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Can Big Tech and Big Social Media Be Reined In?

A number of strategies to limit their power or make them share the wealth are being evaluated, both among governments and private think tanks

Big Tech’s recent censorship moves have revived the debate about what, exactly, the new social media are? Are they publishers like HarperCollins or carriers like Ma Bell? Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act exempts the Bigs from liability as publishers. But, unlike carriers, they can act against messages in their system that they don’t like. Generally, they benefit from a fuzziness that is not granted to other institutions. It’s probably not accidental that most Big Social Media are domiciled in the United States. Canada, to name just one other country, does not offer Twitter that protection.

The scale of the conflict is expected to grow and a number of strategies to limit the Big Social Media’s power or at least make them share the wealth have been proposed, including these:

➤ A majority of the American public, according to a Gallup poll, feels less favorable toward Big Tech than formerly and wants more federal government oversight:

The one in three Americans with positive views of Big Tech reflects a decline from 46% in August 2019, while negative views have increased from 33% to 45%. And the proportion with a very negative view has more than doubled, from 10% to 22%. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who think the government should increase its regulation of technology firms has risen from 48% to 57%. Calls for decreased regulation stayed roughly the same, but the proportion favoring the same amount of oversight has fallen from 40% to 28%.

Megan Brenan, “Views of Big Tech Worsen; Public Wants More Regulation” at Gallup (February 18, 2021)

The reduced popularity, Gallup noted, was among those with Republican and Independent sympathies. In any event, absent a specific proposal on the table, it is not clear what more federal oversight would amount to.

➤ Things are much more active at the state level. Key initiatives against Big Tech censorship are led by governors of several American states, including Florida and Texas. Similar legislation has been introduced in Minnesota. Social media site Parler, suing Amazon for breach of contract in a recent high-profile case, has dropped its federal-level suit and decided to focus on the state of Washington instead, where Seattle has a law against viewpoint discrimination.

➤ Also at the state level, Maryland has begun to tax Big Tech’s digital advertising revenue, with Connecticut and Indiana trying to follow suit. Local responses in Maryland have been mixed:

The law faced opposition from Silicon Valley lobbying groups, state Republicans, telecom companies, and local media outlets, per the Times. Opponents argued that the tax would not be paid by Big Tech, but rather by the small businesses that buy the ads and their customers.

Marylanders For Tax Fairness, a group that represents businesses against the law, railed against Ferguson in a statement on Friday, accusing him of raising taxes and costs on Marylanders during the pandemic.

Jody Serrano, “Maryland Becomes First State in Country to Place a Tax on Big Tech’s Digital Advertising Revenue” at Gizmodo (March 13, 2021)

The taxation issue does not directly address censorship. However, if a precedent is established that Big Tech and Big Social Media can be taxed just like other businesses, special privileges like those under under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act will likely come under scrutiny. Overall, at the state level, governments have more to gain and less to lose from reigning in Big Tech than at the federal level.

➤ Several other economic strategies are in play. Some want Big Social Media to start paying the users from whom they harvest data, to their own immense profit. Some nations, notably Canada and Australia, want Facebook to pay for links to major media websites headquartered in their territory. Facebook, famously, shut down Australian government websites for a short while, in protest at the idea. Whether these strategies, for example the one set out in the short video below, are perceived publicly as fair or viable or not, we may expect Big Social Media to fight them fiercely.

➤ Some argue for more decentralization in general. Spurred by a recent call for a federal “reality czar” to rule over Big Tech, they look to a peer-to-peer web with encryption (and cryptocurrency):

President Biden has said he supports repealing Section 230. During an interview with then-candidate Biden, The New York Times’ editorial board called the regulation foundational to the modern internet. Biden responded, “That’s right. Exactly right. And it should be revoked.”

But the great deplatforming of 2021 has also energized the movement to build a new, radically decentralized internet that would allow users to escape whatever form the Reality Czar takes. Many of the projects in this space are trying different approaches to solving the same set of problems, such as how to give individuals control over their own digital identities, and how to store data in the cloud so that it can’t be controlled or accessed by a large company subject to political pressure from the state.

Zach Weissmuller, “How To Fight Deplatforming: Decentralize” at Reason (February 17, 2021)

A foreseeable difficulty with just repealing Section 230 is that the Reality Czar’s office may be no more likely to support intellectual freedom than the Big Tech moguls it replaces. With centralization comes central control. In any event, companies the size of the Big Techs and Big Social Media often compete on an equal basis of power in many respects with US states and smaller national governments.

Timothy Head, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, urges readers to keep in mind that, in sharp contrast to past attitudes in media culture, many journalists today see censorship and crackdowns as a good thing:

Mainstream media sites, alongside many leftist politicians, treat censorship by Big Tech as an essential instrument in the fight to protect American democracy. In reality, Big Tech censorship means silencing, distorting, and suppressing ordinary American viewpoints for no other reason than political gain.

Timothy Head, “Big Tech Censorship Is a Big Deal: We Need a Smarter Framework for Protecting Free Speech” at Townhall (March 16, 2021)

Because crackdown-friendly media sources are influential, those who want the freedom to hear the other side must argue for the general concept of freedom of speech more persuasively than would have been necessary generations ago. As many have noted, there is nothing unusual today about people associated with universities or publishers who claim to feel threatened by hearing opposing viewpoints. Or that some even resort to violence to prevent the expression of opinions of which they disapprove. Any strategy aimed at preserving intellectual freedom must take their influence into account.

➤ Some sources advocate just moving away from Big Social Media altogether, in favor of smaller alternatives with, perhaps, fewer ambitions. For example:

Ever since the news broke that WhatsApp will share data extensive data with Facebook starting February 2021, there has been a massive campaign to move users over to Signal.

It is a powerful alternative to WhatsApp and iMessage, with a heavy focus 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 piece. Whether or not one decides to switch, it pays to be familiar with relevant options.

The control Big Tech and Big Social Media exercise is increasingly affecting realms where many, perhaps most, users would prefer to decide for themselves:

Also last week, Ebay blocked all sales and purchases of the half-dozen Dr. Seuss books recently deemed unfit for children because they allegedly “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Amazon blocked access to a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Twitter suspended the account of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Facebook continued its purge of QAnon-linked accounts, which began back in October. And the cable network TCM announced a program to reframe classic films like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “The Searchers,” and “My Fair Lady,” which it considers “problematic” and “troubling.”

John Daniel Davidson, “Big Tech Thinks You’re An Idiot Child Who Can’t Govern Yourself” at The Federalist (March 8, 2020)

The challenge for those who would rein in Big Tech and Big Social Media is not shortage of strategies but the need to evaluate them carefully, to determine which ones can be put into practice and, of those, which ones will succeed.


You may also wish to read:

In Big Tech World: the journalist as censor, hit man, and snitch. Glenn Greenwald looks at a disturbing trend in media toward misrepresentation as well as censorship.

and

Could a Seattle law hobble Amazon’s unaccountable censorship? John West discusses Amazon’s vulnerability in Seattle with Kara McKinney at Tipping Point. Amazon’s recent forays into delisting books based on political considerations could be considered viewpoint discrimination in its home town.


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Can Big Tech and Big Social Media Be Reined In?