Jeopardizing Core U.S. Values: Tristan Harris’s Misguided Regulatory Proposal for the Technology Industry

Carl Szabo
Jan 9 · 7 min read

Sometimes one believes things so intensely that they lose sight of reality. And sometimes one is so certain of their infallibility that they ignore evidence that contradicts those beliefs. Social scientists call this phenomena confirmation bias.

And so it is with Tristan Harris. Testifying before Congress this week, Harris laid out his belief that technology businesses are “leading [us] toward civil war,” “market collapse,” and “near permanent civil disorder.”

Convinced of this belief, Harris used his stage to push proposals that would increase government control over online platforms at the expense of free expression, innovation, and consumer choice

Even if one were to share Harris’ belief of impending economic decline and social disintegration, factual mistakes and contradictions pervade his testimony. Given his billing as an expert, and given his proposal’s threat to American values, his testimony’s weaknesses deserve attention.

Harris’ preferred internet:

In his testimony to Congress, Mr. Harris calls for the government to:

Allow internet users access only to government-approved sites.

Harris suggests that, like the government’s requirement that Americans drive only government-approved cars, the government should permit Americans access only to content on government-approved tech platforms.

Not only would Harris’ idea move the United States away from innovation, but would also invite direct and indirect government control of online expression, violating the First Amendment in the process. This policy would shift the United States from its “permissionless innovation” approach to the Chinese and Russian authoritarian models of internet control.

Require tech businesses to identify their users’ emotional states and turn that data over to the government.

Harris wants to “force quarterly reporting by technology companies on how many users are addicted, depressed, isolated.” How would companies comply with this requirement? Would Amazon need to identify whether shoppers are happy or sad based on what they buy? Would Microsoft need to rummage through emails to decide whether you’re feeling sad or isolated?

Harris then wants the data that companies collect on users’ emotional states to be shared with the government. In an era of increasing privacy concerns, one’s emotional and mental health, to say the very least, is none of the government’s business.

Outlaw entertainment and advertisements.

Harris might even outlaw any ad that involves a picture, large font, or moving images. He wants to outlaw page-turning books, entertaining television shows, and political ads.

He also proposes that Congress “[e]xplore making attention, social, and voting manipulation markets […] illegal.”

Harris previously advocated for a law to mandate our mobile phones be set to black and white by default.

Consider this in practice. An ad asking you to vote for a candidate, or to support a certain cause, would be a form of “voting manipulation.” And a compelling book review would be “attention manipulation.”

Harris’ preferred world, it seems, is one of black-and-white television — or no television at all

Control online speech and content.

In the United States, freedom of speech is so paramount that our First Amendment protects expression of truths and falsehoods from government censorship or punishment.

But Mr. Harris wants the United States to be more like China.

He says, “[i]n China, the use of deep-fake technology without labeling it as such, for any reason, is simply illegal.” This, he advocates, should serve as a roadmap for the United States. Although it may be beneficial to label deep-fake posts as such, having the government require it is a slippery slope to the government deciding which speech is legal and which speech is illegal.

Unlike China’s government, the U.S. government is constitutionally prohibited from deciding what speech Americans share, read, or hear.

Harris ignores lessons from history and economics.

Harris makes clear that he opposes the free-enterprise system as it pertains to the tech industry.

First, he claims that “[i]nstead of operating for the public good [tech businesses] operate to their own benefit.” But this is what all businesses, in all sectors, do.

And the benefit Harris decries? It’s what pays employee salaries, funds innovation, and supports local communities.

Harris also presents a false choice: Either something is for the “public good” or it’s for a company’s “own benefit.” The two are not mutually exclusive. Take the music we listen to on the radio. Those companies make money while providing content we love. Or take cable news stations that provide information while making money for its shareholders from advertisements.

Second, Mr. Harris says that “[t]echnology companies have covertly ‘tilted’ the playing field of our individual and collective attention, beliefs and behavior to their private commercial benefit.” Replace the words “technology companies” with broadcasters, newspapers, or radio stations. That gives a sense of how deeply Harris believes technology companies — and only technology companies — are to blame for perceived social problems.

But Harris’ complaints are not unique; they also arose with the invention of television and radio.

