To: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google et al.
From: Bill Gates
Memo: Dial back the Silicon Valley hubris, or the government will do it for you.
The Microsoft Corp. co-founder didn’t use those exact words, but that was nevertheless the message he made clear Tuesday in an interview with Axios ahead of the release of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual letter.
Gates told the outlet he “absolutely” sees examples of monopolistic tech companies overstepping their bounds right now, thereby inviting the same type of protracted, damaging legal battle he faced in the late 1990s as the CEO of Microsoft.
“The tech companies have to be … careful that they’re not trying to think their view is more important than the government’s view,” Gates warned, or that they’re “advocating things that would prevent government from being able to, under appropriate review, perform the type of functions that we’ve come to count on.”
The “view that even a clear mass-murdering criminal’s communication should never be available to the government” strikes him as problematic, Gates said, an apparent reference to Apple’s refusal to unlock the iPhone of one of the shooter’s in the December 2015 massacre in San Bernardino, California.
He also questioned tech companies’ “enthusiasm about making financial transactions anonymous and invisible.”
The problem isn’t that the companies are unable to police themselves, Gates said, it’s that they don’t want to. “There’s no question of ability; it’s the question of willingness,” he said.
In a possible sign of things to come, EU regulators hit Google’s parent company Alphabet with a $2.7 billion fine last year for violating antitrust rules, in the first of three investigations into the company’s monopolistic practices. (Alphabet has since filed an appeal.)
And back home, representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter were rebuked at committee hearings in Congress last year for failing to take action to stem Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“Your power sometimes scares me,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) told Facebook officials. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) offered a more blunt warning: “You are going to have to do something about this or else we will.”