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Richard Levick

April 15, 2019

“The era of self-regulation for online companies is over.”

There is always a canary in the coal mine when the present becomes prologue – an incident so clear in the rearview mirror, but missed in real time, that if only we were paying closer attention, we would have known what’s coming next. It happened in 1999 when the first anti-GMO website went online, the nonGMOproject.org (It took the industry 13 years to respond, by then the debate was effectively over.). It happened to the natural gas industry when the HBO movie “Gasland” migrated from movie to website in 2010 and dominated search, replacing “hydraulic fracturing” with “fracking” as the search term of choice (When you control the terms, you control the debate. The industry didn’t respond until multiple states introduced referendums to ban or limit the practice.). It happened, as an NPR reporter so accurately commented to me in a long interview this week, after the Lion Air Max 8 crash in October, five months before the Ethiopian Air Max 8 crash. “Why wasn’t Boeing better prepared?” she wondered.

How do smart executives and the companies they lead miss these critical moments over and over? The silenced canary is a warning seldom heard. Tragically, the Internet Age’s propensity to over-communicate only makes this deafening silence harder to hear.

So how to read the tea leaves in coming Silicon Valley regulation? It has been abundantly clear for at least two years, as the FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) and other large Internet and nascent AI companies such as Uber have gone from Mt. Rushmore status to targets, that some forms of regulation are coming.

It’s no longer a single canary, but a flock. From Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s plan to break up the tech giants to yesterday’s New York Times special report from its Privacy Project called, “It’s Time to Panic About Privacy,” the Wild West Internet age is about to change. As the United Kingdom’s Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright said this past week, “The era of self-regulation for online companies is over.” Perhaps most telling is the separation that all of the Internet companies are taking away from Facebook, who many see as the tip of the sword. All for one and one for all no more. Between the highly critical UN report citing Facebook’s role in the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar to the Christchurch massacre, Facebook is the new poster child for coming regulation. It will continue to be Exhibit 1 by those advocating for new regulation.

Where will regulation go? We try and touch the tip of that iceberg in a half-hour interview on WFED/iTunes. Elizabeth Rogers, the first chief privacy officer in Texas state government and a data privacy and cybersecurity partner with Michael Best; Phil Bond, the former U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce for Technology and partner at Potomac International; host Jonathan Aberman, founder and Managing Director of Amplifier Ventures, an investor and advisor to technology startups and the author of the report Building Entrepreneurial Innovation in the Greater Washington Region, which provided much of the vision for the campaign that would lead to Virginia’s Amazon HQ2 win (and the subject of a new Forbes column this week), and I discussed the challenges of regulation, innovation, and what’s next.

Happy listening.

Richard Levick

Listen: Understanding what regulation the tech industry needs

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