Cyber-policy wonks may not have consensus on what a successful technology future looks like, but since the earliest days they’ve shared a broad vision of what failure looks like: tech-supercharged autocracy, in which corrupt, spying states deputize massive monopolistic corporations to micro-manage the whole world’s population, at scale.
Which brings me to the techlash: the post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-Equifax turning point where suddenly a lot of people start to pay attention to the rules we set for technology users, companies, and practitioners.
Tech policy is like climate change: every year we fail to fix it is a year that we accumulate more bad tech debt (insecure systems full of sensitive data and attached to machines, sensors and actuators that can harm or kill us). We are in a race between the point of no return, when it’s too late to fix things, and the point of “peak indifference,” when the number of people who care starts to rise of its own accord, thanks to the gaudy disasters detonating all around us.
But it’s not enough to do something: we have to do something good. And we’re getting it really wrong.
…the more you learn about how to control the technology in your life, the better it will serve you and the harder it will be for others to turn it against you. The most democratic future is one in which every person has ready access to the training and tools they need to reconfigure all the technology in their lives to suit their needs. Even if you personally never avail yourself of these tools and trainings, you will still benefit from this system, because you will be able to choose among millions of other people who do take the time to gain the expertise necessary to customize your world to suit you.
…the people who ignored decades of dire warnings about interoperability, competition, decentralization, monopolism, lock-in, and the host of evils that move power out of the hands of users and into the hands of powerful corporations and governments are now treating monopolism as an immutable, if unfortunate, fact of life.
…it’s the reach of Facebook that made Cambridge Analytica possible; that it’s the size of Facebook and Google that have let them corner the market for online advertising (and its handmaiden, corporate surveillance); that it’s the riches of Apple and Twitter that let them steer tax policy and liability rules to their favor.
Laws like SESTA/FOSTA (the 2018 US law notionally concerned with fighting sex trafficking) and the proposed new EU Copyright Directive (which would require anyone providing a forum for public discourse to invest tens of millions of dollars in copyright filters that would block anything potentially infringing from being published) are the kinds of rules that Big Tech’s winners can comply with, but their nascent future competitors can’t possibly follow. Google and Twitter and Facebook can find the hundreds of millions necessary to comply with EU copyright rules, but the companies that might someday knock them off their perch don’t have that kind of money.
…a monopolist’s first preference is for no regulation, and its close second preference is for lots of regulation, especially the kind of regulation that no competitor could possibly comply with. Today, Big Tech spends hundreds of millions of dollars buying and crushing potential competitors: better for them to spend the money on regulatory compliance and have the state do the work of snuffing out those future rivals in their cradles.
The vision of the “techno utopia” is a democracy: a world where anyone who wants to can participate in the shape of the future, retooling, reconfiguring, remapping the systems around them to suit their needs.
The vision of the techlash is a constitutional monarchy. We start by recognizing the divine right of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and the other giants to rule our technology, then we gather the aristocracy – technocrats from government regulatory bodies – to place modest limits on the power of the eternal monarchs.
Constitutional monarchies are bullshit. Big Tech does not have the divine right to rule. They haven’t conquered the world by being better than everyone else: they’ve conquered it by being rapacious beyond measure, while the regulators charged with taming them have turned a blind eye while they used anticompetitive sleaze – predatory pricing, predatory acquisitions, tax dodging, liability shifting, and more – to grow to unimaginable size.
Big Tech’s evils are, after all, more about “big” than “tech.” A sociopath running a mom-and-pop shop is an unpleasant fellow who makes life miserable for his customers and employees alike, but no one forces you to work for him or buy his wares – there’s another mom-and-pop across the street that’s much nicer. But a sociopath who runs a company town, who dominates a whole sector, is a different story. They’re the only game in town.
It is profoundly undemocratic that a small cabal of nerds working for tech giants gets to make decisions that adversely affect the lives of billions. It’s even more undemocratic to ban anyone from altering that code to protect themselves from its harms. Constitutional monarchies are bullshit. The democratic alternative is to give people control over their technological lives – to seize the means of computation and put it into the hands of everyone who wants it.