How Microsoft's Brad Smith is Trying to Restore Your Trust in Big Tech

Romesh Ratnesar/Redmond, Wash.
How Microsoft's Brad Smith is Trying to Restore Your Trust in Big Tech

Inside a sunny conference room on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., a small team of employees is describing how technology can save the world. From technology. Microsoft’s Digital Diplomacy unit consists of two dozen policy experts who work on everything from the ethical use of artificial intelligence to protecting the 2020 presidential election from foreign cyberinterference. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, sits in the middle of the table, sipping coffee from a mug bearing the name of his hometown, Appleton, Wis.

The group updates Smith on a tech-industry initiative co-founded by Microsoft to combat terrorist messaging on the Internet. Smith pushes for more ideas. “We need something that will create a new mold,” he says. A few minutes later, he gets a demo of ElectionGuard, a new encrypted voting system developed by Microsoft’s engineers. “How close are we to getting a state to pilot this?” When he’s told the technology may be tested in local elections early next year, Smith pounds his fist and leaps out of his chair in excitement. He floats the possibility of deploying ElectionGuard in states holding presidential caucuses, many of which already use a Microsoft program to record and track results. “We’ve got to start early and move fast,” he says.

Smith’s sense of urgency comes from experience. At 60, he is Microsoft’s longest-serving executive, the institutional bridge between the company’s current leadership and its legendary co-founder Bill Gates. His tenure as the company’s top legal officer spans the software giant’s bruising antitrust battles with the U.S. government two decades ago and its resurgence as a cloud-computing force, which this year helped Microsoft vault past Apple and Amazon as the most valuable company in the world. “He’s someone who’s been through a lot of different ups and downs as we’ve evolved, the tech industry has evolved, and the world around us has evolved,” says Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who promoted Smith to his current role in 2015.

It says something about the nature of those changes that Smith, since becoming Microsoft’s president, has focused as much on external relations as on internal strategy. With public distrust at its peak over the size, power and business practices of the tech industry’s biggest companies, Smith has assumed the role of unofficial global ambassador for the industry. In the past year, he has spent more than 100 days on the road, visiting 22 countries and pushing for collaboration between governments and tech companies to limit the destabilizing effects of digital technologies.

Those efforts have produced some high-profile results. In November, French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled an international accord–championed by Smith and signed by 67 countries and 358 private companies and entities–to promote “trust and security in cyberspace” and to protect elections from cyberattacks. After the March terrorist assault on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 51 people and was livestreamed on Facebook, Smith helped New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern launch the Christchurch Call, an initiative to eliminate violent-extremist content online. As part of the agreement, Smith worked to persuade social-media companies like Facebook and Twitter to pledge to remove extremist content as soon as it’s posted and to report publicly on their progress in doing so. “Brad was one of the driving forces behind that effort–he spent real time, energy and capital to bring it about,” says Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat.

Smith’s influence is well known among tech-industry titans and policymakers in Washington, but he has wielded much of it behind the scenes. He will step more squarely onto the public stage with the Sept. 10 release of his first book, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age. Filled with accounts of closed-door meetings, from Microsoft’s boardroom to the West Wing to the Vatican, the book shows tech leaders trying to respond to a seemingly endless series of crises: Edward Snowden’s revelations of government surveillance of private data servers; Russia’s hacking and social-media disinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election; the 2017 North Korea–sponsored cyberattack known as WannaCry, which crippled hundreds of thousands of computer systems worldwide; the livestreaming of the Christchurch rampage.

The picture that emerges is of an industry ill-equipped to control the technologies it unleashed. Smith argues that the tech sector needs to reform itself or risk having change forced upon it. “Is our biggest problem today that the world is doing too much to manage technology, or too little?” he says. “I would argue too little–and that, in fact, governments are moving too slowly, not that they’re moving too fast.” In his book, and in his increasingly high-profile public advocacy, Smith appears as both an advocate for tech responsibility and a voice of moderation in the clamorous debate over regulating Big Tech. “Brad elevates the conversation,” says Chris Liddell, a senior official in the Trump White House and former Microsoft executive. “He’s representing Microsoft, but also sincerely trying to do the right thing for the tech industry and for the country.”

Yet for a skeptical public, two questions immediately arise. The first is whether Smith’s prescriptions go far enough toward curbing the industry’s power or remedying the damage it’s done to consumer privacy, social stability and democracy itself. Smith calls for “limited initial regulatory” steps on digital-technology companies, while insisting that “it is more than possible for companies to succeed while doing more to address their societal responsibilities.” Critics say that’s just letting the fox guard the henhouse. “It’s a simple fact that technology has been weaponized by private companies against democracy,” says Barry C. Lynn, executive director of the Open Markets Institute, a Washington think tank that supports antitrust action against tech behemoths. “Corporations are not people. They don’t have souls. They’re institutions designed to make money. And the way the government has always dealt with them is to regulate them to the point where they cease being dangerous to the public.”

