The Unlikely Activists Who Took On Silicon Valley — and Won
The way Alastair Mactaggart usually tells the story of his awakening — the way he told it even before he became the most improbable, and perhaps the most important, privacy activist in America — begins with wine and pizza in the hills above Oakland, Calif. It was a few years ago, on a night Mactaggart and his wife had invited some friends over for dinner. One was a software engineer at Google, whose search and video sites are visited by over a billion people a month. As evening settled in, Mactaggart asked his friend, half-seriously, if he should be worried about everything Google knew about him. “I expected one of those answers you get from airline pilots about plane crashes,” Mactaggart recalled recently. “You know — ‘Oh, there’s nothing to worry about.’ ” Instead, his friend told him there was plenty to worry about. If people really knew what we had on them, the Google engineer said, they would flip out.
“…the company became a Beltway heavyweight, hiring lobbyists, wooing regulators and funding the research behind hundreds of Google-friendly studies on competition, copyright law and other topics.”
Mactaggart had spent most of his adult life in the Bay Area, running a family real estate business with his uncle. The rise of the tech industry had filled his condo developments with ambitious engineers and entrepreneurs, making Mactaggart a wealthy man. But he never really thought about how companies like Google or Facebook got so big so fast. The vast pools of data they collected and monetized were abstractions, something he knew existed but, as with plane crashes, rarely dwelt on.
Now he began to think about tech companies a lot. He started reading about online tracking and data mining. He discovered that the United States, unlike some countries, has no single, comprehensive law regulating the collection and use of personal data. The rules that did exist were largely established by the very companies that most relied on your data, in privacy policies and end-user agreements most people never actually read. Mactaggart began to scrutinize these policies closely, the way he read loan contracts and pored over offering plans. He learned that there was no real limit on the information companies could collect or buy about him — and that just about everything they could collect or buy, they did. They knew things like his shoe size, of course, and where he lived, but also roughly how much money he made, and whether he was in the market for a new car. With the spread of smartphones and health apps, they could also track his movements or whether he had gotten a good night’s sleep. Once facial-recognition technology was widely adopted, they would be able to track him even if he never turned on a smartphone.
For most of its relatively brief existence, Silicon Valley has been more lightly regulated than almost any other major industry. The technology that drove the business was complex, and few lawmakers wanted to be seen as standing in the way of a new kind of wealth creation, one that seemed to carry no messy downsides like pollution or global economic collapse. Most of the biggest tech companies could simply ignore Washington — until they grew too big for Washington to ignore. When regulators finally threatened to intervene, the companies did what they were best at: They scaled up, this time not with software and servers but with phalanxes of lobbyists and lawyers.
Microsoft had virtually no Washington presence before the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against the company in the 1990s. As recently as 2003, Google retained just two outside lobbyists in Washington; over the next decade or so, as it became the world’s dominant search engine, the company became a Beltway heavyweight, hiring lobbyists, wooing regulators and funding the research behind hundreds of Google-friendly studies on competition, copyright law and other topics. By last year, Google’s parent, Alphabet, was spending more money on lobbyists than any other corporation in America.
But until recently, companies like Facebook and Google also had something that Wall Street and Big Oil and the cable companies didn’t. To many people in Washington, they were the good guys. Through the Obama years, the tech industry enjoyed extraordinary cachet in Washington, not only among Republicans but also among Democrats. Partnering with Silicon Valley allowed Democrats to position themselves as pro-business and forward-thinking. The tech industry was both an American economic success story and a political ally to Democrats on issues like immigration. Google enjoyed particularly close ties to the Obama administration: Dozens of Google alumni would serve in the White House or elsewhere in the administration, and by one estimate Google representatives visited the White House an average of about once a week.
“Dozens of Google alumni would serve in the White House or elsewhere in the administration, and by one estimate Google representatives visited the White House an average of about once a week.”