Microsoft’s Brad Smith on holding big tech to account

“Snowden and Cambridge Analytica are the two big tech inflection points this decade,” says the company president as he publishes his first book.

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In December 2013, a select group of Silicon Valley leaders visited the White House. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Microsoft’s Brad Smith were among former president Barack Obama’s guests. But this wasn’t a celebration of the tech industry; the executives were there because two of the companies – Google and Microsoft – were suing the United States government.

Edward Snowden’s revelations, published five months earlier, had sent a shockwave through the industry. The former National Security Agency contractor’s cache of top secret documents revealed that the US had been spying on users of the world’s biggest tech platforms. The scale of the surveillance was unprecedented, and the industry was meeting with Obama to push for change. But as the conversation in the Roosevelt Room unfolded, the president issued a warning to his guests. He noted that the US government had much less data than the companies they represented. “I have a suspicion,” he said, “that the guns will turn.” Nearly five years later, they have.

Last March it emerged that Cambridge Analytica, a British consultancy firm that worked on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, had acquired the data of tens of millions of Facebook users from a university researcher, in order to combine psychological profiling with political advertising.

According to Brad Smith, the president and chief legal officer of Microsoft – who recounts his meeting at the White House in a recently published book – the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Snowden revelations represent “the two big technology inflection points in this decade”.

Sitting in a clinically minimalist boardroom above Microsoft’s Oxford Circus store, Smith refuses to be drawn on whether he now thinks Snowden is a hero or a traitor. “In the eyes of some,” Smith writes in the book, “he was both.” He is less equivocal, however, about the executives behind Cambridge Analytica. “No one’s going to argue that Cambridge Analytica was good or that the people who ran it were heroes of our time,” he says. “But in a sense [it] did a service of finally grabbing people’s attention and causing government officials and legislators to focus more on privacy issues, in the United States in particular.… I think the real question in both [cases] is what the world does with what it learned.”

In recent years Smith has become one of the technology industry’s most high-profile commentators. He has criticised his company’s rivals for their use of data, called for new laws governing facial recognition, and laid the groundwork for a “Digital Geneva Convention” to set the parameters of cyber warfare. Tools and Weapons: The Promise and The Peril of the Digital Age – his first book – is a treatise on the modern technology industry’s most pressing challenges.

As Smith’s publishers prepared to go to print over the summer, a number of US politicians and agencies were paving the way for antitrust investigations into Silicon Valley’s biggest companies. Microsoft, with years of antitrust battles under its belt, was exempt.

Smith was hired by Bill Gates to be Microsoft’s general counsel in 2002 and spent a decade and a half fighting the antitrust fight. In an interview with the Washington Post in September, the veteran lawyer admitted that Microsoft “made more than [its] share of mistakes in the antitrust era, and I was personally responsible for almost all of them, to some degree.” But today, some 17 years after Smith joined the company, Microsoft’s reputation has been reformed. With a trillion dollar market cap, at the time of writing it is the world’s most valuable company.

With the antitrust era behind him, Smith is broadening his focus to the industry as a whole and wants to solve one of its biggest challenges: the use of data. In Tools and Weapons, he and his co-writer, Microsoft communications director Carol Ann Browne, call for a new model for data sharing in the wake of the Snowden revelations and Cambridge Analytica scandal. It transfers the concentration of data from a small number of tech companies to shared trusts that are accessible to a network of organisations. “We need to do for data what open source did for code,” he says. “It might be economically sensible for [car manufacturers] to federate certain aspects of their data because the alternative would be just to rely on the data moving to a single tech company.… [Manufacturers] that federate data are much more likely to retain the economic value for themselves and that’s going to lead to a healthier automobile sector.”

Proposing a model which increases data sharing might seem a counterintuitive way to respond to a string of privacy scandals. But advocates of data trusts argue that they increase competition, giving users and customers greater choice if an organisation fails to take their privacy seriously.

While Smith is a vocal champion of data trusts, he acknowledges that any plan to democratise access to data will inevitably pose its own security risks. “If data is federated and accessible by more than one organisation, the cyber security challenges of recent years take on an added dimension,” he writes.

The book calls for developers to use tools that protect privacy and de-identify personal data. Smith compares companies’ current thirst for data to the gold rush. Two groups, he notes, made money in that era: “[There were] the people who found the gold and the people who produced the tools for the gold miners.” Microsoft, says Smith, is “in the business of providing tools so that there can be gold-miners”. With a smile, he adds: “Turn every automobile company into the miner of its own gold and do that in every sector of the economy.”

In Tools and Weapons, Smith warns that if we continue along the current path, tech companies in the US and China will accumulate ever more data and power. In a future increasingly shaped by artificial intelligence, some commentators have speculated that these two countries’ technological supremacy will present a major threat not just to other nations’ security, but also their sovereignty.

Since Satya Nadella took over as chief executive of Microsoft five years ago, the company has shifted its focus from desktop software to cloud computing. Smith’s vision plays to Microsoft’s current strengths and may hurt rivals which are more dependent on advertising revenues. But Smith makes a plea for policymakers and business leaders to assess his ideas on their merits. “Let’s not go to the ad-hominem attack until we first think about the idea because maybe it’s a good one,” he says. “The second thing I would say is Microsoft is a very diversified technology company. It is true that advertising is a relatively small part of our business; it is also true that we have a digital advertising business of some real significance.” Microsoft owns the professional social network LinkedIn, which, as Smith notes, has more users than Twitter. Its search engine, Bing, is also funded by advertising.

In Smith’s vision, governments play two key roles. “If they do a better job of making data available publicly, then they start to level the playing field, because smaller players can combine their own data with publicly available data,” he says.

The second role may prove less popular among Microsoft’s competitors. “The government can even decide that it doesn’t want to see the public data aggregated in a manner that would facilitate the use for behavioural targeting and the like,” he warns. “The government has a powerful role to play in encouraging economic competition. That is one form of regulation – so will all of this work? Will we need more regulation? I think it’s too early to say.” It’s not the only ask Smith has of politicians. In 2017, during a keynote speech at a security conference in San Francisco, he called for a new treaty for cyber warfare. It would build on existing international laws and set out the rules for what is and isn’t acceptable online. The agreement was backed by the French President Emmanuel Macron and 51 countries, but there were notable absences on the list of signatories, including the US, China, Russia, India and Brazil.

On why the US refused to sign up, Smith says: “It has come at a time when we have an administration that is less enthusiastic about multilateralism. I think that remains the challenge today. We remain hopeful that there will come a day in the future when the US government will sign.” But Smith is encouraged by the United Nations’ decision to take up the cause. “If what we do,” he says, “leads others to work harder and move faster but use a different name, that’s going to be fine.”

Oscar Williams is editor of the New Statesman's sister site NSTech.