Chaos reigned among the many tech titans in 2022, and issues have modified eternally

“Move fast and break things” is a popular mantra in tech, but things have rarely moved faster than in the past 12 months – and things have rarely seemed quite so broken.

Twitter, the grand “digital public square” where decision-makers congregate, has a new owner, Elon Musk, whose kamikaze-like mission to bring the platform into a new shape has resulted in chaos and confusion. Meta continues to plow billions of dollars into the metaverse, its grand gamble for the future of technology upon which owner Mark Zuckerberg has bet his metaphorical farm – which so far has not paid off – and TikTok continues to grow, but under a shadow of suspicion because of its vast growth and fears about its far unfounded links to China.

In short: chaos reigns among our tech titans. And politicians, who campaign on big tech’s big platforms, as well as trying to keep track of them, have passed through the looking glass.

“I started the year optimistic that all the tech firms were moving to a more mature and regular way of life – founders moving on, more steady, boring compliance,” says Sam Sharps, executive director of technology and public policy at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. “But then the Twitter takeover happened, and Meta seem more and more driven by Mark [Zuckerberg’s] passion project.”

That means that the existing head of steam among politicians to step in and regulate big tech platforms has started to speed up as regulators realize self-policing won’t be sufficient. That’s not just in the UK, where politicians continue to try to pass the online safety bill into law, but in the United States, where anti-trust officials are circling, and in the European Union, where twin Digital Services (DSA) and Digital Markets Acts (DMA) have been passed.

“The lesson from the DMA and DSA seems to be that there is no real political downside for Commissioners [Margrethe] Vestager and [Thierry] Breton in taking on big tech, so we can probably expect more of that,” says Sharps. Indeed, we’ve already seen that, with Breton hauling Musk into meetings to remind him that Twitter needs to follow the EU’s rules in order to survive.

There was a time when politicians were happy to give tech executives a long leash because they felt it necessary to help them innovate. The benefits of rapid, untrammelled growth were seen to outweigh the risks. But successive scandals – including, most close to home, the Molly Russell inquest, which found social media platforms formally responsible for the schoolgirl’s death – have changed that perception.

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It’s not just the perception among those who make the laws that’s changed. The general public have also started to recognize the power that big tech platforms have over their lives, and the amount of information they give up in order for the convenience of using those platforms. A recent study showed that 89% of the US public thought that there should be more or the same amount of regulation of big tech platforms; more than half said they’d support regulators being given more resources to prosecute antitrust cases against tech companies.

Around 45% of people said they don’t trust Meta to keep their personal data secure; a third said they didn’t trust Twitter. As for Google, 30% said they didn’t trust the company to look after their data.

The leash is tightening – and with increasingly erratic decision-makers in charge of tech platforms, chief among them Musk, the compact between big tech and those who oversee it has changed forever. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s a simple fix. “We have a huge amount of new relevant regulation both in place and emerging around the world, and no experience yet in enforcing it,” says Michael Veale, associate professor in digital rights at University College London. It’s also a hodge-podge of rules across the world. “One challenge is that it does not yet clearly work together, and is often quite disconnected from each other,” Veale says.

The challenge of a disparate, dispersed set of rules across different countries makes it difficult for companies that operate across borders to do so in an efficient, easy way. “Platforms are already much more legally Balkanized than they were 10 years ago — different legal teams for different jurisdictions,” says Veale. “This is going to happen more and more. How do these different units start to diverge and play with themselves and other firms?”

Keeping track of those regulatory changes is tricky, particularly at a time when the big tech bubble is bursting. Massive layoffs have hit many companies in Silicon Valley, with knock-on effects on their ability to keep regulators sweet. Twitter, for instance, has almost entirely routed its public policy departments in key areas, including in the European Union.

It comes at the worst possible moment, when politicians have decided that big tech platforms have difficult questions to answer – and are unafraid to use the full might of the powers of oversight they’ve been granted. “We’ll have to see how the new Twitter owner wants to play it, but particularly in Europe all the tech platforms are going to have to deal with regulatory rules with real sanctions behind them, and for the most part will have to take a more conservative attitude than before,” says Sharps.

Veale foresees a future that could see big tech firms trying to slow down the crackdown by bogging governments down in legal challenges that nullify the bite of the rules. There’s also a fundamental challenge involved, says Veale. “More countries are finding digital regulation becomes core parts of their political agenda,” he explains. “But can they practically act upon it? What can they make happen, and what becomes difficult without global cooperation?”

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