In the past two decades, tech companies arguably have had a greater impact on our lives than virtually any other industry, with almost no public discussion or debate. Our personal privacy has been essentially erased, yet our government has been mute. Advances like self-driving cars, augmented reality, facial recognition, robotics and enhanced artificial intelligence will change our society more profoundly still.
Traditionally, we look to the government and its regulatory powers to defend the public interest and rein in corporations. But Silicon Valley companies have quite literally embedded themselves in Washington, flexing their financial muscles to ensure they remain unregulated. The vast wealth of companies like Google supports armies of lobbyists, and its executives walk through a revolving door in and out of top government positions. My organization documented 183 individuals who went to Google after leaving positions with the Obama administration and 58 who came from Google to Washington. Google executives meet in the White House on average more than once a week.
The influence peddling does not stop with lobbyists. Companies like Google alsobankroll academics and think tanks to create support for government policies that favor the corporate bottom line. Tech companies have another weapon in their armory – data – that they use to assist federal agencies pursuing a wide range of domestic and foreign policy initiatives.
But tech companies are not global charities dedicated to righting the wrongs of the world. They are corporations dedicated to serving the interests of their shareholders. So it is strange they have benefited from a halo effect, an insulation from the scrutiny usually faced by companies of their vast size and wealth. The halo effect may explain why the Federal Trade Commission ignored the recommendations of staff and declined to bring an antitrust suit against Google. Similarly, the Federal Communications Commission imposed a paltry fine of $25,000 on Google for “willfully stonewalling” an investigation of how Street View cars had downloaded personal information from individuals over Wi-Fi – a mere slap on the wrist for a company of its magnitude.
Our country’s devotion to new technology carries over to the companies that provide it, with the result that most Americans are indifferent to the apparent regulatory capture. That’s a shame. Tech companies are not necessarily bad actors, but their primary objective – like most companies – is profit, not good public policy. Our government leaders need to wake up to this fact and exercise more assertive regulatory oversight before it’s too late.
Anne Weismann, the executive director of Campaign for Accountability, was formerly chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.