Getting Congress to agree on anything these days is akin to getting Ted Nugent to agree to go to a vegan restaurant. However, in these days of acrimony, there’s one thing that seems to be able to unite them: big tech.
Not for the same reasons, of course. Republicans are concerned about potential political bias in Silicon Valley toward conservative voices. NPR says that “studies have no found evidence of it,” which is to say that liberals have found no evidence of it, either. Instead, they’re convinced social media helped elect President Donald Trump.
Both sides, however, seem to agree that big tech is unconcerned with privacy and dangerously unregulated. At that level, it seems, there’s some concord — and that should probably worry tech executives.
Nowhere was this newfound comity more on display than at a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday in which Facebook executive David Marcus came to pitch the social media giant’s proposed cryptocurrency, Libra.
Marcus told the committee that the company wanted to work closely both with legislators and regulators, according to NPR. One gets the feeling that’s because, in the current Washington climate, he’s going to have to.
“To be clear, the Libra Association expects that it will be licensed, regulated, and subject to supervisory oversight,” Marcus said in his prepared remarks.
“The Libra Association is similarly committed to supporting efforts by regulators, central banks, and lawmakers to ensure that Libra contributes to the fight against money laundering, terrorism financing, and more.”
In other words, you could tell that he was expecting some opposition. I’m not quite sure whether he fully expected what he ended up getting.
The whole debacle was probably best encapsulated by Arizona GOP Sen. Martha McSally.
“I don’t trust you guys,” she said. “So instead of cleaning up your house, now you’re launching into another business model with Calibra here.” (Calibra is “a Facebook subsidiary whose goal is to provide financial services using the Libra Blockchain,” according to Marcus.)
The left side of the aisle might have even been more scathing in their take on the tech giant.
“Facebook is dangerous,” Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio said.
“Like a toddler who’s gotten his hands on a book of matches, Facebook has burned down the house over and over, and called every arson a learning experience.”
According to Finance Magnates, GOP Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho raised privacy concerns, saying that “Libra is based on a relatively new and continually evolving technology in which it is not entirely clear on how existing laws and regulations apply” and that the social media giant already had access to an incredible amount of personal data.
“Libra and Calibra will only expand this reach,” he said. “[I]ndividuals are the rightful owners of their data. They should be granted a certain set of privacy rights, and the ability to protect those rights through informed consent.”
And then there was the moment where GOP Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana noted how Facebook had handled news, wondering if it might have something to do with how they handle cryptocurrency: “Isn’t it true, I really want your opinion, that Facebook has chosen to advance a set of values in which truthful reporting has been displaced by, uh, flagrant displays of bulls—?”
So, in short, I don’t think Marcus managed to sell Libra to the committee all that effectively.
While the Facebook hearing was the most contentious one on Capitol Hill, it was far from the only show going on Tuesday. Figures from Amazon, Apple and Google were all before various committees, as well, being grilled on issues as diverse as bias in search results and their effect on the entrepreneurial landscape.
This isn’t how Congress has usually operated with big tech, which seems to indicate the times, they are a-changin’. The years of viewing Silicon Valley as a benevolent force for good is pretty much over.
For Facebook, the 2016 election, Cambridge Analytica and allegations of political bias have pretty much ended any sort of honeymoon that may have still been going on. Similar — if not necessarily as acute — concerns exist with the rest of the giants. And then there’s the question of just how gigantic they are and whether or not that stifles competition.
Those are questions that are going to weigh heavily on big tech. After all, when both sides of Congress can agree on something — namely, that they’re not policed closely enough — you can bet they’re going to be policed more closely.
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