s problems.

“It’s a combination of a drive to escalate measures against Chinese practices before the end of Trump’s current term and to get public credit for being tough on China after a costly and mostly failed trade and economic confrontation,” he told The Reboot. 

The lobbying influence of political campaigns, corporations, and other domestic data-hoovering operations has hamstrung efforts to address the entirety of our data security and privacy problems, Webster noted. Fused with a more laissez-faire approach to corporate oversight than is seen in Europe, the end result is typically either inconsistent US tech policy or inaction.

“There are legitimate security concerns about potential Chinese government access to US social media data on a massive scale,” Webster added, “but those are relatively speculative at this point and could be more thoroughly handled through comprehensive data rules that apply to all, versus publicity-oriented campaigns against a couple of companies while leaving other avenues untouched.”

The US lacks even a basic privacy law for the internet era. Our government refuses to meaningfully fund election security reform. Legislators claim to care deeply about small businesses, competition, and innovation, yet they don’t modernize antitrust law for the Amazon era, nor do they adequately fund or staff privacy regulators who are tasked with protecting markets and consumers.

Rampant monopolization and consolidation has produced countless sectors where monopolies have driven competitors out of business, grown more powerful than most modern governments, and seen little meaningful penalty for bad behavior. As such, Big Tech’s problems are a symptom of a broader disease that US officials often refuse to see, much less seriously address.

The result is patchwork policy that’s little more than a haphazard game of Whac-a-Mole. If we’re to fix the broader problems that plague the technology sector, we’ll need to take a more holistic view of privacy, antitrust, and labor issues. Anything less and we’ll find ourselves caught in a perpetual cycle of outrage and dysfunction, with little to show for it.

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A crowd of small figures is agitating in front of a digital giant of ones and zeroes amid a ruined urban landscape.

Artwork By

André Wee

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