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I don’t buy the argument that government can’t (or doesn’t) understand tech.

I rarely find myself in the position of wanting to defend US senators, especially US senators like Utah Republican fossil Orrin Hatch. However, I am exceedingly tired of snide references like this one to Hatch’s questioning of Mark Zuckerberg in 2018:

I remember where I was in 2018 when Mark Zuckerberg looked up at Orrin Hatch, suppressed a smile, and said, “Senator, we run ads.” The moment, which captured the utter confusion of geriatric lawmakers about how the internet works (Hatch had asked Zuckerberg how Facebook manages to operate without user payments), almost instantly became a meme; it was a rare moment of levity in an otherwise grim hearing about Facebook’s mishandling of user data.

I have heard and read this anecdote a bunch of times from all sorts of tech commentators. We are all supposed to laugh knowingly, suppressing a smile just like Mark Zuckerberg did. Look at these silly old men, befuddled about how the Internet works!1 How can these fools possibly have anything to say about how Silicon Valley tech genius billionaires run their businesses?

I have no idea how much Orrin Hatch personally knows about or understands the operations and revenue models that keep Facebook running. However, I do know that it is not as if Orrin Hatch himself is personally writing the legislation or even the questions that are being directed at Zuckerberg and his ilk. That is why congressional offices have large staff responsible for studying and advising on policy and drafting legislation.

What happened in that hearing back in 2018 is not some dumb old senator getting schooled by brilliant wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg about how technology works. What happened was that Zuckerberg was forced to say out loud in front of cameras and the public that Facebook makes its money by selling ads. Of course, that seems obvious to the tech pundit know-it-alls who write snarky tweets about this stuff but I would bet you money that the vast majority of the US public (and of Facebook users) does not understand that Facebook is an advertising company or all of the weird incentives and gross consequence that flow from that fact.

I would also bet you money that Mark Zuckerberg would prefer that most of his user base remains ignorant of that fact so that his claims about just wanting to connect people together aren’t widely exposed as the hollow, self-serving lies that they are.

There is plenty to be concerned about in terms of government oversight of tech companies. I would suggest that it is mostly down to how these exceptionally deep-pocketed companies are able to influence the political process with cash.

And while there are risks and challenges with having generally gerontocratic legislative bodies, “They are regulating things that they are too old to understand” is not one of them. That narrative—that eighty year-old senators are writing legislation for systems they can’t understand—is part of the broader attempt by the tech and business-owner classes to convince us that government is incapable of doing anything right and that any attempt to regulate business and technology (or to address it by many public means) is foolish and dangerous.

That narrative is bullshit. Everything these assholes have built has been possible because of government regulation and public funding. Now they are trying to extract value from it without accepting any oversight of or responsibility for the consequences.

  1. While Ted Stevens was an obnoxious buffoon for a lot of reasons, he was not really wrong that the internet is a series of tubes. ↩︎

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