Can Large Tech and Large Social Media Be Reined In?
Big Tech’s recent censorship has rekindled the debate over what exactly the new social media is. Are they publishers like HarperCollins or carriers like Ma Bell? Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act exempts the Bigs from liability as publisher. However, unlike network operators, they can take action against messages in their system that they do not like. In general, they benefit from a fuzziness that other institutions do not. It is probably no coincidence that most of the big social media are based in the US. Canada, to name just one other country, doesn’t offer this protection on Twitter.
The scale of the conflict is expected to increase and a number of strategies have been proposed to limit the power of the big social media, or at least get them to share the wealth, including:
➤ According to a Gallup poll, a majority of the American public feels less favorable to Big Tech than before and wants more federal government oversight:
One in three Americans with positive views about big tech reflects a 46% decrease in August 2019, while negative views rose from 33% to 45%. And the proportion with a very negative assessment has more than doubled from 10% to 22%. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who think the government should step up regulation of tech companies has increased from 48% to 57%. The demand for less regulation has remained about the same, but the proportion advocating the same level of supervision has decreased from 40% to 28%.
Megan Brenan, “Views of Big Tech Worsen; Public wants more regulation “in Gallup (February 18, 2021)
Gallup noted that the decreased popularity was among those with Republican and independent sympathies. In any case, without a specific proposal on the table, it is not clear what more federal oversight would mean.
➤ At the state level, things are much more active. Major initiatives against big tech censorship are being led by the governors of several American states, including Florida and Texas. Similar legislation was introduced in Minnesota. Social media site Parler, which sued Amazon for breach of contract in a recent breach of contract, has dropped its federal lawsuit and decided to focus instead on Washington state, where Seattle is envisioning a law against discrimination of the point of view.
➤ Maryland has also begun taxing Big Tech’s digital advertising revenue at the state level, with Connecticut and Indiana trying to follow suit. Local reactions in Maryland were mixed:
The bill was opposed by lobby groups from Silicon Valley, Republicans, telecommunications companies and local media, according to the Times. Opponents argued that the tax was paid not by Big Tech, but by the small businesses that buy the ads and their customers.
Marylanders For Tax Fairness, a group advocating corporate against the law, railed against Ferguson in a statement Friday, accusing him of collecting taxes and charges for Marylanders during the pandemic.
Jody Serrano, “Maryland Becomes First State To Collect Tax On Big Tech Digital Advertising Income,” in Gizmodo March 13, 2021
The tax problem is not directly related to censorship. However, if a precedent is set that big tech and big social media can be taxed like other businesses, special privileges like those under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act are likely to be considered. Overall, state governments have more to gain and less to lose by ruling big tech than they do at federal level.
➤ Several other economic strategies play a role. Some want big social media to pay the users they collect data from for their own immense profit. Some nations, especially Canada and Australia, want Facebook to pay for links to major media websites headquartered in their territory. As is well known, Facebook closed the Australian government websites for a short time in protest against the idea. Regardless of whether these strategies, such as the one outlined in the short video below, are publicly viewed as fair or feasible or not, we can expect big social media to fight them fiercely.
➤ In general, some advocate more decentralization. Spurred on by the recent call for a federal “reality tsar” to rule big tech, they are looking for a peer-to-peer web with encryption (and cryptocurrency):
President Biden has said he supports the repeal of Section 230. During an interview with then-candidate Biden, the New York Times editorial staff said the ordinance was the foundation for the modern Internet. Biden replied: “That’s right. Precisely. And it should be revoked. “
The great deplatformation of 2021 also stimulated the movement to build a new, radically decentralized Internet that would enable users to evade any form of reality czar. Many of the projects in this area try different approaches to solving the same problems; B. How individuals get control of their own digital identities and how data is stored in the cloud so that it cannot be controlled or accessed by a large company under political pressure from the state.
Zach Weissmüller, “How To Fight Deplatforming: Decentralize” at Reason (February 17, 2021)
One foreseeable difficulty with repealing Section 230 is that the Reality Czar’s office may not support freedom of thought any more than the big tech moguls it replaces. Centralization is accompanied by central control. In any case, in many ways, companies the size of the big tech and big social media often compete on an equal footing with US states and smaller national governments.
➤ Timothy Head, Executive Director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, urges readers to keep in mind that many journalists today view censorship and raids as a good thing contrary to previous attitudes in media culture:
Mainstream media sites, along with many left-wing politicians, see censorship by Big Tech as an essential tool in the struggle to protect American democracy. In reality, big tech censorship means silencing, skewing, and repressing common American positions for no other reason than political reasons.
Timothy Head, “Big Tech Censorship is a Big Deal: We Need a Smarter Framework to Protect Freedom of Speech” at City Hall (March 16, 2021)
Because highly competitive media sources are influential, those who want the freedom to hear the other side must be more persuasive in advocating the general concept of freedom of expression than would have been necessary generations ago. As many have noted, there is nothing unusual today about people associated with universities or publishing houses who claim to be threatened by hearing opposing viewpoints. Or that some even resort to violence to prevent the expression of opinions that they disapprove of. Any strategy for maintaining freedom of thought must take into account its influence.
➤ Some sources advocate moving away from big social media overall in favor of smaller alternatives with possibly less ambition. For example:
Since news broke that WhatsApp will be sharing extensive data with Facebook from February 2021, there has been a massive campaign to switch users to Signal.
It’s a powerful alternative to WhatsApp and iMessage, with an emphasis on privacy and encryption.
Wahagen Khabayan, “A Quick Guide to Free Speech and Avoiding Big Tech Online.” at the national pulse (March 7, 2021)
A number of alternative social media are discussed in this article. Regardless of whether you decide to switch or not, it pays to be familiar with the relevant options.
The control exercise Big Tech and Big Social Media is increasingly affecting areas where many, perhaps most, users would prefer to make their own decisions:
Also last week, Ebay blocked all sales and purchases by the half-dozen Dr. Seuss books recently classified as unsuitable for children for allegedly “portraying people in a way that is hurtful and wrong”. Amazon has blocked access to a documentary about Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court Justice.
Twitter has blocked the account of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Facebook continued its cleanup of QAnon-linked accounts, which began as early as October. And the cable network TCM announced a program to remake classic films like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “The Searchers,” and “My Fair Lady,” which it sees as “problematic” and “worrying”.
John Daniel Davidson, “Big Tech Thinks You’re an Idiotic Kid Who Can’t Rule Yourself” on The Federalist March 8, 2020
The challenge for those looking to curb big tech and big social media is not that they lack strategies, but that they need to be carefully evaluated to determine which ones can be put into practice and which of them will be successful .
You may also want to read:
In Big Tech World: The journalist as a censor, killer and snitch. Glenn Greenwald sees a disturbing trend in the media towards misrepresentation and censorship.
Could a Seattle law hinder Amazon’s inexplicable censorship? John West discusses Amazon’s vulnerability in Seattle with Kara McKinney at Tipping Point. Amazon’s recent attempts to delist books on political grounds could be seen as discrimination based on position in its hometown.