Don’t treat Big Tech as the enemy
You have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will.” US senator Dianne Feinstein’s warning on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC last week would have made Big Tech wince. It has been trying to thread the needle between full, voluntary responsibility for social media content and government regulation for some time now. It is fast becoming an impossible task, judging by the grilling Facebook, Twitter and Google’s representatives were subjected to during congressional hearings about Russian disinformation campaigns during the 2016 US presidential campaigns and election. The change in public and political mood, however—some US lawmakers have started calling for the break-up of tech giants—means that it is important to step back and get some perspective.
The problem is real. The congressional hearings have established this beyond doubt. Close to 150 million Americans saw Russian disinformation on Facebook between January 2015 and August this year, put out by troll/bot farms like the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency. Twitter and YouTube’s fake news and propaganda problem is smaller in scale but no less pertinent. Nor is this problem solely connected to the US. Ukraine warned about Russian online disinformation back in 2015. In Myanmar, content posted on Facebook by ultranationalists like Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu is feeding into the persecution of Rohingyas. Internet flea markets like Backpage have become sex trafficking hotspots.
But we should be careful to differentiate between this problem and the issue of Big Tech enabling politicization of the masses. Fear of the political crudity of the great unwashed is a time-honoured tradition. Plato wanted no part of the nasty business; bring on the philosopher kings. The invention of the printing press forced a wider dispersal of power and drove the political and religious elite to apoplexy. The decision of the founders of the Indian republic to adopt universal suffrage was considered an audacious experiment at the time—and by more than a few, doomed to failure. The faddish pearl-clutching on display now is in the same continuum.
Certainly, as this newspaper has argued, social media can enable political echo chambers; how to manage this is something tech companies must grapple with. But to view political connectedness as an inherent threat to democratic institutions—as Rahul Gandhi has done this week in the Financial Times, one among many politicians to take this line—is both condescending and disingenuous. Countries like the US and India are republics as much as they are democracies. They are structured to short-circuit majoritarianism. Perhaps the political establishment should serve its function more effectively instead of catering to majoritarian instincts and pinning the blame on social media.
With the two issues clearly demarcated, the first becomes more manageable. Companies like Facebook have shied away thus far from taking on direct responsibility for regulating content. After the US election, Facebook did step up its game, but by outsourcing fact-checking to volunteers who simply cannot keep up with the volume of data. This is clearly no longer tenable. The tech giants must put real money and effort into this; their protests that they lack the ability to monitor content lack strength when they do just fine keeping a check on sexual content. Admittedly, regulating political speech is a far more delicate affair; private companies doing so on widespread communication networks evokes uneasiness. But given that governments are likely to step in ham-handedly if they don’t, it is the lesser of two evils.
Likewise, tech companies must bring about greater transparency when it comes to ad purchases. That is perhaps akin to blasphemy for companies like Google that are funded by advertising revenue. But there is no logical reason for them to be exempt from the prevailing standards—suitably modified keeping the medium in mind—for traditional media on this issue. Working out regulatory frameworks for corporate tax that take the realities of digital business into account is another measure—not directly related to the problem but important for alleviating the growing resentment against Big Tech.
There should also, perhaps, be a vigorous debate about future acquisitions that cement market dominance to a point where new entrants don’t stand a fair chance. Unfortunately, this one is easy to get wrong. Europe’s anti-trust moves against US tech companies have not always been logical, for instance. And by acquiring established companies and start-ups with interesting technologies, tech giants with deep pockets have been able to create synergies for public benefit.
Tech companies have had a free lunch until now in many respects. This is true. But they have also done much good. Casting them as the villains of the piece, or imposing a crippling regulatory burden, serves little purpose. They must step up now—and policymakers around the world should work with them, not against them.
Should major tech platforms like Google and Facebook take greater responsibility for content on social media? Tell us at email@example.com