NEW YORK — NCTA–The Internet & Television Association CEO Michael Powell called for tighter controls against massive tech companies like Google, Facebook and Netflix on issues like privacy and data collection, but added that moves to implement Net Neutrality rules on a state level isn’t the solution.
Powell, the keynote speaker at Thursday’s Next TV Summit here, said that federal regulators have failed to see the influence of companies like Google and Facebook, adding that in the government’s eyes, they are tech companies that need to be protected.
“I think there is a fundamental underappreciation in policy circles about the extraordinary power of the platforms and the data that rides on these companies and value of that information both as a competitive advantage as a platform and the potential dangers to consumers,” Powell told moderator, managing director of content, Multichannel News and Broadcasting & Cable Mark Robichaux. He added that he grew up believing that Google’s mantra of “Do No Evil” was an assurance that Silicon Valley was geared toward benefiting society, not just turning a profit.
“That has always been a naive concept and one that I think government was entirely inattentive to for too long, only to wake up in 2018 to realize there are some consequences that are not necessarily affirmative,” Powell said.
Powell added that these companies are upsetting what he called the “flywheel of the internet,” a delicate balance between content and distribution.
When that balance is disrupted, it leads to chaos and disruption, he added.“It has to be brought into harmony one way or the other,” Powell added. “It’s not about should you be regulated, should you not be regulated, or heavily regulated. It’s about that you are at least be comprehensive and holistic about what you’re trying to achieve for the world and the country. Because I assure you if network builders stop, the information age stops. And if the content innovators stop, there won’t be any further growth in networks.
“The real issue is should these companies come to the attention of government and public policy? Yes, of course they should,” Powell continued. “Virtually every important policy question of the day is generated not by cable companies, but by the activities of these other companies.“If you’re going to consider them, you’re going to consider their impact on society, both the good and the harm they do. And where you find harm and the public demands a response, that's called policy or regulation. I think we’ve learned that there has been a falsity in the last decade that there can be no harm.”
But Powell said regulation, if it comes, won’t come quickly.
The NCTA chief said the next few years will be characterized by a lot of hand wringing, investigations, public forums and mounting interest from public interest groups that will result in an initial wave of bills that will fail to pass. But those bills will set markers for future legislation, probably with privacy, data collection and some form of net neutrality as their primary focus.Those efforts have to occur on a national level to have a true impact, Powell said, adding that recent moves by states to implement their own versions of net neutrality are unnecessary and misguided.
“States passing their own laws is a bad idea,” Powell said. “You can’t create a regulatory regime that is operated in 50 different jurisdictions. It’s more like interstate trucking or climate policy. The toxic clouds don’t pause on the way to California.”
Powell said the real upholder of net neutrality-like policies is the market itself. And he said the fact that for-profit companies are in no way completely altruistic is an advantage for consumers.
“To create artificial scarcity and charge people for it doesn’t make economic sense,” Powell said. “...The idea the ISPs have some massive leverage over the balance sheets of the tech industry, Who do you think the customer is going to be screaming at when suddenly Facebook doesn’t work? Do you want to be in the Comcast call center that day?”