John Carlin: From CAFE, welcome to Cyber Space. I’m your host, John Carlin. Every other Friday, I explore issues at the intersection of tech, law and policy with guests who’ve made an impact in the world of cybersecurity. My guest this week is Kara Swisher. She’s the editor-at-large of Recode, the host of the Recode Decode Podcast and the newly launched Sway Podcast from the New York Times, where she is also a contributing opinion writer. As one of the Silicon Valley’s most respected journalists, she’s seen it all, from the dawn of the information superhighway to the dot com bubble to the current tech landscape dominated by a handful of companies that possess both an ever expanding amount of power and an ever growing amount of our personal information.
Great to have you joining us today. I’ll admit when I was early in this space and still in law schools when I read your book on AOL, which seems like a little bit of time ago.
Kara Swisher: Yeah, yeah, I forget. I haven’t read it, but I’m about to write another book. I don’t like writing books, but I wrote two actually. One was about the beginnings of AOL. The other was many years later when they bought Time Warner and then the debacle happened. So, there was a sequel.
John Carlin: Read them both. Actually, I may have done in reverse order. With the sequel, I’m curious, in the beginning, it was the story of how Steve Case triumphed over Microsoft. By the sequel, not so much.
Kara Swisher: Well, he triumphed. I don’t think Time Warner did. He owns half of Hawaii and he’s one of the wealthiest investors. So, all of them are.
John Carlin: He’s done pretty good.
Kara Swisher: So, they triumph just fine. One guy is in the book, Myer Berlow was like making pots up in Vermont or something like that. Ted Leonsis owns 26 sports teams here in DC or whatever he owns several in. They’re all doing just fine. So, they did just fine.
John Carlin: If you were to predict, any predictions now over who’s going to be AOL in a couple of years?
Kara Swisher: All of them, every single one of them. There’s not one company that’s going to escape the fate of AOL. Now, they shot themselves in the foot quite a lot. So, they were out front for a long time and actually pioneered a lot of things that we’re using today. I mean, I think Facebook I suppose is sort of the direct descendant of AOL. It’s a similar kind of idea. Eventually, we won’t be using Facebook.
John Carlin: Any time limit on that prediction?
Kara Swisher: No, I think that what’s happened is this sort of a winner-takes-all situation. Sort of AOL led the way and paved the road for something like Facebook to come along. Also, by the way, Amazon and Google and others, it had all those elements in it. It just had too many elements. So, or WhatsApp, AOL had all these things. So, there’s expression, the planes are covered with the bodies of pioneers, but it doesn’t mean California is not great and people didn’t get out there. Eventually, some people made it and created great fortunes.
So, no matter what’s happening in California right now, which is tragic, the fires. It’s typical of the tech industry and any industry that you have cycles of hegemony and then you lose them. Microsoft is a good example, still a very successful company, one of the most valuable companies in the world, but sort of had hegemony over everybody and then didn’t. Now, is still a very strong company, but not the one that everyone is terrified of. So, these things change or morph.
John Carlin: As you know better than anyone, big techs really changed almost every aspect of our lives right now. What’s your view as someone who’s covered this space, met most of these folks in person? Are the best and brightest in Silicon Valley paying enough attention to protect us against the threats posed by cyber?
Kara Swisher: No, you know I don’t think that. I don’t think they’re protecting us from anything. They sort of have created, which I call, a constant purge. We live in the city where the purge is taking place. The rest of us sort of wander around getting shot out or shooting at people. There’s no government protecting us. So, they own this city, this internet city essentially. So, not all of them. One of the things that’s hard to discern is there’s no such thing as big tech. They’re all very different from each other, right?
Apple is not Facebook is not Microsoft is not Google. They all have different elements that we kind of tend to lump them together. Some are worse than others. It depends on the company what they’re doing. But the fact of the matter is they have unlimited access as a group to every person on the planet with these devices that jacked into everybody’s personal data and systems. So, it creates a situation where there’s nothing but cybersecurity problems. And then it allows malevolent governments or just any government access to people in ways that are unprecedented compared to before.
John Carlin: You said that some are good, some are bad. Name a couple. Who do you think are at the top of the list that are good?
Kara Swisher: Bad is probably a loose term, but there’s some that are careless. Look, Facebook, I think we can all agree, is the most careless of all these companies. I think there’s been copious examples, whether it’s allowing anti-vaxxers to run rampant or just recently, a whistleblower this week talked about how she was making determinations in countries, cutting off different leaders who are trying to abuse the Facebook system or not. So, she was essentially a dictator of every country, which is crazy. When you think about it, some person in Palo Alto deciding the fate of certain countries.
So, there’s some that are sloppy and have sloppy systems that are in place or didn’t understand the repercussions of how important their communication systems they put in place would be. There are others that are less used but are still very powerful like Google or YouTube who are trying really hard to rein in the bad impulses of humanity and the abuse. But still, nonetheless, the platforms are built that way in order to propagate propaganda or hack into systems or just use these services as they were built.
A lot of times we worry a lot about hacking as we should, but at the same time, some of them are just being used as they’re built. So, a lot of these malevolent acts, these people who do them are customers of these companies and just happen to use the systems in ways that are advantageous to whatever they’re trying to do.
John Carlin: No, that’s a great point to kind of divvy them up into two categories. Those that hack and use a product in a way that’s against the interest of those that designed it versus they’re using it as designed and we just didn’t think of the nefarious use ahead of time. One of the key issues, when I was a governor we were reaching out, we had an active program against the former. In other words, against…
Kara Swisher: The hacking.
