If Biden wins, prepare for an epic policy hangover

by CATHY O’NEIL / pic by AFP

IF YOU follow the polls, even super sceptically, you might have noticed that Joe Biden is likely to win the US presidential election. After that, no matter what the current president and his more fervent followers do, Biden will be inaugurated and installed in the White House.

What comes next? Prepare for an epic policy hangover. While the horrors of the Donald Trump presidency unfolded, all sorts of pre-existing problems festered and became much worse.

And as pleasant as it might be to have a president who isn’t actively destroying the country, there are a lot of areas — other than wearing masks and re-establishing the concept of scientific authority — where Biden will need a much better plan, and ample political will, to make much progress. Consider, for example, the issue of big tech companies and their power. No doubt, Google LLC and Facebook Inc provide valuable services, which is why they have garnered an outsized share of the country’s attention and data.

Yet, when people sign up and use such purportedly “free” applications, they’re typically unaware of the vast individual and social costs they are incurring. They’re giving away personal data that can be and is used to target, prey upon, misinform, manipulate and discriminate against them.

And they’re subjecting themselves to a business model that profits by serving them more of the incendiary content that keeps them engaged and clicking on ads — a trade that is undermining society by radicalising increasing numbers of Americans.

The Justice Department’s antitrust suit against Google, which focuses on the company’s dominance in search, doesn’t come close to addressing the problem. Even if legal action ejected Google’s search engine as the default option for iPhone users, people would still use it most of the time — and write to each other on gmail, and exchange information and ideas on Google docs and spreadsheets, and so on.

The service has so thoroughly insinuated itself into our lives and businesses that we cannot wean ourselves from it. And as with all the tech companies, its executives remain utterly incapable of managing the consequences, in part because their commercial interests are in crucial ways at odds with those of the country as a whole.

Facebook illustrated the tech firms’ attitude when its legal team described any effort to separate the company from Instagram and WhatsApp as a “complete non-starter” — meaning that what’s been done is simply too difficult to undo. Aside from its arrogance, the statement is facially untrue.

While closing down Google might actually put a halt to the everyday life of Americans, shutting down Facebook — let alone separating its services — would be disruptive but not fatal. So, the company’s confidence is telling: It suggests that Mark Zuckerberg and his crew think that the government in general, and antitrust laws specifically, cannot stand in their way.

So, America has at least two companies whose market power — and influence over the way people perceive and interact with the world (and vote) — far exceeds their sense of responsibility, and the government response so far has been tepid to the point of pathetic.

The Trump administration’s toe dip into reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — the part that shields the tech companies from liability for the content they distribute — is a case in point: Attorney General Bill Barr doesn’t seem to realise that making the tech companies responsible for policing content would actually give them more, not less, power.

In this and many other areas, America is facing a rude awakening at the end of January. There’s so much to be done, beyond simply fixing what Trump broke. It’s daunting. Let’s prepare our favourite hangover cures (mine is orange juice with chilli peppers), and get ready to get to work. — Bloomberg

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.