Big Tech has in recent years become a go-to bogeyman for many Republican politicians and other influencers on the American right. But as longtime tech antitrust advocate Tim Wu explains in the latest episode of On With Kara Swisher, when the GOP recently had a big chance to rein in these companies’ power, it backed them instead.
Wu just finished a nearly two-year stint in the Biden administration as the president’s special assistant for technology and competition policy, and Kara Swisher had him on the show for a sort of exit interview about what he learned from the experience. They talked about Big Tech’s political influence, the best way to pitch a policy idea to President Biden (e.g., explain why something will matter in Scranton), and how antitrust regulators’ attention, just by itself, can play a big role in forcing corporations to change. In the excerpt below, Swisher asks Wu why Congress has been where antitrust efforts go to die.
On With Kara Swisher
Kara Swisher: The White House has been active, but Congress has to be active too. And I would give them an F in terms of legislative action in this area. But why has Congress been so unable to act?
Tim Wu: This is exhibit A of a story where Congress is unable to do what the vast majority of the American public wants. You know, there’s no real question that people want privacy, want better protection for children, want tech antitrust bills. And not only that, there’s no question that the votes are there. Nobody really doubts that these bills would pass were they to move forward. I think the story’s a little different for everyone. In tech antitrust, we were in some ways outgunned, outspent by hundreds of millions of dollars — I don’t know the exact figure. But what really happened is that the tech companies said, “We’ll just run ads against you if you vote for this bill,” say, Maggie Hassan or whatever. “We’ll just run ads against you. We don’t care about the content. We’re completely impartial as to the ideology. We’ll just pay for ads against you.” And that scared a lot of people off, and they were able to privately indicate they didn’t want these bills to move forward.
TW: I mean, one of the great shames is when things don’t come to a vote, there’s something extraordinarily anti-democratic about that. That’s where the power lies, I guess. Everyone knows that, not letting things go to a vote, but the number of things lined up was extraordinary, and I found that very disheartening. In some ways, privacy was even worse in the sense that business was behind it. So, you know, I came into this job, uh, slightly cynical about Congress. I leave maybe ten times more cynical and disappointed in an institution that does not do what supermajorities of the American people want.
KS: Right. Did Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi decide to stop it moving forward? Or was it just that they got too much pressure from their, the other representatives?
TW: We had a last chance in the omnibus. We put on the table children’s privacy, children’s protection, and tech antitrust as well. And the Republicans can say whatever they want about being hostile to big tech — Mitch McConnell killed it. So we put it out there, you know, and Pelosi was always an enthusiastic backer of all the tech antitrust stuff. I mean, you have to divide up the different tech areas. But that combination of money, the Republicans actually being pro-tech as opposed to anti — or at least pro-business or not willing to give the Democrats what looked like a victory — played a factor. I think this is the combination that led to what I will admit was a disappointing outcome.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Rafaela Siewert, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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