Tech regulation is coming whether the industry participates or not, according to Microsoft President Brad Smith, so companies might as well lean into those conversations now.
“It doesn’t matter whether you like it or hate it,” Smith told CNBC’s Steve Kovach on “Tech Check” Wednesday. “And it’s right for people to point out the issues that cause concern, but more than anything, we need to lean in and figure out how to make this work, because it is not going to be a success unless we do that.”
Smith’s message came after his keynote speech on the same topic at the International Association of Privacy Professionals conference in Washington, D.C. The speech stood in contrast to an earlier keynote by Apple CEO Tim Cook, who warned that certain antitrust laws being considered by Congress could harm consumer privacy protections.
Smith is no stranger to standing apart from his Big Tech peers in Washington. He’s been a key force in recalibrating Microsoft’s relationship with D.C. officials since its landmark antitrust battle at the turn of the century. While Microsoft inspired an earlier wave of angst about the influence of large tech platforms, Smith has helped reshape its image into something of friendly giant, mostly avoiding the latest ire directed against the industry. Nonetheless, Microsoft could come under scrutiny again, as it’s still one of the most valuable companies in the world that makes products on which millions of consumers, including the U.S. government, rely.
Smith said in his keynote speech that his experience as Microsoft’s general counsel in the wake of its antitrust case helped show him “that you can find a way to navigate through the thicket of demands, expectations that others have of you.”
Smith told CNBC there are similarities in how both Microsoft and Apple see the importance of things like privacy and cybersecurity, but acknowledged a divergence in other areas.
On Tuesday, Cook said that proposed competition rules that could require companies like Apple to give consumers a way to circumvent its centralized App Store could ultimately harm user privacy. Apple has said the App Store plays an important role in making sure users are downloading safe and secure products.
But Smith suggested in his CNBC interview that it may not be an all or nothing proposition.
“If you can put standards in place in one app store that governs a million apps, you can put standards in place to make room for two or three or four app stores that all have to comply with the same objective security and privacy requirements,” Smith said. “So you can always approach these issues and put these things into conflict with each other or you can find a way to reconcile these points.”
Ultimately, Smith said, even if the industry can talk Congress out of certain regulations, “it’s a big world.”
“The Europeans, the British, the Australians, the Japanese, the Koreans, they’re all moving forward,” Smith said. “We’re going to be better served as a country if the United States plays an active role as well.”