4 Ideas for Regulating Big Tech from Harvard's Board President

regulation Nov 11, 2020

In a recent fireside chat hosted by DataFleets, Marty Chavez - the President of Harvard's Board of Overseers - addressed the subject of Big Tech Regulation.  

Before diving into his proposals, Marty stressed, "My first advice to the big tech firms is do not resist the tide of regulation. You actually have to go and partner with the politicians and the regulators, which is hard because they will be appropriately suspicious of your motives."

Marty speaks from a position of experience, as he led Goldman Sachs' implementation of the Dodd-Frank regulations while he served as the bank's CIO and CFO. "This is what Wall Street did," Marty explained.

Marty proposed the following ideas for regulation:

  1. Common ownership of data on "human behavior"
  2. Opt-in national digital identity
  3. Corporate tax surcharge on targeted digital ads
  4. Ending big tech exemptions in the Communications Decency Act

Find details on each of these proposals below, presented as transcript excerpts from the fireside chat.


Common ownership of data on "human behavior"

Marty: So, first of all, I would say monetizing human behavior belongs to the commons. It does not belong to any one company. And any company that wants to access the click streams, the aggregated, anonymous click streams of people has to pay the commons for that. And the government can use that revenue...

Kenn Cukier (moderator): Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Let me stop. I'm a company. I've hired some of the smartest data people in the world to tell me what signals are relevant and which ones aren't. I'm going to invest a pile of money to be really smart and collect that data [and] another pile of money to make sure the data is clean. And then you're going to tell me that I have to give away this data to some commons, to my competitors. That's crazy.

Marty: Well, okay. Um, so, so right now...

Kenn: Because I'll just explain why, because it would chill, it would chill innovation. I wouldn't become a smarter firm that's willing to make those investments to learn what's relevant and what's not [in] understanding consumer behavior, if I wasn't able to monetize that myself and get my competitors away from it.

Marty: I am not at all worried about the ability of Facebook and Google to pay the commons for access to individual data and still derive insights and still clean it and still find the signal better than anybody else and still serve up those targeted ads. So just right now, they're getting it for free. And so this could be the source of new revenues for land grants, for education, like the land grant universities for education. That's one thing.


Opt-in national digital identity

Marty: So on Twitter, there are some people with a little blue check mark, right? And so the idea would be everybody gets a national digital identity. And if you want to post to some kind of alter ego, you can. But it'll be clear to everybody that it's not a real person or you're somehow hiding your actual identity.


Corporate tax surcharge on targeted digital ads

Marty: And then here's another one, which is a corporate tax surcharge on targeted digital ads - limitations on the viral multiplication of tweets. So, everybody has a right to post something, but they do not have a right to have that amplified again and again and again virally in newsfeeds. Right? So we're going to need better content moderation as well. So when you put all of these things together, you can start to see a new world where there's a little less polarization, a little less trolling, a lot more accountability.


Ending big tech exemptions in the Communications Decency Act

Marty: And then of course the big one, and you'll know this extremely well, Kenn, is the Communications Decency Act, right? So, there is right now this huge arbitrage where somehow a few companies are deemed not to be publishers and not to have any accountability at all for what's carried on their platforms. And we could ask, did we get the result we wanted with that huge exemption? Or would we want to limit it in some ways?


Watch the full fireside chat here:

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