Understanding The Techlash: Implications For U.S. Innovation Policy

National Security Institute

Click here to download a PDF version of the paper

Zach Graves is a visiting fellow with the National Security Institute (NSI) at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. This NSI law and policy paper offers an overview of the recent history, driving forces, and policy implications of the “techlash”—a phenomenon referring to a growing reactionary movement against large technology companies and their impact on society.

  • THE FIRST SECTION of this paper offers a history of the term, an analysis of changing public sentiment about the tech industry, and an overview of relevant policy issues.
    • While the American public still holds generally positive views about the tech industry, there has also been growing skepticism about its power and societal impact.
    • A majority of both Republicans and Democrats now favor increased regulation of the tech sector, and half of Americans support breaking up big tech firms.
    • The declining perception of the tech industry appears to be a trend that has been long in the making, reflecting
      the maturation of the sector and its increased prominence in American life.
  • THE SECOND SECTION discusses the major policy areas driving the techlash.
    • Consumer Privacy. Privacy issues have long been a major policy issue for the tech industry. These issues became even more prominent in the wake of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, and subsequent policy debates in states like California. Now, Congress must decide if it will pursue federal privacy legislation.
    • Harmful Content, Bias, and Free Expression. Online platforms have been blamed for spreading content and enabling interactions that promote a broad range of societal harms; this has prompted debate about what responsibilities platforms should have and how active a role they ought to play in content moderation. These concerns often run counter to criticism of online platforms for restricting free expression, or demonstrating
      political bias.
    • Antitrust and Competition. There are growing fears that big tech companies have too much power to control Americans’ speech, squeeze or underpay content providers, manage private data, and shape the economy. This has led to new antitrust investigations and lawsuits by state attorneys general, the Department of Justice, as well as the Federal Trade Commission. It has also led some scholars to challenge existing legal doctrines about antitrust.
    • Collaboration with the Government. Tech firms have faced criticism from civil liberties advocates for perceived excessive cooperation with the U.S. government, including working with law enforcement, the intelligence community, and on defense-related projects. On the other hand, they have also faced criticism from law enforcement for their perceived unwillingness to cooperate.
  • THE THIRD SECTION frames key questions and issues at stake for policymakers related to the issues above.
  • THE FOURTH SECTION outlines the author’s views, including a discussion of the role of industry conflicts, and political landscape analysis for Republicans and Democrats.
    • Industry Conflicts. While there are very real popular fears and anxieties about big tech companies, these fears and anxieties have been fanned and co-opted to advance a variety of interest group agendas, including conflicts between rival tech firms, and by traditional industries disrupted by tech. This dynamic is particularly visible in the details of policy debates.
    • Political Landscape. Republicans and Democrats both have grievances with tech, but the issues they care about, and how they approach them, vary considerably. What they have in common, at least in recent years, is that both sides are shifting to be more critical of the tech industry, particularly as the parties themselves become more polarized internally.
    • What Comes Next. The fundamental conflicts that underpin the techlash are likely to get worse during the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic and going forward because it is accelerating the shift of economic and social activity to online platforms. Nonetheless, policymakers should resist the temptation to give in to reactionary policymaking and err on the side of innovation.

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