What changed over a weekend?
Last month, the American public was generally unprepared for state-actor attacks on our cyberinfrastructure. Indeed, many Americans were generally unaware that such threats exist, even though these threats could potentially be more destructive to the country than Sept. 11, 2001, or Pearl Harbor.
Last month, U.S. social media — indeed, worldwide social media — remained open to manipulation by malign agents of disinformation. We are still defended by only the thinnest of lines at the Pentagon and within the law enforcement and intelligence communities.
Last month, our tech titans were a largely unregulated group. If not exactly indifferent to the growing consensus that these members of Big Tech are achieving dangerous concentrations of power and wealth, then at best the companies moved at a snail’s pace to convince the public of their good and fair intentions and thus cut off ham-handed and outdated regulation.
Then, last Monday, reports confirmed that the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department and the House Judiciary Committee were launching almost simultaneous offensives against everything represented by the term “FAANG” — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. (Disclosure: I own only Amazon stock, and The Washington Post is owned by Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos. My views on this issue long predate either purchase.)
Neither investors nor consumers should be amused. There isn’t any indication that any of the would-be regulators have the background to assess the new issues set or, crucially, even care much about the national security implications of either our collective defenses or lack of export controls on our technologies.
No notice. No public discussion. Just a bum’s rush to regulate. Slow down.
I’ve argued for a new regulatory regime for Big Tech for years: to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House GOP leaders, to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and national security adviser John Bolton, and to many others in both houses of Congress. About the only thing Hillary Clinton and I agreed on in our long on-air conversation after the publication of her campaign memoir was the need for everyone to read a different book (“World Without Mind,” by Franklin Foer) on the dangers of the new age of artificial intelligence. I don’t need to be convinced that there are risks as enormous as an unregulated Manhattan Project out there in the wilds of Big Tech.
But count me very skeptical that these risks are best addressed and remedied by FTC regulators and lawyers using statutory authorities only remotely connected to the massive problem, or by Justice Department litigators wielding theories of antitrust law that were previously not widely aired, much less debated. There’s little danger posed by the newly announced congressional hearings — perhaps even some good. But the suddenness of the collective lurch against Big Tech served most to illuminate how little has been done before to ask what these new technologies are doing to us and exposing us to.
What is needed, believe it or not, is a select commission. Yes, really: It’s the hoariest of old Beltway ruses for doing nothing, but this time it could do immense good. Attorney General William Barr is the right official who ought to impanel a select commission of, say, 15 or so, including the principals or general counsels of three or four of the biggest tech titans, a similar number of the country’s best legal minds, senior military thinkers and a dash of academic genius and public intellectuals. Give them six months to a year to provide a comprehensive assessment of risks and regulatory approaches.
Barr knows that the government rushing in without a plan is in fact a plan for massive and potentially disastrous unintended consequences. It may indeed be that the Justice Department’s antitrust division is from where the fashioning of new rules must proceed, or the export control experts at the Treasury Department, or perhaps a new regulatory structure recommended to and enacted by Congress. But this sudden spilling onto the floor of a boiling pot of unknown ingredients and enforcement actions is terrible policy.
Some thinking first, please. It is a problem of immeasurable consequence. Prudence, not politics, is required.
Hugh Hewitt is a columnist with The Washington Post.