The second question is whether Smith’s efforts do more to advance Microsoft’s interests than the public’s. Though Facebook, Google and Amazon have some policy goals in common with Microsoft, heavier government oversight of the Internet isn’t one of them. Some see Smith’s support for regulation not as an act of socially minded corporate citizenship but as a strategy to slow the growth of Microsoft’s rivals. “By taking these high-profile positions, Microsoft is able to highlight its own thought leadership and commitment to individual consumers, while throwing the competition under the bus,” says Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms and Democracy project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former Facebook employee.

Smith doesn’t dispute that claiming the high ground has helped Microsoft’s bottom line. But he believes that Silicon Valley’s new giants should learn from Redmond, not fear it. “I think that Microsoft offers both a cautionary and a hopeful tale. If you don’t figure out how to make things work from a broader societal perspective, you will pay a steep price for many years,” he says. “But then there’s the hopeful tale. We survived, and we’re doing well. And one of the reasons is that we turned our weaknesses from the 1990s into strengths.” Speaking as much of his own journey as his company’s, he adds, “What I’ve learned here is that if you believe in the long term, your day eventually arrives.”

Earlier this summer, I visited Smith on the fifth floor of Building 34 on Microsoft’s 502-acre campus. While other company executives enjoy panoramic views of the Cascade Range and surrounding forests, Smith’s corner office, which he’s occupied since 2002, overlooks a parking lot. It’s decorated with globes of various sizes; photos of his wife Kathy and their two grown children; and a framed copy of the CLOUD Act, a bipartisan law signed by Trump in 2018 that limits how law-enforcement agencies can access consumer data held by tech companies in third countries. The bookshelves hold technological artifacts featured by Smith and his co-author Carol Ann Browne in their book, including a replica of a century-old phone used by Alexander Graham Bell.

Smith meets me a little before 9 in the morning, wearing charcoal slacks and a plaid shirt. Modestly built, with fading red hair, blue eyes and a gravelly Midwestern accent, Smith has an amiable, self-effacing demeanor that belies his nine-figure wealth and intense work ethic. Close aides are known to keep their phones charged near their beds, in case Smith emails them from another time zone. His commute takes 11 to 13 minutes, depending on the one traffic light on his route, which gets him to his desk by 7 a.m. (At the end of his 12-hour days, he relaxes by playing video games.) To write Tools and Weapons, Smith holed up before dawn in a windowless meeting room, running through Browne’s edits while his colleagues trickled onto campus. The pair finished the 90,000-word manuscript in less than six months.

Smith’s father worked for the Wisconsin Bell phone company, and he spent his childhood moving among several cities in the state. He attended elementary school in Racine, a declining industrial city where he was one of the only white students in a predominantly African-American school. During one summer, he earned money by picking onions with migrant farmers.

At his mother’s urging, Smith left Wisconsin to attend Princeton, where he was part of a peer group that included Elena Kagan, Eliot Spitzer and Kathy Surace, Smith’s future wife. “He was a little dorky, that was my first impression,” she says. “It was a competitive environment, and some people were more competitive than others. Brad tended to deflect that and take an interest in other people and learn about them, as opposed to talking about himself.”

Smith became intrigued with personal computers and bought his first IBM PC in the mid-1980s, in his third year of law school. After graduating, he interviewed at Covington & Burling, a Washington law firm, on the condition that the job come with a computer. He got both. “They said no one had asked for one before,” Smith recalls. As the firm’s resident technologist, he worked on copyright issues for the nascent software industry’s trade association, which gained the notice of lawyers at Microsoft. He joined the company in 1993 as head of its European legal and corporate affairs team, based in Paris, with a mandate to fight software piracy.

During his first meeting in Seattle with Gates, Smith presented the CEO with a one-page memo on a proposed European Community copyright directive. After marking up the sheet with a pencil, Gates grabbed a blue marker and began brainstorming ideas on a whiteboard, using his hand as an eraser. “It was covered in blue ink by the end of the meeting,” Smith recalls, over a lunch of grilled salmon at a restaurant on campus. “You could see the wheels turning.”

Gates’ taste for legal combat led Microsoft into a series of confrontations with competitors and with the U.S. Department of Justice, culminating in a four-year antitrust trial over the company’s attempts to limit the use of non-Microsoft web browsers on its dominant Windows platform. Though it reached a tentative settlement with the federal government in 2001, Microsoft remained embroiled in numerous suits with states, foreign governments and other tech companies.

When Smith became general counsel in 2002, he pleaded with Gates and Steve Ballmer, who was then running the company, to “make peace” with their adversaries. “Until there was peace brought to the industry, we wouldn’t see the regulatory pressures subside,” Smith says. “And making peace also required we change the way we worked internally and develop a capability to work with governments.”

It was a crucial business decision, Smith says. Had Microsoft continued its assaults on regulators and the competition, “we wouldn’t be the most valuable company in the world today. We wouldn’t have been given the opportunity. We had to persuade people that we deserved their trust.” In the foreword to Tools and Weapons, Gates credits Smith with driving “a big cultural and strategic shift” at Microsoft that saw the company “put more time and energy into connecting with … the government, our partners and sometimes even our competitors.”

