Sen. Blackburn: Arrogant Big Tech Needs to Change Tune

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said that Silicon Valley has been arrogant, with a "toxic undercurrent" to industry practices that "can't be ignored," and one she signaled Washington definitely wouldn't be ignoring.

Blackburn, who is a member of both the Commerce and Judiciary Committees, which divide up primary jurisdiction over Big Tech, was speaking at the Digital Empowers Summit in Washington Friday (May 10). The summit is sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and Tata Consultancy Services.

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Blackburn said that she thought Silicon Valley was beginning to figure out that with great power comes great responsibility, but suggested that was yet to exhibit itself in its privacy or content control policies.

She suggested that Big Tech needed to lose the attitude and engage with policymakers "more directly and respectfully" rather than "ducking out on hearings when called to testify."

She said the only thing Facebook has done right in the past year is to prove they can no longer self-regulate. She said she was not necessarily looking to break up Big Tech (as fellow Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-[Mass.] has proposed). But she did not rule it out, either, saying that was a conversation for another day. Today's conversation, she said, was about how Big Tech tracks and uses data via WiFi and IP addresses and Blue Tooth and more.

She said the key is for people to be able to control and own the "virtual you," which comes down to transparency and trust, which is tough given Big Tech's "unnecessarily opaque and confusing environment."

Blackburn introduced a bill, The BROWSER (Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly) Act, back in 2017 that would help do that, she said, including designating the Federal Trade Commission as the sole enforcer of online privacy and applying the same privacy regime to edge providers as well as ISPs.

She hoped the time was now ripe for bipartisan support for such legislation.

Among other things, the bill would give users informed consent over their sensitive personal information (opt in), opt out control over less sensitive data collection and sharing, and would prohibit platforms from denying service to those who "refuse to waive their privacy rights."

Blackburn signaled that she recognized the need for legislation to balance the need to protect privacy while not harming the ad-supported internet business model that has been such an economic driver.

She has been asked to head a bipartisan tech working group in the Senate Judiciary Committee, she said, and planned to bring in business leaders to talk about privacy, censorship free speech and data protection.

Blackburn testified herself at a Hill hearing last year that an October 2017 video launching her ultimately successful Senate run--she was chair of the House Communications Subcommittee at the time, was removed from Twitter's ad platform "due to my pro-life message." It was restored, and Twitter ultimately apologized, saying it had been a mistake.

Referring to the issue generally, she said that each year "candidates have content taken down" while online sex and opioid trafficking and more "run rampant." She said Facebook and Google have been looking for new ways to convince their users they care about privacy while still mining data and boosting their stock price.

On the arrogance theme, Blackburn likened Silicon Valley giants to the iconic 60's ad men (newly immortalized in Mad Men). She said that for all the great Google product, from balloon-borne internet to kite-engendered electricity, 85% of the company's revenue still comes from advertising. She said Google may not look like a 1960's Madison Avenue ad exec, but that's essentially what it is. 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.