Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy from "Anchorman"
Photo: Adam Pantozzi/NHLI via Getty Image

'Anchorman' and antitrust: I went to right-wing DC’s showdown over tech

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! I firmly believe you can’t understand Washington unless you know that the people who feud on TV often go for drinks afterward. That’s also the key to a debate I went to last night between conservatives whose whole job seems to be tweeting that other conservatives are wrong about tech. I’ve got a download on the matchup, plus: Musk goes after the SEC again, what Nick Clegg’s new job title really means, and why you do have a slight chance of surviving the vibe shift.

Getting the web right

Last night I went to the maskless, invite-only, Capitol Hill showdown between conservatives over just how hard to punch Big Tech. As sharp-elbowed policy gurus debated, I was struck by their hope that decentralization can mend the rift in their movement — and how eagerly they name-dropped Peter Thiel without much mention of Donald Trump.

It’s no secret the fight between conservative intellectuals over tech has gotten nasty. The debate, hosted by Lincoln Network — a DC/Valley connector sampling various flavors of the right — aimed to make the two factions face each other.

  • On one (dwindling) side are libertarians and laissez-faire leaners in the W. Bush mold who want the government to stay away from successful American businesses; on the other, a Trump-allied movement that is trying to punish companies that limit the reach of conservative speech.
  • Moderator Nathan Leamer, a former Ajit Pai adviser, joked the event would go down like the fight scene from “Anchorman.”
  • And yes, there were accusations of attempted canceling, warnings about giving power to the “woke” Warren/Khan Democrats and a tiff about that time one side targeted a panelist from the other with a public-records lawsuit.

Really, though, no one was there to defend tech as it exists today. The panelists instead seemed to hope a disruptive Web3 future that is exciting utopianists would mean another morning in America, at least in the right’s relationship to tech.

  • Decentralization, after all, sounds like what Rachel Bovard, a tech-slamming panelist, described as the core conservative skepticism “of power centers wherever they exist.”
  • “The big problem is that the big platforms have taken a centralized approach to content moderation,” said libertarian stalwart Neil Chilson, a former FTC official. “They should be distributing decision-making down.”
  • “We’ll just create this new thing where, like, it just turns out that Google doesn’t matter anymore,” said author and former Facebook ads product manager Antonio García Martínez.
  • García Martínez also said there’s an attitude among engineers “propping up Web 2.0 companies” that “we’ve been talking about Amazon and Facebook and Google way too long. It’s time to just blow up the bridge that’s underneath them.”

There was also lots of love for Peter Thiel, who is increasingly becoming the Trump right’s new mega-donor and kingmaker.

  • García Martínez rhapsodized about Thiel as the “soul of tech,” alongside Marc Andreessen and Patrick Collison.
  • Leamer said Thiel was someone “thinking about building things.”
  • Thiel mostly keeps from saying much about policy, or anything else, in public, but he has described himself as “sort of a pro-crypto, pro-bitcoin maximalist.”

Of course, it’s easy to get together on buzzwords about the future before they’ve been fully defined.

  • After all, Chilson’s vision of self-moderating Meta communities is less a blockchain revolution and more what Reddit is already doing.
  • And lawmakers, regulators and the Thiel-funded wannabes that the panelists might someday work for won’t be too happy when Web3 means less consumer protection and no ability to delete horrific content.

Maybe none of the panelists changed their minds, but they still finished off with that peculiarly Washington way of handling someone who might have sued you: drinks, snacks and networking. Someone even suggested karaoke. I guess the future looks a lot like the past.

— Ben Brody (email | twitter)

In Washington

Elon Musk’s lawyers accused the SEC of “harassing” their client. The agency recently subpoenaed information about Musk’s compliance with a 2018 settlement over his social media use. Meanwhile, Musk took down a tweet comparing Hitler to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Veteran prosecutor Eun Young Choi will serve as the first director of a Justice Department team taking on crypto-related crimes. Choi will head up the National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team, which the DOJ has said will focus on "combating misuse of cryptocurrency" marketplaces and other systems people use to "launder or hide their criminal proceeds.”

Bobby Kotick has been giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican political candidates through opaque companies, according to CNBC. A spokesman said the Activision Blizzard CEO had given equal amounts to both parties in recent years.

The FTC is eying a rule on deceptive earnings claims by gig companies and others. The agency said it wants “to challenge bogus money-making claims used to lure consumers, workers, and prospective entrepreneurs into risky business ventures that often turn into dead-end debt traps.”

Progressives have set up a “war room” to counter Big Tech messages on antitrust. Fight Corporate Monopolies announced its new project would combat the “campaign to undermine antitrust leaders” by tech and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

A trio of Democratic lawmakers urged the FTC to protect kids in virtual reality. “Many VR platforms and headsets currently do not have basic parental controls, and reports point to harms such as harassment and unsafe content in the metaverse,” Sen. Ed Markey and Reps. Kathy Castor and Lori Trahan wrote in a letter.

Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján tweeted he’d “return to the Senate floor soon.” While he’s been recovering from a stroke, nominees for tech regulatory posts at the FTC and FCC who don’t appear to have any Republican support have been stuck in limbo.

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On Protocol

Nick Clegg’s new title at Meta is really about Mark Zuckerberg’s need to focus on the products he hopes will ensure the company’s future. And Sheryl Sandberg is scrambling to make certain that whatever else the metaverse is, it’s profitable. The angriest lawmakers still probably won’t settle for a meeting with Clegg over a hearing with Zuck, though.

Would you let artificial intelligence make data-use choices for you? Such a system could be one (problematic) type of “data intermediary.” These systems aim to help people deal with the massive invisible data collection that’ll be a fact of life in the IoT/augmented/metaverse future.

Major crypto companies want to comply with “know-your-customer” requirements while still leaving users in control of their personal information. The Verite system comes as the crypto industry tries to get right with established financial services regulations.

In the media, culture, and metaverse

Andrew Yang appears to have started a Web3 lobbying group called Lobby3. It aims to “eradicate poverty” and “educate DC” on the concept’s potential.

Trump’s social media app is officially in beta tests ahead of a planned March launch, according to Reuters.

In data

100 billion: That’s the number of photos Clearview AI is projecting it’ll have in its database within a year, according to The Washington Post. The controversial facial-recognition company is touting it’ll be able to identify “almost everyone in the world.”

Decentralized culture

The coming “vibe shift,” as The Cut put it, may be less social media outrage and more Substack-y, blog-ish, do-your-own things. As a geriatric millennial writing a newsletter, that sounds surprisingly alright.

Thanks for reading! We’re off Monday — see you Wednesday!

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