That has given Smith credibility with the newer moguls of tech, even if he’s delivering a message they don’t like. Late last year, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg reached out to Smith, at Gates’ suggestion, for advice on how the social network should handle scrutiny from lawmakers, the media and the general public. Smith says he consults “from time to time” with Zuckerberg and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. “Some problems are deeper and broader today than they would be if we’d started to move toward some smarter regulation a decade ago,” Smith says. Among other things, he favors laws to limit how artificial intelligence and facial-recognition software are developed and used by both private companies and government agencies.

At the same time, he pushes back against calls for government to impose stiffer penalties against the biggest tech companies, or even break them up. That is disappointing but not surprising, says Danny O’Brien, director of strategy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for online privacy rights. “When it comes to big solutions,” O’Brien says, Smith “is not going to suggest what a lot of outsiders now think needs to happen.”

Every Friday morning, Microsoft’s 10-person senior leadership team gathers in CEO Nadella’s conference room to make decisions on business strategy. Increasingly, the discussion focuses on trust. “Our business model depends on one thing and one thing alone, which is the world having more trust in technology,” Nadella says.

Smith’s mandate is to make that happen. He touts the company’s push to expand broadband coverage to 3 million rural Americans by 2022 and its recent $500 million investment in creating more affordable housing in the Seattle area. Rather than commercializing the ElectionGuard technology–which enables voters, election officials and the media to independently verify that their votes were counted and not altered–Microsoft will make it available for free on GitHub, an open-source software platform.

These Smith-led initiatives also advance Microsoft’s business interests, of course. Company executives don’t deny that they burnish Microsoft’s image, but they also say Smith’s commitment to good corporate citizenship is real. “It would be easy to say, ‘Hey, this a challenge. Gosh, it’d be nice to help,’ and then sit there,” says Amy Hood, Microsoft’s chief financial officer. “That’s not who he is.”

In early 2017, Smith came up with the concept of a “digital Geneva convention” that would establish globally recognized protections for civilians against cyberattacks, modeled on the 1949 Geneva convention that prohibits the deliberate targeting of civilians in conventional warfare. A year later, Smith had persuaded 34 companies to sign an accord based on those principles, and 60 more have joined since, including Google and Facebook but not Apple or Amazon. He followed that up with the Christchurch Call, which he launched after meeting with Ardern 12 days after the Christchurch attacks. “She told me, ‘I’m not interested in just having some PR moment. I want to do something that’s real.’ So we started to talk,” Smith says. He proposed a pledge signed by governments and tech companies to take immediate steps to rid social-media platforms of violent-extremist content. Smith says these efforts represent a new kind of “multistakeholder diplomacy.”

So far, there’s not a lot to show for it. The volume of toxic or violent content on social-media platforms continues to grow, despite hundreds of millions of government dollars spent trying to curb it. Cyberthreats against democratic elections, privacy and well-regulated markets are also on the rise. To critics, the tech industry’s push to work with government on those problems looks more like co-opting the feds than collaborating with them. And the Trump Administration has been cool to such collaboration anyway. When I ask whether he’s discouraged by the Administration’s refusal to embrace his causes, Smith shrugs. Citing the French-led cybersecurity accord, he says, “We’ve got 67 governments on board without the backing of the U.S. Imagine what might happen if the U.S. decided it wanted to be a leader in the world of multilateral diplomacy?”

As we finish lunch and head back to Smith’s office, I ask whether the world’s democracies are up to the challenge of protecting the world from technology’s perils. His typically cheery countenance creases and turns somber. “I worry that 2019 has some similarities to the early 1930s,” he says. “There are days in which one can be pessimistic about the future. And on the darkest days, one can even say that ultimately things get better, but sometimes they get really, really bad before they improve.”

It raises the inevitable question of whether Smith’s digital diplomacy might lead to a different kind of public service. “If you had laid odds in college on whether Brad would end up high up in the federal government, or the president of Microsoft, most of us would have bet on the former,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of New America, who attended Princeton with Smith. (Microsoft has provided funding to the think tank.) When I mention the possibility to Smith, he doesn’t rule it out. “Look, I’m 60 years old. Who knows what I’ll be doing 10 years from now?”

There’s a good argument that Smith’s current perch gives him more power to steer the technology industry in a socially responsible direction than he would ever have in Washington. How to balance the opportunities created by digital technologies with their potential dangers is fast becoming one of the central moral and political dilemmas of this age. Getting politicians, tech companies and the public to agree on technology’s place in society is a monumental task that won’t be completed anytime soon. Smith’s achievement has been to get it started.

Ratnesar, a former TIME deputy managing editor, is a member of the editorial board of Bloomberg Opinion and an unpaid fellow at New America.

Correction, Sept. 9

The original version of this story misstated the year in which Smith returned to the U.S. from Paris. He returned in 1996, not 2002. The original version of this story also misstated the number of times Smith worked on a farm. He worked on a farm for one summer, not multiple summers.

Smith, fourth from bottom right, at a Tech for Good summit with world leaders and top business executives, hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace on May 15 | Isa Harsin—SIPA/AP
As Microsoft’s longest-serving executive, Smith (pictured outside the Supreme Court in February 2018) has steered the company out of legal troubles | Andrew Harnik—AP