The Internet was not designed with privacy and security at top of mind. It was built to spread information, not contain it, and has succeeded at this central objective in spectacular fashion. As the Internet and digital economy mature, however, privacy and security are now rising on the list of consumer priorities.
Tomorrow, several of the world’s biggest technology and Internet companies will testify at the Senate Commerce Committee. They will address a truly vexing question: how to harness the blessings of information abundance while simultaneously protecting against its misuse.
No doubt, policymakers will recite from the long list of data breaches over the last several years. They will scold some of the tech firms for intrusive Web tracking practices. And they will badger the firms on a range of loosely related complaints – from the left’s concern over market power to the right’s anger over Silicon Valley partisanship.
A few of the tech firms will deserve the criticism. In a rush to innovate, some, especially those focused on advertising, displayed a cavalier attitude about consumer privacy for too long. Some also allowed political partisanship to bias their treatment of online content and of internal management. These practices were short-sighted, and the intense criticism is having a salutary effect. Google CEO Sundar Pichai, for example, just issued a company-wide directive against political bias, concluding that “if any Googler ever undermines that trust, we will hold them accountable.”
On the big privacy questions, policymakers will understandably focus on policy-centric approaches. Some senators will call for laws similar to Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or California’s new Consumer Privacy Act. Both are sweeping approaches to a fast-changing environment of commerce and culture. GDPR is already rippling through the digital world, for good and ill, and although California’s law doesn’t go into effect until 2020, the state’s Internet firms are scrambling, while outside firms are wondering how a single state (or continent) can hope to govern what is inherently interstate (or global) commerce.