John Carlin: The hacking.
Kara Swisher: Sure.
John Carlin: And then with the growth of the Islamic State in particular and the way in which they were good at using social media to gain recruits, we started an outreach. It was post-Snowden. It didn’t go well in the beginning, to put it mildly.
Kara Swisher: Didn’t go well how? Tell me.
John Carlin: In other words, in the beginning, when we were having the discussions, there was a lot of skepticism about what government agencies were saying the terrorists were doing with the products, and a lot of disbelief, saying, “My product can never be used this way. You’re just wrong.”
Kara Swisher: Well, now look, in that case, there’s a lot of things. There’s recruiting going on, which you really can’t do anything about. Can you stop it? Can you block it, or things like that? That’s just advertising, right? I hate to say it that way, but that’s what it is, trying to pull people in through videos or marketing.
John Carlin: Well, you say can’t do anything. I mean, there are rules and regs like you don’t have them advertising on NBC.
Kara Swisher: You got the companies to limit their advertising. That’s what it is, recruiting is advertising. So, yes, you can do that. That’s sort of explicit, right? That’s the explicit stuff they’re doing, whether they’re putting up videos that attract young men typically. I think some women were pulled into it. That’s explicit what’s happening. You can certainly see that, find it and try to eradicate it, right? That’s one thing.
And then there’s the ways of using the communication systems to communicate with each other to commit nefarious acts. That’s a whole another thing. That has to do with encryption and fighting that issue, which I think is a tough one, as you know from the fight with Apple and the FBI or WhatsApp and encryption. There’s all kinds of things that make it very difficult to fight this ability of these people, these players to use these systems to hide their activity.
John Carlin: So, what do you think in terms of where’s the relationship now with government and some of the key tech players? It’s obviously been a change of administration on the one hand, but on the other hand, there’s also a lot more awareness.
Kara Swisher: I don’t think it matters what administration’s there. It continues. You know what I mean? The spying continues no matter who’s in place. Look, under President Obama, there was all kinds of stuff going on, and same thing with George Bush. That sort of operates separate from… Although Donald Trump is attacking the spy complex, but really, is he affecting it? Who knows? Right? I’m sure it keeps going on whoever’s in office. It’s the question of how much control we have over that. Obviously, I think the major moment of course was… Well, two moments. One was the creation of the internet by spy agencies, really the Defense Department, not spies necessarily, but it was a communication system. People understood its implications, all kinds of implications.
I think the last thing people understood was its commercial implications, which is where it’s become so powerful and made so many people so wealthy, but it was designed as a government communications tool. So, just the existence of it within DARPA was the beginning of all this, right? So, then you move to different eras of using all these different tools, whether they be surveillance tools or cameras or tapping into things or whatever. You get to Edward Snowden, which I think was the great moment of… I did a pretty long interview with him just recently, where you get to this moment where he reveals just how much the government was using these information systems and tapping into them.
I think that was a really problematic moment for the relationship between tech and the US government. I think it came at a terrible time, because there’s a lot that these companies need to do to cooperate with government to fend off things like Russian election interference or Iranian grid problems. There’s all kinds of things that the tech companies do need to be in touch and in good relationships with the government.
Right now, of all things, TikTok. I don’t think they’re the biggest threat to our democracy, but okay, there’s more important things they need to cooperate on. But I do think the Edward Snowden thing really did put a wrench in that relationship in terms of these companies were cooperating with the government. They didn’t realize the extent the government was still going around them in secret ways and manipulating their businesses.
John Carlin: Do you think it was genuine outrage and surprise and feel of distrust?
Kara Swisher: Some of them. Yes, I think they knew they were there, but I think in a lot of ways, a lot of them were surprised by the extent of it, the tapping into the systems without their knowledge. I don’t know why they were surprised. I agree with you. It’s like, “Are you kidding? Of course, the government spies as much. If it gets spy stuff, they’re going to spy.” But I think yes, I think there was sort of an indignation. We were willing to go through systems, but not go around us in the way that you did that we didn’t have knowledge, because a lot of their businesses across the world globally are based on trust on some level. That the spies aren’t going to be in there necessarily, unless we know about them.
Yeah, I do think there was a real cut. And then they didn’t have the kind of relationship they needed to have as the Russians started to step up their election interference, as the Chinese moved in, the Iranians. All kinds of other players started to do different things, ranging from pure hacking to a much more effective way to affect things, which is misinformation and disinformation which are separate things.
John Carlin: It was ironic in a way for a little while. So, somehow, we managed to lose a war of words and values with Putin’s Russia over what’s safer. You see them take advantage of it. So, this lack of trust post-Snowden and into that void, Russia, China, lesser extent, Iran, North Korea.
Kara Swisher: Well, Russia is a criminal government, let’s be honest. Come on, it’s always, has been for a long time. So, here’s the thing. They lose the Cold War as they should, because their country is inadequate compared to the United States on every level and lose it rather significantly. But here they have these tools that aren’t quite as expensive as having tanks and missiles and weapon systems and Star Wars, whatever it is, and here they can hit again. So, the tools they’re using are inexpensive and effective, which is to create discord here, to create problems, to break NATO. They don’t need a million tanks on the border. They need disinformation. Well, they have a president who says bad things about NATO, but to spread sort of information and get support for those ideas.
So, they lost the Cold War, but they’re winning the information war, which is where you can operate in the shadows. You can do in real shadows, right? So, we have not done enough to understand that is the goal is to create… I think people know it now but is to create discord and questioning of whether it’s institutions or flood the zone with all kinds of weird content that is easily shared. I mean, these systems are perfect for propaganda in a way that’s hard to ferret out and hard to stop once it’s out.
