Amid the growing regulatory spotlight on the biggest names in Silicon Valley ー federal investigations, state probes, record-breaking fines ー there is a name that is conspicuously absent on the target list. It happens to the biggest technology company ー in fact, one of the biggest publicly traded companies ー in the world.
Brad Smith, Microsoft's president and chief legal officer, joined the company just as it was taking on the wrath of the federal government back in the late 1990s. That's when the software behemoth was in the midst of one of the biggest antitrust lawsuits in history over its dominance of the PC market with Windows and Internet Explorer. Microsoft ($MSFT) was ordered to be broken up before an appeals court overturned the decision, and the company ended up settling with the U.S. government.
The imbroglio offers lessons for today's tech leaders, Smith told Cheddar on Tuesday. "We learned a lot from our day in the hot seat, which lasted many years," he said. The biggest lesson: "you have to adapt."
Adaptation is a crux of Smith's new book, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and Peril of the Digital Age, which he co-authored with Carol Anne Brown. Smith said that Microsoft has learned to take a longer view of its mission and business model that sometimes eschews short-term profits for the long-term "sustainability" of the company and the industry it leads. And it's why Smith continues to practically beg the federal government to legislate policies regarding cutting-edge technology, such as facial recognition.
It was last summer, in the heat of the furor over the Trump administration's child-separation policy at the border, that Smith authored a blog post calling for the government to regulate facial-recognition technology, so that companies like Microsoft didn't have to make the call themselves on when it was appropriate. (Microsoft at the time had a contract with ICE that stipulated the agency might use its facial-recognition software, for which it received sustained criticism.)
Smith repeated that position to Cheddar: "We need a stronger role for government," he said. "Governments need to move faster."
Noting the title of his book, Smith said that technology can be "both a tool and a weapon," and it falls on lawmakers to put rules in place, especially when it comes to issues like automation and A.I. that have the potential to revolutionize so many aspects of our regular lives.
But Smith said it isn't necessarily those concerns that keep him up at night ー it's the way technology is already being weaponized through cyberattacks, data breaches, vote-hacking, and disinformation campaigns that he says require government to step up.
"We are literally seeing cyberspace as this new plane of warfare," he said. And while it falls on the government to draw up the new rules of the game, Big Tech also needs to have a "sense of responsibility" that it's working to solve real problems and not just, as the saying goes, moving fast and breaking things.