Hi, folks. This week Apple invited real people to its developers conference, sitting everyone down in an outdoor setting to watch a prerecorded presentation. De-augmented reality!
The geeky founders of big tech companies used to view government as something to be avoided at all costs. They were building stuff. The relationship they hoped for with the wonks and suits in DC was that each side would leave the other alone. The muck of lobbying seemed a bit unsavory. So the techies did their best to ignore the government.
That changed in the late 1990s as Microsoft found itself defending against—and losing—a huge antitrust suit from the Department of Justice. Companies beefed up their DC presence, but even as late as a decade ago, rising companies tried to keep their existence on the down-low. “When I started at Twitter in 2013, most of the people I met at orientation weren’t aware that Twitter had a Washington office,” says policy consultant Nu Wexler, who has worked for Google and Facebook as well. No one would make that mistake now. In 2021, seven tech companies spent $70 million to lobby the federal government. The ranks of those companies are loaded with former executive branch and legislative officials.
And how is that going? Let’s see. The congressional docket is filled to the brim with bills designed to thwart tech’s appetite for domination. There’s an antitrust enforcement act that would fast-track efforts to police dominant companies, and maybe make it easier to break up Facebook. There’s a bill to rein in digital advertising, which might break up Google. Yet another bill would constrain tech platforms from favoring certain of their own products, a ban that would harm Amazon. Oh, and once again there’s a privacy bill that would address the wanton hoovering of people’s personal data. And those are the moderate ones. On the edgier side are bills that threaten to repeal the Section 230 provisions that allow platforms to moderate content, a sentiment voiced frequently in congressional hearings.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has assembled an all-star team of tech foes. In press interviews this week–conducted because, with the recent confirmation of another Democrat, she finally has a majority of commissioners to work with–Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan said that she’s ready to roll with constraints on Big Tech. Though she won’t say it outright, you can almost read her thought bubble: Break them up! Undoubtedly cheering her on are her administration besties, special assistant to the president Tim Wu and antitrust czar Jonathan Kanter, both of whom have made no secret of their loathing of Big Tech and their desire to constrain it. Meanwhile, Biden hasn’t bothered to appoint a chief technology officer, who might champion the digital industry.
At first glance, you might wonder whether all the donations and lobbying are actually worth the effort for the tech world. Look again. While the tide of sentiment may have turned against Big Tech, actual sanctions are still aspirational. That’s in part because of all those lobbyists and the money that backs them up. That’s why, so far, all of those bills and regulatory actions are being talked about … and talked about, and talked about. Maybe some of them will wind up getting on the president’s desk (hopefully not the Section 230 abomination), but time is running out in the 117th Congress, which resets next year after November’s midterm elections.
Last October, on the day whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before her committee, Senator Amy Klobuchar gave a candid, if depressing, summation of the effect of all that DC spending: “We have not done a thing to update US competition, privacy & tech laws,” she tweeted. “Nothing. Zilch. Why? Because there are lobbyists around every single corner of the Capitol hired by tech.”
If you want to see the power of the lobbying effort, just look at the nomination of Gigi Sohn for the Federal Communications Commission. While unquestionably qualified, Sohn’s focus has been on empowering consumers. Naturally she had made enemies in businesses, particularly rapacious telecom companies known to fleece customers. Those interests have managed to block her confirmation for months. If she isn’t confirmed soon, a new congress might manage to kill her nomination outright. With Sohn’s nomination on hold, the commission is deadlocked with two Democrats and two Republicans.
Meanwhile, news reports claim that a multimillion-dollar effort from special interests—including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google–is targeting key states and vulnerable Democrats to withdraw support from Klobuchar’s reform bills. A bitter irony: The campaign has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook and Google ads to drive home its point.
We’ve come a long way from the days when tech entrepreneurs wanted to steer clear of DC. Yes, back then they were naive. They were arrogant to think they were somehow special and could build their businesses while ignoring the government. But their instinct to avoid the slime pit of American politics was admirable. Lawyering up and lobbying may not have totally solved their DC problem—the consistent bad behavior of those companies makes it likely that some sanctions will arise. But those sanctions won’t be as harsh or as effective as the lawmakers, regulators, and maybe even the public wished for. One longtime staffer on the Hill who I spoke with this week summed up the tech interests and their DC activities: “They’re just like everybody else.” It wasn’t a compliment.
Arguments about regulating the internet have been raging ever since the mid-1990s boom that made the net accessible to the masses. Well before tech companies spent millions on lobbying, the debates were pretty similar to the ones we suffer through now, especially when it comes to online speech. Case in point: Senator James Exon’s Communications Decency Act, a proposed amendment to the telecommunications act, which I wrote about in a 1995 Newsweek article. A pared-down version of the amendment found its way into the 1996 bill—which included the still-controversial Section 230.
The Exon amendment is very broad. It could hamper communication between adults–the essence of online activity–and might not even solve the problems that kids face. "It would be a mistake to drive us, in a moment of hysteria, to a solution that is unconstitutional, would stultify technology, and wouldn't even fulfill its mission," argues Jerry Berman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
But Berman and others have a secret weapon: the House of Representatives. "There's a generational difference between the House and Senate," says Berman. "They understand the technology and they're not afraid of it." The only question was whether his pro-technology impulse, along with a loathing for government regulation, would lead Speaker Newt Gingrich and his minions to defy their allies in the religious right, whose "Contract With the American Family" calls for "protecting children from exposure to pornography on the Internet."
The question was answered last Tuesday night when a caller on a cable-TV talk show asked Gingrich what he thought of Exon's amendment. "I think it has no meaning and no real impact," the speaker said. "It is clearly a violation of free speech and it's a violation of the rights of adults to communicate with each other."
Gregory asks, “If we think about time as a blockchain record of actions and events, what does that mean for the space-time continuum and would it prove that time travel can't exist?”
Gregory, are you high? Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But this sounds like a question that arises when a mind is, let’s say, enhanced. Here’s the problem with this conjecture, which I admit is inspired: Just because we might take the step to think of time as a blockchain doesn’t make it so. Time, the universe, and the ghost of Stephen Hawking might have other ideas.
That said, let me wade into waters way over my head, as I avoided physics in high school. Yes, it certainly seems like time moves one way, like an arrow. It’s obvious that you can’t unring a bell, and Humpty Dumpty can’t be put back together. Fortifying that conviction is the Second Law of Thermodynamics—one law that even the Supreme Court can’t roll back—that describes how everything is heading to increased disorder. Definitely a one-way process! I guess if you actually recorded all those one-way events you could say it might be kind of a blockchain. I shudder to think of the energy costs of maintaining that ledger!
But top-tier physicists who ponder space-time say that on a microscopic level, at least, things aren’t so simple. According to world-class physicist Brian Greene, "no one has ever discovered any fundamental law which might be called the Law of the Spilled Milk or the Law of the Splattered Egg." Instead, theoretical physics accounts for phenomena that might be “time-symmetric,” or reversible. As for time travel, that too seems to be possible in theory, though probably not in the way Marty McFly did it. Which is too bad for blockchain believers who want to recover their lost bitcoins.
You can submit questions firstname.lastname@example.org. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
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