Jul 19, 2019

Obama predicted the techlash

Illustration: Axios Visuals

In December 2013, President Obama was meeting with a group of tech leaders, each urging the government to limit its increasingly widespread digital surveillance activities.

What happened: Obama, while addressing concerns, also made the prescient suggestion that the tech industry might want to prepare for questions of its own about the gathering and use of data. "I have a suspicion the guns will turn," Obama said, according to one of the participants, Microsoft president and longtime attorney Brad Smith.

  • The anecdote is just one of the fascinating stories recounted in Smith's forthcoming book "Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age." Axios got an exclusive early look at the book, which comes out in September and is co-written with Carol Ann Browne.

Smith offers insight and context around nearly every big issue facing tech, from consumer privacy and cybersecurity to artificial intelligence and the digital arms race with China. The overarching point is that all technologies have their good and bad uses and both need to be more fully understood.

"Even a broom can be used to sweep the floor or hit someone over the head. The more powerful the tool, the greater the benefit or damage it can cause."
— Brad Smith, in "Tools and Weapons"

Of note: Many of the ideas in "Tools and Weapons" have been voiced before, often by Smith himself. It's the human stories that make it a compelling read.

  • For example, Smith traces the origins of California's new, strict privacy law to a dinner party in which Alastair Mactaggart, a Bay Area real estate developer, finds himself unsatisfied with answers about how Google and other tech companies dealt with customer information. As a result, he created the first draft of the bill that eventually became a pioneering law.
  • Smith also tells of Max Schrems, a University of Vienna law student visiting Santa Clara University, who got irritated by a tech company lawyer's dismissiveness about the company's obligations under European privacy law. That led him to file a complaint with European regulators that went all the way to the European Court of Justice, which concluded that existing international agreements were inadequate to protect EU customers' data.
  • There are also some behind-the-scenes revelations on some of the key cybersecurity issues of the last decade, including the reaction within Microsoft to Edward Snowden's accusation of tech-company complicity with the U.S. government — and how an impromptu frank discussion with Obama allowed Google and Microsoft to settle their issues over not being able to tell businesses when they were being targeted by secret court warrants.

My thought bubble: That Smith has smart things to say is hardly a surprise. That he has compelling stories to tell is more unexpected, as the career lawyer is known more for his prudence than his storytelling.

  • Smith tells me storytelling was an essential ingredient, as the goal was to write a book that would appeal not only to tech workers, academics and regulators, but also to a wider audience.
  • "If there was a single goal for the book it was to make all of these issues more accessible to people," Smith says.
  • Smith adds the most gratifying feedback has been people saying the book was "way more fun to read" than they thought it would be.

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