The Growing Backlash Against Big Tech

In this June 11, 2014 photo, a man poses for photographs in front of the Facebook sign on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Calif. In the coming weeks, Facebook will start offering advertisers another way to tailor ... In this June 11, 2014 photo, a man poses for photographs in front of the Facebook sign on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Calif. In the coming weeks, Facebook will start offering advertisers another way to tailor ads in the U.S., based on information gathered from other websites you visit and the apps you use. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu) MORE LESS
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Ben Smith has a piece up looking at what we might call the groundswelling backlash against Big Tech. It’s not tech per se of course. It’s the big platform monopolies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft) and a few associated companies with similar characteristics. Ben is largely pulling together a number of threads that we’ve seen over recent weeks and months. It was punctuated by the ham-handed expulsion of Barry Lynn’s anti-monopoly group a couple weeks ago at the New America Foundation. But it’s been growing on numerous fronts: new policy research, new books, new political coalitions that are, if not bipartisan, at least cutting across established political factions and tribalism.

I wanted to add a couple thoughts to this emerging story.

The first is to think back to what I have long seen as a watershed moment in DC politics and the national political economy. That is the battle over the “SOPA” legislation back in 2012.

Just to review the history, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy ACT) was a law with broad bipartisan support intended to crack down on online piracy. It was pushed largely but by no means solely by the movie industry, though many intellectual property based businesses were behind it. It was quite a heavy-handed piece of legislation which would have allowed companies to get court orders to remove sites from search engines, bar advertising networks from running ads on certain domains and most controversially force Internet Service Providers to block sites and domains from their users.

Basically that meant that Sony could get an order to block a site in Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstan server would still be up and running. But in the US you probably couldn’t access it, unless you were a power user that could manage the kind of proxies and stealth tactics that might allow you to do so. For all practical purposes, it would disappear.

It was a bad piece of legislation. But my point here isn’t to re-litigate the merits. I want to talk about how it went down to defeat. Basically the IP holder industries wanted it and the tech industry was against it. There were exceptions. But that’s the gist. Tech was against it in part for ideological reasons but also because it was out of sync with its business models and the networks it was building. Again, to a great degree, people from the tech industry just genuinely thought it was wrong. But those were the battle lines.

The movie industry is represented in Washington by the Motion Picture Association of America. That’s Hollywood’s lobby. For years, the MPAA’s guy in Washington was Jack Valenti, an one-time aide to Lyndon Johnson who was synonymous with the MPAA for decades. He ran the shop from 1966 until he retired in 2004. Valenti personified a lot about old style Washington lobbying. I mean that neither in a sentimental nor a purely negative way. Valenti had retired by the time SOPA came along. In fact, he died in 2007. But it still ran like Valenti’s operation. Former Sen. Chris Dodd was Valenti’s successor, another consummate insider.

In many ways, SOPA was a pretty technical piece of legislation. It’s not Social Security or Medicare or tax policy. It’s a mix of technology and rights holders’ ability to police how people view what they create. It was the kind of fairly arcane law that an industry has a consummate insider like Valenti and his industry stakeholders build support for over time: through talk, through relationships and through money. It should have been quite uncontroversial. Or at least that was the old model.

Like Valenti might have, the MPAA and other rights-holder trade associations had basically lined everything up. All or nearly all of the key players on Capitol Hill were on board. It was a done deal.

Then the tech world got involved. Virtually the entire tech industry rose up and used all its megaphones, which were of course vast and deafening, to build opposition. Critically, it was also just bad legislation. It was pretty easy to demonize the law on all sorts of grounds. To be clear here, I’m no SOPA revisionist. It was bad law. It was a bad idea. It was good it never passed. What I am trying to focus on is that tech played a critical role raising awareness – through its already vast platform infrastructure – and then directing it at Capitol Hill.

Critically, tech was cool. Tech was the future. Tech was everything positive, clean, new, liberating versus the movie industry which wanted to break the Internet because you might be watching the occasional movie on a pirate site. The music industry lobby had tried some even more insanely draconian stuff. A lot of the anti-SOPA agitation was genuinely grassroots. But Big Tech turbocharged and directed it to a vast degree.

Yet, all the votes for SOPA had already been lined up. The key lawmakers were on board. This was the watershed moment. You may have promises. You may have made campaign contributions to the right people. But if the public gets riled up enough and if the chorus becomes loud enough, everybody is going to run for cover. And that is precisely what happened. Over a very short period of time, the most diehard SOPA supporters bailed. The bill was dead.

The latent power not only of Big Tech but the public’s image of Big Tech had been unleashed. The tech industry showed that when it wanted to, it could mobilize in a way that would absolutely crush the old style system. Another caveat. Tech was already in Washington. They were lobbying too. They were giving money too. But really it was the massive public backlash online, which took on almost eschatological proportions for a short period in 2012 that did SOPA in.

I have always seen this as a critical watershed moment. Because the MPAA truly did not know what had hit them. It was something totally new. It captured the profound reputational muscle of Big Tech and Silicon Valley. No one ever wants to be against the future. And Tech was, almost by definition, the future. On the merits, the anti-SOPA position was the right one. But there was fairly little analysis of tech’s financial interests in the matter. Tech was good. The internet was liberation.

Big Tech still has a lot of that sheen. But it’s a very, very different picture from where things stood as recently as 2012. That is the reputational context that Big Tech was already in when Google got in the mess with Barry Lynn.

Another big change is the changing politics of the last decade, the rise of anti-corporate populism with both left and right variants. The backlash against Tech has combined with, intermixed with the growing public concern and anger about wealth inequality, job stagnation and all the rest. A decade ago, whatever the reality, very few of us thought of tech as a driver of things that were wrong about the larger political economy. We knew about wage stagnation. Growing wealth inequality was getting more attention. But tech didn’t have anything to do with that. They were just smallish companies with no smokestacks making cool things out in Silicon Valley and outside Seattle. As I’ve noted in a few recent posts, there’s a growing body of policy literature and research which argues that monopolies really are causing many of these ills. It’s not just people being dissatisfied with poor economic prospects and lashing out at what’s big.

Nor is this the end of it. You’ll notice that I haven’t even discussed what may be Big Tech’s biggest reputational black eye: privacy or the lack thereof. Tech is also driving artificial intelligence research, which may put countless people out of work. Again, my point here isn’t to litigate the various arguments and claims at play here but only to note the emerging sea change in public perceptions. It’s a vast difference and I suspect it – it being the public opposition to and backlash against Big Tech and other monopolies – will bulk very large in our politics in the coming years.

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