Annual Tech Policy Conference Reflections and Outcomes

Dear Silicon Flatirons Friends and Supporters,

Earlier this month, Silicon Flatirons hosted our annual technology policy conference, this year entitled Internet Platforms’ Rising Dominance, Evolving Governance. More than 200 people filled Wittemyer Courtroom to hear from speakers discussing a range of issues involving internet platforms. Highlights are below and video recordings of each session are available.

Phil Weiser, Silicon Flatirons Founder and Executive Fellow, called the conference to order for the first time as Colorado Attorney General, a position he assumed last month. Neville R. Ray, Chief Technology Officer at T-Mobile USA, provided the opening keynote. He shared how he believes 5G will be a significantly transformative platform.

Blake Reid moderated the first panel, which held varying views on how we should think about and define platforms. The conversation then evolved into the advantages and disadvantages of centralization of networks and how, in its infancy, the internet played a key role in decentralizing systems but now has shifted to a phase of centralizing with dominant platforms and increased market power.

In his keynote, Commissioner Rohit Chopra of the Federal Trade Commission emphasized three threats and challenges to technology: fair economic competition, civil rights, and democracy. He argued that the U.S. must consider how to structure laws to account for digital biases and hold platforms accountable for the decisions made by their algorithms.

The next panel’s task was to put the conference’s conversations into perspective. Historian Patty Limerick drew parallels between the late 19th century and today’s platform environment and identified the need to assess how states and the federal government interact while emphasizing the need to learn from the past. The following panel discussing economics and transparency, including parallels and differences between the US and European approaches to regulating privacy in the information economy. Panelists discussed the role of transparency as both a regulatory tool to promote competition and incentive for companies to adopt more consumer benefiting practices.

The final panel of the first day began with a presentation analyzing the polarization of trust that the public had in institutional actors including government, employers, and the media, which informed a discussion on how to provide the best oversight to encourage or require the adoption of best practices or corporate governance to safeguard technological advancement and public interest simultaneously. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields platforms from liability for user generated content, was front and center to this discussion. Section 230 has widely been credited for enabling the growth of internet platforms in the U.S. The panelists encouraged taking steps toward greater responsibility for platforms while balancing incentives for both producers and consumers to change their behavior.

In a rousing closing for the day, four professors and experts debated whether privacy law and policy should focus on economic harms. In an (unscientific) poll, audience members believed economic harm should not be the only focus of privacy initiatives; however, some admitted to being swayed after the debate.

The second day of the conference included two panels, one exploring the idea of user control and autonomy in the platform economy where data is currency, and the other unpacking antitrust concerns with mergers and acquisitions and where competition policy should be focused. How much control—potentially at the expense of a seamless experience—do users really want? The panelists did not agree on one answer, but all agreed there was a tension between users’ desire for control, platforms exerting control through moderation and data gathering practices, and the role of government in determining how much affirmative control is necessary to bestow in users to protect their interests.

In a closing keynote, Makan Delrahim, Assistant Attorney General, Antitrust Division, U.S. Department of Justice, discussed the specific challenges that concern antitrust enforcement in the era of platforms and digital economies. Delrahim stressed that good antitrust enforcement never involves punishing bigness for the sake of bigness. He cautioned against focusing antitrust on the abuse of market dominance, not the mere fact of dominance itself, and suggested that competition should be assessed in price and non-price elements.

We are grateful for our speakers who shared their time and insights with us. The papers that the presenters discussed will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Colorado Technology Law Journal.

– Silicon Flatirons

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