Tech Regulation Should Focus on Privacy and Security

Americans have different priorities than lawmakers when it comes to tech regulation. People don’t want to see Congress use antitrust law against big tech, according to a new poll from AXIS Research. Tech regulations, in general, are low on people’s list of things the government should prioritize.

Only 1 percent of voters surveyed said it should be the top priority. And if Congress is going to spend time passing new tech laws, people think these should be aimed at issues surrounding security and privacy, not competition. Given a list of tech-related topics Congress could focus on, 21 percent of people chose data privacy as the top priority. This was followed by protecting consumers from scams and malware (12 percent), measures to protect children online (11 percent), combating misinformation online (11 percent), and helping to address cyber attacks (11 percent). Only 4 percent said “breaking up large tech companies into smaller ones” was most important and only 3 percent said “Limiting large technology companies from growing further” was a major priority.

When pollsters described provisions of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act—an antitrust bill that would make it illegal for Apple, Google, Facebook, and other big tech companies to prioritize their own products or content—79 percent of Republicans, 72 percent of independents and 59 percent of Democrats were somewhat or strongly opposed to it. People also were less likely to favor regulation that creates different rules for businesses based on size, as the American Innovation and Choice Online Act does. Fifty-seven percent said they preferred having “one set of regulations for all businesses.”

The poll was conducted at the beginning of July and involved 1,219 likely 2022 voters. Thirty-six percent identified as Republicans, 38 percent as Democrats, 23 percent as independents, 1 percent as Libertarians, and 2 percent as something else.

It found that antitrust law that focuses on stopping companies from getting too big is not what consumers want. Asked what the government should prioritize “when it comes to regulating companies,” only 16 percent chose “keeping businesses from getting too big.” Thirty percent said the government should focus on more choices for consumers and more than half—54 percent—said lowering prices should be the priority.

This is in line with the consumer welfare model of antitrust law, which judges whether certain business conduct is illegal based on whether it raises or lowers prices and whether it benefits consumers. In contrast, officials in the Biden administration—like Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan and Tim Wu, an adviser on the White House National Economic Council—and some Democrats in Congress the goal should be keeping business from getting too big and protecting competitors to big businesses, even if doing so raises prices or burdens consumers. (And some Republicans seem to think the goal of antitrust law should simply be punishing tech companies that make decisions they don’t like.)

These poll results are somewhat at odds with some other polling on this issue. For instance, a 2019 poll from the progressive think tank Data for Progress found that “two-thirds of Americans want to break up companies like Amazon and Google,” per a Vox headline.

How can polling on this be so different? Because pollsters often use leading questions.

In the Data for Progress survey, people were asked “would you support or oppose a policy breaking up big tech companies by undoing recent mergers, like Facebook buying Instagram, so there is more competition in the future?” Another question asks if people would support breaking up big tech “to ensure that platforms like Google and Amazon don’t prioritize content they benefit from financially?”

These questions—reported as people simply supporting big-tech breakups—contain a lot of implicit assumptions. They tacitly suggest that current conditions are negative in some way (big companies are rigging the playing field or quashing competition) and that “breaking up big tech companies” would invariably fix these problems.

The Daily Beast recently cited 2021 polling from Data for Progress which purportedly shows voters in various states supporting the American Innovation and Choice Online Act. Before asking about the measure, pollsters told respondents that supporters say it would “limit major technology corporations abusing their power by squeezing out small businesses’ products on their platforms and limiting consumers’ choices.” Pollsters also offered another side, saying that opponents “say this comes out of political motivations to burden these companies and would fundamentally alter the internet, decreasing consumers’ convenience on major technology platforms.” But without knowing anything else about the bill, it seems natural that Americans hearing these descriptions might be more likely to side against big businesses “abusing their power” to harm small businesses and consumers than more abstract claims about altering the internet or political bias.

The AXIS Research poll questions were sometimes leading in their own way—albeit not inaccurate descriptors of what the American Innovation and Choice Online Act could do.

“One issue in the news is a proposal in Congress for new regulations on US technology companies that would limit their ability to feature their own products on their sites or applications,” pollsters stated. “For example, Google would not be allowed to show Google Maps in search results and Amazon would not be able to offer guaranteed fast shipping. Overall, do you support or oppose these new regulations on US technology companies?” Seventy percent of people surveyed said no.

The AXIS Research poll also saw 80 percent of respondents agree that “consumers benefit most when the government creates an environment where companies can freely compete” and only 30 percent agree that “government regulators should play a larger role in determining which products and services are allowed to compete in the marketplace.”

