Monday, October 11, 2021

The tech companies testifying to Congress, ‘I know you took liberties… but if you offer me nothing…,’

A pair of senate hearings Friday brought attention to reports of the National Security Agency snooping on leading U.S. companies. The companies did their best to endear themselves to the senators… the Senate was looking for a break from the Senate. But the questions often revealed a fundamental misconception of how companies draw their customers.

“I personally am not opposed to a search warrant” Google’s Patrick Gillis said. “But I am opposed to it being a choice between my brand and my life.” He quickly pivoted, however, toward the pledge of shipping to U.S. residences.

The foreign governments with which we work will sometimes spy on us. So, yeah, we’ve got to get U.S. customers to move our stuff from our web property. And to tell Congress, “Yeah, yeah, we screwed up, but we have tens of millions of Europeans using our products, and no, we’re not going to give them up because they have an ‘Obama problem.'”

The firm most notued the most conspicuously of all the companies was Apple. After telling Sen. Angus King that consumers don’t want them to change the way they do business, Apple told the senator that, “The more we believe in the power of government to get the right thing done, the less likely we are to be doing it on behalf of our customers.”

This has to weigh on your mind as you watch how folks in Washington make laws for the future. I see conflicts between what the tech companies want to do and what the government wants the government to do, and what I hear is, “The government is doing what the customer needs, and they need to be protected.” Here’s a striking thing about all this, though, which isn’t mentioned enough: It’s consistent with how big tech works. It’s the implicit bargain built into the service: I’ll hook you up with whatever you want to stream, if you, like Apple, give me all the customer data I want to know. I guarantee that Google will search my emails and mine my Facebook page, for example, to tell me how you’re feeling about politics, the state of the world and whatever else is happening in the world. As to me, I’m pretty much a hermit. It’s not my point of view, but it’s the thing that sells me on Google Search. And that is, for decades, the deal that worked for consumers.

So it’s easy to see why consumer privacy is the first thing to go in the post-Schaake era. Go back any two years to Google Search, and you’ll find most searches turning out to be about a topic picked up in a simple query; you’ll find most brands say their site is “user-centric,” because they assume a user wants information when they give it up. That’s a perfect model for how companies get who they serve, without much of a choice in the matter, then expect to be protected from government meddling in the process. (Note: Sen. King didn’t ask any of the tech representatives about any of that.)

That changed with the post-Cold War easing of restrictions on Big Data collection, but it doesn’t need to. It’s ironic that it’s the tech giants in the hot seat now, and their issue is the very thing that drives them all crazy: They don’t want to hand over their customer data to a government — they want a guarantee that they’ll be able to do that stuff without screwing up customer’s privacy in the process.

This is the weird reality of big tech’s current political predicament: All they have done is grow too big for its own good. If they lose access to all that data, they’re over. They can barely get people to download their music services. For those who choose to use them, they face big user turnover and deep-seated customer discomfort with their snooping and pivot.

Meanwhile, those companies can’t avoid regulation. We need to protect our consumer privacy rights, but to do so, the federal government needs to sit down with the agencies that are beholden to our government. We can’t make tech stop spying on us (with or without a warrant), and Congress needs to have the clout and constitutionality to enact big new laws to police it when it’s too much.

The Senate has asked tech execs to break their silence and give testimony, but there’s a whole lot of stridency in the room and nothing there to justify the super-extreme questions of what the companies should do.

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