If you think Biden's administration would rein in big tech, think again | John Naughton

The US president-elect is reported to have appointed former employees of Facebook and Amazon to his transition team

Before the US presidential election I wondered aloud if Mark Zuckerberg had concluded that the re-election of Trump might be better for Facebook than a Biden victory. There were several reasons for thinking this. One was the strange way Zuckerberg appeared to be sucking up to Trump: at least one private dinner in the White House; the way he jumped on to Fox News when Twitter first placed a warning on a Trump tweet to say that Facebook would not be doing stuff like that; and the majority report of the House subcommittee on tech monopolies, in which it was clear that the Democrats had it in for the companies.

But the most significant piece of evidence for the belief that a Biden administration would finally tackle the tech giants, and Facebook in particular, came in the long interview Biden gave last January to the New York Times, in which he was highly critical of the company.

“I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan,” Biden said. “I think he’s a real problem … I’ve been in the view that not only should we be worrying about the concentration of power, we should be worried about the lack of privacy and them being exempt, which you’re not exempt. [The New York Times] can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can. The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.”

As readers of this column know only too well, section 230 of the 1996 US Telecommunications Act is the clause that exempts tech platforms from legal liability for anything that users post on their platforms. It’s the nearest thing social media has to a kill switch. Pull it and their business models evaporate. Trump had been threatening to pull it before the election, but he lacked the attention span to be able to do anything about it. Biden, on the other hand, had already talked about it in January and would have people around him who knew what they were doing. So maybe we were going to get some real progress in getting tech giants under control.

And then he gets elected and what do we find? Biden’s transition eam is packed with tech industry insiders. Tom Sullivan, from Amazon, is earmarked for the Department of State. Mark Schwartz, also from Amazon, is heading for the Office of Management and Budget, as are Divya Kumaraiah from Airbnb and Brandon Belford from Lyft, the ride-hailing company. The US Treasury gets Nicole Isaac from LinkedIn, Microsoft’s department of spam, and Will Fields, who was Sidewalk Labs’ senior development associate. (Sidewalk Labs was the organiser of Google’s attempt – eventually cancelled – to turn Toronto’s waterfront into a data-geyser for surveillance capitalism.) The Environmental Protection Agency, a body that Trump looted and sidelined, gets Ann Dunkin, who is Dell’s chief technology officer. And so on.

Well, I thought, perusing this sordid list, at least there’s nobody from Facebook on it. How innocent can you be? Politico reveals that the joint chair of Biden’s transition team, Jeff Zients, is a former Facebook board member. Another former board member is an adviser. And two others, one who was a Facebook director and another who was a company lobbyist, have, according to Politico “taken leadership roles”. And then, to cap it all, it turns out that Biden himself has a friendly relationship with a guy called Nick Clegg, who was once a serious politician and now doubles as Mark Zuckerberg’s bagman and representative on Earth.

Truly, you couldn’t make this up. And just to add a touch of satire to it, the woman who is now a heartbeat away from the presidency, Kamala Harris, has a career-long record of cosying up to Silicon Valley. She participated, for example, in the marketing campaign for Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s anthem of capitalist feminism, even though at the time Harris was California’s law enforcement official most responsible for overseeing Facebook. As the state’s attorney general, she took a semi-comatose view of the way the big tech companies were allowed to gobble up potential rivals and bulldoze their way into new industries. Facebook’s controversial acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram, perhaps the most obvious anti-competitive mergers in the short history of the tech industry, happened on her watch and triggered no regulatory reflex. If Silicon Valley could be said to have a darling, then Ms Harris is it. And all those campaign donations from tech companies and moguls may turn out to have been a shrewd investment after all.

Given these sobering circumstances, how should we calculate the odds of a Biden administration taking on the power of the tech giants? The answer: slightly better than those of a snowball staying cool in hell. But only slightly.

What I’ve been reading

Is 2020 just a taster?
Graeme Wood has written a riveting essay, titled The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse, on the work of Peter Turchin, a quantitative historian who believes he has discovered iron laws that predict the rise and fall of societies.

Birth of an iNation
What if we viewed tech giants as countries? A thoughtful essay in Tortoise Media considers Apple as a one-party state as secretive as China. But more liberal. Phew!

Is less Moore?
I enjoyed a lovely post by Venkatesh Rao on the Ribbonfarm blog, about the mindset induced by living in a world governed by Moore’s Law.


John Naughton

The GuardianTramp

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