In 2008’s iconic superhero film The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker barks at Christian Bale’s Batman:
Don’t talk like one of [the cops]; you’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me. They need you now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out like a leper. See, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke, to be dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you, when the chips are down, these civilized people? They’ll eat each other.
He might as well have been talking about Silicon Valley.
Twenty-eighteen was a bad year for the totalitarian titans of tech. Faced with one scandal after another, the industry retreated behind a wall of lobbying money, hoping their bank accounts would shield them from their increasingly ugly image in the public eye as politically bigoted, misanthropic, overgrown children, incapable of following rules, norms, or even laws.
Twenty-nineteen doesn’t look to be much better. European governments, and the European Union itself, have begun sharpening their swords for the industry, albeit sometimes in ill-advised ways. California has passed a brutal consumer protection bill that opens big tech to a host of lawsuits for privacy-related offenses. President Donald Trump’s own son has raised stern alarms about the industry’s power and “gross hypocrisy,” as he put it. Publications formerly friendly to the industry are blasting it for betraying the creators who sustain its business. Like bad imitations of Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, the industry finds itself surrounded by filth, with the walls closing in. But, their research into AI withstanding, there is no Threepio around to save them, and unlike Han, Leia, and Luke, Big Tech are the evil empire.
As a result, the industry is doing what any group of cornered predators does, and eating each other to try to stay alive. Thus, a piece in Forbes magazine informs the reader that:
Microsoft, the industry’s journeyman of governmental warfare, is cleverly advocating regulation of a narrow slice of potentially creepy technology: facial recognition. Apple is pointing fingers, suggesting its data-privacy stance is holier than Facebook’s and Google’s. Facebook, in a preview of how the industry will battle its adversaries, has simultaneously called for some form of regulation while darkly warning of the unintended consequences of the wrong kind. (One argument certain to get Donald Trump’s attention: Regulate us too severely, and you’ll only empower our Chinese competitors.)
Probably the most encouraging development listed is Apple’s turn against Facebook and Google. Where once Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google were regarded as an impregnable block of interests, nicknamed (with predatory appropriateness) FAANG, now the only fangs involved are being stuck in each other.
Politically, they may be the only ones left to care about those fangs. The industry’s pervasive, irrational, and wild hostility to Republicans has converted even the stodgiest establishmentarians, including current (and former) Attorney General William Barr, into vocal public critics of tech. And the aforementioned California privacy law represents a complete failure of the industry’s political power even within its effectively monopartisan own backyard, which suggests that Democrats are no longer willing to carry water for the most vicious monopolists this side of Cornelius Vanderbilt, no matter how performatively “woke” they are.
Indeed, that California law puts tech between a rock and a hard place, as other business interests — and even some tech companies — seem to be anxious to pass a (presumably less stringent) national privacy law aimed at pre-empting the California law before it goes into place. Due to the support of big business, that national plan has the support of Republicans, but that is cold comfort for the biggest tech companies, seeing as debating a national consumer privacy law forces them into a conversation they’ve wanted to avoid for ages: namely, how much consumers’ privacy — in other words, their data — should be protected. What’s worse, having that conversation at the national level may well lead to regulations as strict, or stricter, than California’s being imposed on the entire United States. And even if the regulations aren’t as strict, the days of hoovering up data and violating privacy without anyone’s batting an eye are unquestionably over. Heads, the American people win. Tails, tech loses.
Hence, the nattering nabobs of the net, caught in a trap built from their own missteps, are trying frantically to chew through each other to escape. It will not work. Accountability has come for the snowflake barons, and while defection from the whole may spare some of them the same pain as others, there is no doubt that all of them will be put through pain. It’s about time. After all, their morals, their code, and especially their terms of service are a bad joke to be dropped at the first sign of trouble. And the more Americans realize this, the more they will be ahead of the curve.