John Carlin: Just taking back, you said Russia’s winning the information war. Do you think that’s true today or was true?
Kara Swisher: Yes, I do. I don’t think we have control of this, every day. It’s not just Russia. It’s everyone who has a point of view like the anti-vaxxers, right? I just had some people from the Oxford Internet Institute and others on talking about what the disinformation meme is going on now. A lot of them have to do with if you take the… So, here’s a good example. You take the flu vaccine, the regular flu vaccine, and you’ll get COVID. Of course, you won’t. You need to take the flu vaccine, right? So, they’re trying to sort of get this idea that you shouldn’t be taking any vaccines. So, that’s just vaccines.
And then there’s the QAnon people. In its face, if you sat down with someone and said, “There’s a cabal of Democratic politicians that are trying to create a child sex ring,” people will be like, “What?” You know what I mean, but it creates this idea of information that gets around and that’s a whole another thing. And then there’s the Chinese that are very active in terms of trying to say that they aren’t at fault for this, for COVID-19. And then you have the Russians trying to create all kinds of content that’s confusing around Antifa and all kinds of stuff. It could go in so many different directions. So, as long as you’re willing to make a mess, you win in this environment.
John Carlin: You mentioned in passing the TikTok. It’s an example currently of there was a move towards what we would call on government the all-tools approach, which was the idea that you should look at each legal lever that you can pull from a department or agency to try to change behavior. In some ways, TikTok is a novel application of law to try to change behavior. In other ways, it seems like the communications around it have been a bit of a mess in terms of what it’s trying to stop or not stop. But you were saying just in passing there that you think it’s the wrong thing for them to be focusing on.
Kara Swisher: Look, across the globe, China is asserting itself technologically across the globe, whether it’s 5G, whether it’s drones, whether it’s robotics, whether it’s AI. Here we are arguing about TikTok, fine. Listen, I sounded the alarm about the Chinese threat a long time ago. I don’t think I agree with Donald Trump because I don’t think he knows what he’s saying. So, I think it’s just his latest, “Today, I think I’ll talk about The 1619 Project from the New York Times as being the biggest threat to American civilization,” or that we aren’t saying enough good things about America or that Mount Rushmore, whatever he’s saying that he just picked upon this. Okay, now it’s TikTok.
So, that’s why this communication has been so bad, because there’s no actual policy idea around here, which is that the Chinese government has enormous power via lots of things. Here is the first real product that has really broken through in this country, which is aside from the Chinese ownership, it’s a great product, right? People love it.
John Carlin: Actually, let’s spend a moment because our users differ. Just explain TikTok.
Kara Swisher: TikTok, it’s not social media. It’s more media than social. It uses an algorithm. People put up all kinds of videos. Right now, the tie-dying is big on it or they do dances or songs or all kinds of stuff. It’s so clever.
John Carlin: My daughter by the way has been… I have not let her download TikTok.
Kara Swisher: Yeah, I have a burner phone. I wrote a whole story about how I have a burner phone because I love TikTok. I use public WiFi and a burner. I never use a Google phone. Google phone on a public WiFi and I sit there for hours, because it’s so good. It is, it just is. It’s good. So, it’s really an enjoyable entertainment. When you say social media, emphasis on media, because it’s not because your friends. You’re getting an algorithm of things you like. It’s a little more like Amazon. You buy seaweed snacks, and you get this, right? It’s more like that, or Netflix, more like that kind of recommendation engine. But it’s a magical recommendation engine, it really truly is.
Try it if you’re an adult, then use a burner phone like I do, because it’s wonderful. It’s really wonderful. So, it’s a great product. It’s broken through. There are issues around, “Well, now this company…” There’s no proof they have stolen data and brought it back to the Chinese government, but you don’t need proof in the Trump administration, right? You just say it and then it’s so. So, there’s no actual proof, but there is potential, like a lot of things that they could do that.
John Carlin: Should there have to be proof or is it sufficient that you have a regime that’s been as you’ve said…
Kara Swisher: It’s China, John. You’re not going to find out if the Chinese government is spying, but what would they do with it? Well, I don’t know, maybe location, maybe whatever. It should be a concern, let’s just say. That’s one, that’s access. The other is, “Could there be backdoors into these phones?” Possibly. But then again, all our phones are made in China. So, maybe that’s a concern we should look at, right? So that’s possibly a bigger concern. And then, of course, the issue around propaganda and influences that you keep certain things out. You don’t allow certain things on there. You can use the subtle means of entertainment to propagandize things in ways you don’t understand.
So, there’s all kinds of concerns that it’s a Chinese-owned company, and it is so popular in the US. So, therefore, we should look at it, but the kind of attention that they give to it compared to what they should be paying attention to is just… Because it’s a hot button issue, so it’s on the very top of superficial when there’s real issues with dealing with China militarily, all kinds of things with Huawei and 5G and robotics. With drones, top company is a Chinese company. 5G, top company is a Chinese company. AI, starting to really get real good at it, really strong in it. Commerce-
John Carlin: Yeah. I want to turn to that. A couple thoughts, actually, it’s linked with all those other areas as well. But this just is a good one to use as an example, I think, which is, what do you think about US companies searching for commercial opportunities, like Oracle’s recent announcement that it would try to serve? What do you think of Oracle versus Microsoft? What role should US companies be playing?
