Rampell: Happy 30th, World Wide Web; now go away

Now that its excesses are being revealed no one knows just how to rein in our tech overlords.

By Catherine Rampell

The Washington Post

Happy 30th birthday, World Wide Web. Who knew that we’d be celebrating this three-decade tech milestone with such a frenzy of anti-tech fervor?

Not so long ago, the tech sector was the jewel in the crown of the U.S. economy, a vibrant industry that non-tech companies envied and other countries were desperate to replicate. Tech was where America’s best and brightest went to dream big, to move fast and to break things, to “disrupt” the bloated and lazy analog-economy incumbents.

For the grads (and dropouts) of elite universities, going to Wall Street meant selling out. Going to Silicon Valley meant changing the world. For our common good, presumably.

This cultural adoration of all things “tech” — and “tech” grew to encompass almost any company supposedly in the business of “disruption” (including, somehow, selling fake mayonnaise) — was ubiquitous. The sycophancy of the tech press defied parody. Hollywood, too, lionized the founder-genius, the socially awkward kid who finally got his social due (and payday). And politicians went to Silicon Valley to kiss the rings of these flip-flop-and-free-T-shirt-wearing, newly zillionaired nerds, in hope of coaxing a few pennies from their Venmo accounts.

The political pilgrims came from both parties. Democrats praised the open-mindedness and social liberalism of Silicon Valleyites; Republicans championed their entrepreneurial mettle and contempt for regulations.

But sometime in the past couple of years, disillusionment set in. Quantifiably so: In Gallup’s sector-by-sector polling, the “Internet industry” was viewed very or somewhat favorably by 60 percent of respondents at its peak in 2015. That plummeted to 45 percent by last summer.

What happened? In some ways, anything hyped as high as the Silicon Valley fairy tale was bound to face a reputational fall eventually. But the blemishes driving that backlash were also plentiful, and varied.

There was bro culture, sexism and sexual harassment. Data breaches; lots of data breaches. Broken laws. Allegations of theft. Ripped-off employees and independent contractors. Privacy violations, disinformation, fake accounts and other user abuses, and changing stories about how much firms knew about them. Lobbying. Lying. Leaching.

There was too little gatekeeping in toxic social-media environments. Or too much of the sort of gatekeeping that threatens free speech, depending on your political persuasion. The amplification of outrage culture, but also of white nationalism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories. The radicalization of young men worldwide into terrorists, evidenced most recently — though hardly exclusively — in the horrific mass-slaughters at two New Zealand mosques.

The list goes on, and the outcome is plain. A sector once seen as a bunch of plucky underdogs has become viewed by many as a greedy, parasitic monolith, indifferent to its effects on democracy, civility, human rights. Or, in any event, it was recognized for what it was: a sector at least as inclined to bad behavior as any that came before it, except it exists within an overmatched regulatory environment that has been ill-equipped to impose consequences.

Politicians smelled blood. And now, rather than competing over who could more closely align themselves with Silicon Valley, they vie for the role of toughest on tech.

President Trump, who wears his technological illiteracy on his sleeve, was ahead of the game here, having pledged way back in 2015 that he would enlist Bill Gates’ help in “closing that Internet up,” whatever that meant.

When it comes to actual policy changes, though, both parties have fallen short. The most ambitious proposal of late comes from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who wants to break up the tech companies. But that just seems like a solution to the wrong problem. Large tech firms have certainly harmed consumers, but it’s not clear how consumers would be served by, say, forcing Google to surrender Nest. If Facebook sold off WhatsApp, the colonies of Russian trolls wouldn’t miss a beat.

European regulators have also aimed their firepower on antitrust issues, though it’s not always obvious that these efforts are about improving experiences for consumers so much as extracting money from deep-pocketed U.S. companies. Europe’s vaunted data-privacy rule — whose most visible change requires everyone to click yes to cookies when visiting a new website — doesn’t seem to have moved the needle much either.

Certainly consequences for data breaches or other privacy violations could and should be more severe. But fixing the tech sector’s systemic problems remains a thornier problem. Perhaps the real lesson of 30 years of webbed connectedness is that a “disrupted” economic model is every bit as vulnerable to human failings as the one it supplants. Neither our tech overlords nor their supposed overseers are capable of saving us from ourselves.

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @crampell.

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