American Tech Isn't Broken. Let's Not Break It. | Opinion

As kids, my brother and I would take a screwdriver to every piece of old electronics we could grab. Inevitably, once reassembled, the VCR or toaster never quite worked right again. And there were always some parts left over.

Maybe we were just bad electricians. But every time I hear calls for government to "fix" American tech, I remember the danger of tearing apart working but complicated systems. As my dad repeatedly said: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Some have soured on the open and dynamic environment that enabled U.S. tech companies big and small to become the world's most successful innovators. They want to uproot the entire tech industry from this lush environment and transplant it into a government-designed desert terrarium with glass walls of regulation—just because they dislike certain practices by a few companies.

But if we do this, innovation will wither. Let's tend the garden, not uproot it.

The U.S. has always been a special place for innovation. From Thomas Edison to Katherine Johnson to Steve Jobs, U.S. innovators have created enormous benefits for billions of people. But the U.S. regulatory environment for the internet is uniquely fertile. In the 1990s, at the dawn of the internet age, U.S. policymakers made a series of foundational decisions about the internet. They embraced light-touch regulation focused on applying the basic consumer protection and antitrust laws that govern all companies. They rejected comprehensive sector-specific regulation for the internet, having seen how that hobbled telephone sector innovation for decades. They passed laws such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which allows internet platforms to create powerful and family-friendly communications tools without subjecting themselves to lawsuits if people misuse those tools. That foundational work liberated the U.S. environment for online innovation.

In contrast, European regulators punish risk-taking, fear change and seem to want timid technologists who seek innovation without disruption. China's government controls innovation from the top and for the government's benefit, creating an environment much better at copying ideas than creating them. Neither environment can match the American commitment to innovation.

The result: Today, most of the world's tech leaders are based here in the U.S. Of the 30 biggest internet companies by market capitalization, 18 are American. China has seven (all state-supported). No other country has more than one. The tech sector has become one of our most vital industries and plays a key role in our position as a global superpower.

Yet there are some in the U.S. who want our government to imitate the Chinese and European approaches.

Let's tell them: "No."

Like any industry, the tech sector should have an appropriate level of public oversight. As the former chief technologist of the Federal Trade Commission—the general federal consumer protection agency and one of two federal antitrust enforcers—I participated in dozens of cases against companies, including tech companies, for harming consumers and undermining the competitive process. That type of oversight, which focuses on addressing real harms, protects America's uniquely productive environment for tech innovation.

By American tech, I mean the many big and small businesses building internet products and services that have transformed our work, play and society.

But it is not just the Big Tech companies that benefit from the U.S. innovation environment—we all do. Though clichéd to say, today every company is a tech company. The COVID-19 pandemic has quite literally brought this point home. Imagine remote work without email, chat, video conferencing, search engines or mobile phones. Thanks to these technologies, many businesses have continued to operate in part or whole, frequently for little extra cost. Teachers are using these tools to safely instruct students. Without such technologies, many more people would have to skip work/school or risk their health.

If you're not swayed by the work example, or if you have a job that doesn't allow you to work remotely, think of it in these terms: Imagine quarantine with only three broadcast channels to watch. You can thank innovation for The Mandalorian and for the many ways we can stay in touch: Zoom video chats, Snapchat messages and Houseparty games. Because of American tech, we can connect even while social distancing.

Americans intuitively grasp these benefits. A National Research Group survey found that 88 percent of respondents say they have a "better appreciation" for tech's positive impact on society and culture than before the coronavirus outbreak. A recent Pew Research survey found that 53 percent of Americans described the internet as "essential" during the COVID-19 outbreak, with another 34 percent describing it as "important but not essential." Only 13 percent thought it was not very important.

Our freedom to innovate has brought us so far since the 1990s. Yet instead of looking forward to where we go next, some seem to think we've come far enough. They are attacking the foundation of American internet innovation, seeking sweeping regulation, higher tech taxes, politicized antitrust enforcement and a gutted Section 230 in the hope that this will pare back Big Tech. Some even argue that this will create more innovation.

But it is a foolish gardener who prunes a tree by cutting it down.

Google office in Detroit
Google office in Detroit Interim Archives/Getty Images

Has any industry ever become more innovative because additional restrictions were placed on it? In fact, when the COVID-19 pandemic demanded a rapid response, governments suspended pointless rules so providers could save lives. The FDA loosened restrictions on testing. States allowed out-of-state health providers to practice within their borders. Rules blocking the use of telemedicine were waived. No one responded by saying, "Hey, I think we need more regulation here."

Some of the problems that critics raise are real. And in an industry as big, complex and important as the internet, how could there not be some actual problems? For example, people rightly worry about identity theft, which is already a crime. But we reap great benefits from data-powered search engines, social media sites and custom ads from businesses who understand our needs. Where there are real problems, they often can be resolved through market feedback—consumers do not like to feel manipulated, for example. Others can be addressed through existing consumer protection and antitrust law, or through other actions by government officials representing the public.

But when regulation serves the interests of competitors and political adversaries, it only hampers our nation's ability to stay ahead of the global competition. We should be skeptical of threats amplified by crony competitors and political opportunists who care less about solving consumers' problems and more about sticking it to their competition or scoring political points.

For example, the "techlash" narrative paints all Big Tech companies as monopolists who swallow up every potential competitor. Yet in just the past six months, we've seen the rapid rise of the China-based TikTok social media app, which is one of the top downloaded apps in the U.S. And though every major tech company already offered video conferencing services, the at-home workforce has flocked to Zoom, making it a newly prominent platform.

Uprooting the tech industry by adopting sweeping regulatory changes might benefit a few companies and politicians. But is that worth ceding our global tech leadership to Europe's stagnating tech industry or China's "innovation by the government, for the government?" Is it worth harming our economy, our businesses and consumers here and abroad?

No, it isn't. Put away the screwdriver. This VCR is fine.

Neil Chilson is a senior tech policy fellow at Stand Together and served as chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.