Kara Swisher: Well, Microsoft wanted to take over the company and move it here and get it out of China. That would be the only way to fix this, right? That’s the way. You move it out of China, out of Chinese ownership. Of course, the Chinese, they hit back. What a shock that they would, because the Trump administration can’t anticipate anything besides the front of their nose, that Chinese cut it off. Well, you can take it out of China, but you can’t have the algorithm. Well, like I said in the column, it’s like selling a car without the engine. Okay, that’s not worth anything when you have to do that. By the way, Chinese keep us out of there quite a lot. This is a retaliation to that. It’s appalling.
John Carlin: That’s an important point, right? So, for a long time, it was a one-way street.
Kara Swisher: Well, not much, because not much got in here, not much got successful. This is the first really successful consumer product from China, not much got in here, not much worked. I mean, US companies dominated the usage by US users.
John Carlin: So, you think that’s why it was accepted for a period of time?
Kara Swisher: Yeah, because it’s good too. So, I think that they came in with a great product, and that’s what it is. So, Microsoft wanted to buy it. That would have separated. It’s a very difficult technological challenge when I understand. I’m not an expert in the area, but from what I talked to Microsoft engineers and stuff. So, it would have forked it essentially, fork the code and cleaned it up and created new code, I guess, and then brought it here. What’s happening in this deal? I don’t understand. It’s now still owned by China. So, therefore, China might back down on the algorithm, but they’re going to have a US board of directors and a US control of it, but that doesn’t solve the problem. I don’t know or watching it carefully.
So, I was like, “Is Oracle the babysitter of data? Is that the mall cop of memes?” They’re ill equipped to do that. They’re not a consumer company. They’re very good on cloud, I guess protecting users data from going places or getting in the phone, I guess. It doesn’t solve the problem that Trump really loudly said he wanted to solve, which of course as is all things, it’s all just all hat, no cattle. Okay, China’s the threat. None of this solves the problem.
I think, oddly enough, I happen to be on the same side as Josh Holley and Marco Rubio, which is not a side I’m off and on. So, this doesn’t solve the problem of this. By the way, TikTok isn’t really the problem. It’s other things. We need to have a major policy thing about how we deal with Chinese influence on our technology. That is a valuable and important thing to talk about given they are our most potent rival. They’re our only rival.
John Carlin: Well, let’s talk about how to do that. You’ve talked about in terms of the mall cop of memes and a way to stop it. What about one way to stop to try to combat China would be the biggest player in this space and the kind of Facebook? You’ve dubbed it the Xi or me.
Kara Swisher: Yeah, so Facebook should have no competitors. First of all, TikTok is the first real competitor of Facebook. That’s really getting traction. So, we don’t want to make Facebook stronger. They’ve all extolled their power rather handily. So, we want to create an innovative environment. So, there’s all kinds of things that grow up. That’s another issue. That’s a separate issue, but we don’t want to help Facebook get bigger. That’s not the answer to this by any stretch of the imagination, because they’ve proven themselves to be irresponsible.
John Carlin: Because we had interviewed someone from Facebook. They were saying essentially that there’s an advantage to scale when it comes to setting policies around-
Kara Swisher: Sure.
John Carlin: … particularly what’s said-
Kara Swisher: Well, they wouldn’t say that.
John Carlin: … on social media. I think you called it the Xi or me referring the leader of China.
Kara Swisher: I don’t want either of them. I don’t want Xi, but I don’t want him. Is that my choice? If that’s my only choice, I got to say, I’m torn, I guess. I guess Mark Zuckerberg, but yeah.
John Carlin: You raised this earlier as we were starting off though, because how do you square that though with your sense that scale doesn’t matter?
Kara Swisher: Innovation matters, scale doesn’t matter. Innovation matters. Of course, we’ve got to have a federal government that helps our tech companies fight what our nation states. We are asking technology companies to fight nation states. That’s a hard… We’ve got to have good cooperation with our government to pass election security laws to help these companies with these struggles. I mean, I remember talking someone at Google, it’s like, “We’re fighting China, not the government.” What? Nobody elected them by the way. So, what? So, I think that we have to have better use of our government resources to help our technology companies in that regard, and at the same time, not have to say, “They all need to be big in order to beat them.”
I don’t want a big Facebook fighting China. I want our government fighting China. You know what I mean? Nobody elected Mark Zuckerberg as I recall. I did not vote for him. So, I don’t want him to be president of our internet. I don’t want any president of the internet. So, the way we have beat other countries in the past is through innovation, not top down, but bottom up. So, the fact that we have three or four really big tech companies that are in the way of innovation, and they are. As much as I love Amazon and I think it’s a really innovative company, very few companies are going to be able to pass it, because it’s so good, right? Sort of it has all the scale.
Same thing with Facebook and social media, same thing with Google. I like the people around Google, but they’re a lot better. They’re it. They’re it in search. What I always think about is, “When’s the last time there was a new company in search?” Never. It’s Google. That’s it. That’s what we got. Social media, Snapchat, until Tiktok, Snapchat. By the way, Facebook has done everything it can to kill Snapchat and steal its ideas and everything else. So, that’s the last one.
In commerce, Walmart can’t keep up with Amazon. Walmart has to go to a Canadian company to keep up with Amazon, right? So that’s what I’m saying. You need innovation so that new companies can displace as you talked about who’s going to not exist. Someone has to come up to displace them in every one of these areas or at least give them a run for their money. They should not be allowed to operate, so that these companies can’t exist.
