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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The tech industry spent the last two decades connecting the world and getting computers into every home and hand — but that's turning out to have been the easy part. Now, every problem tech companies face is fiendishly hard.

Driving the news: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) unloaded on Facebook Monday:

"Facebook has incredible power to affect elections and our national debate. Mark Zuckerberg is telling employees that he views a Warren administration as an “existential” threat to Facebook. The public deserves to know how Facebook intends to use their influence in this election."
— Sen. Warren, on Twitter

Why it matters: The last time presidential candidates were warning about interference in U.S. elections, the interloper was Russia. Now, it's Facebook — and the entire industry it sits atop.

The big picture: Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple have entered a world where their product innovations and profit margins are beginning to matter less than their ability to navigate treacherous political, social, and ethical rapids.

  • Everywhere you look, far beyond the loudest headlines about hate speech and partisan bias online, tech companies face conflicting imperatives from their customers, governments, stakeholders and critics.

1. Security vs. privacy

  • Americans want tech to make their daily lives safer — but they also want companies to keep their information private.
  • No one in industry or government can easily reconcile those wishes.
  • Smart doorbells can protect homeowners' front yards — but they also invoke dystopian scenarios of 24/7 surveillance on every street.
  • Encrypting text messages protects them from advertisers, scammers and snoops. Law enforcement authorities fear it will also make it harder to stop human trafficking and remove images of children's sexual abuse.
  • Big company efforts to make internet infrastructure more secure can look like monopolistic behavior to critics, as Google is discovering with its advocacy of the DNS-over-HTTPS standard.

2. Promoting freedom abroad vs. regulation at home

  • The Trump administration has begun writing protections for internet companies resembling U.S. law into new trade pacts, including one recently signed with Japan and the pending USMCA deal with Mexico and Canada, the New York Times reports.
  • Meanwhile, the same U.S. law — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms from liability for user-contributed content even when that material is edited or moderated — is under fierce attack in Congress from bipartisan critics, who argue it gives tech firms too much power to squelch speech.

3. The lure of convenience vs. the value of resilience

  • The American public has broadly embraced Amazon's e-commerce model, even as some feel twinges of remorse over the death of local retail.
  • Amazon's near-monopoly means it may have to shoulder more public responsibility and more regulation, and critics want it to stop competing as a seller on its own platform.
  • Meanwhile, the now-dominant software-as-a-service model, which offers economies of scale to suppliers and convenience to consumers, is showing its geopolitical vulnerability: Adobe cut off all its customers in Venezuela this week after the U.S. tightened trade sanctions on that nation.

4. The ideal of transparency vs. the reality of disinformation

  • Facebook has long promised to help solve the "truth decay" problems its service has deepened by providing academic researchers with the data they need to study the issue, but the effort has stalled.
  • That's in part because the company also wants to avoid handing troves of data to third parties who could misuse it — after all, that's where the Cambridge Analytica scandal that kindled its loss of public trust started.

Between the lines: Some experts hold that all these issues are problems for only a subset of the tech industry — namely social media platforms.

  • But it's hard to see how any players will be able to sidestep the flood of dilemmas.
  • Social media platforms only work because they sit on top of the internet itself. That depends on a mountain of hardware and software, including routers, network protocols, databases, server farms, and devices at the end like your phone and laptop, as well as the power that keeps it all running.
  • Our society is tech all the way down.

Our thought bubble: The tech industry still commands such a reserve of money and talent that it might find a path through this maze.

  • Facebook's careful, creative effort to create a "Supreme Court"-like appeals board for content moderation decisions is one promising example.
  • Yes, but: Too often, tech leaders and insiders lack knowledge of history, sociology, psychology, and themselves — and their optimistic self-blindness has often been to blame for the dilemmas they now face.

The bottom line: Policymakers and engineers are both accustomed to making and living with tradeoffs, but someone has to make a final call over where these choices land. The fight now is over who that will be: companies, governments, or the public.

Go deeper

Collins helps contractor before pro-Susan PAC gets donation

Sen. Susan Collins during her reelection campaign. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A PAC backing Sen. Susan Collins in her high-stakes reelection campaign received $150,000 from an entity linked to the wife of a defense contractor whose firm Collins helped land a federal contract, new public records show.

Why it matters: The executive, Martin Kao of Honolulu, leaned heavily on his political connections to boost his business, federal prosecutors say in an ongoing criminal case against him. The donation linked to Kao was veiled until last week.

How cutting GOP corporate cash could backfire

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Companies pulling back on political donations, particularly to members of Congress who voted against certifying President Biden's election win, could inadvertently push Republicans to embrace their party's rightward fringe.

Why it matters: Scores of corporate PACs have paused, scaled back or entirely abandoned their political giving programs. While designed to distance those companies from events that coincided with this month's deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, research suggests the moves could actually empower the far-right.

9 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Kaine, Collins pitch Senate colleagues on censuring Trump

Sen. Tim Kaine speaks with Sen. Susan Collins. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP via Getty Images

Sens. Tim Kaine and Susan Collins are privately pitching their colleagues on a bipartisan resolution censuring former President Trump, three sources familiar with the discussions tell Axios.

Why it matters: Senators are looking for a way to condemn Trump on the record as it becomes increasingly unlikely Democrats will obtain the 17 Republican votes needed to gain a conviction in his second impeachment.