Competition: Another Big DC Week for Tech (Where Do We Go From Here?)

When the leaders of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google come to Washington, you know there’s going to be a lot of posturing – and it’s usually not (just) from the witnesses.

The focus this past week was the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust Law rather than privacy, security, and foreign influence – topics of previous high-profile hearings. Yet the out-sized attention on these leading executives and companies – all of them U.S.-based – is actually a testament, in my humble opinion, to the power of data, information, and innovation at work advancing the American and global economy. Has this exercise and accumulation of power been benign, beneficial… or harmful?

I’ve not been shy to tout the conveniences and benefits that we’ve accrued and enjoyed as a result of responsible data use. Yet I do not dismiss an investigation of harm, unintended or otherwise. Simply, I ask that in our zeal to rein in questionable practices, let’s flash a sign to policymakers: “Handle with Care.”

The world has embraced the Information Economy. It just so happens, not by accident, that the United States has both many global leaders (four of them visiting DC) and – it must be said – a long tail of innovative companies that want to grow, prosper, and potentially join the ranks of the next big, successful data-driven entities.

As Americans, we should do all we can to recognize our own advantage, and to encourage such business ingenuity – for a better world.  Transparency, control, and civil liberties must be protected… that’s all.

There’s a part of me – with my direct marketing heritage – that’s utterly in awe of what these companies have achieved, each of them forging their own paths to business success, and doing so in a way that has cultivated and curated data – marketing and otherwise – to create in each a global powerhouse. Digital has always been “direct marketing on steroids” (please let me know who coined this phrase), and many of these companies achieved their success through a fervor for measurability and accountability.

But the question of the day – antitrust – is a very serious charge. 

Practically every business revolution in the age of capitalism – oil, banking, computing, communications, digital, among others – have had to grapple with the question, how much power is too much? What constitutes “too big” in the Information Economy? Though no one has gone there yet, could there ever be a concept in the digital world as Wall Street’s “too big to fail” – in reference to our banking giants?

I myself don’t have these answers, but I do think it’s worth looking (again) to our digital and direct marketing heritage for some guidance. Certainly any new federal laws and regulation, such as for privacy, ought to be pragmatic in their approach – rather than overly prescriptive. We have a blueprint for a federal privacy law in Privacy for America, for example, which seeks to discern reasonable from unreasonable data uses.

Some consideration, please.

  • What if we held out that data collected for marketing use should be used for marketing purposes only? What non-marketing uses – product development and design possibly – might also be acceptable?
  • Should personally identifiable data collected for marketing use ever or always be anonymized for non-marketing use? Certainly, let’s make sure we can recognize consumers as they jump from device to device and across digital and offline platforms, if for no other reason than marketing or fraud prevention purposes. These aims grow the economy, serve consumers, and finance vital social aims such as news reporting.
  • Under what circumstances should private-sector data be handed over to government sources? What legal protections should govern such handovers – subpoenas and otherwise? It’s a borderless world. What access should foreign governments have to such data, about U.S. citizens or from other jurisdictions? It’s a fine line – or even a fuzzy blur – between anti-terrorism and unwanted surveillance of ordinary people.
  • And of course, there’s anti-competition. Data enablement and data sharing should grow the economy, foster competition, and serve consumers. Laws – whether anti-competition or privacy – should seek the same, and not undermine innovation. For example, the current demonization of third-party data feeds a frenzy that concentrates first-party data collection and power in “walled gardens” – where knowledge about customers’ marketing preferences often becomes incomplete and clouded. Could policymakers use their pen unwittingly to diminish the long tail of ad tech to detrimental effects? Even (some) Europeans have questioned what they’ve done.

As far as bias is concerned, add my voice to those who wish to do our utmost to minimize and eliminate protected-class discrimination in our algorithms and artificial intelligence – gender, race, religion, sexual preference – as we practice the art and science of commerce.

All the same, I have deep sympathy for this same task regarding political free speech: when and how we would ever attempt to define and remove political bias is dangerous territory. What is a lie? What is hate speech? What is a conservative or liberal bias?

There are no easy answers here. But I look forward to this public investigation, all the same. We need to understand fully where the Information Economy may overstep, overreach, restrict free speech, or undermine competition – even if these grievances are found to be remote.