Davos used to be so much fun for Silicon Valley. Whether it was ex-Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer boasting about the “Internet of Things,” or departing Google chairman Eric Schmidt rhapsodizing on the digital economy, the World Economic Forum in Davos was where tech executives mingled with world leaders, offered new ideas, and took credit for generating profits and good will around the globe.
But in 2018, Silicon Valley can’t even find solace in the Swiss Alps. This became abundantly clear Thursday when British Prime Minister Theresa May used part of her “special address” to slam tech giants for their role in various political crises.
May unloaded on Silicon Valley, castigating companies including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Uber as inveterate rulebreakers who have shirked their duties to society. May added that while she wanted the U.K. to be a “world leader in innovation-friendly regulation,” it was up to tech firms to “step up to their responsibilities.”
“Companies simply cannot stand by while their platforms are used to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery, or the spreading of terrorist and extremist content,” May said. Tech giants were quick to respond to May’s speech. A Twitter spokesperson said in a statement to VICE News that “we’ve dramatically reduced the presence of terrorist groups on Twitter,” and Google’s European policy chief Nicklas Lundblad said “that tackling extremism is a critical challenge for us all and we're committed to being part of the solution.” A Facebook spokesperson added that “we agree with Theresa May that it’s important to remove terrorist and extremist content from any platform as quickly as possible.” Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This isn’t the first time May has gone after big tech companies — she made a similar speech at a U.N. event in September. But her decision to return to the subject again during the typically dovish Davos forum shows just how deep the Silicon Valley backlash runs throughout the globe.
In Europe regulators have handed down multibillion-dollar antitrust fines and tax bills to Silicon Valley in the last year and a half alone. And in the U.K., facing mounting pressure from the British government, Facebook last week agreed to expand its investigation into Russian government activities in the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum.
“The backlash is catching on because people in Europe believe in it, and are acting on it,” Matt Stoller, a Silicon Valley critic and fellow at the Open Markets Institute in Washington, said of the European wave of tech regulation. “They are really feeling a lot of pressure because of the Europeans and people around the world.”
The U.S. doesn’t seem as far behind as it once did either, with figures as diverse as Cory Booker and Steve Bannon setting their sights on Silicon Valley. Even tech evangelist Marc Benioff, the billionaire enterprise software magnate, piled on Silicon Valley in a Wednesday interview at Davos, arguing that Facebook should be regulated “exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry” because of social media’s addictive qualities.
Though American executives are sounding off on Silicon Valley, the call for regulation hasn’t really taken flight in Congress. So far, it’s been a series of Congressional hearings on Russian government efforts to manipulate ads during the 2016 election (which were embarrassing for Big Tech, but didn’t really affect its bottom line), or sporadic advertiser revolts against terroristic and other explicit content.
For its part, as the largest social media platform in the world, Facebook has begun to acknowledge that its services can regularly abused for disinformation and propaganda, and Mark Zuckerberg even made “fixing” Facebook his “personal goal” for 2018. The company has begun publishing a series of blog posts from top executives, exploring social media’s impact on democracy; in one, Facebook executive Samidh Chakrabarti acknowledged that Facebook “allows people to spread misinformation and corrode democracy.
But with lingering questions in the U.S. about whether Facebook gave Donald Trump an assist in the 2016 election, there’s an emerging consensus among tech policy experts that something has to be done on the policy level to “fill” the gap between tech company practice and regulation, according to Hal Singer, an antitrust economist and senior fellow at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.
“There’s a gap, and it has to be filled, and it should be filled by new regulation,” Singer said to VICE News. “What we’re fighting about is how to fill it.”
Cover image: Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May addresses a speech during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 25, 2018. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)