John Carlin: Let’s move for a second on that to 5G, which you’ve mentioned a couple of times. So, there are a lot of tools. You’re seeing that the government, what’s below the level of the president, in a pretty organized way trying to use the tools to make it difficult to deploy Huawei inside the United States. Why don’t you explain for a sec, what 5G is and why we’re concerned about it?
And then we could talk a little bit about the fact that right now, we’ve been using more of a stick approach. So, there’s a Chinese player, Huawei. They’re trying to sell a service. We’ve been using diplomacy, regulation to make that harder. But that doesn’t, to your point, incentivize other players to come up with a technology that’s better. There’s a reason why people want to use Huawei, but first, would you spend a minute and just explain 5G and Huawei?
Kara Swisher: Our government used to be partners to this kind of thing. The government created the internet for goodness’ sake. You know what I mean? The government created the internet, and therefore, we should have a government that helps our technology. Just like the same thing with infrastructure, which is very intimately related to say autonomous vehicles. We do need an infrastructure, but I’m waiting for Infrastructure Week to happen. What are we, three years in now with this administration?
John Carlin: And counting and counting.
Kara Swisher: Infrastructure Week? Yes, this week. We have to have a government that is as involved as they were in creating the internet. We have to have a government that helps, whether it’s through research, whether it’s through grants, whether it’s through all the kinds… Trust me, China’s doing that., so is India, so is everybody, but us. So, we have really fallen down and then we’ve left it to these big companies to be the innovators. That’s super hard.
John Carlin: Do you think in this space there should be industrial policy? Essentially, we’ve identified a technology, we need, and we should… Yeah.
Kara Swisher: Well, there was. There was with major universities. How we got here is how we should stay here. You think the internet just happened? No, it didn’t. It was by major universities. It was with cooperation. It’s with research money. Right now, there’s not a lot of money, because we have to deal with recovering from COVID. So, there’s not going to be investments.
But I can tell you, China’s making investments every day. They’re pumping out and then there’s a link through the educational systems. They’re pumping out so many amazing minds. Well, are we doing that? No. That’s the kind of thing. We’re keeping the immigrants out. What? I mean the immigration policy is insane from every perspective, including the abuse of the poorest among us, by the way, but think about all the people that used to come here and create companies, the head of Microsoft, immigrant, Elon Musk, immigrant, Sundar Pichai, immigrant, Sergey Brin, immigrant. Come on.
John Carlin: So, you’re saying, “We got a playbook. We’ve used it before. Let’s go back to it.”
Kara Swisher: That’s how we won, and it works every time. It works, because unlike China, unlike Russia, we are a bottom-up democratic system, even though it feels really strained right now. We are a democratic system. We will always prevail by diversity, openness, tolerance, open to ideas, helped by government, but not government planning, right? We don’t want the government to plan things, because that’s not where ideas come from.
John Carlin: Well, let me pause it because you’ve spent so much time in the Valley interviewing folks. Now you’ve moved back to Washington, D.C., presumably because the weather is so much better here.
Kara Swisher: No, my kids are here. I wish I was in San Francisco. Despite all the terrible things that are happening there, I love San Francisco. I miss it.
John Carlin: Yeah, man, I thought I was going to have the first person saying positive things about living in Washington, D.C.
Kara Swisher: It’s fine. It’s fine. I feel my mind getting less and less innovative as I’m here, but that’s okay.
John Carlin: Well, that’s exactly what I wanted to push on, because you’re saying, “We want the government to play more of a role. If we’re going to win, we need the government to help back universities, help back research.” But there are many people would say, “That’s the kiss of death. As soon as you want to stop innovation, have the government come to help.”
Kara Swisher: Not run things, facilitate, fund, facilitate, encourage, states, not just federal government.
John Carlin: Well, what’s two things they should be doing now? How could they help facilitate it?
Kara Swisher: I mean, look at the mess of the CDC. That used to be the golden example of innovation by government, and then it slowed everywhere. Now, it’s just a place where the Trump administration rewrites the press releases without science background. I mean, come on, we have all kinds of institutions, whether it’s the NIH. We have so many institutions.
John Carlin: You should create one for cyber essentially.
Kara Swisher: Yeah, well, I think there should be one, but there is the NSA. We have all kinds of stuff like that, but-
John Carlin: Well, the NSA does have a different mission, right? It would be odd if the NSA was… The National Security Agency just by name alone, there are probably a lot of program giving grants.
Kara Swisher: Right, but there’s all kinds of really innovative people within those industries. Also, there’s a facilitation element to it. The Pell Grants, by the way, helped our country much more than the money it was spent. It was like de minimis the money we spent with the benefit we got. Good immigration policies, not just bringing in… Look, the thing that Trump is pushing is, “Let’s bring in the smart people.” We’ve always brought in the smart people, but we have to bring in everyone because we don’t know who the smart people could be, right? There’s a little girl on the border that has the answer to cancer or whatever. I don’t know.
That’s the idea is doing it in a way that that facilitates the most openness we can in order to bet on innovation and the best people coming here to do whatever. It’s not just innovation in tech. It’s innovation in everything. We want people here to think that our doors are open for innovative people to come here and create all kinds of things. It’s a basic concept. And then there is the government helping universities and other research institutions create things. All the best of our things have come from…
The space travel, right now, it’s privatized, whether it’s Elon or Jeff Bezos or whoever. NASA gave us so much innovation in terms of this kind of thing. Now it’s being privatized, much like the internet was. So, there’s always a way to complain about government and not doing it right. They do the $2,000 screwdriver or whatever, but it is also a place that can foster and facilitate and encourage innovation of the private sector.
