Tech CEOs and their underlings have spent the past few years apologizing in Washington. Google paid a fine. Facebook paid a very big fine. Donald Trump is yelling at Silicon Valley. So is Elizabeth Warren.
But will anything else come out of the techlash?
Several investigations are targeting big tech companies, and lawmakers have proposed lots of legislation. But there’s also plenty of inaction, and no clear sign that regular people are upset with Big Tech — or at least, there’s no clear sign they are willing or able to stop using Big Tech’s products.
Which makes we wonder if anything really significant will come out of the techlash that fundamentally changes how tech companies operate.
Ben Smith doesn’t wonder.
The editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News thinks the techlash is real, and that politicians and regulators are gearing up for a lengthy battle. And he thinks that the tech giants, as powerful as they are, may be in real trouble: “I’ve almost never seen a situation in which you have an industry this powerful and important with no friends … I think there is a real possibility that these companies get broken up.”
Smith made that type of prediction in a conversation I had with him at the Texas Tribune Festival, which you can now hear as a Recode Media podcast. We covered a lot of ground on this one, from the way political coverage has evolved following the 2016 election — “I think the moment has really changed” — to the painful layoffs his company went through earlier this year, as BuzzFeed retrenched after years of go-go growth — “I think it forced us to think about, what are we really good at? Where are we winning, where are we playing to win?”
You can read a snippet of our conversation about Big Tech vs. Washington below, and you can listen to the entire chat here. For context: This passage follows a discussion about recent moves by Facebook and Snap — but not Google — to pay some publishers directly for the right to display their news stories, and the media’s relationship with tech giants in general.
Peter Kafka: For years, and years, and years, Google didn’t do this, and Facebook didn’t do this. And, we were at a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg when this was bandied about a year ago, and he just gave us this blank fish look when we asked about it. Cut to now, and they
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