Although technology touches nearly every aspect of our day-to-day lives, it’s largely unregulated, and the big tech companies want to keep it that way. With Congress calling for more regulation and rules governing how the tech industry can behave when it comes to everything from user privacy to social media, Facebook (now “Meta”), Google, Apple, and other giants have leaned hard existing laws such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which absolves platforms for the content users upload.
Despite their protests (and lots of money spent on lobbying), leadership at the most prominent tech companies continues to be dragged in front of Congress to deflect blame. In 2022, we could see legislators across the country introduce new regulations on tech. But is regulation the right option, or should tech continue to be unregulated? We spoke with experts to find out.
Are Facebook's Ongoing Issues Casting Tech in The Wrong Light?
It's been a rough year for Facebook/Meta, which has been accused of everything from ignoring its platforms' impact on teenagers' mental health to failing to safeguard user safety.
“No, it's not whatsoever,” says Peter Barbosa, co-founder and CEO of data privacy compliance automation company Opsware. “Many big tech companies really push the needle as much as they can when it comes to collection, processing and storage of personal data. For the last 20 years, companies have been becoming more demanding in the collection of personal data to build personalized experiences, track users, and increase their bottom-line. Casting an eye on big tech like Meta/Facebook increases the awareness with consumers, which is already what's driving a lot of the new privacy legislation we're seeing passed in states like California, Virginia, and Colorado.”
Stan Sater, a corporate and technology attorney who specializes in data regulations, tells Dice: “Facebook's ongoing issues are highlighting difficult and nuanced conversations that need to be addressed. The issues facing all companies today through their use of technology is unprecedented. Keep in mind that this issue about regulating tech is not just at ‘tech companies.’ Every company is a technology company today. The issue is about regulating data and the flow of data. Regulating data, in particular personal data, today is about swinging the pendulum of control and rights back to the users.”
The issues confronting Facebook over how it leverages users’ data could have an impact not only on the perceptions of other tech companies, but also the U.S. government, says Dimitri Shelest, CEO and founder of OneRep: “I think that it is not only tech that is being cast in the wrong light, but the U.S. legislative system, and more specifically the ability of the U.S. political institutions to respond adequately and timely to the penetration of technology into our everyday life.”
Shelest adds: “But my question is this: why do we expect for-profit tech companies to stop acting in their best interest and impose regulations on themselves voluntarily? Regulations that prevent them maximizing earnings will not happen.”
Does Tech Need to be Regulated?
“I personally do not think that hasty regulations are beneficial,” Sater tells Dice. “I think we need to do more in terms of educating users about how technology works and how and why their personal data is being collected and used. If we pass unthoughtful regulation, you only push people to the edges, and new technologies used to evade the law are created. The bad behaviors are not necessarily curbed.”
But others think that regulations could help ease some of these brewing issues. “We are seeing a lot of state-level bills introduced across US states and, even more recently, we're seeing the FTC filed an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking with the Office of Management and Budget that kicks off a consideration of a rulemaking process on privacy and artificial intelligence (A.I.),” Barbosa says. “Tech regulation is bound to happen as we have regulated all major other infrastructures like transportation and electricity. Customers are becoming increasingly weary of sharing personal data with Big Tech, and certain tech companies like Apple are trying to make privacy a competitive differentiation since they understand that building trust and providing assurances around personal data collection is good for their brand.”
The other big question is how the federal government should regulate tech. “The areas and practices to be regulated by the government must include user personal data—its collection, treatment, processing and sharing, as well as responsibility for when this data is breached, sold or misused,” Shelest says. “Take the recent case of Life360, a popular family safety app used by 33 million people worldwide that has been selling data on kids’ and families’ whereabouts to data brokers. Obviously, this might have not happened if selling this kind of data was forbidden.”
In other words, good regulation might make people more aware of how, when, and why their data is being collected.
Would Federal Government Oversight of Tech Hamper Innovation?
While some might think that regulation of the tech industry is ultimately a good thing, it could come at the cost of slowing down companies’ respective roadmaps. “Additional controls and regulations always slow down innovation,” Shelest says. “In the music industry, major record labels resisted the emergence of streaming services like Spotify because they didn't want to lose their profits. This was possible due to copyright (we know that record labels usually own the copyright for the music content that was created with their financial support). That means, they used their legal leverage to stop progress.”
It's a similar situation in the tech industry, Shelest adds: “The regulation of personal data use by private companies is likely to produce a similar effect, but apparently this is the price we will all have to pay to protect ourselves. In the end, our experience shows that innovation always wins, no matter the obstacles.”
Dr. Esben Hallundbæk Østergaard, co-founder and CEO of REInvest Robotics, tells Dice that overstepping is a real risk when it comes to regulation. “Take the European Commission’s proposed changes to the A.I. Act and machinery directive as a real-world example. If they pass, extreme restrictions and regulations will be placed on companies developing technology and using automation solutions through Europe—and the consequences of doing so are dire. Not only will this slow tech innovation across Europe, but the restrictions will hinder AI and robotics adoption and put European companies at a competitive disadvantage globally.”
What’s the potential solution to something like that? In an ideal world, governments would take a “light touch” approach to regulation, prosecuting the most egregious violations of data privacy but giving companies the leeway to innovate. There’s no easy answer, and it would be unfair to apply unique rules to huge firms like Facebook or Google while smaller entities bypass government oversight to achieve scale. Most agree something significant must change, but as we head into 2022, it’s unclear what form that change might take.