That private-public relationship is such an important one. This sort of pilfering of the government or saying that it’s a deep state or whatever, it does not take an account by how much the government has helped and how much it could help if it does what it does best, which is fund, facilitate and get out of the way of the innovation of the American people. I mean, that broadly, the American people, not just people from America.
John Carlin: So, fund, facilitate and get out of the way. But let’s move a little bit to what you’re talking about before, which is there are powerful companies right now that are huge. Another authority of the government is breaking them up. You could fund, facilitate, get out of the way, but then you look at the market, if it gets too big, break it up. Should you break up the so-called FANG, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google, Netflix?
Kara Swisher: Netflix? No. You shouldn’t break up Netflix. No, that’s not doing anything. There’s tons of competition for Netflix. Trust me. Now, Amazon-
John Carlin: So, which companies should be broken up?
Kara Swisher: I think we have to think about what antitrust is, right? We need to do that first. We haven’t thought that since the Sherman Antitrust Act, which back from a century ago, right? So, let’s start there. Same thing with the Section 230. Let’s start rethinking. It doesn’t mean we have to get rid of it. That’s of course what a lot of people… I’m like, “No, we have to really rethink it for the modern age.” So that’s for the first place is to start thinking about something called policy, which we don’t do as much anymore, policies.
John Carlin: One of the things that I think you’re particularly good at is, and this was an issue talked about before, but it’s translating geek. In terms of policy, there are people in Congress who are supposed to write laws. Do you think they understand the technology and the space?
Kara Swisher: Yes. They managed to regulate Wall Street. I don’t think they’re all financiers. They managed to regulate cars. I don’t think they’re engineers. They managed to regulate planes. Planes don’t fall out of the sky that much, a little bit more than they should, but they don’t that much. You know what I mean? They’re capable of doing this. There are a lot of experts all throughout the government. Yes, yes. I don’t buy that argument that they’re dumb and that we should let private industry do everything, because it’s not in the interest of private industry to do everything, right? Because it’s in their interest to make money, right?
So, government isn’t there to make money. It’s there to facilitate and help its citizens at its very best. So, antitrust, here’s a good example. Should Amazon have a marketplace and also sell things that compete with the marketplace and have unnecessary advantage? Everyone says no, no. It shouldn’t make batteries and then suddenly Duracell is screwed if it doesn’t sell on Amazon, if Amazon’s the only platform. You need to look at that. I mean, anyone who understands that. Should Google have 90 some percent of a search market? And then also, all of a sudden go into recommendations and beating up on Yelp or whoever.
Should Apple have an app store where it decides what the prices are with the only other app store is the Google App Store? So, it’s a duopoly. No, right? I don’t know what the solution for each of those problems are. The same thing with Facebook. The stuff they’re uncovering in this House committees… It’s David Cicilline’s committee. What they’re uncovering is talking about neutralizing competitors, of land grabs and things like that. No, that’s unfair advantage. I think that’s where government can step in.
I think our problem is we always say, “Oh, we should break them up.” That’s not the only solution. Sometimes there needs to be breakup. Sometimes there needs to be fines. That’s a good way to do it. Look, Facebook was fined for doing what it always does. It always continues to violate advertising and privacy thing constantly since its beginning. So, we warned them first, and then we really warned them. And then we warned them again, and they signed a consent decree. And then they broke it again. So, what do we fine them? Five billion dollars. I think Mark Zuckerberg has that in his drawer at home, right? That’s nothing to this corporation. Fine them 50.
John Carlin: So, does that mean bigger? It’s not that fines don’t work, it just needs to be bigger.
Kara Swisher: Yes, fine them 50. They’ll pick their heads up if we say 50. And then take that 50 and fund the FTC. Give it to the FTC for more investigators and watchdogs. Not too many, but enough to watch them. They’re only 300 people there for the whole country. Facebook has 300 PR people in Washington alone, I’m sure, right? So, come on. How many hundreds and hundreds of lawyers they have? So, that’s another, fines. Antitrust, applied correctly, fines, regulations that exists that we’re enforcing finally, creating new regulations under something-
John Carlin: Yeah, because you’ve raised two issues. There’s the antitrust and the too big. And then second, you’re also bringing up privacy. You’ve written before, we shouldn’t be paranoid about privacy.
Kara Swisher: So, have regulations, have thoughtful regulations, where we talk to these companies, we talk to citizens, we talk to all the interested parties. Create again policy around it, smart policy. It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s certainly better than nothing, which is what we have now. So, that’s policy. That’s regulations that exist and are enforced, and regulations that we can create like a national privacy bill. By the way, fund the government institutions that that are in charge of this. Give them adequate funding so that they do it.
The FTC is woefully underfunded. The FEC is completely underfunded. Come on. Government is too big, but some parts of government aren’t too big, especially when they’re trying to monitor. Create new laws around hacking. There’s all kinds of things you could do. Correct ads, ads that are deceptive, transparency, things like that.
And then two more things. One, the media, which has been pretty tough on tech companies. They have a job to do, which is monitoring and keeping them honest, that kind of thing, doing that and doing their job. There’s been some amazing reporting by all kinds of people, whether it’s on content moderators, whether it’s on Qanon. Kevin Roose from New York Times does an amazing job showing what a right-wing platform Facebook has become, especially when the right-wing says they aren’t being heard. That’s a whole lot of bullshit.
