Top executives of big technology companies are presenting global policy makers with an unusual message from an industry once antagonistic to government intervention: Regulate us.
Facing antitrust investigations and a growing backlash over privacy, encryption, artificial intelligence and content monitoring, leaders at tech giants including Alphabet Inc., Microsoft Corp., Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc. are now calling for new laws on a range of issues—even though some have worked to torpedo others designed to restrict their activities.
Their push to join in the policy debate, which was on display at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, is motivated in part by a sense that a wave of new regulation is inevitable. Top executives want to help steer the outcome as much as possible, and many also fear the impact of a patchwork of laws around the world.
Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella said earlier this month that the influence of tech CEOs on weighty issues of national policy—such as how best to handle encryption—isn’t ideal in a democracy.
“These are the kinds of things that need to arrive at legislative solutions, versus individual CEOs of individual companies having to sort of come up with answers to what is a big, massive, societal challenge,” he said.
Mr. Nadella’s comments came in reaction to a new spat between the Justice Department and Apple over how the company handled a request to help unlock the iPhones of a Saudi Arabian pilot trainee who allegedly shot and killed three people at a Florida Naval base.
Big Tech Under Scrutiny
Tech executives want to help steer the outcome as much as possible, and many also fear the impact of a patchwork of laws around the world. Related reading:
After authorities tried and failed to unlock the phones, Attorney General William Barr reiterated government demands that the company create a software solution—often referred to as a backdoor—permitting law-enforcement access to phones for certain cases, such as those involving terrorism. Apple has said it has complied with requests to turn over data but has refused to create such an access point, warning that a backdoor could be exploited by bad actors.
Mr. Nadella and other executives have publicly supported Apple on the matter even as they have suggested legislative solutions are needed.
Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has called for a federal law expanding consumers’ rights over their data, while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said regulators globally should set clearer rules around online content, election integrity, privacy and data portability. He has also endorsed federal privacy legislation.
Mindful of regulatory battlegrounds in the U.S., Europe and beyond, tech executives in presentations in Davos and throughout Europe last week emphasized the need to cooperate on regulation.
“There is no question in my mind that artificial intelligence needs to be regulated,” Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said in a policy speech. “The question is how best to approach this.”
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The rising power of big technology companies has drawn government scrutiny and action in a number of U.S. states, Europe and India, and President Trump and some Democratic presidential candidates have criticized the companies’ practices.
The risks and stakes have come into sharper view this year as California implements landmark new policies. Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon.com Inc. spent abundantly on lobbying in the past two years to shape one of the laws, which seeks to give consumers more control over the data companies collect on them.
The companies succeeded in beating back some of activists’ most ambitious goals, such as giving consumers broader rights to sue companies for their data practices.
Tech giants’ efforts in California indicate their engagement on specific proposals—whether to oppose or water them down—might differ from their public calls for increased government regulation.
Such advocacy has a long history in many industries, including oil and insurance, in which companies’ public pleas for regulation stood at odds to their other efforts to shape policy. Tech companies might also be motivated to embrace regulation in areas such as privacy and artificial intelligence to head off potentially far-reaching antitrust initiatives. The biggest tests will come with how they respond to specific policy plans or whether they back substantive legislation, according to analysts and former executives.
Speaking in Rome last Tuesday, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, said the industry needs rules to protect people online. Tech companies want to cooperate with the European Union and other governments on privacy and political communication, he said.
“ ‘We’re just a platform’ is no longer an acceptable excuse,” said Bret Taylor, chief operating officer at Salesforce.com Inc., which sells software to help businesses manage their relationships with customers. “We need to not only build technology but also consider how it’s applied,” the former Google and Facebook executive said in an interview in Davos.
Last Wednesday in Davos, International Business Machines Corp. Chief Executive Ginni Rometty introduced the IBM Policy Lab, which she said is an initiative to recommend new policies for some of the thorniest challenges in technology.
“Government can’t do this alone by any stretch,” she said. “The first rule would be: Regulate use of technology, not the technology itself.”
—Parmy Olson and Khadeeja Safdar contributed to this article.
Write to Sebastian Herrera at Sebastian.Herrera@wsj.com
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