When I first visited Facebook in 2006, the company had just opened its network beyond users with .edu email addresses. It had recently moved into new headquarters on University Avenue in Palo Alto to house its 150 employees. I was curious about this new kind of internet business on the brink of its commercial future, and the possibilities it held for marketers like P&G. Facebook seemed to represent exactly what the commercial internet was about: a world of possibilities that were hard to imagine even a few years before.
The unofficial start of this new world was the launch of the Mosaic Netscape browser in 1994, and it changed the world in new and exciting ways: You could read news from around the world, buy books online, search the largest library of information ever assembled. People built an encyclopedia together. House hunting could be done from a computer. And you could advertise and sell things – anywhere in the world. “Information wants to be free” was the motto of the internet boom. We all saw an engine for prosperity and equality, making the world more open and connected. Despite a test of economic reality in 2001, people kept their trust in the idea that tech would make the world a better place for everyone. The best way for governments to manage tech was to clear the path: remove any hurdles, give the innovators freedom, whether that meant an absence of sales tax to liability protections for online speech.
This boundlessness allowed companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon to grow to outsized proportions, ever expanding in unchecked ways. Now, those dreams of what digital technology could bring to our world have met reality. We have learned the unintended consequences that its use has brought to our economy, politics, and society. Increasingly, voices are rising for governments to step in and do something, to control and “regulate” tech — these calls are even coming from the tech companies themselves. Early Facebook investor Roger McNamee is now an advocate of reining in the company he helped build (see his 2018 Signal session). Digital privacy, content liability, tech taxes, data localization, fraud protection, antitrust measures, AI legislation, net neutrality, 5G technology restrictions — these are all on the table. In the next few years, new government policy and regulations will drive business in ways unimagined at the dawn of the commercial internet 25 years ago.
Governments are better prepared than they have shown themselves to be in recent years (see the early interrogations of Mark Zuckerberg in front of the US Congress), and business leaders across all industries, everywhere in the world, need to understand and prepare for the consequences, too. In this issue, we provide a glimpse of the policy landscape and discussions so that you can see what’s ahead. This “starter kit” looks at the most recent topics in US regulation as well as the most recent developments in the EU.
Two of the most talked about policy topics are content moderation and liability and data privacy. To get a common-sense perspective on these topics, John Battelle interviewed Mike Masnick, founder of the renowned Techdirt blog, which focuses on tech policy and impact on business and society. Mike’s perspective is that regulations are often well intended but poorly executed, leading to high compliance costs that outweigh the benefits. Regulation has unintended consequences as well, especially if it is an inconsistent patchwork across the world.
Data localization and fraud are other critical topics to explore. Governments increasingly require that any data about their citizens is stored on servers located in their country. This protectionist policy is seemingly in contrast to “cloud computing” and creates a significant friction and cost for businesses around the world. Digital technologies have many flaws, providing continuous opportunities for fraud that destroys trust in using such technologies. We interviewed Yingliang Xie, founder and CEO of DataVisor, about what it takes to combat rapidly evolving forms of fraud and how regulation might help.
Policy and regulation may seem like complicated topics, but they will help to create a more positive use and impact of digital technologies in our world. We should be careful to understand the consequences and limitations. It can’t replace human ingenuity to solve problems. This will require new, innovative approaches to how we interact and do business with each other in a digital world, with trust and confidence. That’s not just up to governments and technology companies. It is a responsibility for all of us.
Co-Editor-In-Chief, Signal360 / Co-founder, Signal P&G