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Save Some of That Facebook Fury for Policy Makers

Shira Ovide

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Fury is the prevailing feeling of 2019. People are angry much of the time about so many things. Sometimes, though, I wonder whether the anger is misdirected.

Often, the targets are companies. There’s pressure on retailers like Walmart Inc. to restrict gun sales. There’s anger at Facebook Inc. for running a misleading political ad from President Donald Trump’s campaign. Some people are furious at oil companies for not doing more to slow climate change, and at Uber Technologies Inc. for taking advantage of drivers or worsening traffic-clogged cities.

I get it. Actions of powerful companies or their failures to act can have a profound impact. They are legitimate targets for popular pressure, and companies can’t simply sell potentially harmful products or run their businesses in destructive ways and ignore the consequences.

But this rage is not only about those individual companies. It’s also redirected fury about inaction by policy makers.

People are mad about government inaction on gun violence, but policy makers are paralyzed and anger gets channeled at Walmart. People are mad about nonsensical political speech rules, failures to make laws on personal data privacy or corporate tax avoidance, but few Americans believe Congress or regulators will do anything. Instead, people are left to vent at companies.

Have we gotten to the point where U.S. elected officials are so impotent that the only recourse is to hope profit-minded companies do the right thing — and then get angry when we believe they don’t? 

There are policies that companies can improve on their own, including employee pay and sexual harassment prevention. There is also a need for clarity from elected officials — either on their own or in concert with big companies.  

Rules about political ads are one such example. I don’t want politicians to be able to mislead voters on Facebook, but the company is not solely responsible for the half-truth political attack ads that run on its services. Laws and tough regulation are a better approach than always relying on the wisdom of individual internet companies or television networks to make the tough calls.

Gun policy, corporate tax avoidance, labor laws and protecting elections from cyberattacks are also matters policy makers are best placed to tackle. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Matt Levine wrote about the oddity of members of Congress being angry at failures by the Federal Trade Commission to restrict Facebook’s data collection practices when Congress could impose those restrictions by passing a law.

I don’t want policy paralysis to absolve companies of responsibility for doing bad things or preventing harm. And companies are not innocent here, either. They fight against laws and regulation, which effectively gives themselves more responsibility — and they sometimes use government inaction to justify their own.

Facebook for years fought to exclude itself from rules that mandate disclosures of who is behind political ads on other media such as broadcast television. And Amazon.com Inc.’s history includes advocating for a national sales tax law — which it knew was unlikely to happen — while it employed aggressive tactics to avoid charging sales tax in many U.S. states. (Amazon gave up fighting state sales taxes around 2012.) 

Facebook, Google and Amazon are now advocating for federal laws that sometimes feel like self-serving attempts to muzzle state or local rules they don’t like or to pass the buck on controversial company policies. When California recently did act to pass a law that could force Uber and other companies to treat contract workers as employees, Uber vowed to fight it and made a technical legal argument that a law tailor-made for Uber doesn’t apply to the company. 

Those tactics aside, it is hard to thread the needle between saying companies like Facebook and Amazon are way too powerful and also relying solely on them to always make hard policy decisions. That’s why we have elections and a government.

A version of this column originally appeared in Bloomberg’s Fully Charged technology newsletter. You can sign up here.

To contact the author of this story: Shira Ovide at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net

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

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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