The World Wants Big Tech Companies to Be Regulated

Sintia Radu

Big Tech needs limits.

Following headlines in recent years that have reported on privacy concerns and data security breaches, companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon need to face some boundaries and see their powers limited.

That is the view of a sharp majority of respondents in the 2020 Best Countries survey that asked people their views on the power of technology companies. The survey was conducted in 36 countries and queried more than 20,000 people at least 18 years of age.

Roughly 74% of respondents say technology giants should see their powers limited. That sentiment is strongest among survey takers who are at least 55 years of age, and among respondents in Australia, where 87% say Big Tech companies should face limits to their power. Survey respondents in the United Kingdom and Canada registered the second- and third-strongest levels of agreement, respectively, in the need for curbing big tech companies' power.

The findings on limiting the power of big tech firms are part of larger anxieties expressed in the 2020 Best Countries report that touch on technology and the internet. Among other findings in the Best Countries survey:

-- Other countries where more than 80% of the people surveyed say the power of big technology companies should be limited include Germany, India, Indonesia, Thailand and New Zealand.

-- Countries disagreeing the most with big technology companies needing to see their powers limited include Nigeria and Japan. More than 40% of people surveyed in those nations say they didn't think those companies need more restrictions.

-- About 74% of respondents worldwide agree with this survey statement: "Technology is displacing our jobs."

-- Globally, about 77% say they worry that their internet privacy is at risk.

-- And 85% agree with the statement that "the world needs a global set of internet standards."

Experts say the Best Countries findings are in part due to policymakers unable to reach a consensus on what to regulate, and by stirring up public anxiety.

What Needs to Be Regulated?

The question of regulating big tech firms has been discussed in the United States for years, and experts often argue over what should be subject to regulation. Should this be an antitrust conversation? Should guidelines look at content moderation? Should legislators push for more security and data transparency?

"It's almost like an apple pie," says Nicol Turner Lee, fellow in the Governance Program's Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. "There are several slices that have emerged in the policy debate and no one is quite clear about how all the pies sort of land up on the same plate."

Regulating technology companies has proven a tough task for the U.S. government, in large part because of the free-wheeling origins of the internet. The internet was developed on a permissionless innovation, a principle that allows creators to freely experiment with technology and business models. This incentivized tech companies to find an advertisement-based monetizing strategy that allowed the internet to remain free of charge, but also evolve from a U.S. government communication prototype to a service with more than 4 billion users worldwide. There were no guidebooks nor universally accepted guidelines, and internet services were left to regulate their own content for decades.

The technology itself grew increasingly sophisticated and so did the scandals around data privacy and hate speech. Regulators struggled to keep up and understand with every novel online tool that flooded users' lives and some argued that, in an age of constant innovation, perhaps policy itself should be written in a way that is adaptable to an ever-changing technology landscape, Turner Lee says.

"We have old tools in the toolkit to deal with new problems as none of this was anticipated when it came to the virility of technology and its ability to be so transformative."

Who Speaks About Regulation, and Why?

A turning point came in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, which marked the first time the country saw its democratic foundations hacked by a foreign power, and an increasing number of policymakers and technology leaders calling for more internet guidelines. Several initiatives were taken around the world that were intended to better protect users. The European Union in 2018 deployed the General Data Protection Regulation and fined Google, Facebook and Apple for antitrust practices and illegal tax breaks, respectively. Countries wrote more guidelines for how to build specific technology products and overall governments announced they will keep a closer eye on technology giants.

It comes as no surprise that users in some countries also see the need for big technology companies facing more restrictions and rules, experts say.

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"When governments exaggerate or hype up the problems (created by Big Tech), it's not surprising that citizens are saying, 'Oh, so you should do something'," says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, or ITIF, a nonprofit public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on technology research.

Some countries are also more inclined toward regulation, Atkinson adds, with the European Union putting in place more rules than the United States. The same propensity for increased rules can also be seen in Australia, where local experts say people haven't yet seen the positive effects of allowing their own technology companies develop as much as in other places in the world.

"Therefore, there's a hesitance about letting technology companies do whatever they like and regulate themselves," says Alex McCauley, CEO of StartupAUS, a national advocacy body for technology startups in Australia.

In America, talks about breaking up Big Tech or limiting its powers is not something users will see anytime soon, says Atkinson. U.S. antitrust laws are more permissive than in other parts of the world, changing it requires a large consensus among legislators, and fundamentally no one wants to see creativity and innovation stifled in a landscape with too many rules.

"I think the major focus of antitrust around the world is going to be on conduct rather than on structure," Atkinson adds.

Sintia Radu is an international affairs and global technology reporter at U.S. News & World Report. She previously reported on business and technology for the Washington Post and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She served as the managing editor for Esquire Romania. She graduated from the Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies, and earned her Master of Arts in Journalism at the University of Missouri. She is a fellow of the National Press Foundation for a program on the impact of artificial intelligence. She was part of the 2016 Women in STEM cohort at Chicago's 1871 technology and entrepreneurship center, and helped design a multiple award-winning iOS/watchOS app profiled in the 2017 Associated Press report on The Future of Augmented Journalism. She is a Fulbright scholarship recipient and gave a TEDx talk on immigration and diversity. Follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, or email her at