The Year Ahead
7 Reasons Why Silicon Valley Will Have a Tough Time With the Biden Administration
The coziness between Washington and Big Tech is over.
So far, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden seems like business as usual for Silicon Valley. The industry’s upper class bankrolled his campaign, and several tech executives are likely to take senior positions in the incoming administration. After four unpredictable years, policy discussions are back on familiar ground—and companies are dusting off their tried-and-true lobbying techniques. But while this may look at first glance like a return to the past, it is not: The mood and context have changed utterly, and the traditionally cozy relationship between the Democratic Party and Big Tech is on the brink of turning much more contentious.
The Dec. 10 anti-trust lawsuit brought against Facebook by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the attorneys general of New York and other states is likely just the start of the long-expected crackdown on Silicon Valley, no matter which party controls the White House.
Here is why Big Tech is in for a rough time over the next four years:
1. Self-regulation has failed. One of Silicon Valley’s most valuable assets until now has been the cultural permission to try new things. The public has put up with arrogant rhetoric and a lax attitude toward the law in exchange for innovative ideas that meaningfully improved upon the status quo. But it was a Faustian bargain, with untrammeled innovation raising the specter of uncontrolled growth. When we learn about Airbnb endangering neighbors, Twitter failing to stop rampant harassment, or YouTube radicalizing its viewers with an algorithm that recommends extremist content, we see the destructive harm technology companies can do and their unwillingness to rein in their greed. The narrative has shifted from a question of whether there will be regulation at all to the fight over who should make the rules—and how tough those rules should be.
2. Trust is broken. Across the industry, the promises made by the titans are meeting skepticism. Before the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, we used to wonder when Mark Zuckerberg would run for president; now we ask in disbelief how he has kept his job as CEO of Facebook for so long. A decade of lofty rhetoric about an open and connected world now falls flat, and the public sees Facebook for what it is: a data-hungry corporation that evades accountability and keeps its users addicted to its products. Even within the company, internal surveys show barely half of its workforce thinks its products are having a positive effect on the world. Zuckerberg, who once symbolized hope for a better future, has instead become Silicon Valley’s Darth Vader. It has come to the point where the city of San Francisco, where Zuckerberg has a residence, is working to remove the Zuckerberg name from its General Hospital, citing him as a risk to public health.
3. The backlash is bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much these days, but they do agree that the technology industry has become too powerful. Whether it is Amazon systematically decimating main-street business, Instagram sapping the attention of the country’s youth, or Uber’s gig-economy practices taking advantage of workers, Americans sense an imbalance. Though the industry’s products remain popular with consumers, a consensus seems to be growing that concentrating so much decision-making power in the hands of a few billionaires is dangerous for society and democracy. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s call to regulate and break up Big Tech was just the opening shot; taking on these massive corporations will become a much more common exercise in economic populism.
4. Scrutiny is increasing inside Silicon Valley. Google used to promise to do no evil; now it appears to be suppressing anyone who suggests it may be doing harm. A recent controversy over the removal of Timnit Gebru, a well-known Google artificial intelligence ethics researcher, shows just how bad this has become. Gebru co-authored a paper that warned about the societal risks of using large language models, a machine-learning approach the company commonly employs, and was subsequently removed from her position in a cloud of controversy. This has caused a massive backlash within Google, leading to more than 1,400 employees signing a letter of protest and others to speak out publicly to defend her. As media become more critical, employees more informed, and members of the public less trusting, we can expect the internal backlash in Silicon Valley over discrimination, bias, and the spread of other societal ills to reach new heights.
5. The entire Democratic Party has moved to the left. Silicon Valley’s executive class includes some prominent Trump supporters—but there are few in the industry’s rank and file. The Valley’s predominantly liberal population—along with the rest of the Democratic Party—has moved to the left on key issues such as workers’ rights, wealth disparities, immigration, justice, and policing. The coziness that former President Barack Obama showed with Google and other industry giants would not be tolerated by today’s activist wing. In the Bay Area, technology companies are being pushed to take more progressive public stances on the issues that matter to their workforce, such as the recent controversy over cryptocurrency startup Coinbase’s attempts to quash discussion of discrimination and issues surrounding race. At the same time, the Trump era has led to heightened tensions, with supporters such as Peter Thiel having left the Bay Area, declaring it ideologically uninhabitable. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has amassed a record for workplace violations, union busting, and COVID-19 denial in California, has moved his residence to Texas.
6. The public has a better understanding of tech’s dark side. For a long time, the benefits offered by smartphones, slick software, and constant connection were so obvious that any costs seemed negligible in comparison. But a decade of being glued to our devices has caused many people to call into question whether this equation still holds. Though device usage has only increased, satisfaction with a digitally connected lifestyle seems to have decreased. Abstract issues such as loss of privacy and the power of network effects now feel real and personal: We’ve all seen our actions online lead to intrusive ads that follow us on Google and Facebook; we’ve all seen main-street businesses shut down through their inability to compete with e-commerce platforms’ massive logistical and economic advantages, including the tax and regulatory favors they’ve been able to buy.
7. The future of labor and inequality is at stake. Few issues animate the Democratic voter base as much today as keeping corporate power in check and obstructing tax avoidance by the rich. Companies such as Amazon have come to symbolize everything they were traditionally seen to stand against: poor treatment of workers, monopolistic power grabs, and a concentration of wealth that would make a robber baron blush. And these issues are being exacerbated at a much faster pace than you’d expect: Amazon’s size has exploded since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the robot technology that may soon replace the company’s workers is advancing exponentially, and Amazon is eyeing even more sectors of the economy to enter.
Tomorrow’s rising political stars are going to make their name standing up to Big Tech. The next presidential candidates won’t be people like Zuckerberg—instead, they may be drawn from the attorneys general pushing anti-trust lawsuits, senators curbing the power of social media companies, and House members interrogating tech CEOs in Congress. Long before then, the public will have become disillusioned with the tech giants’ claims about changing the world for the better—and become hostile toward the industry’s destructiveness instead.
Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program and the co-author of From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation. Twitter: @wadhwa