Microsoft president calls for stricter regulation in tech

20 Sep 2019

Brad Smith. Image: PA Media

Microsoft president Brad Smith spoke about the ‘necessary reckoning’ for the industry brought on by Cambridge Analytica.

The president of Microsoft has said the age of self-regulation is over for the technology industry, but new rules imposed on the sector must be not introduced for the sake of restricting big companies.

Brad Smith told the PA news agency there must be “thought and balance” to how any new rules are implemented in order to fix specific problems in the sector.

Speaking in the UK to promote his new book, Tools and Weapons, which gives his and Microsoft’s views on the key issues facing the tech industry, Smith said regulation was an inevitable part of its future.

“I do believe that the age of self-regulation is over. I might argue that it never really started because that would suggest that everybody really seized the opportunity and I don’t think that happened,” he told PA.

“But I think even more broadly than that, no technology in the history of technology has gone as unregulated for as long as digital technology as gone unregulated.

“Now, at the same time to say there needs to be regulation doesn’t mean that any form of regulation will be good. There needs to be thought, there needs to be a balance.

“We want innovation to continue. I think more than anything we need these conversations to begin by asking what problems we want to solve, and then using that knowledge to focus regulation in the right areas.”

‘We need to make the most of data at a time when people have more concerns and questions about data’

Smith also spoke on the subject of data privacy, and its rise to the forefront of debate in the industry in the wake of a number of data breaches.

He said the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data scandal had been a “necessary reckoning” for the industry as it had helped raise key issues about data management publicly.

“One of the themes in the book is that there have been two significant inflexion points in this decade that is coming to a close. One was in 2013 with the Snowden disclosures and the other was in 2018 with Cambridge Analytica,” he said.

“So, it means that we need to make the most of data at a time when people have more concerns and questions about data. Now that’s not the worst thing in the world because the concerns would be there even if they weren’t articulated.

“The best way to address a problem is to get it out in the open. So, we can look in some ways at Cambridge Analytica and say that this is a necessary reckoning. This was going to happen at some point.

“I wish it had happened earlier but it is here today and so let’s then talk about how we protect people’s privacy and ensure that people remain in control.”

‘Digital iron curtain’

The book also addressed the ongoing trade war between the US and China. This has directly impacted Chinese smartphone maker Huawei, which has been cut off from accessing Google apps and services on its new smartphones.

On the subject, Smith urged the two sides to consider the wider impact of their dispute and avoid drawing a “digital iron curtain down the middle of the Pacific Ocean”.

He referenced Microsoft’s own landmark antitrust case in the US in the 1990s, where the company was accused by the government of stifling competition and warned that such “collisions” between government and technology were well-managed on both sides.

“I think fundamentally our plea in that chapter is that the United States and China think about the nuances of technology because the details really do matter greatly,” he said.

“Our chapter in part is an argument if you will that the two countries not try to draw a digital iron curtain down the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That they, to some degree, separate issues of security and trust from issues of trade. They may connect at times, but they really are distinct and they’re better off if they’re kept distinct.

“Ultimately, we do make a broader argument at the end of that chapter that I think is very important – and you don’t hear elsewhere in my view.

“It’s a reminder that 80pc of the world’s people don’t live in either country and so we should all hope that when the United States and China sit down with each other, each country is thinking about its own interests, but they’re both thinking about the rest of the world as well.

“Because these are in some ways, two countries that are going to have such a huge impact on the rest of the world and we need the two governments to keep that in mind.”

‘Our message is drive fast, but on a road with guardrails’

At a time when concerns are also being raised about the impact of technology – particularly social media – on the mental health and wellbeing of its users, the Microsoft executive urged social media firms to focus on broadening the debate and help avoid creating echo chambers and “cybertribes” of users.

He said that the infamous early Facebook mantra of “move fast and break things” was no longer applicable to a sector with much more responsibility than it has ever had previously.

“In some ways our message is work together and fix things. In some ways our message is drive fast, but on a road with guardrails. Our argument to the industry is to take the time to design the guardrails,” he said.

“It requires time and we understand that people who are busy may not want to spend the time creating guardrails, but our argument is if you have them, you can drive faster and stay on the road, and you’re going to avoid the accidents that will then distract from what you need to do to be successful in your business.

“That is, in part, the plea for cultural change – to think about things more broadly and yeah it’ll be interesting to see how people in the tech sector react to this.

“We’re starting a conversation, we can see it beginning and like any good conversation there will be people who agree and those who disagree – that’s what contributes to a good conversation.”

⁠— PA Media