Daniel Hertzberg for the Boston Globe


How do you regulate a tech company?

When companies reach a certain size — and level of influence over society — the government often steps in to regulate their behavior. But if the government tried to do so with the tech megagiants, what would that even look like?

Jonathan Taplin has a few ideas. He is the author of “Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.” He’s been talking about the dangers of unregulated tech companies for years. The response has been cool. But now, more and more people are listening.

Ideas reached him at his home in California.


This excerpt has been edited for clarity.

Is there any question that companies like Google are now a monopoly that would require government intervention?

No. Of course not. Google has 90 percent of the search market. Bing has 3 percent. It’s a monopoly. But the question of what to do about it is a question of political will but also a question of understanding from potential regulators. As embarrassing as those congressional hearings were, with Mark Zuckerberg talking about Cambridge Analytica and privacy, it was very clear that people like Senator Orrin Hatch don’t really know how the tech world works. On the other hand, it was very clear that the one issue that just crossed all political boundaries was privacy — from Ted Cruz to Ed Markey.

What would smart regulation look like?

You start with fairly rigorous privacy regulations where you have the ability to opt out of data collection from Google. Then you look at something like a modification of the part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which is what is known as safe harbor. Google and Facebook and Twitter operate under a very unique set of legal regimes that no other company gets to benefit from, which is that no one can sue them for doing anything wrong.

In other words, they have complete liability protection from being sued for any of the content that is on their services. That is totally unique. Obviously newspapers doesn’t get that protection. And of course also [tech giants] have other advantages over all other corporations; all of the labor that users put in is basically free. Most of us work an hour a day for Google or Facebook improving their services, and we don’t get anything for that other than just services.

What would eliminating the “safe harbor” provision in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act mean?

YouTube wouldn’t be able to post 44,000 ISIS videos and sell ads for them. Or they wouldn’t be able to put up any musician’s work, whether they wanted it on the service or not, without having to bear some consequences. That would really change things. I also think it would change the whole fake news conversation completely, because, once Facebook or YouTube or Google had to take responsibility for what’s on their services, they would have to be a lot more careful to monitor what goes on there.


Wouldn’t that approach subject these services to death by a thousand copyright-infringement lawsuits?

It would depend on how it was put into practice. When someone tries to upload pornography to YouTube, an artificial intelligence agent sees a bare breast and shunts it into a separate queue. Then a human looks at it and says, “Well, is this National Geographic, or is this porn?” If it’s National Geographic it probably gets on the service, and if it’s porn it goes in the trash. So, it’s not like they’re not doing this already. It’s just they’ve chosen to filter porn off of Facebook and Google and YouTube but they haven’t chosen to filter ISIS, hate speech, copyrighted material, fake news, that kind of stuff.

This is just a business decision on their part. They know every piece of content that’s being uploaded because they used the ID to decide who gets the advertising. So they could do all of this very easily. It’s just they don’t want to do it.

Is Google trying to forestall this kind of regulation?

Ultimately YouTube is already moving towards being a service that pays content providers. They announced last month that they’re going to put up a YouTube music channel. And that will look much more like Spotify than it looks like YouTube. In other words, they will license content from providers, they will charge $10 a month for the service, and you will then get curated lists of music. From the point of view of the artists and the record company, it’ll be a lot better than the system that exists now — where essentially YouTube says to you, your content is going to be on YouTube whether you want it to or not, so check this box if you want us to give you a little bit of the advertising.