Not All Tech Regulatory Desires Are Equal: And We Should Stop Pretending They Are

from the c'mon-people dept

The NY Times has a big (and quite interesting) article this week about how we’ve supposedly “reached a global tipping point” on “tech regulation.” And if you look around, it may feel that way. And, sure, it’s easy to point to lots of examples of tech regulation happening around the globe, as the article does:

China fined the internet giant Alibaba a record $2.8 billion this month for anticompetitive practices, ordered an overhaul of its sister financial company and warned other technology firms to obey Beijing?s rules.

Now the European Commission plans to unveil far-reaching regulations to limit technologies powered by artificial intelligence.

And in the United States, President Biden has stacked his administration with trustbusters who have taken aim at Amazon, Facebook and Google.

However, it does a disservice to readers and the truth to suggest that all of these moves towards tech regulation are coming from the same intent. The article does acknowledge that the “motivation varies” but I think that underplays reality:

Around the world, governments are moving simultaneously to limit the power of tech companies with an urgency and breadth that no single industry had experienced before. Their motivation varies. In the United States and Europe, it is concern that tech companies are stifling competition, spreading misinformation and eroding privacy; in Russia and elsewhere, it is to silence protest movements and tighten political control; in China, it is some of both.

Even within governments (hell, take the US government for example), the motivations in discussing tech regulation are extremely different and often diametrically opposed. Some are pushing for tech companies to be more aggressive in combatting “disinformation,” while others are seeking to pressure them to leave up disinformation (usually the disinformation that is politically convenient for those demanding that information be left online).

It’s difficult to discuss this concept without recognizing that while there are some people exploring tech regulation with an intellectually honest recognition that there are issues concerning power concentration, privacy, data control, and more — the vast majority of the “motivation” behind these tech regulation bills is completely self-serving garbage. In some cases, it’s simply about power and control. In some cases, it’s about trying to limit competitors or to try to for successful tech companies to prop up failed companies (such as the news business). In other cases, it’s about trying to clamp down on the tools that allow the public to speak out and call out hypocrisies.

And that’s why it’s unfair to lump all “global” tech regulation into one bucket, as if it’s all coming from the same place and meant to do the same thing. A huge part of the push for tech regulation these days is cynical opportunism, and any story that doesn’t recognize that fails its readers. The NY Times piece certainly recognizes that there are varying approaches, and that fights over “power” are driving much of movement here, but it fails to distinguish good faith efforts to explore the negative consequences of some of the tech world with the cynical exploiters of those concerns, who are simply seeking to use that momentum for their own power and benefits.

Yet while governments agree that tech clout has grown too expansive, there has been little coordination on solutions. Competing policies have led to geopolitical friction. Last month, the Biden administration said it could put tariffs on countries that imposed new taxes on American tech companies.

There’s little coordination because of the extremely different — and often competing — interests at play. It feels like the article should have been much more explicit on that point.

There is an interesting discussion to be had about this focus on tech regulation around the globe, but I think the NY Times article fails to have that. You could read the article and come out of it with the conclusion that Myanmar and China’s internet restrictions come from the same core place as explorations by thoughtful lawmakers on how to deal with misinformation online. And that’s fundamentally wrong. It’s a kind of “both siderism” or “view from nowhere” reporting that does tremendous disservice, and fails to enlighten.

We can look at issues regarding internet regulations, and explore the ins and outs of it by looking at what problems actually need solving and then exploring what proposed solutions will actually work and which won’t. But simply lumping all kinds of internet regulations into one big article, without highlighting how a very large percentage of them are simply opportunistically exploiting a general anti-internet narrative to their own cynical purposes, is a failed attempt at journalism. The NY Times should do better. At the very least, these reporters might want to admit or acknowledge that their own company has been actively engaged in some of the cynical attempts to push for regulations on internet companies that is designed just as a wealth transfer mechanism from the companies that innovated, to the NY Times itself. But apparently that wasn’t worth including.

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Comments on “Not All Tech Regulatory Desires Are Equal: And We Should Stop Pretending They Are”

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Toom1275 (profile) says:

In the United States and Europe, it is concern that tech companies are stifling competition, spreading misinformation and eroding privacy; in Russia and elsewhere, it is to silence protest movements and tighten political control; in China, it is some of both.

When coming from Republicans in the Unites States, it is to silence protest movements and tighten political control.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mainstream journalists are pretty reliable–you can depend on them misunderstanding, misconstruing, and misrepresenting ANYTHING in ANY technical field. Only very rarely, when there is a singular very-visible authority who can (and will) speak in one-syllable words, can you expect the newspaper or broadcaster to get things right. (Dr. Fauci, much thanks to you, for being that one!)

I believe it’s not generally misanthropy, it’s a desire to simplify before understanding… but it is a kind of arrogance, to think that you can explain what you cannot understand. It’s part of the standard training and mindset, not unlike MBA programs.

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