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The real tech regulators

Illustration of a giant finger pointing at a little sad computer
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Media exposés and boycotts from big-name advertisers are doing what government regulators haven't: They're forcing the country's biggest tech companies to change their products, policies and strategies.

  • Why it matters: Despite an onslaught of hearings and statements from Washington, virtually no regulation has actually passed to significantly address privacy practices.
  • The early 2020 conversation includes a call to "break up" big tech — led by Elizabeth Warren's proposal targeting Google, Facebook and Amazon. But the proclamations have yet to be backed up by any concrete action.

Driving the news: Nearly every major tech company (YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, Amazon, etc.) has changed its policies over the past two weeks to address anti-vaccination content that's littered those platforms. Those changes have been made almost entirely in response to media reports uncovering that conspiratorial content.

  • Facebook's privacy pivot announcement last week follows a barrage of bad headlines over the way Facebook treats user data.
  • Facebook's privacy efforts have significantly increased since the Cambridge Analytica data scandal last year. The data misuse, which was made public by media reports, forced Facebook to eventually end relationships with third-party data brokers and improve privacy transparency policies.
  • YouTube, one of Facebook's biggest video rivals, announced a massive change two weeks ago to disable comments on all videos of children under the age of 18. The move came after a damning media story was published by Wired about ways YouTube comments are used as a part of child exploitation rings.

Advertisers from major corporations have continued to boycott big tech firms that aren't doing enough to moderate content and comments.

When it comes to law enforcement, even when authorities do take action against companies that break rules, it's often in response to media reports uncovering the dangerous practices in the first place.

Be smart: These efforts have moved the needle, especially on issues like privacy, but it will take government action to create a culture where consumer privacy and safety is a forethought, not an afterthought.

  • Such transformations have happened around the world, particularly in Europe, where lawmakers have passed sweeping regulations to address some of these concerns, especially around data.

What's next: The biggest platforms, with power bigger than some governments around the world, will continue to be covered with increasing scrutiny by the press.

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