Writing about the new technology radio, “This new invader of the privacy of the home has brought many a disturbing influence in its wake. Parents have become aware of a puzzling change in the behavior patterns of their children. They are bewildered by a host of new problems, and find themselves unprepared, frightened, resentful, helpless. They cannot lock out this intruder because it has gained an invincible hold of their children.” - Azriel L. Eisenberg, writing in the “American Journal of Psychiatry”

That Harris ignores and excludes these other media shows he is targeting tech in order to justify the government “solutions” he prefers.

Third, Harris complains that “[e]xponential hearsay, gossip, ‘BREAKING’ news, and cynical ‘hot take’ commentary generated by the most outrageous voices have become the default information flows that make up how we see reality.”

This all existed before the internet. The explosion of “Breaking News” headlines was led by dedicated cable news channels that had to feed a 24-hour news cycle.

Is Harris suggesting that we outlaw CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, or even C-SPAN?

What has changed, however, is that any American can now share their own news and views. No longer limited to letters-to-the-editor or town halls, Americans can share their views whenever they want and they can reach a broader network of people. Are these the “outrageous voices” Harris wants to silence?

Harris ignores existing federal oversight of the tech industry.

Harris either does not understand or is unaware of the robust level of government oversight tech businesses face. He calls for greater government oversight, but nearly a dozen different federal agencies already regulate tech platforms, who are also subject to thousands of national, state, and local laws.

And of course, if a tech business harms a consumer, that consumer can sue for damages or an injunction, just like when a consumer is harmed by the car, food, or clothing industry.

Harris misconstrues and misapplies existing laws.

At one point in his testimony, Harris suggests that we should apply “stalking” laws to tech businesses. He then misconstrues our stalking laws to state that that they prevent “following the user everywhere, tracking and collecting photos and notes about everything that they are doing.”

Harris pretends not to know that stalking laws require an “intent to kill, injure, harass, intimidate,” or that the stalker place someone in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury.

Harris mistakes correlation for causation.

When looking at the troubling rise of teenage anxiety, Harris sees only one possible cause: tech businesses. He cites the work of NYU sociologist Jonathan Haidt, whom he says has discovered a “link directly to social media” for teenage anxiety.

Harris is once again incorrect. Professor Haidt made clear in his paper that there is a correlation between the increased use of technology and anxiety, but he dismisses the causal connection that Harris wants us to believe exists.

By one estimate nearly 60% of LGBTQ teens used online platforms to connect with their peers.

Because Harris believes so strongly that tech is evil, he ignores contrary evidence — including signs that online platforms have helped at-risk youth find compassion, friends, and support online.

Harris ignores countervailing research.

Harris complains that tech businesses create and spread conspiracies. But he ignores recent studies showing that tech services like YouTube ‘actively discourage’ radicalism.

Data scientist Mark Ledwich and UC Berkeley researcher Anna Zaitsev published a study suggesting that YouTube’s recommendation engine “actively discourages” radicalism.

Because these facts don’t match Harris’ belief, he ignores them in favor of a broad, unsupported claim.

Harris ignores alternatives that respect consumer choice.

Harris expresses a deep concern about technology addiction, and he claims that only government restrictions can remedy it. But this “solution” creates a false choice.

First, it increases the government’s control over online platforms at the expense of free speech and innovation. And second, it ignores the many digital “wellness tools” that give consumers the ability to monitor and restrict their online activity as they see fit.

A one-size-fits-all, government-mandated regulation would ignore that works best for a teenager may be different from what works best for an adult, for example.

Harris often quotes Edward Wilson, a former evolutionary biologist at Harvard, who said the real problem of humanity is that ”We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.”

Harris’ emotional aversion to tech businesses is rooted in fear and contempt. And his proposed solutions would empower “medieval” institutions like the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education to ensure that our godlike technology is not allowed to help humanity.

Psychology Abraham Maslow once said, “it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Harris has in mind a hammer — the government — and so he sees every tech business as a nail.

Harris, and his sympathizers in Congress, frown at the choices made by American consumers. Long gone are the days when only a small, elite media had a voice.

Americans today not only get their news from thousands of media companies online, they also get the news and views of other ordinary Americans.

Let’s encourage our lawmakers to resist the Paleolithic emotions that have apparently afflicted Tristan Harris.

Carl Szabo

Written by

Tech and Privacy Attorney specializing in federal, state, and international legislation and tech issues.



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