Senator Elizabeth Warren (source: warren.senate.gov)
You get points in politics for pointing out a problem that we are concerned with, or especially one that we can be made to think is particularly bad. You then get more points for proposing a solution, because we would all like to think there are answers to problems. And then if you, as a politician, can move the burden of doing something about the problem on to someone else, you win the jackpot.
You could have said the most stupid thing imaginable and, for instance, technology companies might respond with the most sensible arguments, but it doesn’t matter. Wrapped in the flag, you’re standing up for us, and these firms are blocking your way.
We’re living in a world where nuances matter more than ever and the shades of gray are pretty much infinite, but our politicians strive to present everything to us as black and white and simple.
Senator Elizabeth Warren kicked off her run for President with a blog post on Medium which does exactly this. “Here’s how we can break up Big Tech,” is the headline and right there it starts. There’s no question about what Big Tech is, and certainly nothing about whether we should break it up. Instead, it’s somehow a given that we must and here’s Senator Warren, the one to do it.
Detail from Senator Warren’s blog post on Medium. Apple isn’t mentioned in the text, either.
Immediately after the headline comes the placard “It’s time to break up Amazon, Google, and Facebook.”
Those three aren’t just companies, they are triggers to make us react. Facebook and Google have stunningly bad security issues that directly affect us. All three have effective monopolies. And all three are used by the readers of Medium, the younger voters that Senator Warren wants.
The senator didn’t phrase it quite like that, but as AppleInsider pointed out in the initial coverage of her blog, her concocted definition that let her target these companies also meant she would have to include Apple.
She repeated her position on stage at SXSW and again avoided talking about Apple. Afterwards, she was pressed about while she kept not including the company. “No special reason,” she told The Verge, before seemingly deciding to include the firm on the spot. “Yep, they’re in.”
Her definition of big, and her position on scale and influence ought to also mean Walmart is a target, but that firm is safe because nobody’s asked her about it yet.
Senator Warren has apparently decided she’ll get better results by sharing a subset of details explicitly with one group, and another subset with a different crowd. Figuring out how we can benefit from technology, while keeping ourselves and are data safe may be crucial to our society but it’s also complex. “Big Companies Are Bad” fits better on a hat, and even better if you can only signal which ones you want to break up selectively, depending on the audience at hand.
It’s an odd thing in American history where on the one hand everybody must be able to create and build up their own business, but at some indefinable point every big business is evil.
We’ve quite reasonably come to take the word “monopoly” as negative because so often monopolies have employed anti-competitive practices to protect their position. But sometimes you get to effective monopoly status by just being good.
“You know, the natural monopoly argument is actually… not everyone accepts it,” she told The Verge. “And there’s some back-and-forth about whether that’s the phenomenon we’re dealing with here or not. My view is: I don’t care. [Laughs] I’m sorry. What I do care about is I can see the advantages the platform gets, and because of that I say, ‘Stop. You cannot use that information, the data you’re able to collect.'”
Senator Warren is trying to equate size and competition with security and safety. If you can gather data on your users and profit from it, you must be doing so and so you must be stopped. Break up large firms because they’re large and that’s it, problem solved.
This chooses to skip over the fact that, for instance, the giant Facebook company sold data to the small Cambridge Analytica. If you can’t have one large firm owning all our information, you apparently can have lots of small ones that trade in it, and that’s somehow okay.
It also brushes aside the fact that a monopoly does not automatically equal the selling of user data. Senator Warren never mentions Apple until she’s under pressure to, but then when she is, she of course chooses to stand by her politics and add them to the problem. “Yep, they’re in.”
Selectivity and elections
If she gets into the White House, she’s going to be under a lot more pressure. So just for political expediency, the one big technology company that is championing user security would then get the same treatment as the firms that are repeatedly and intentionally profiting from breaking our privacy.
That doesn’t matter to Senator Warren, because none of this does. She is running for President and everything must be focused on that one goal. Write on Medium, talk at SXSW, criticize Facebook, and she’s got a shot at the votes from younger people who know this world. Claim that splitting up companies will fix the problems, and she’s now aiming at the votes of older generations who remember how this arguably fixed a century-old problem, or the whole “Ma Bell” situation.
When your aim is to get votes, you can keep it simple. When you get the votes and you are in power, then you have to deal with the realities. Senator Warren wants to avoid talking about those now, unless pressed to do so, because reality is complicated.
Consequently she has made no comment —because no one’s really pressed her on it yet —about how Apple makes iOS and macOS, how it runs the myriad iCloud services, and how it locks users in to all of those. Just as Google locks you in to its own walled garden of services and apps.
Instead, and again only when pushed to say it, she gives up the App Store. Break Apple away from its App Store and apparently everything is fine.
That is, everything is fine except for the loss of security that users will get hit with as a result. Take Apple out of its own store, and you end up with the same kind of mess that the Google Play store is.
This issue and so many more with technology are now fundamental to how our society functions and dumbing them down to fit on a tweet does not help us, and that is essentially what we have here. Simple solutions sound great, but when they’re not actually solutions, they’re part of the problem.
Senator Warren has ably identified at least some issues that concern us all. But what she’s really done, and all she really wanted to do, is find topics that she can campaign on.
Politicians look weak if they tell us they don’t know the answers, but on technology issues, nobody knows the answers. Pretending that you are the one to fix it all, and that good old-fashioned American values will see us through is patronizing at best.
The one thing about every political campaign is that they come to an end. Senator Warren will ride this one as long as it looks like it’s serving her, but even if that means she gets into the White House, her simple solutions won’t work. They don’t make us more secure, they don’t save us any money, and they don’t actually do anything positive for the citizenry.
But they sound great, can be jammed in a Tweet, and that’s all she needs today.