Made you look. No, this is not about that. This is also not about tariffs and trade wars. This is a reminder that there are more forces at work in the market, more fundamental forces, than just headline news.
The Technology and Consumer spaces have been having a bit of a Waterloo moment. A steady drumbeat of information breaches from tech firms, consumer credit firms, major merchants, health insurers and others has shown that our digital lives are the new currency of commerce, and thieves will gladly take and then sell this information to the highest bidder.
To date, the response has been largely profiteering. Play on the concerns of the citizenry that companies cannot be trusted to care for their personal identifiable information and sell them identity protection and credit protection services, in some cases crassly by the very same companies that fumbled the information into the open in the first place.
In the meantime, although it is in full view in any EULA, we all forget that our digital lives are for sale to the highest bidder anyway, and entirely legally. Most recently this has burst into the clear with the concerns over Cambridge Analytica’s harnessing of data from Facebook for political purposes. It might be unsavory, but discounting the B-quality spy caper unfolding around their possible use of wine and women to manipulate candidates, there does not appear to be much illegal about the actual data mining.
Enter regulation. There is now a much more robust conversation being undertaken about whether regulatory intervention is necessary to deal with social media giants. Mark Zuckerberg has even seemed to embrace the idea, perhaps having learned from his experience with Beacon in 2007 and trying to get out in front of the issue at least rhetorically. Particularly in the current deregulatory regime, the specter of new regulation is not warmly received by business and markets. Some of the most significant index-moving shifts over the last couple weeks seem to be more in response to threats to the economic models of social media and internet companies through regulation than the likelihood of retaliatory Chinese tariffs (where many of these companies cannot operate anyway).
There is, however, little evidence to suggest that a more robust privacy framework would threaten these companies or their margins materially. There are already extensive rules in place in the financial services industry that address the protection and sharing of personally identifiable information. In healthcare, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), Title II, established a privacy framework that, while onerous in some of its provisions, has not decimated the profitability of large medical institutions (the consequences for small and individual medical practitioners is a separate discussion).
The issue is not going away and heartfelt apologies and commitments to introspection and TED talks will not change the trajectory. The electorate is concerned, which means politicians are concerned, which means the discussion of regulation is inevitably on the table. It may come to nothing, but the market will chew on the range of possible outcomes and price in additional volatility until there is greater clarity. In the meantime, we handicap the economic risk from regulation as being no greater than the litigation risk for the mishandling and misuse of personal data.