Tech regulation may be the only thing on which a polarized Capitol Hill can agree. “We should be suing Google and Facebook and all that, and perhaps we will,” President Trump recently declared.Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, has made the breakup of tech companies a central plank of her campaign. Even Silicon Valley-friendly contenders like Pete Buttigieg have called for curbs on the industry’s power.
If Americans buy into the idea that the tech industry is an entrepreneurial, free-market miracle in which government played little part, then the prospect of stricter regulation is ominous. But that isn’t what actually happened. Throughout the history of the tech industry in the United States, the government has been an important regulator, funder and partner. Public policies — including antitrust enforcement, data privacy regulation and rules governing online content — helped make the industry into the innovative juggernaut that it is today. In recent years, lawmakers pulled back from this role. As they return to it, the history of American tech delivers some important lessons.
Advocates of big-tech breakup often point to precedent set by the antitrust cases of the twentieth century. The three biggest were Microsoft in the 1990s, IBM in the 1950s through the 1980s, and the moves that turned AT&T into a regulated monopoly in 1913 and ended with its breakup seven decades later. Microsoft and IBM didn’t break up, and even AT&T’s dissolution happened partly because the company wanted the freedom to enter new markets.
What made these cases a boon to tech innovation was not the breaking up — which is hard to do — but the consent decrees resulting from antitrust action. Even without forcing companies to split into pieces, antitrust enforcement opened up space for market competition and new growth. Consent decrees in the mid-1950s required both IBM and AT&T to license key technologies for free or nearly free. These included the transistor technology foundational to the growth of the microchip industry: We would have no silicon in Silicon Valley without it. Microsoft dominated the 1990s software world so thoroughly that its rivals dubbed it “the Death Star.” After the lawsuit, it entered the new century constrained and cautious, giving more room for new platforms to gain a foothold.
U.S. officials have told telecommunications executives around the world to steer clear of Huawei Technologies Co., calling the company a national-security threat, but that hasn’t prevented AT&T Inc. T 0.72%from using the Chinese company’s equipment in Mexico.
While AT&T has kept Chinese equipment out of its domestic networks, industry executives say the U.S. company uses Huawei’s gear to run a large part of the wireless network in Mexico, where the electronics giant is as welcome as any other supplier.
Huawei boxes sit atop cellphone towers across Mexico, where AT&T is the No. 3 provider in terms of wireless subscribers. The Dallas company inherited much of its Mexican gear through acquisitions, though executives say it also has used the Chinese supplier to upgrade its 4G network in recent years.
“We are the most significant vendor in this country,” Cesar Funes, a Huawei vice president in Mexico, said in an interview. “We respect, of course, headquarters’ discussions with their governments. We just continue supplying them what we are asked to supply.”
“When we upgraded our Mexico network to 4G LTE, we replaced Huawei in our data core network with equipment from the same suppliers we use in the United States, because it gave us consistency in design and scale in purchasing,” the spokesman said. “We expect to harmonize our networks in the same way when we upgrade to 5G in Mexico.”
Huawei competes with Sweden’s Ericsson AB and Nokia Corp. of Finland to equip cellphone network operators. Most large telecom companies keep two or more suppliers in the mix to maintain leverage in future negotiations.
.. Huawei is the world’s top telecom supplier, according to market analyst Dell’Oro Group. Its success abroad has alarmed American officials who fear that telecom executives won’t be able to avoid using Chinese producers, especially in countries with close economic ties to the U.S.
Today’s 4G networks are linked across borders, but future 5G networks could make national boundaries even less relevant. Mr. Strayer said newer cell-tower equipment will be more than “dumb” conduits for information, leaving a broader swath of cellphone networks vulnerable to potential snooping.
AT&T entered Mexico in late 2014 after the Mexican government enacted legislation to enhance competition in a famously concentrated telecom market. The Dallas company pieced together a wireless company by snapping up two smaller players, Iusacell and Nextel Mexico, inheriting a dense network of machinery bought from Huawei, among other suppliers.
