South by Southwest — already a hotbed of style, entertainment and innovation — has become something of a lightning rod as politicians turned out to blast big tech.
Freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez kicked off the critiques, warning about the dangers of mass automation in a society with no safeguards for disenfranchised workers. Left-leaning presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for the break-up of data-guzzling tech giants Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon, while fellow candidate and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — who’s more of a moderate — said she wanted to explore the need for busting them up.
That may be a sobering reality for an industry that tends to skew liberal, not to mention the companies that rely on their platforms. But it’s not at all clear if or how seriously the titans of tech take these rebukes.
In some corners of the tech world, blasé attitudes abound. “This isn’t the first time people got pissed at tech companies,” said a SXSW attendee who works at one of the aforementioned companies, speaking to WWD on condition of anonymity.
“Some Silicon Valley companies get caught up in scandals regularly — you could set your clock to it,” the person said. “I’m not saying people will just get over it this time. The 2016 election is still raw for a lot of people, and no doubt, that made data and privacy real for a lot of people. But tech has fingers in D.C. for a reason. I think breaking things up is going to be a lot harder than these politicians think.”
Indeed, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, as well as data breaches, including at the soon-to-be defunct Google Plus, dragged tech companies’ data strategies into the spotlight — from what they capture, to how they secure it and who gets access to it.
Now, public figures like Warren are calling on government to “break up monopolies” for the sake of the little guy. Amazon, for instance, has a reputation for copying popular products and offering them inexpensively to crush their makers, then raising the prices.
“The way markets work is that they have to have rules, and they have to have cops to enforce them,” Warren said.
The sentiment seems to be picking up steam, at least in parts of Washington, D.C. But tech industry insiders argue important nuances are getting lost.
In a session on Monday, Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, who sold their photo-sharing social network to Facebook in 2012, weighed in on the matter.
“I think the thing I would like to see — because this has obviously entered the conversation and will be there for the next couple of years, as we enter the presidential process — is more specificity,” Krieger said. “One, like what problem we’re solving and being really clear on that. Two, being really specific about what integrations and acquisitions we’re talking about and what problems we are [focusing on], because there’s actually a lot bundled in there.
“Is it about Amazon white-labeling products and selling them on Amazon, because that’s a very different problem than whether Facebook should also own Instagram, which is a really different problem than whether Apple has the right to be one [predominant] app store.”
Agreeing with Krieger, Systrom said: “Breaking companies up is a very specific restriction for a very specific problem. If you want to fix economic issues, there are ways of doing that. If you want to fix Russian meddling, there are ways of doing that. Breaking up a company doesn’t fix those problems.
“That doesn’t mean that a company shouldn’t be broken up if they get too big…but being big, in and of itself, is not a crime,” he said.
For others, the answer seems to lie in a dialed-back version or a compromise. Think regulation, not monopoly-busting maneuvers.
“I don’t think the solution is ‘break them up, tear it down,’” said Rori DuBoff, head of content innovation at Accenture Interactive, a wing of global consulting firm Accenture, which counts some of the biggest tech companies in the world as clients.
“I think the solution is to hold companies accountable,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a black-and-white thing. But we definitely need to have more people cognizant of what’s going on and say, ‘This is permissible, this is not permissible. It’s not permissible for you to read my e-mails to target me with advertising messaging. It is permissible if I grant you permission for certain things.
“We need more regulation, we need those companies to invest more of their money in those things,” she said.
In a panel regarding election meddling, a particular question seemed to sum things up: An audience member stepped up to the microphone and said, “I come from Europe, and I see that here in the U.S., you have tight, rigid regulations around finance. But not data.
“This is shocking to me,” he said.
And as that sentiment spreads, game-changing regulation of some sort or another might inch closer.