We’re two and a half years into Donald Trump’s presidency, and one thing is clear: his administration keeps getting absolutely railroaded in tech policy fights.
Unlike Barack Obama, whose administration’s oversight of the tech industry was marked by general coziness and a revolving door of industry players, Trump has been far more aggressive with the tech industry, weighing in on everything from Twitter’s algorithm to cryptocurrency regulation. But almost every time, his efforts have resulted in weak enforcement changes, whipsaw policy confusion among free-market conservatives, and / or outright losses. Take the three biggest policy fights so far:
- The Trump Federal Trade Commission found that Facebook routinely and flagrantly violated a 2011 consent decree in which Facebook agreed to do better at privacy, paid a fine, and agreed to regular audits of its privacy controls. After lengthy negotiations, the FTC realized that it didn’t have the resources to go to court, so it negotiated a settlement that amounts to… a fine and regular audits of Facebook privacy controls. It is an embarrassing joke.
- The Trump Justice Department again raised objections to the T-Mobile / Sprint merger but again ran into conflict with the Trump Federal Communications Commission, which pushed hard to make the deal happen. In order to preserve a market with four national competitors, the DOJ set up a trade in which Sprint and T-Mobile will transfer assets and spectrum to Dish Network so that Dish can become a national wireless carrier. Dish, which does not have any expertise in operating a network, is not under any obligation to actually build that fourth national network, so competition will definitely go down to three networks for several years while Dish figures out what the hell it’s doing.
- The Trump DOJ — almost certainly at the direction of Trump himself, which is itself a problem — tried to block the AT&T / Time Warner merger. Because the Trump FCC is strongly anti-net neutrality, the Trump DOJ was not able to argue that AT&T would do the obvious bad thing and prioritize Time Warner content over other content, thus raising the effective price of streaming Fox News over Warner’s CNN, and it lost in a deeply stupid decision.
None of those are good outcomes, and those are just the big three. But there are more:
- The Trump FCC has utterly failed to do anything about cell carriers selling user location data to data brokers, instead trying to pass the responsibility to Democratic commissioners and stalling a real investigation.
- The Trump FCC also failed to do anything meaningful about robocalls, instead passing a rule clarification that mostly means carriers like AT&T can charge extra for true robocall-blocking services.
- Trump cited national security concerns to impose severe commercial restrictions against Huawei during the trade war, but that appears to have been a tactic in the trade war against China, and he’s offered to loosen them in recent weeks. But negotiating with national security risks is a bad idea, and Congress may prevent Trump from walking the restrictions back.
- Trump lost in court and is no longer allowed to block people from his Twitter account.
- The Trump battle against perceived social media bias against conservatives has not led to any meaningful policy changes, but it has caused a major split among conservatives about whether to heavily regulate platform companies.
You might agree with some of these outcomes, or you might disagree. (I think imposing heavy new speech regulations on private platform companies is a bad idea, but I know lots of people who disagree!) But the pattern is abundantly clear: Trump enters tech policy fights with inconsistent policy positions, doesn’t quite have the legal horsepower or agency resources to muscle through the consequences, and then backs down in a way that rarely improves or even changes the outcome for consumers or citizens.
Just ask yourself, honestly: is this Facebook fine really going to change anything about how Facebook works? Is Dish Network really going to become a viable fourth national wireless carrier after all of these spectrum transfer machinations? Do you know if Huawei should be banned from working with US tech companies or not? Do you think AT&T and Verizon are really going to get better about selling your data all over the place?
There are a lot of reasons why Trump keeps attacking tech and media companies — some of them are political, some of them are policy-oriented, and some of them are clearly, deeply personal. But whatever the motivations, it’s time that these companies faced meaningful oversight and checks on their power. They are a new class of gatekeepers with unprecedented power over American life, and it’s important to hold them accountable.
But so far, Trump hasn’t been able to do it.