On Monday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced he would be stepping down from the company he co-founded more than 15 years ago.
The news came as a shock to both Twitter users and its investors on Wall Street. But in Dorsey’s resignation letter to staff, he showed no surprise, writing that it was “finally time” for him to leave and that he made his decision to step down on his own.
His resignation follows years of growing congressional pressure against social media platforms like Twitter for reasons ranging from content moderation to monopoly power. Lawmakers have drafted bills and held hearings – some in good faith, but perhaps more often in bad faith – aimed at restricting their power. And like every other great tech CEO, Dorsey dutifully testified, even if it’s just an excuse for lawmakers to yell at him for “censoring” them without getting any tangible results.
But that dynamic may finally change under the leadership of Twitter’s new CEO Parag Agrawal, its former chief technology officer, as lawmakers lose a widely recognized figure on which to direct their frustrations. “Hopefully we can get past this headline and CEO moment and move to a place where Congress is crumbling and meaningfully putting in place regulations that will control the industry,” Johnny Mathias, director of Senior campaign deputy at Color Of Change, said in an interview.
Senators like Ted Cruz (R-TX) recorded viral Twitter clips possessing Silicon Valley liberals with Big Tech auditions, and tech hawks like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) made headlines newspapers praising them for “toasting” leaders like Zuckerberg. But meaningful legislation has not gained much momentum. Yet that relationship worked for a Congress focused on fundraising or appearing as tough culture warriors in the fight against censorship.
Dorsey, as the founder and figurehead of Silicon Valley, has become not only the face of his business, but also a replacement for the evils of social media as a whole. Like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, he was a target for complaining about his business issues, rather than a channel for meaningful negotiations.
Dorsey’s departure from Twitter, coming shortly after Bezos left Amazon, apparently marks a new phase of technological skepticism in Washington, a shift from the ‘brilliant founder’ narrative to a more mature critique of these companies as powerful institutions. Without memorable executives like Dorsey or Bezos hanging around for booming, dunk-filled audiences, lawmakers will have more of an incentive to work on the boring stuff: writing policy to change the behavior of these companies.
Some lawmakers are optimistic that the leadership shifts could lead to more fruitful discussions about how to shape the future of the tech industry. “Of course, we haven’t seen tech CEOs resign on Facebook,” Representative Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) told me on Wednesday. “But maybe if that happened, maybe there would be more open-mindedness” to the regulations.
This wave has already caught up with older tech companies. Apple CEO Tim Cook has enlisted the support of President Trump, showing him around the company’s facilities in Austin, Texas. Under Satya Nadella, Microsoft has forged a strong relationship with lawmakers, providing expertise on important legislative issues such as broadband expansion. These measures have not always been popular with employees of these companies, but having an executive more willing to work with political leaders clearly changes the tenor of a company’s relationship with Washington.
Google, meanwhile, has been reckoning with political outrage for more than a decade, mostly in the form of potential violations of antitrust laws. In 2012, the European Union – which generally outperformed the United States in technology regulation – first demanded that Google change the way it promotes its own products over those of its competitors in retail stores. search results. Being forced into politics from the start likely influenced Google’s decisions to overtake its founders and put in place a CEO like Sundar Pichai, who largely avoided turning the company into a point of departure. flash of political controversy.
“Google didn’t create the same kind of headlines for their founders’ statements because Pichai is just the CEO,” Johnny Mathias, deputy senior campaign manager at Color Of Change, said in an interview Monday. “Facebook chose to have a much more public strategy on their decision making. And Google has chosen to opt out of your daily policy a lot more. For that, they were not faced with the same kind of scrutiny or pressure.
Part of the estrangement from the founders can be a recognition that times have changed. Twitter was in a very different situation both culturally and politically when Dorsey returned to the company in 2011. At that time, “Democrats saw technology as their industry,” said Adam Kovacevich, founder and CEO of Chamber of Progress, a technological industry. group. Social media was growing in popularity and was increasingly adopted by users. There was a tech craze, not just in the Valley, but in Washington, DC, which likely shaped these companies’ lucrative relationships with the government.
But after election night 2016, Facebook and Twitter – once the shining stars of American innovation and global economic leadership – have proven to be a threat to Democrats and their power. Then, companies moved from a mostly passive approach to political discourse to a more aggressive one, most notably when Twitter banned Trump from the platform following the Jan.6 riot on Capitol Hill. In doing so, social media has created enemies on both sides of the aisle.
In his resignation letter, Dorsey admitted that his company had surpassed him as a leader. “There is a lot of talk about the importance for a company to be“ run by its founder ”. Ultimately I think it’s severely limiting and it’s a single point of failure, ”Dorsey wrote. “There aren’t many founders who choose their business over their own egos. I know we will prove it was the right decision.
Over the past few months, lawmakers have proven they’ve done their homework, creating legislation that could dramatically change the tech industry as it operates today. They concocted thousands of documents during a large, multi-year investigation of anti-competitive behavior. Instead of asking questions about how Facebook makes money from ads, they’re asking pointed questions about how these ad-driven business models can hurt. Most importantly, this outrage is bipartisan, even though Republicans and Democrats disagree on the details.
With celebrity founders out of sight, regulatory talks could move in a different direction, favoring voices of experts and activists now that the megaphones of powerful CEOs are off.
“Hopefully this gets out of the dynamics of politicians and CEOs and brings it into the space of grassroots activism, researchers and human rights experts who have been raising these questions for years,” Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future. , said Tuesday. “Lawmakers would do well to spend more time listening to people like us than chatting with CEOs for TV. “
Others, like Matt Wood, vice president and general counsel of Free Press, are more skeptical about the departure of their company’s founders. “They probably also see it as worth denying the exam as long as they’ve been kind of human lightning rods for it,” Wood told me. “I think that will actually deprive the whole conversation without the political theater of these hearings. “
For now, the pressure on tech companies continues. On Wednesday, a House committee kicked off its latest round of hearings to reform the tech liability shield with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testifying for the second time about potential damage to the platform.
“It feels like things have come to a boiling point around these companies,” Greer said.