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LinkedIn CEO says tech regulation risks stifling innovation

Sep 12 2019 22:30
Kurt Wagner

The combative relationship between Silicon Valley and global regulators has been at the centre of attention for much of the past two years. Technology companies like Facebook and Google have drawn ire from lawmakers who say they may be abusing their powers and aren’t doing enough to protect consumers.

LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, has been largely absent from those discussions.

The professional-networking service hasn’t come under the same intense scrutiny around data privacy, election integrity and antitrust as its social media peers have. But the possibility of industrywide regulation would affect LinkedIn just the same - which means Chief Executive Officer Jeff Weiner is thinking about it.

“From a regulatory perspective, the pendulum is swinging,” Weiner said in an interview this week. “Even if the industry were to do greater self-regulation, you’re going to see more regulatory oversight.”

While Weiner is expecting more tech regulation, he is still concerned that any new rules might have “unintended consequences” - a phrase that has been used to characterize the proliferation of misleading and offensive content on Facebook, Google and other online services. The spread of misinformation, for example, is seen as an unintended consequence of using software algorithms to rank the posts that users see in their feeds.

“The unintended consequences work both ways,” Weiner said. “Companies make decisions only with the best of intentions, and there are unintended consequences of those decisions. But from a regulatory perspective, I think it’s the same thing.”

Specifically, Weiner said he worries about potential changes to a legal protection that gives tech companies broad immunity from the content that their users share, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Those protections have been called into question alongside instances of election manipulation and gun violence in America. The argument goes that if Facebook, LinkedIn or other online platforms make money off what people say on their networks, shouldn’t the companies be held accountable for what users post as well?

Section 230 supporters argue that removing this legal protection would force companies to proactively censor user posts, creating an infringement on free speech and potentially curbing open communication. Weiner agrees.

“You could stifle a lot of innovation. You could stifle a lot of openness. You could stifle a lot of the things that create value by virtue of changing these liability rules and laws,” he said of proposed changes to Section 230. “That is just almost a canonical example of where these unintended consequences would really proliferate. The things companies would need to do to ensure that they were protected is going to hurt the way in which people can communicate with one another.”

LinkedIn already has experience doing business in an environment with fewer free speech protections.

Unlike Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube, LinkedIn operates in China, where the company has agreed to follow local content rules that include some censorship from the Chinese government. Weiner says that the decision to enter China ultimately came down to the company’s mission: Creating economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. Playing by China’s rules didn’t infringe on that mission, Weiner said.

“The censorship issue in China is always a painful one,” he said. “It has to be navigated and managed in the context of the broader vision.”

LinkedIn’s parent company is no stranger to regulators, and Weiner said that Microsoft President Brad Smith is not only active in advocating for the larger software company’s agenda, but asks for Weiner’s input on issues that would affect LinkedIn as well.

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