Guest Editorial: What Big Tech has to fear from federal inquiry

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This editorial is from the San Jose Mercury News:

It’s official. Big Tech is public enemy No. 1 in Washington, D.C.

When such polar opposites as Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren set their sights on tech as a focus of their 2020 campaigns, it should be obvious that the industry has some work to do.

The innovation economy may have rescued the nation from the Great Recession and is largely responsible for the longest economic growth period in U.S. history. But its unchecked privacy scandals, repeated data breaches and inability to monitor political disinformation campaigns has created a day of reckoning for tech companies. Tech firms need to clean up their act or face a wave of unprecedented regulation.

The consequences of ignoring the threat: the prospect of a 21st-century version of the Dark Ages, where innovation is feared and slowed at every turn, giving our global competitors an edge on artificial intelligence, robotics and game-changing advances in energy, medicine and transportation.

Warren threw down the gauntlet in advance of this month’s California Democratic Party convention in San Francisco. She paid for a billboard near the Caltrain station in downtown San Francisco with her picture and the message: “Break Up Big Tech.”

“I’ve been talking for years about how Big Tech has too much power over our economy and our democracy,” Warren wrote in an email to the New York Times. “I’m going to keep making the case for my plan to break up Big Tech and put power back in the hands of the American people — whether it’s at SXSW (the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas), a town hall in Iowa or a billboard in the heart of Silicon Valley.”

Soon thereafter the news broke that the federal government is considering antitrust investigations of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook, a move Trump has threatened more than once while charging the tech industry of anti-conservative bias. The Justice Department has oversight responsibilities for Google and Apple, and the Federal Trade Commission would lead any probe of Facebook and Amazon.

Then last Monday the House Judiciary Committee announced plans for a separate antitrust review of the tech giants.

Most analysts say they don’t expect the investigations to force a breakup of the tech firms. And even if they do, the process would take years. But that’s not the point. Long-term tech success depends largely on public trust — both from the consumers who buy tech products and the government’s willingness to give the industry the freedom it needs to innovate and thrive.

It’s true that a Pew Research poll last year found that 63% of Americans think tech firms’ impact on society as a whole has been more positive than negative. But the same poll revealed that only 28% of Americans think tech firms can be trusted to do the right thing always (3%) or most of the time (25%). And more than half of the public thinks tech companies should be regulated more than they are now.

The tech industry has a lot to answer for in recent years. It wasn’t so long ago that industry leaders were known for their high level of concern for the impact their products had on the world. Restoring lost trust needs to be a high priority today.

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