“As an American company, why won’t you agree to help the US government spy on people in other countries?”
An unnamed Trump adviser challenged Microsoft President Brad Smith with that question on a trip to Washington, D.C., as recounted in Smith’s new book, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age.
Smith made sure the Trump adviser knew it wasn’t open for discussion. It was a highly loaded and somewhat ironic question, given the ongoing controversy over allegations that telecom giant Huawei spies on behalf of the Chinese government. But more than that, the exchange was an example of the complex web of ethical, legal and political challenges that companies and governments face as they navigate the increasingly global and interconnected world of technology.
“How can governments regulate a technology that is bigger than themselves?” Smith writes in the book. “This is perhaps the single greatest conundrum confronting technology’s regulatory future. But once you ask the question, one part of the answer becomes clear: Governments will need to work together.”
This call for a new era of cooperation, not just among governments but across the tech industry, is one of the central themes of Tools and Weapons, by Smith and co-author Carol Ann Browne, published Tuesday by Penguin Press. Smith doesn’t suggest that he has all the answers, and he is careful not to single out the Trump administration for criticism. He makes a point, for example, of highlighting Microsoft’s battles with the Obama administration, including its lawsuit over secret government requests for customer data.
However, he is unabashed in calling on industry and government leaders to address critical questions for the future of the world, urging democratic nations to move toward international norms in areas such as artificial intelligence, cyberwarfare, technology-driven espionage, consumer privacy and personal data.
“Some issues may lead to global consensus and some may not,” he concedes. “Many of today’s technology issues involve questions of privacy, free expression, and human rights that lack global support.” However, he writes, the long-term well-being of the world’s democratic societies “requires new collaboration to manage technology and its impact.”
Casual readers who know Microsoft primarily for Windows, Office and maybe Xbox will be surprised by the level of insight Smith brings to some of the biggest issues facing not just the industry but humanity.
The book is written for a mass market, not just tech and policy wonks. It offers a framework for everyday readers to understand and think about the implications of powerful new forms of technology, addressing AI across multiple chapters, for example. It’s full of behind-the-scenes anecdotes, from internal Microsoft meetings to high-level sessions at the Obama and Trump White Houses. It makes ample use of historical references to put modern trends and technologies in context.
‘Minimum viable regulation’
At the same time, the book contains clear messages for tech and government leaders. Smith says tech companies need to embrace smart regulation and think more comprehensively about the impact of their innovations on the world.
Governments, he writes, will also need to act more like tech companies. In particular, he calls on lawmakers and regulators to adopt a popular approach from tech product development, essentially the regulatory version of the “minimum viable product.”
“If governments can adopt limited rules, learn from the experience, and subsequently use this learning to add new regulatory provisions much as companies add new features to products, it could put laws on a path to move faster,” he writes. “To be clear, officials must still consider broad input, remain thoughtful, and be confident that they have the right answers for at least a limited set of important questions. But by bringing some of the cultural norms developed in the tech sector into the regulation of technology itself, governments can do more to catch up with the pace of technological change.”
Speaking on the GeekWire Podcast in advance of the book’s release, Smith said, “It will be fascinating to see how people in government circles react to this concept.”
Smith cited the example of facial recognition technology, which is an area where Microsoft has proposed this approach.
He explained, “It’s really difficult today to say that any of us knows exactly what a broad facial recognition law will need to look like in five years. But our point is, if there were even just a straightforward law that would require companies that want to offer a facial recognition service to make their service available for testing, you would in effect create the Consumer Reports equivalent that would evaluate bias in different services. You would stimulate the market to act in a well-informed way to reward companies that move faster to reduce bias.”
He added, “That is a great example in our minds, at least, of where government could move faster in a more focused way and then learn. Then as it learns, it can add to a regulation in the future.”
But isn’t there a risk that government could move too quickly? After all, a big part of the problem that tech companies have gotten into is that they’re moving fast and breaking things.
“That risk is real, and we acknowledge it,” Smith responded. “Right now the problem of the day is not that governments are too fast, it’s that they’re too slow. It’s not that governments are doing too much; it’s that they’re doing too little. Therefore, what we in the tech sector and in communities more broadly should do is help figure out how to help governments do more, move faster, be thoughtful, strike the right balance rather than just stay home.”
‘Not good for the family business’
Tools and Weapons offers insights into Microsoft’s efforts to navigate this new world.
While the company says it won’t spy on behalf of the US government, it does work in defense of democratic institutions. In one chapter, for example, Smith recounts Microsoft’s behind-the-scenes battles with Russian hackers seeking to disrupt the US elections. He revels in the technical and legal innovations the company’s team developed, but also acknowledges, “It was soon apparent that the Russians were innovating as quickly as we were.”
One of the underlying themes in the book is the natural tension between nationalist movements and the increasingly global economy, led by the tech industry.
In the conclusion to the book, Smith writes that the need for collaboration among democratic nations “makes it even more important to sustain momentum until the day the United States government resumes its longstanding diplomatic role by supporting and providing leadership for these types of multilateral initiatives. There is no mistaking the fact that the world’s democracies are weaker when the United States is standing apart from the rest.”
So how did Smith respond to the Trump adviser’s question about spying on behalf of the US government? He writes, “I pointed out that Trump Hotels had just opened a new property in the Middle East as well as down the street on Pennsylvania Avenue. ‘Are these hotels going to spy on people from other countries who stay there? It doesn’t seem like it would be good for the family business.’ He nodded.”