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Microsoft’s Brad Smith: Engagement Builds Trust

Microsoft’s president Brad Smith has been called “a de facto ambassador for the tech industry at large” by The New York Times, a designation he’s earned over the last several decades shaping Microsoft’s public response to a wide array of social and policy challenges. In this interview with Ethisphere’s Tyler Lawrence, he expands on why he believes Microsoft commands trust from consumers and what other companies might learn from their approach.

Tyler Lawrence: In your last conversation with our CEO, Tim Erblich, you talked about how it’s important that tech companies be seen as trustworthy, particularly given the massive amount of consumer data you all deal with. The Verge’s recently published “2020 Tech Survey” actually found that Microsoft was the most trusted of any of the largest technology companies. To what do you attribute that trust?

Brad Smith: Well, I think to an extent, any of us sustains trust in such a challenging time. To me it always starts with a sense of humility. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t assume that others appreciate everything that you might appreciate in yourself. Get up every day with a premise that you have to earn trust from your customers and all your stakeholders yet again. So I think that is a useful first principle.

I think the second thing that we try to focus on is what I call “leading by doing.” I think in the world today, people scrutinize everything that you say, and they value and evaluate everything that you do. So we’re always trying to take new steps, whether it’s to strengthen privacy or security protection, or ensure that we’re being responsible with new technology like artificial intelligence. And then we have to communicate about what we’re doing. But I think if we can keep things in that order, start by being humble, focus on what we do and not just what we say, and then communicate about what we’re doing—it tends to be a pretty powerful combination.

TL: Related to that three-part approach, the last few decades, you personally and Microsoft as a company have been notably more open to government regulation of technologies than many of your tech peers or indeed much of the American private sector. You’ve written that your ideal is “a mixture of self-regulation and government action.” How can companies know when a problem is thorny enough that they should be willing to invite regulation or to reach out to their competitors or potentially to do both?

BS: I think there’s a couple of things that are important to think about. If we have a product that has a fundamental impact on people’s rights or their safety or their lives more broadly, we should probably recognize that the public is going to expect the government to play some type of role. This isn’t necessarily true in each and every country, but it tends to be the case in much of the world. So we have to step back and recognize when we’re participating in that kind of product market.

We also need to take a look at whether we believe that a particular problem that’s bothering people is a problem that an industry is capable of solving entirely by itself. If it is something that we can solve by ourselves, then it tells us that we might act without government help, but even then we’ll act effectively only if we do so with a high degree of ambition. Usually that requires that companies push themselves a bit outside their comfort zone.

But what I think is most important is to recognize that a lot of the big problems in the world cannot be solved by the private sector alone, and they cannot be solved by the government alone. More and more, we live in the kind of complicated world that requires multi-stakeholder efforts. That, by definition, leads to a mix of both self-regulation by an industry and more government action.

TL: You all have been on the front lines pushing great international cooperation on a wide variety of issues that intersect with technological development—most recently the Paris Call protected civilians from cyber attacks, the Christchurch Call permitting companies to combat online extremism, and just last month the Rome Call for AI Ethics, which is essentially a papal endorsement of the AI principles Microsoft already follows. What are the benefits of that kind of proactive multilateral and multinational engagement for you all? What could companies in other industries learn from that strategy?

BS: Well, I think the kind of multi-stakeholder initiatives that we’ve participated in speak, at least to me, to the kinds of global efforts that the world needs to solve the big problems we confront. In part, it goes back to the fact that these problems cannot be solved by either the private sector or government acting alone. But in this context it’s probably even more important to recognize that these problems are global. Because they’re global, they cannot be solved one country at a time or by one nation acting by itself. Once you recognize that you need global solutions, you really have to think about how to bring together an international effort as quickly as possible.

If you rely on traditional inter-governmental efforts, like a treaty for example, you’re really moving down a path that’s likely to take many years, and in some areas that is what we need as an ultimate destination. But as a fast, often effective, and at least interim step, you have things like the Paris Call and Christchurch Call or even the Rome Call, which I think demonstrate how quickly we can move. When we start to act more informally, it shows what can be done when we bring together a coalition of the willing to endorse the principles that are broadly shared. It shows what we can do when we solve the problems for which there’s an agreement and equally important, it shows the importance of focusing on where we agree and perhaps setting aside some tough issues where we disagree. I think in the world today, sometimes the reason we make no progress is because people make the perfect, the enemy of the good. In contrast to that, we tend to be big believers in solving a half a problem today, if it will enable us to solve the other half of the problem a year from now.

TL: Do you think that that maybe the perfect being the enemy of the good is what is behind the reluctance of some of your tech peers to sign on to some of these same multilateral engagements?

BS: There’s a lot of reasons that groups across a society are sometimes reluctant to move forward. And this is not just a question for companies, but it’s an issue for advocacy organizations, nonprofit groups, political parties, and governments themselves. I think sometimes it is allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Sometimes it is fear about slippery slopes. Sometimes it is a fear of the unknown and unintended consequences that might result. Most of the time, this is not about concerns that completely lack foundation.

When you listen to people, you realize that the concerns they have are grounded in reality. But, ultimately, our view is the only way to solve some of these problems is to start to summon some courage, be prepared to experiment at least a bit, and then focus on learning. I just think it’s the proverbial nature of life. You don’t get anywhere if you don’t cross the street. You don’t get anywhere if you don’t embrace a little bit of the risks of the unknown. It doesn’t mean you throw caution to the wind, but I often worry that people can be frozen into inaction, and the larger the institution, the easier that can come to be.

TL: That’s certainly a problem. Microsoft as a very large institution seems to have found a way to maintain some momentum, which is interesting.

BS: Yes, but we have our own challenges as well. We have plenty of internal debates within Microsoft. I do think we have the challenges that are created when you have a diversified set of products and services, which we definitely do. I think we sometimes break through some of these challenges in a way that’s different from other companies for a few reasons. First we, like everybody are the product of our experience, and we saw what happened when we moved too slowly to address our antitrust challenges in the 1990s and 2000s.

I think we benefit from having an integrated leadership team across the company and certainly within the parts of the company that involve risk management and compliance and ethics and law and government affairs and philanthropy and the like. We have the benefits of having processes that do enable us, in some instances, to move decisions to where they need to be made and a willingness to make them more quickly. None of that immunizes us from any of these other challenges, that’s for sure. And we definitely are far from perfect. But we do try to keep moving forward by making decisions and doing new things. I think that’s a strength more than a weakness.

About the Author:

Brad Smith is the president of Microsoft. He serves as the company’s chief legal officer and leads work on a wide range of issues involving the intersection between technology and society, including cybersecurity, privacy, ethics and artificial intelligence, human rights, immigration, philanthropy and environmental sustainability. Smith has testified numerous times before the U.S. Congress and other governments on key policy issues.

Smith joined Microsoft in 1993, first spending three years in Paris leading the legal and corporate affairs team in Europe. In 2002, he was named Microsoft’s general counsel and spent the following decade leading work to resolve the company’s antitrust controversies with governments around the world and companies across the tech sector. This past decade, Smith has spearheaded the company’s work to advance privacy protection for Microsoft customers and the rights of DREAMers and other immigrants, including bringing five lawsuits against the U.S. government on these issues.

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