John Carlin: I was fascinated by that. Let me just pause on that for a second. You cover a lot quickly, which why it’s great having you on. Were you convinced by the reporting that right now Facebook is really more of a tool for the right-wing?
Kara Swisher: Oh, yeah. Come on. Facebook has its own device that they’ve used. Unfortunately, I bought this device that shows exactly what’s happening on stuff. The top 10 stories are all virulently right wing, very right wing. It’s like Breitbart, Breitbart, Ben, whatever his name is, Shapiro, and then it goes down. And then you finally get to The New York Times somewhere.
John Carlin: Is that a feature or flaw? Does that reflect the marketplace of ideas and those ideas won?
Kara Swisher: No, I think it’s the way they design it. No, I don’t know. I don’t know. But I’m just saying the argument that their voices aren’t getting out there. They never shut up. My impression is I never stopped hearing from them. So, if they’re being somehow censored, I don’t see it. I wish I didn’t have to hear him that much, but I can turn that off myself. I can self-sensor. I don’t want the government to do that. What I do want Facebook and Twitter to do is to do their rules. If people break the rules, to do something about it, not getting wrapped around the First Amendment axle. They’re not the government. If they have rules and people break them, I want them to enforce the rules. I think that’s a very normal thing to ask for.
John Carlin: Do you think some are doing better job than others?
Kara Swisher: Twitter’s started, but here we are in the year of our Lord 2020 and they’re finally putting, “This is a lie. This is tweet is lie.” Oh, well, thank you for that finally. And then of course Trump had Vesuvius-like eruption for being called out on what was an obvious lie or a deception. Why does he get to walk down Fifth Avenue and shoot people? He doesn’t.
John Carlin: If we have a new president after the election, how would you advise President Biden on policy? What are top three ideas they should push on?
Kara Swisher: I want everyone to take a frigging pause. Look, President Trump has showed the uses of something like Twitter. To really think thoughtfully about what are the most important list of things we need to do and bring in great minds. Bring in people that drive Silicon Valley crazy like Elizabeth Warren. Mark Zuckerberg called her Facebook’s existential threat. Can you believe that? She was the existential threat to Facebook. I thought climate change would be on the top of his list, death? Elizabeth Warren, are you kidding me? Really? Just because she’s saying, “Hey, this is a little bit sketchy.” They’re scared because she’s so smart.
John Carlin: She’s talked specifically, Senator Warren, about legislation that would require large platforms to be designated as platform utilities.
Kara Swisher: Yeah, she’s just trying to scare him. She’s scaring him. She’s Teddy Roosevelt. She’s scaring him. She will do something about it if she gets some power, certainly.
John Carlin: By the way, she’s the specific example you did about batteries and Duracell.
Kara Swisher: Yeah, but I don’t want to protect Duracell necessarily, but it shouldn’t be that Bezos admitted and the thing that maybe some of the information got over to the other side. Maybe the wall leaked somehow, the wall between the information that the selling site gets to the seller site. Of course, it leaked. Go search, go do that. I dare you to do a search on Amazon to buy like a brand. The minute you do that, knockoff, cheaper version comes up?
John Carlin: No, it’s true. I’ll confess, I usually end up buying it.
Kara Swisher: The minute. Yes, because it’s much cheaper. You want to have an argument by brand. That’s fine. You’re right, brands cost too much kind of thing, but certain brands don’t. But that’s a different thing. So, in any case, their argument is they’re not the only platform. Okay, but right now, retail has been decimated by COVID. So, they’re essentially have gotten bigger and more powerful through this COVID crisis. But the last thing I want to talk about is the responsibility of citizenry to really stop being such patsies and being so ignorant. Because guess what? You have a responsibility not to pass on shitty information. You have a responsibility to question the information that’s coming through. You have the information not to be so ridiculously dumb.
You have a responsibility as a citizen of the United States of America not to pass on bad information, not to create fear. Just the way you’re supposed to wear masks, like come on. This is not what Patrick Henry died for. This is not. You can’t be homicidal and suicidal at the same time to your fellow citizens. You have a responsibility as a citizen to not fall prey to this. Even though, I have to say it’s super hard because it’s addictive and it’s confusing. You’re being hit with a flood of misinformation and disinformation. That is really hard in this society to deal with. It’s not like a billboard that you pass on the street. This is constant and exhausting, but you still can do a better job as citizens. That’s my feeling.
Not that you should have to do it on your own, because the chips are stacked against you in this particular fight, but there is a certain amount of basic intelligence that you have to bring to bear that every citizen should have. Let me give you an example. A friend of mine, and I’ve used this before, lived in Indiana, lives in D.C. now. There’s a Facebook group for this town in Indiana. During these protests, all of a sudden, this small town in Indiana was saying, “Antifa is coming here in buses, and they’re going to wreck our downtown.” Right? It’s not true. I’ve read it. Here’s some links. This was all Russia propaganda that they were passing on, all of it. It was made to look like it wasn’t, but it was. They’re going to come in our town, they’re going to do this.
My friend was like, “Let me just try to stop you all. They’re not coming. There’s no caravan buses of antifa coming into your town. Nobody wants to come to this town. Everybody wants to leave this town. So, I don’t understand why you think they want to come and do this one particular small town in Indiana and wreck its downtown. They don’t. There’s nothing happening. Stop passing on this information.” And then when it didn’t happen and they’re like, “Get guns. Put boards up,” all kinds of craziness. This is an analog situation.
By the way, it’s worse in other countries where actual killings happen. You know what I mean? People take physical action based on bad information online. When it didn’t happen, when the busload of antifa didn’t show up, which they don’t for the most part, “There’s no busload of them. It’s just not happening.” George Soros is not funding busloads of antifa to go around and wreck downtowns-
John Carlin: In Indiana.
