Last month, as Mark Zuckerberg faced questions from US senators over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, took the microphone. “I’m a proud member of Facebook,” the senator said. “(I) Just got a post from my sister on this being National Sibling Day.”
Others were less obsequious. But the episode shone a light into how loathe American politicians are to impinge on private business – even at the expense of their constituents’ privacy. As the current President continues to emphasize the importance of jobs, it seems no amount of digital chicanery will prompt real, regulatory action from Congress, even if industry insiders advocate it.
Across the Atlantic, the story is different. Today the European Union security commissioner, Julian King, stressed that “short-term, concrete” plans to regulate social media must be in place before supranational elections next year. Should a voluntary code of conduct fail to prevent episodes like Cambridge Analytica, he has promised moves “of a regulatory nature.”
Such is the difference between Brussels and Washington. One has made plenty of noise about tech’s shortcomings but done almost nothing at a legislative level. The other, while quieter, has pursued the industry’s biggest players with zeal – whether supposed transgressions are tax, privacy or competition-related.
The EU has dished out big antitrust fines to Google, and chased Apple and Amazon for billions in unpaid tax. It has demanded member states drop sweetheart deals and pushed – successfully – for strident privacy and data laws, including the imminent GDPR regulation.
The EU’s digital lawmaking has been rebuked for its stringency. And some companies could lose their entire business due to GDPR. But that shows Brussels’ lawmakers are not only more up-to-date than their US counterparts, but that they are willing to cause serious financial harm to tech companies to ensure the safety of the general population.
Despite a cacophony of pro-regulatory voices in recent weeks, including leading CEOs like Mark Benioff and Dara Khosrowshahi, few in Washington believe many changes will be made to governmental policy – not least under the gaze of a President for whom regulation seems a short step from the Gulag.
It is increasingly clear that technology’s leading players are moving too fast and breaking things. Cambridge Analytica should be a wake-up call. Should Washington’s political classes be unable to reach consensus, they will soon look increasingly foolish compared to its counterparts in Belgium.