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A few hours after our editorial board endorsement process interview with Senator Elizabeth Warren, I received an email from a member of her staff. During the interview I’d asked the senator about a criticism of her policy to break up Big Tech by her opponent Andrew Yang. He argued that her proposal was outdated — rooted in 20th-century antitrust law. Her answer was cut short by another question. Her staff said the unfinished answer was still bugging her hours later and so she wanted to say more.
What followed was a short conversation about Big Tech, privacy and how she uses Snapchat (warily). For more, you can read the full transcript of the initial interview with Senator Warren here. I’ve also included my question that led to the follow-up call.
This is a condensed and edited version of our conversation for clarity:
Andrew Yang said in one of the debates that you’re applying a 20th-century framework to antitrust when it comes to Big Tech. Why is he wrong on that, and what makes your proposal to break up Big Tech adequate for the unprecedented profits of Silicon Valley?
Antitrust law is a very valuable tool, and breaking them up would have important effects, but what I realized after I left the room is that I was pulled in a different direction but I never finished to say that antitrust law is important but not the only tool we need. I don’t believe that markets alone are going to fix all the problems we’re facing on the tech side. Particularly the issues around privacy and the values that come from aggregation on platforms and how that value would be distributed. I don’t believe only antitrust works, but I do believe it’s a powerful tool we should be using in dealing with Big Tech.
Do you think there should be personal responsibility and financial penalties for C.E.O.s and individuals at tech companies?
Yes — when there’s injury. You’ve got to have a high standard. There’s a reason that there’s a corporate veil but our whole corporate system has tilted way too far in the direction of permitting corporate executives to implement practices that they know or should know will cause real injury. And the execs are confident that the most that will happen is the company — not the exec — will end up paying a fine. That doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in banking, in the drug industry. It doesn’t work much of anywhere, when powerful companies have figured out that they can skirt or deliberately break the rules and pay no real penalty. I learned that lesson in the financial crash as we watched big banks. It was kind of a “heads I win, tails you lose” game. And they would skirt the rules because the worst that would happen is the company would end up paying a fine.
I think you’re seeing that right now again, with Equifax for example. One-hundred and forty-seven million Americans have their privacy breached and a class-action settlement is going to give the lawyers double the amount of the pool of the victims’ payout. And people will get “paid” in credit monitoring from Experian, which has its own data breach. And it dissuades people from feeling like their privacy matters in any way. I feel talking to people that people are becoming — there’s almost a Stockholm syndrome issue where they feel like these companies are our captors and they can do whatever they want to us.
Exactly. That’s a fundamental problem overall about corruption in the system. The people who just say, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ and just shrug and say, ‘I’m done, that’s all we can do.’ No! That should not be our response and it certainly shouldn’t be the response of politicians.
It’s our responsibility — people who are running for office need to address the corruption issue head on. Because it all links up. It links to the tech issue you were just talking about, it links to Experian — all of it that goes here. Who does this country work for? Does it work for Experian and other giant corporations who figured out that they can be slipshod on privacy and still make hundreds of millions of dollars? Or does it work for the people who are getting cheated and who don’t have their own political action committees?
People have lost so much faith. We recently received a massive trove of mobile phone location data and went to California to knock on the doors of people whose every move was in this set and showed them their data patterns and they said — at times they talked like they were captive. It’s that they felt completely resigned because they have no recourse And I feel if we don’t change this soon, there’s going to be a real problem where we can’t dig ourselves out of this hole.
Part of the frame is this fundamental question of corruption. But it’s really a question of who government works for and this notion that if you go back to the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’70s, the government worked for the people and it stood up to the big corporations. At least that was the big core belief. It wasn’t perfect and didn’t happen all the time but that was the basic direction.
And then it starts to shift. Think about Ronald Reagan’s quote: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” No! Those are not the worst words in the English language. How about “I’m from the government and I don’t care about you.” Or “I’m from the government and I’m on the other guys’ side.” Those are a lot worse.
Think about what that means in this [privacy] context. If government doesn’t work for the people, then the folks whose doors you knocked on really don’t have anyone. They really are captive. And so it’s like the giant corporations win either way. Either they capture the government directly with campaign contributions and lobbying and bought-and-paid-for experts or they take the legs out from underneath it by persuading everyone that the government won’t help you — it’s too inept and too unwilling.
The way things are now, do you feel your own personal relationship [to tech] is captive in that way like the rest of us? Do you feel it too?
I feel very uneasy about it. I worry. A lot. You know when I think about it the most? It’s when I go back and forth with my granddaughters. We — they — live across the country, so we send Snapchats and text each other. Fun stuff. And I sometimes think, “What if some creepo is looking in the window?’ It could be a corporate creepo — not some individuals who hacked our account. But the whole notion of listening, watching. Every now and again we’ll mention something in one of our texts and then I’ll get a round of ads about buying that kind of doll or a particular kind of shoes and I think, whoa. I was talking to children and now — who’s watching and for what purposes? What kind of information are they scraping off and to use in what ways? It’s wrong. We need to put a stop to it.
One last thing about your personal relationship to technology before you go — we asked some other candidates. Are you an Amazon Prime member?
I’m not. But I’m married to one.
Just as bad!
[Laughing] I’m one degree removed.