Tony Blair: Facebook should be regulated 'like utilities'

Oscar Williams-Grut
Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair speaks at the Web Summit, in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Pedro Nunes/Reuters

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair has said big tech companies like Facebook (FB) should be regulated “like utilities.”

“I’m concerned about the power these big tech companies have,” Blair told Yahoo Finance UK. “These are like utilities. I’m not saying they should be nationalised but you’ve got to regulate them like they are public utilities.”

Companies doing business in “utility” markets such as telecoms, water, and electricity face strict rules governing how they can conduct their business to ensure minimum standards and maximum coverage. The reasoning is that every citizen needs at least basic access to these services in order to lead their daily lives.

Blair is not the first to argue that big tech companies like Google (GOOG), Amazon (AMZN), and Facebook should be treated as utilities. In the case of Google, people have been making the argument as far back as 2002. Proponents say the market dominance and power of big tech companies in everything from shopping to politics means they need stricter rules governing their operations.

“They’ve got enormous power and they’ve got to accept that in today’s world that power should be regulated,” Blair said.

The former Labour leader used the recent decision by Facebook not to take down political ads on its platform that feature lies as an example of why new, tougher rules are needed now.

“In my view, it’s absurd that Facebook ends up deciding what is a good political ad and what is a bad political ad,” Blair said. “They’ve got thousands of people who work on what should be allowed online and not online.”

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Blair, who was prime minister of Britain from 1997 to 2007, said there “should be a transatlantic conversation between America and Europe” on regulation.

How to manage the power of big tech companies has become a pressing political concern globally in recent years. US presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has made the breakup of Facebook, Google, and Amazon a key plank of her 2020 election campaign.

Meanwhile, the European Union has introduced regulation governing the handling of citizens’ data and the G20 group of nations are hoping to introduce new taxes globally that would close loopholes exploited by big tech.

Blair said politicians should “think about an intelligent way to regulate”. He highlighted the fact that Facebook “also connects people, it allows businesses and companies to grow.”

Regulation should only be part of the policy response, Blair added, saying politicians around the world need to do more to understand how technology is changing the world.

“Traditional politicians are happy with regulation, they understand regulation,” he said. “They understand some of the privacy questions. So that bit of it, in the end, they will do.

“The thing that worries me is all the things to do with technology that aren’t about regulation — they’re about understanding the way the world’s changing: how AI could be employed and used? What is the next wave of technology and how is it going to affect our business? That’s where the politicians in my view have a lot of catching up to do.”

Blair was speaking to Yahoo Finance UK at Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, one of the biggest technology conferences in the world.

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