Who cares about tech regulation? — Benedict Evans

When I look at the engagement on this website, and in my newsletter, it’s very clear that anything I write about regulation gets the least engagement. This is not just me: I hear much the same from other writers, and from friends at the big newspapers: stories about tech regulation get less traffic. And yet, most of my audience is in tech (I have over a thousand newsletter subscribers with Google email addresses, for example). These are audiences that are interested in lots of other things, from cars to chips to advertising to VR, but the government is coming for you and you don’t care? 

There are some obvious reasons for this – regulation is boring, mostly – but I think one could also suggest that most of the laws and rules that are being discussed simply won’t affect most people in tech very much at all, nor most tech companies. 

At the simplest level, several thousand companies are founded in Silicon Valley alone each year and very few of them are social networks. Not many more are ad-funded. So, two of the biggest areas of the tech backlash, content moderation and privacy, don’t really apply. If you let consumers share files then you need to worry about CSAM, and if you handle user data you need to think about HIPA, GDPR and so on, but these are annoyances and a cost of doing business rather than existential problems, and if you’re building enterprise SaaS DevOps they just don’t cross your mind. 

Equally, there are some consumer businesses where Apple’s App Store policies are an issue, or where its destabilisation of mobile advertising a few years ago was a problem, but these aren’t issues for Databricks or Okta. 

Taking this a step further, not only do a large proportion of tech companies sit outside the main areas of policy concern, but I think one could also at least suggest that most people even inside Meta or Google aren’t really affected by this in their day-to-day jobs either. The EU’s DMA says that messaging apps must be interoperable, and if you work in the iMessage team at Apple this is a big deal, but if you’re working on chips or photos, is it on your radar at all? 

There is regulation, which brings new rules for someone else in your company, or more likely people in other companies, and then there is structural intervention, which means breakups, and that sounds like a bigger deal. Make Instagram a separate company! Spin off YouTube! I’ve written elsewhere that I don’t think this would actually change the competitive landscape that much (or rather, it might make the online ad market more competitive but not create more competitors to Instagram or YouTube). But such moves still seems very unlikely (or at least, a lot would have to change in the USA), they’re years away, and even if they did happen they’d be very narrowly focused on particular parts of particular companies. 

More fundamentally, though, very little of even the most apparently dramatic laws under discussion would actually represent a fundamental change in how tech works and what most people spend their time working on. I often use cars as an analogy for regulating tech, but if Google and Apple are as big as GM and Ford were back in the 1950s, a lot of tech companies are GE, Lockheed Martin or DuPont – they’re all big manufacturing companies, but they’re not all making consumer products, and if you worked at Douglas Aircraft you didn’t spend much time thinking about how GM treated its suppliers. It’s as though we’ve created safety standards and emissions standards for cars, and shouted about it a lot, but they’re still made from steel, in Detroit, and still burn gasoline, and meanwhile you work on gas turbines.

Until, of course, they’re not made in Detroit and they don’t burn gasoline. There are new waves of fundamental, structural change in tech, which today mostly means AI, and those are things that actually do change everything. Then there’s quantum, and LEO satellites, and the complete reconfiguration of the chip industry, and the mass-unbundling of email, Excel and Salesforce into new productivity software. And all of these things might change what tech companies actually do and how people in tech spend their days. That’s what gets engagement. 

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