Analysis

Why Washington is turning on Silicon Valley

For years, the tech industry has enjoyed a hands-off approach in Washington, but "the tides are turning"

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"Big tech is falling out of political favor," said Eric Newcomer at Bloomberg. For years, Silicon Valley giants such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon have enjoyed a hands-off approach in Washington. Lawmakers have praised them as engines of economic growth and innovation, and allowed them to operate largely unfettered. But amid growing concerns over the companies' size and influence, "the tides are turning," with Congress floating new proposals on transparency and privacy that could roil the industry. The criticisms are coming "from both the left and the right," said Nancy Scola at Politico. Democrats have condemned Facebook for spreading "fake news," while conservatives have accused Google of "silencing right-leaning viewpoints." The attention is even creating "strange bedfellows": Both Stephen Bannon, President Trump's former chief strategist, and Sen. Bernie Sanders have called for Google and Facebook to be regulated like public utilities. In a town where liberals and conservatives agree on very little, everyone seems to agree that "the tech industry's power over American life has grown too vast and unchecked."

"Tech is manifestly unready for this new era" of scrutiny, said Ben Smith at BuzzFeed. The companies' approach in Washington has been to "play small-ball politics," fighting specific regulations and coasting on their products' popularity. Google has done this particularly well, but its "long, quiet game of gentle Washington influence turned darkly thuggish" last month when a left-leaning think tank pushed out an anti-monopoly scholar after Google chairman Eric Schmidt complained about his work. Google has always been vulnerable to criticism that it's a monopoly — it controls more than 85 percent of the U.S. search market — but the episode suggested it prefers silencing critics to engaging them. Facebook, meanwhile, appears headed for a "bruising encounter" with lawmakers over the Russia investigations, said Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. The social network has become a key focus of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe, and recently revealed that fake accounts from Russia spent $100,000 on ads during the 2016 election. To the consternation of Congress, the company has been less than forthcoming about how Facebook vetted those ads. Lawmakers increasingly appear eager to send a message that the social network is "not God, not a government, not the law. It's just a website."

Except it's much more than that, said Franklin Foer at The Washington Post. Facebook and the other tech giants "have become the most powerful gatekeepers the world has ever known," filtering our news, powering our social interactions, and remaking our markets. Their currency is "a bottomless collection of data," which they exploit to deepen their dominance. And their ambitions are mind-bogglingly grand: "They want to wake us in the morning, have their AI software guide us through our days, and never quite leave our sides." Policymakers have long treated Silicon Valley "as a force beyond control"; we, too, as citizens, have enjoyed these companies' free products and next-day delivery "with only a nagging sense that we may be surrendering something important. Such blitheness can no longer be sustained."

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