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Regulators have Big Tech in a corner

September 23, 2021, 7:05 PM UTC

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: If the U.S. imposes more regulations on the technology sector, then these companies — and the dizzying amount of money that tends to follow them around — will simply pack up and go elsewhere. 

Concerns about facial recognition, say, are valid — but to put a whole sector in regulatory bondage is short-sighted. If we allow a bunch of hall monitors to police artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, or any other new type of tech, it’s probably still going to be developed — but by China. 

It’s an argument I’ve heard from a countless number of lobbyists, spokespeople, technologists, hedge fund managers, and others over the years. 

But what if China no longer wants to play ball? Where do you go, then?

The reality on the ground is that the tech industry is in a global retreat. Yes, Amazon will probably hire you eventually, but sentiment from the public and the powers that be has shifted.  

According to a recent poll, the vast majority of Americans want to see Big Tech brought to heel. Now, Reuters reports that the U.S. and the European Union are coordinating a regulatory response that will “tackle areas such as hate speech, algorithmic amplification and data access for researchers.” There will also be regulations that push for more environmentally-friendly tech development — a major component of the Biden agenda. Europe even wants to cut down on the tangle of device chargers that everyone keeps in their drawers. 

The U.S. and the E.U. are important for tech because that’s where the money is—not only for the venture capital, but also for customers. There’s a reason you never read a gushing note from a Wall Street analyst about the 24% increase in Facebook’s daily users in the “Rest of World” category, like what they’ve seen over the last two years. In the U.S. and Canada, the social network made about $53 per user during the most recent quarter. Elsewhere, it was as low as $3 or $4. 

So the China threat has always been fairly empty, even if it’s been potent. But recent moves by President Xi Jinping should make it clear that the tech industry is staring at a future with fewer and fewer friends. 

First, China reduced Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma from a reigning tech Napoleon to an exile painting on his own personal St. Helena. Then there was the crackdown on video games — three hours a day for children, no more. The move this week by Shanghai to let a possibly even bigger giant, the extremely indebted real estate company China Evergrande Group, fail sends a clear signal to anyone smart enough to listen: the excesses of the past are over. 

Maybe this will end up playing out in surprising and positive ways. There’s talent all over the world, and regions long ignored by the industry could lead the way in developing useful new tech. It’s possible, but I wouldn’t put money on it. 

Kevin T. Dugan
@kevintdugan

NEWSWORTHY

Don’t quota me. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, perhaps emboldened after defeating a recall attempt, has signed a bill that will publicize quotas imposed on warehouse workers, and makes it illegal to penalize workers for health-related reasons, like using the bathroom. The bill appears squarely aimed at Amazon, which has been criticized for its employee quota and bathroom policies. 

Chip chop. The Biden administration is asking for more information about the global chip shortage from companies like Apple and Intel, as well as carmakers like Ford and GM. The shortage has led to a backlog of orders on just about every kind of electronics, and have contributed to the spike in car prices. 

Money talks. Twitter is introducing a bunch of new features, like allowing tipping in Bitcoin, and letting people remove themselves from threads and replies that they don’t want to be a part of. Users will also be able to tip audio hosts, and will find warnings on “heated” threads. 

Home improvement. ServiceTitan, a software maker for home contractors that’s been valued at $9.5 billion, is reportedly planning an initial public offering. The company has been riding the wave of pandemic-era home improvement projects as people have been working on their homes or renovating new units. 

News you can use. Facebook said that it’s demoting “sensationalist” headlines, low-quality video, and clickbait headlines from users’ news feeds. The changes come after a series of embarrassing stories in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times detailing how the social network has negatively affected its users, and how CEO Mark Zuckerberg is using the feed to promote his own company. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Special delivery. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign a landmark slate of six bills today that will establish minimum pay and working conditions for food-delivery workers. The fact that these bills even exist underscores how horrible working conditions have become for these drivers — and why facile slogans like “tip better!” don’t do a thing to actually solve the problems they face.

For instance, the new rules would let delivery drivers use the bathroom at the restaurants where they get orders; they prohibit them from having to pay a fee to get their earnings. They establish transparency measures so they know how much they’re going to make. They stop companies from charging them for equipment they need to make deliveries, like insulated bags. And they allow the drivers to pick and choose their routes without fear of retributions.  

I will continue to harp on this, but hear me out: The futures of tech, labor, and our cities are all wrapped up in the issues being defined by third-party delivery companies right now. This is a major win for Los Deliveristas Unidos, a group of delivery workers who’ve been agitating for better working conditions.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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Meet Facebook’s new tech chief Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth by Jonathan Vanian

Two new quantum computing breakthroughs reveal the technology’s commercial potential by Jeremy Kahn

Dell sets 3%-4% growth target through 2026, launches share buyback program by Ian King and Bloomberg

Net zero isn’t enough. We need to get to net negative by Noah Deich

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BEFORE YOU GO

Ride share. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was photographed (by his P.R. team) riding the subway, reading an iPad. This elicited all the predictable takes on Twitter you'd expect about how much an Uber costs nowadays.

Since my brain is permanently broken by the Internet, I can imagine this whole paragraph being replaced by the butterfly meme, where the butterfly is the tweet and the man is Twitter and he is asking, “Is this [a scandal]?

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