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A venture investor’s manifesto: Let’s fight big tech with ethical tech

Founder and funder Tom Chavez thinks the industry should use its innovation prowess to defang tech behemoths.

A venture investor’s manifesto: Let’s fight big tech with ethical tech
[Source images: Liubov Khutter-Kukkonin/iStock; Taily/iStock]

We could be on the precipice of a new era of tech regulation. From President Joe Biden’s recent executive order to the accelerating movement in Congress to rewrite U.S. antitrust laws, momentum for action is growing in Washington.

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There is an urgent need to reign in the companies I call the “tech gorillas” like Facebook and Google. They use their size and sway to operate like sovereign powers beyond the authority of any government, including our own. But the tech industry would be making a huge mistake if we fail to innovate and self-regulate and instead force the federal government’s hand on regulation.

The regulatory state is totally overmatched when it comes to the tech gorillas. As the memorable 2018 exchange regarding Facebook’s business model between Mark Zuckerberg and an octogenarian U.S. Senator made clear, most members of Congress lack the technical expertise for effective legislation. That’s no surprise—technology is complex, fast-moving, and a language and culture all its own. Elected officials are well-intentioned, but we should no more expect them to navigate all the nuances of the tech industry than we should expect them to perform open heart surgery. As a result, the regulatory process moves at analog speed while the deployment and sophistication of technology accelerates exponentially. All too often, regulation solves for yesterday’s problems, not tomorrow’s.

Currently, though, the tech industry—driven by the tech gorillas—is doing so little to address the very real violations of user trust that the government has little choice but to take action. Those of us who believe in technology should see the writing on the wall and take action to fix things before these problems get “fixed” for us.

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To be clear, this does not mean a war on any and all regulation. Regulations such as Dodd-Frank, particularly in its requirement for banks to preserve enough capital and liquidity to pass legally mandated “stress tests,” indisputably made our financial system stronger and safer for all stakeholders. Advocates of unrestrained capitalism who shrug their shoulders at the tech gorillas because they like their “free” services are false prophets. On current course and speed, they would lead us down the same path as the frog in a pot that enjoys the warm water before boiling to death.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to go down like that. We can reign in the gorillas’ excesses, empower competition to reform capitalism, and use technology to do it.

We know technology can break down social barriers, bring people closer together, and massively speed up the process of turning good ideas into companies, jobs, and products. As we emerge from the pandemic and confront new economic challenges, technology also holds the promise of enabling a more inclusive form of capitalism, one that works not just for the 0.1%, but the middle class workers who have always propelled economies forward.

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By unleashing the inherently democratizing potential of tech, we can create a new framework where ethical innovation—innovation that respects our data dignity—comes first.

Increasingly, innovative companies get it, seeing privacy in terms of both values and value. Respecting people’s privacy and responsibly deploying data is good for business. I run a company that helps businesses make privacy programmatic in the same way Google and Facebook’s ad servers make digital ad buying programmatic. Our customers are coming to the realization that if they embrace responsible privacy and data policies, they can build the data reservoirs they need to grow their businesses while continually expanding trust with their customers and partners. Neeva, an exciting company founded and staffed by several leading ex-Google engineers, is reinventing search by putting consumer privacy first and giving its users control of where and how their data is used.

There are also many who are innovating and building in a way that responds to the interests of multiple stakeholders to make tech work better for people, including investors and employees pushing for change with the power they hold.

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Engine No. 1’s recent success in leveraging a small shareholder position into seismic change on the board of one of the world’s most iconic companies shows the power of shareholder activism, even in the face of long odds. This builds on a long history of consumer and investor pressure that compels major companies to change their practices.

Tech workers are finding their voice as well. At many of the biggest tech companies, employees are increasingly demanding reforms to business practices, especially to tackle privacy abuses and the spread of disinformation. Perhaps the most untapped stakeholder group is corporate America. In my conversations with C-suite leaders, the constant refrain is that they don’t like the stranglehold that a few big tech companies have over so much of the online infrastructure they depend on to grow and operate their businesses.

To those who despair that the tech gorillas have gotten so big there’s no turning back, history tells us otherwise. Unchecked, domineering power—whether we’re talking about King George III’s reign in the colonies in 1776, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in 1911, or the Berlin Wall in 1989 —can crumble quickly and unexpectedly.

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We can and we must restrain Big Tech with Ethical Tech. It is the way forward that will reign in the tech gorillas and empower individuals to assert their data dignity, reclaim the power of competitive markets, and allow innovation to march forward in a way that’s protective and productive for people, companies, and governments alike.


Tom Chavez is CEO of the startup studio and venture firm {super}set.

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