Kara Swisher: … in Indiana. It’s not happening, people in Indiana. You can relax. When it didn’t happen, she was like on there, “See? It didn’t happen.” They’re like, “Oh, but we stopped it.” It’s like, “What?” So, the second lie took place. They couldn’t just say, “We’re stupid. Boy were we fooled.” They couldn’t just say, “We’re a dumb group of people from Indiana that got fooled by stupid internet memes.” They couldn’t just do that. Come on. At some point, stop being a big giant baby and have a responsibility as an adult to know when you made a mistake.
John Carlin: Given your voice on tech, do you think you’re reaching the right audiences? So, how do you reach that town to explain to them, because look, it is a little crazy, right? That you look at a device or you read content on it. It looks like it’s coming from a fellow citizen, it’s well produced, it’s slick. Your first thought isn’t, “Oh, this is a Russian troll farm.” That almost seems like science fiction except it’s happening all the time now.
Kara Swisher: There’s also addiction elements to it. It becomes addictive. So, what you have to understand is that it’s systemic and what’s the deal you’re making for the information you’re getting. This is how I’ve started to think about it, I’m thinking about writing a combat this. I’ve used this example before of a meat market, whatever. But when you go on a plane, you don’t expect it to fall out of the sky, right? You have a trust that there are government people that are making sure that most of these things are safe. Boeing gotten a big trouble over it, it’s that kind of stuff, because of reporting, by the way. You have a trust in the meat you buy from the meat market. It’s not going to kill you, because you have a feeling that this is being taken care of.
Now, sometimes it’s not, by the way, but you have a responsibility then to press your elected officials to make sure that they are watching. You have a responsibility is all I’m saying. Even though it’s really hard and it’s systemic, you also have a responsibility to understand what trade you’re making. When you get a free map or you get a dating app or you get whatever, you’re giving up enormous amounts of your data to do that. So, you’re like, “I like it. No one’s following me.” That’s the kind of thing I always get. “No one’s following me. I have nothing to hide.” Well, it doesn’t matter if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t be followed. You should know.
So, we did it to one person where we followed them and showed them how much information we had on them. Once they realize they have nothing to hide, it doesn’t really matter if they have nothing to hide. They shouldn’t have to hide anything, right? They should have the knowledge that people are not using their data to make money. What I always point out is you’ve gotten a free map or dating service or whatever. They’ve got billions, the richest people on the planet in the history of the planet. Their companies are the most powerful, unaccountable companies in the history of the planet, but you got a dating app and you got a map. Do you think that’s a good trade? Are you a patsy or what? That’s what I always say. I’m like, “You’re dumb.”
John Carlin: It’s kind of interesting. You’re comparing it to regulation of food in terms of the meat industry, the airline industry. Last guest was a former colleague of mine from the National Security Agency who explicitly said, “We should be treating cyber the way we do airlines.”
Kara Swisher: Why not?
John Carlin: Yes. You’re saying on the one hand, people need to take responsibility, but that responsibility might be calling for government action.
Kara Swisher: That’s right. Just don’t sit there looking at your frigging phone. I don’t like people who say, “Oh, you’re the product.” I don’t think that’s it at all. I don’t think you’re the product, but I do think that it is designed to pull you in. It is designed to enraged you. You need to start demanding that our government at least start to point out to your friends and family like his is not here to help you. It is here to facilitate more capitalism, and in terrible cases, to facilitate really malevolent actions by other countries who do not like us.
The Russians are not our friends. I don’t know what to say to you. Why is there a push back on investigating Russian? Why is there a denial of it? They don’t like us, they are not our friends. They never were, right? Now we can get along with them. We can have all kinds of relationships with all kinds of countries. The Chinese aren’t our friends, right? Some people in this country aren’t our friends, and they want to manipulate us. So, you have to be much more aware of this system being able to manipulate you.
Sometimes it’s designed to be irresistible. You have every right to understand they’re trying to addict you and enrage you, and it’s built that way. Sometimes it’s built that way to sell you toilet paper. Sometimes it’s built that way to get you to make a political action that is not based in fact. Sometimes it’s designed to give you bad health information. But in the end, you are the victim of that and have some responsibility. I think most responsibility is on government by the way, but you also have a responsibility as an American citizen who’s given the most freedom of most people in this whole world to take responsibility.
John Carlin: Kara Swisher, thank you very much and appreciate that call to action.
Kara Swisher: I’m ranting. You got me on a rant. I’m sorry.
John Carlin: No. Your passion comes through and is why you’re such a successful voice in this space and journalist and really unique in your ability to take these abstract issues and make them real. So, thanks for appearing today.
Kara Swisher: All right, John. Thank you so much. I’ll stop ranting.
John Carlin: Cyber Space is presented by CAFE. Your host is John Carlin. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The Senior Producer is Adam Waller. Senior Audio Producer is David Tatasciore. The CAFE Team is Matthew Billy, Nat Weiner, Sam Ozer-Staton, David Kurlander, Noah Azulai, Jake Kaplan, Calvin Lord, Geoff Isenman, Chris Boylan, Sean Walsh, and Margot Maley. The music is by Brakemaster Cylinder. Today’s episode was brought to you in collaboration with Brooklyn Law School’s BLIP Clinic. Special thanks to Amanda Cadisch, Isabella Augusto, Jordan Khorshad, and Jacqueline Green.