I think these characterizations of tech regulations and the philosophies driving them are more accurate than the Data for Progress descriptors. Regardless, the discrepancies between poll results from the two entities highlight how slippery poll results can be and how political framing alters the way people feel about policy proposals.


FREE MINDS

Arizona prisons censored The Nation magazine over drag queen photo, article on black immigrantssays American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Arizona prisons have withheld “selected issues of The Nation magazine from incarcerated subscribers at least five times in the past 18 months on the basis that the issues promoted racial superiority or contained sexual content,” says the ACLU in a press release.

The ACLU examined the withheld issues of The Nation and found no content promoting acts of violence, racism, degradation, or the superiority of one race over another. One prohibited issue had a cover story entitled “Black Immigrants Matter.” Another issue that was banned, because it supposedly contained sexual content, had a photo of a fully-dressed 93-year-old drag queen in the magazine and a cartoon of two fully-dressed people kissing each other. The ADCRR regulation banning sexual content recently was held to be unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in another censorship case against the department.

Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said “the ban on these issues of The Nation is yet another example of prisons routinely restricting materials that incarcerated people can access, by way of unconstitutional, arbitrary rules.”

In a letter to the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (ADCRR), the ACLU and the ACLU of Arizona asked the prison system to correct the issue.

“This is not the first time the ACLU has called ADCRR to account for its arbitrary censorship policies,” said Emerson Sykes, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “In 2019, the ACLU successfully called on Arizona prison officials to allow Chokehold, Paul Butler’s acclaimed nonfiction book on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In 2021, the ACLU filed an amicus brief in support of a Black Muslim man who sued ADCRR for denying him access to religious texts, and to popular rap and R&B music such as Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd. In January 2022, the Ninth Circuit ruled against ADCRR in the prisoner’s favor.”


FREE MARKETS

Facebook changes, government regulations…and the end of an era? Facebook announced last week that it will start filling users’ home screens with algorithmically popular content from strangers, instead of focusing on content from friends and the pages that a user follows. (A separate feed will still feature this content, in chronological order.) “By filtering content from personal connections out of the primary Home screen, Facebook’s experience will begin to look and feel much more like a content and product discovery engine than a social networking site,” notes Sara Fischer at Axios.

Facebook’s decision to shift people’s homepage feeds away from content shared by those they know portends the end of the social network model, under which “keeping up with your friends’ posts served as the hub for everything you might aim to do online,” writes Scott Rosenberg at Axios. The move will make Facebook feeds more akin to TikTok—which is supposedly part of the appeal. “Facebook and its rivals call this a ‘discovery engine’ because it reliably spits out recommendations of posts from everywhere that might hold your attention,” writes Rosenberg. “But it also looks a lot like a mutant TV with an infinite number of context-free channels that flash in and out of focus at high speed.”

While general trends may be partially to blame, the change is also rooted in government regulations:

That’s what younger users right now seem to prefer, and it’s where Facebook expects the growth of its business to lie, now that new privacy rules from Apple and regulators’ threats around the world have made its existing precarious ad-targeting model. …

As it rolls out its changes — quickly on mobile apps, “later this year” for computer/browser users — Facebook will continue to provide old-school friends-and-family networking via a subsidiary tab. Those posts will be chronologically ordered, as some users have long wished for.

This move also helps Facebook avoid claims of bias in its sorting and keeps the company ahead of regulators who are threatening to restrict its algorithms.

In other words, the threat of regulation by lawmakers intent on taking Facebook down a peg is unlikely to actually harm Facebook. But it does threaten to make the Facebook user experience worse.


QUICK HITS

• A study of Census Bureau data from Harvard University researchers found “that by age 26 more than two-thirds of young adults in the US lived in the same area where they grew up, 80% had moved less than 100 miles (161 kilometers) away and 90% resided less than 500 miles (804 kilometers) away,” reports the Associated Press.

• A majority of Americans want to see TikTok out of app stores, according to a recent poll from Trafalgar Group.

• The government versus Little Free Libraries.

• The focus on white versus non-white identity in US politics and social justice spheres fails “to recognize the increasing complexities and contradictions of race and racial categorization at a moment of emerging social change,” writes City University of New York sociology professor Richard Alba in Persuasion.

• Trade policy has exacerbated a baby formula shortage that has parents all over the US panicking. But, even in the best of times, trade rules can cause headaches, argues Kelli Pierce.

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