.. AT&T doubled down on Huawei over the next four years as it upgraded the infrastructure it acquired to support 4G service. A senior AT&T executive in 2016 told an industry publication that the supplier’s performance was “excellent.” The company has estimated the price of replacing the Huawei electronics it has in Mexico and found the cost prohibitive, according to a person familiar with the matter... The Chinese company, which also makes cellphones, has spent years raising its profile in Mexico. It had its brand name splashed across jerseys for the popular soccer team Club América—until the AT&T logo took its place. When AT&T’s Mexican headquarters moved into a glassy tower finished in 2016, Huawei moved into a satellite office a floor away to stay close to its client... AT&T has bet that a Mexican middle class can boost its future profits. The company invested more than $7 billion, including the $4.4 billion spent to acquire Nextel and Iusacell, over the past four years to improve its network there.
A major donor to President Trump agreed to pay $10 million to the president’s then-personal attorney if he successfully helped obtain funding for a nuclear-power project, including a $5 billion loan from the U.S. government, according to people familiar with the matter.
The donor, Franklin L. Haney, gave the contract to Trump attorney Michael Cohen in early April to assist his efforts to complete a pair of unfinished nuclear reactors in Alabama, known as the Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant, these people said.
.. Authorities are investigating whether Mr. Cohen engaged in unregistered lobbying in connection with his consulting work for corporate clients
.. Mr. Cohen made several calls to officials at the Energy Department in the spring to inquire about the loan guarantee process, including what could be done to speed it up
.. James Thurber, a professor of government at American University, said success fees are “outside the ethical norms” among Washington lobbyists and are frowned upon.
Century-old court rulings deemed fees contingent on lobbyists obtaining public funds or killing legislation unenforceable and counter to public policy, saying they encouraged corruption, he said. Several lobbyists contacted by the Journal said $10 million was an unheard-of sum to pay a consultant for government-related work.
.. Mr. Cohen’s other consulting clients, including AT&T Inc. and Novartis AG , the Journal has previously reported, citing people familiar with the matter. Those companies said they paid Mr. Cohen a total of $1.8 million since Mr. Trump took office for his insights into the administration. Both have said he didn’t do any substantial work for them.
Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
.. In the mid-90s, I got a call from some friends at ATT, asking me to help them research the nascent web-hosting business. They thought ATT’s famous “five 9’s” reliability (services that work 99.999% of the time) would be valuable, but they couldn’t figure out how $20 a month, then the going rate, could cover the costs for good web hosting, much less leave a profit.
I started describing the web hosting I’d used, including the process of developing web sites locally, uploading them to the server, and then checking to see if anything had broken.
“But if you don’t have a staging server, you’d be changing things on the live site!” They explained this to me in the tone you’d use to explain to a small child why you don’t want to drink bleach. “Oh yeah, it was horrible”, I said. “Sometimes the servers would crash, and we’d just have to re-boot and start from scratch.” There was a long silence on the other end, the silence peculiar to conference calls when an entire group stops to think.
The ATT guys had correctly understood that the income from $20-a-month customers wouldn’t pay for good web hosting. What they hadn’t understood, were in fact professionally incapable of understanding, was that the industry solution, circa 1996, was to offer hosting that wasn’t very good.
This, for the ATT guys, wasn’t depressing so much as confusing. We finished up the call, and it was polite enough, but it was perfectly clear that there wasn’t going to be a consulting gig out of it, because it wasn’t a market they could get into, not because they didn’t want to, but because they couldn’t.
.. The web hosting business, because it followed the “Simplicity first, quality later” model, didn’t just present a new market, it required new cultural imperatives.
.. “If you want something to be 10 times cheaper, take out 90% of the materials.” Making media is like that now except, for “materials”, substitute “labor.”
“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”
… Bureaucracies temporarily suspend the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one.
In spring of 2007, the web video comedy In the Motherhood made the move to TV. In the Motherhood started online as a series of short videos, with viewers contributing funny stories from their own lives and voting on their favorites. This tactic generated good ideas at low cost as well as endearing the show to its viewers; the show’s tag line was “By Moms, For Moms, About Moms.”
.. Once the show moved to television, the Writers Guild of America got involved. They were OK with For and About Moms, but By Moms violated Guild rules. The producers tried to negotiate, to no avail, so the idea of audience engagement was canned
.. The most watched minute of video made in the last five years shows baby Charlie biting his brother’s finger. (Twice!) That minute has been watched by more people than the viewership of American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and the Superbowl combined. (174 million views and counting.)
.. “Charlie Bit My Finger” was made by amateurs, in one take, with a lousy camera. No professionals were involved in selecting or editing or distributing it. Not one dime changed hands anywhere between creator, host, and viewers.
.. it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.