HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — With the continued pressure to regulate Silicon Valley, many wonder when, and how, the United States will act.
Sam Altman, president of the start-up incubator Y Combinator, said the onus was on the government.
“The idea that these companies who are not accountable to us or elected by us should get to decide sort of the new safeguards of society, that seems like the wrong way to do it,” Mr. Altman said last week at The New York Times’s New Work Summit in California. “I think we should let our — flawed as they may be — democratically elected and enforced institutions update the rules for the world.”
He suggested restrictions around how user-generated content was amplified or distributed, as well as the classifications of hate speech or fake news.
The United States has lagged behind its peers and has provided little regulation of the industry that is one of its biggest economic drivers.
In January, leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos pushed for more global oversight to limit the power of big tech. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan announced plans to use his country’s leadership of the Group of 20 nations this year to emphasize data governance.
America’s own tech chiefs, including the Apple chief executive Tim Cook and executives from Facebook, Google and Microsoft, have lobbied for a comprehensive federal privacy law. Europe has enacted the world’s toughest rules on digital privacy with a sweeping law known as the General Data Protection Regulation.
In a recent capitulation to the growing calls for a watchdog, the Federal Trade Commission announced Tuesday that it would create a task force to scrutinize tech giants. The F.T.C. is also said to be considering a multibillion-dollar fine for Facebook over privacy violations.
Facebook’s very public reckoning recently has hastened the push for more regulation. The company is accused of, among other things, compromising privacy, harvesting user data, and allowing misinformation, propaganda and hate speech to spread, including during the 2016 presidential election. Also, the Times reported that its leaders covered up problems and targeted critics, enlisting an opposition-research firm to discredit naysayers.
Mr. Altman defended Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, saying the company was rapidly improving its practices. “Mark and Sheryl are extremely thoughtful people that have built one of the most important companies in human history. And I think they are listening,” Mr. Altman said.
While Facebook and Twitter have taken plenty of hits for their approach to user data and social media, Snapchat, the disappearing-message app made by Snap Inc., has largely escaped the cascading criticism.
Evan Spiegel, its founder, said Snapchat’s approach was different from that of its contemporaries, who are trying to police content.
“We believe that just a small percentage of the content out there is really great content,” he said. “And so by focusing on that small amount of content and just not allowing really, you know, that longer tail of content creators to distribute content widely on our platform, we ultimately end up with a better content experience for our customers.”
Mr. Spiegel linked the current climate for technology companies to the thinking in the Clinton administration around innovation at the beginning of the internet — an attitude of “we want people to mess around with it and to create wild new things, and because of that we don’t really think regulation is the right way to go.”
“I think our society is now starting to understand how the internet works in a way that maybe they didn’t 20 years ago,” he said.
But, Mr. Spiegel acknowledged, there was plenty of room to “course-correct.” He said he was “really impressed” with Europe’s moves, which he believed would inspire the next wave of privacy regulation.
“I’ve found the European Commission to be very well-reasoned and thoughtful in their approach, and really putting consumers first,” Mr. Spiegel said. “The more that companies can align with the government to do what’s right for customers, I think everyone will win there.”
He said the concern that regulating big tech would slow growth should be balanced with a consideration of America’s values.
“The important thing in all of these debates is to, I think, offer at least the other side of economic progress, which may be the preservation of values that we care a lot about,” he said. “The real world and the internet are one and the same. They have a dramatic impact on one another. And that means that I think we need to be a little more thoughtful and deliberate about the products we’re creating and releasing widely.”