Microsoft President: Democracy Is At Stake. Regulate Big Tech

Sep 13, 2019
Originally published on September 13, 2019 6:39 pm

Regulate us. That's the unexpected message from one of the country's leading tech executives. Microsoft President Brad Smith argues that governments need to put some "guardrails" around engineers and the tech titans they serve.

If public leaders don't, he says, the Internet giants will cannibalize the very fabric of this country.

"We need to work together; we need to work with governments to protect, frankly, something that is far more important than technology: democracy. It was here before us. It needs to be here and healthy after us," Smith says.

Smith has co-authored, with Carol Ann Browne, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age. The title reflects a simple fact about how any technology — and digital tech in particular — works: It can be a tool or a weapon, much like a knife.

Microsoft is not in the crosshairs right now. But when it was, back in the 1990s, Smith was the man repeating that well-worn refrain about how regulation kills innovation.

"I look at the things that we said; I look at the things I said 20 years ago," he says. "There were many things that we got wrong."

According to Smith, the threat that Microsoft posed during its protracted antitrust case was economic. Today, the tech giants — whose tools have been used to interfere in fair and free elections — are posing a much bigger threat to the political stability of many countries, including the U.S.

Smith has proposals that are not popular in Silicon Valley. For one, he argues, it's time to reform the U.S. law that says Internet platforms are not liable for just about any of the content running through their pipes — hate speech, death threats and ads for counterfeit goods or illegal guns.

That law has enabled Microsoft's competitors — Amazon, Facebook and Google and its subsidiary YouTube — to grow at breakneck speed. "Almost no technology has gone so entirely unregulated, for so long, as digital technology," Smith says.

Skeptics say Smith's rhetoric masks an agenda to keep Microsoft on top. A tough law making Internet platforms accountable for content poses a greater threat to the competition than to Microsoft. And calling for regulation doesn't necessarily mean the strongest regulation. Earlier this year, in its home state of Washington, Microsoft pushed back on a facial recognition bill that protected civil rights in favor of a less restrictive bill. And other tech chiefs — including Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg — have said there's a need for some regulation.

But Smith goes further and deeper than his peers, by arguing that governments need to probe the fundamentals of the data economy. He poses these questions: Where do our data go? Who gets to call the shots on how our data get used: the few companies — Microsoft included — that have collected the informaton?

"I worry that if all of the data on which the world relies is in the hands of a small number of tech companies, you're going to see a massive transfer of economic wealth," he says.

This week, nearly every state attorney general in the U.S. joined an antitrust probe into Google. Last week, nine attorneys general launched an investigation of Facebook.

It will be years before a court ruling (if any) lands. Smith encourages his fellow tech leaders to look for places where they can compromise. He is the one who pushed Bill Gates and Microsoft to enter a settlement, which was hard, emotionally.

"There were days when people would say, 'Why are you such a wimp?' " Smith recalls. "The answer in my view was because it was the wrong fight to fight" and "it often takes more courage to compromise than it does to keep fighting."

That sounds like geopolitical, business and marriage advice. Maybe Smith has another book in him.

Editor's note: Microsoft is among NPR's sponsors.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Regulate us, please. That is the unexpected message from one of the country's leading tech executives. In his new book, the president of Microsoft argues that governments need to put some guardrails around engineers and the tech titans they serve. NPR's Aarti Shahani spoke with him at Microsoft headquarters. And we should note Microsoft is an NPR sponsor.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Microsoft is not in the crosshairs right now. But when it was, back in the 1990s, Brad Smith was the man repeating that well-worn refrain about how regulation kills innovation.

BRAD SMITH: And I go back. And I look at the things that we said. I look at the things I said 20 years ago. There were many things that we got wrong.

SHAHANI: Smith has co-authored "Tools And Weapons." Just like a knife, digital technology can be a tool or a weapon. According to Smith, the threat that Microsoft posed decades back was economic. Today the tech giants whose tools have been used to interfere in fair and free elections are posing a much bigger threat.

SMITH: We need to work together. We need to work with governments to protect, frankly, something that is far more important than technology - democracy. It was here before us. It needs to be here and healthy after us.

SHAHANI: Smith has proposals that are not popular in Silicon Valley. For one, he argues it's time to reform the U.S. law that says Internet platforms are not liable for just about any of the content running through their pipes - could be hate speech or death threats, ads for counterfeit goods or illegal guns. That law has enabled Microsoft's competitors, Facebook, Google's YouTube and Amazon, to grow at breakneck speed.

SMITH: Almost no technology has gone so entirely unregulated for so long as digital technology.

SHAHANI: Skeptics say that Smith's rhetoric masks an agenda to keep Microsoft on top. A tough law making Internet platforms accountable for content poses a greater threat to the competition than to Microsoft. Also, calling for regulation doesn't mean the strongest regulation. Earlier this year in its home state of Washington, Microsoft pushed back on a facial recognition bill that protected civil rights in favor of a less restrictive bill. And other tech chiefs, like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, have said there's a need for some regulation. But Smith goes further, deeper than his peers, by arguing that governments need to probe the fundamentals of the data economy. He poses prescient questions. Where does our data go? Who gets to call the shots on how our data gets used - the few companies, Microsoft included, that have collected it?

SMITH: I worry that if all of the data on which the world relies is in the hands of a small number of tech companies, you're going to see a massive transfer of economic wealth.

SHAHANI: This week, nearly every state attorney general in the U.S. joined an antitrust probe into Google. Last week, nine AGs joined one against Facebook. It'll be years before a court ruling, if any, lands. Smith encourages his fellow tech leaders to look for places where they can compromise. He's the one who pushed Gates and Microsoft to enter a settlement, which was hard emotionally.

SMITH: There were days when people would say, why are you such a wimp? And the answer, in my view, was because it was the wrong fight to fight; that it often takes more courage to compromise than it does to keep fighting.

SHAHANI: Geopolitical, business and marriage advice from Brad Smith.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Well, at least two out of the three.

SHAHANI: Maybe he's got another book in him.

Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Redmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.