Anthony Clayton | The hyperscalers, and why we must always fear about them – Half 2 | In Focus

The second in a two-part series on how hyperscalers control our digital world today.

The hyperscalers who control the Internet have become so rich and powerful because there is a natural tendency for Internet public spaces to become monopoly; The value of a public space increases the more people use it. Only big governments can change the rules of the world that technology created, and they can only do so by introducing new regulations that ensure technology companies adhere to standards and prevent them from destroying or buying up potential competition.

In the US, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act granted social media platforms immunity from the legal responsibilities of publishers, giving them an overwhelming competitive advantage over traditional media. Therefore, one option for US regulators is to simply override Section 230. However, one reason it might now be more difficult for the government to lift this exemption is because the hyperscalers are now in control of some of their sensitive intelligence data. For example, the CIA has been using Amazon Web Services to secure its data since 2014, while UK spy agencies GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 are also moving some of their material to Amazon Web Services. There is a danger that this increased dependency could prevent governments from regulating these companies as tightly as they should in the future.

The same regulatory weakness has fueled the growth of even more serious problems, including the migration of organized crime and terrorism to unregulated cyberspace; the use of social media to undermine democracy and promote violence; the use of the internet and social media by authoritarian governments to suppress ethnic minorities and those who think differently; and the dissemination of opportunities to launder the proceeds of crime, defraud people, and distribute narcotics, weapons and stolen property. For example, in June 2020, Facebook removed 49 groups trading in historical artifacts from Iraq and Syria, but these were less than 30 percent of the groups in the Middle East and North Africa established for the sole purpose of looting and smuggling, of which the largest was estimated at 437,000 members. This new form of transnational organized crime is largely inaccessible to the normal police force, as it is anonymous, fluid and adaptable and can regenerate faster than it can be closed.


Recent revelations by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook executive that Facebook fully understands the damage it is causing, has made it much harder for the company to evade responsibility. Haugen testified that Facebook channeled ethnic violence that led to atrocities in Ethiopia and Nigeria and was used by the military in their genocidal campaign of mass murder and rape to evict the Rohingya from Myanmar. Similarly, former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang said she found “several blatant attempts by foreign national governments to massively abuse our platform to mislead their own citizens”, closing in Azerbaijan, Honduras, India, Ukraine , Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador on list of countries responsible for abuses such as manipulative fake accounts that support authoritarian leaders. The real problem, Haugen explained, is that every time they see a conflict of interest between profits and people, Facebook executives keep choosing to win. The Rohingya refugees are now suing Facebook for $ 150 billion for failing to stop hate speech against Rohingya, but there is no precedent for foreign law to succeed in lawsuits against social media companies protected by Section 230 is. So there is no protection against the abuses supported by companies like Facebook.

It is also clear that Facebook cannot act as an effective self-regulation. The company said it had spent over two years preparing for the last US election, mobilizing dozens of teams and tens of thousands of employees to focus on security on January 6, 2021.

Governments are starting to take these threats seriously. Over the past five years, nearly 40 states, the US House of Representatives, the Department of Justice, the European Commission and competition authorities in the EU and the UK have had competition lawsuits, Congressional hearings and investigations. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $ 5 billion in 2019 for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the European Commission has fined Google nearly $ 10 billion over the past four years. However, the tech companies are so profitable that even those fines had very little effect on their behavior. Facebook alone had sales of $ 86 billion in 2020. As a result, some congressmen speak of the need for antitrust legislation to end the anti-competitive behavior of tech companies that have a bad habit of buying and putting up smaller rivals before they can get too strong.

The problem, however, is that regulating the hyperscalers is an extremely complicated and delicate task. No democracy wants to lose the extraordinary benefits that the internet has created for society, and every government knows that a digital society is the way to go and that a digital economy will be an essential foundation for future competitiveness. So the challenge is to find a way to preserve and nurture these achievements while limiting the range of damage caused by the largely unregulated and unrestrained exercise of power by the same companies that made these advances possible. It is also necessary to build consensus on the preferred solution and find enough political support to enforce the necessary legislation, and it takes courage to endure the inevitable public criticism.


There are different possibilities. The US can choose to crack open the technology giants with antitrust law or reform Section 230 by removing protections from companies serving illegal content to their users, likely with a special focus on algorithmic amplification that personalizes feeds. Removing this protection would mean Facebook itself could be sued if its algorithm promotes illegal content, which means Facebook would have to switch to a non-algorithmic feed. The UK Parliament has agreed that the era of self-regulation by technology companies is over, that companies are clearly held accountable for the services they develop and benefit from, and that they are held accountable for their decisions. The UK’s proposed Online Safety Act will therefore impose a duty of care on technology companies of their users, with criminal liability and prosecution for social media executives who allow illegal content to be hosted on their platform and not remove it immediately it is discovered . Germany is now imposing fines of up to 50 million euros on platforms if they do not delete posts with racist, defamatory or otherwise illegal statements within 24 hours. Australia is due to pass legislation this month requiring social media companies to collect identifying information for all users and giving courts access to those identities in defamation cases (preventing anonymous trolling) and making social media companies legally liable for hosting defamatory posts. The European Court of Justice currently has an antitrust fine of 2.8 billion additional restrictions that could even harm Google or Facebook. The Data Protection Act of Jamaica, modeled on the General Data Protection Regulation of the European Union and will apply to all companies that provide services to individuals in Jamaica after 2022, is another step towards stronger regulation of the digital world.

Politicians cannot rely on much public support for the necessary reforms, however, as most social media users have little idea about how the technology works or how much the platform knows about every aspect of their lives. However, they know that they are heavily dependent on the platforms and services operated on the Internet and would be very vocal if they thought their access was in any way compromised. Even users realizing that they may have compromised their privacy and divulged intimate secrets continue to use social media, suggesting that it has become absolutely essential to modern life.

The underlying problem is that most users are happy to give tech companies access to every aspect of their lives, even though they typically don’t know how much personal information they are revealing. They will allow the tech company to track their movements, see their contacts, monitor their online and offline activities, their banking, work and social life, their shopping and sexual preferences, all in exchange for a “free” App or access to public space. This enables a small group of tech companies to control most aspects of the connected society, placing them in the most powerful and privileged position in modern civilization. And this has inexorably brought about an extraordinary potential for abuse of power.

The hyperscalers promised the world a new era of freedom, but inadvertently opened up abuse and malice on an unprecedented scale, allowing crime, fundamentalism and terrorism to metastasize into new and more virulent forms. The governments will now belatedly bring the digital border under the rule of law.

Anthony Clayton is Professor of Sustainable Development in the Caribbean. Send feedback to

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