Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | What has awakened America Inc’s online conscience?

In previous columns, I have covered the rising clashes between Big-Tech and governments the world over. These clashes have focused on issues that governments find important such as sovereignty, safeguarding data of their citizenry and regulating their finance and banking sectors. The European Union (EU) has been leading the way in data privacy, China in censoring and surveilling citizens, and America in having legislative hearings to determine how much Big-Tech should be let to get away with.

China has also long had a ‘Great Internet Wall’, which closed its market off to American Big-Tech firms such as Google and Facebook. Its recent insistence that it will be petitioning the World Trade Organization against the Indian government’s decision to wall India off from 59 Chinese apps seems disingenuous. While hiding behind its internet wall, it has assiduously tried to create global rivals to the same American Big-Tech firms it shut out. India, as the fastest growing mobile data market in the world, is of great interest to both the American Big-Tech bloc and its rival Chinese pretenders. The Indian government’s move to shut out the Chinese will have far reaching implications for Chinese data hegemony if the ban stands.

Truth be told, one can understand why China was eager to keep American Big-Tech out. For many years, the modus operandi of these companies was similar to Facebook’s early motto of “move fast and break things". In many ways, this innovation without regard to asking anyone for permission continues, though Big-Tech has stopped making a public virtue of it. The tech economy driven by data is today very unequal; the top five firms each have market capitalization numbers that rival the gross domestic product of many countries, and their sheer size allows for this concentration to grow.

Speaking of technology without permission, Amazon, for instance, reportedly is using infra-red thermal cameras at its warehouses in the US and Subway restaurants in the country are doing the same. I remember these cameras coming into widespread use in South-East Asian airports during the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, epidemic in 2003. While such ‘permissionless’ innovation may enjoy public support since it can screen individuals who are possible disease carriers and keep them away from public spaces, these stealthy technologies quickly get creepy when used in other contexts. It is these uses that led the EU and other countries to come down hard with stringent laws on where and how their citizens’ data is collected and stored.

Big-Tech has pushed on regardless, and while many of their leaders have been grilled by America’s legislators, it seems as if their only response has been to apologize and promise to ‘do better next time’ when faced with proof that firms like Cambridge Analytica used their customer data for nefarious purposes.

These firms have long held on to the First Amendment to America’s Constitution, which guarantees free speech. They say that since they are just platforms for speech and not publishers, their responsibility for moderating content is limited. They have been quick to take shelter under Section 230 of the US’s Communications Decency Act of 1996, which says that an information service provider shall not be treated as a “publisher or speaker" of information from someone else.

In this context, the events of the last couple of weeks at American Big-Tech have been astonishing. First, we heard that IBM led a move to ban face-recognition technology and was joined by Amazon and Microsoft who put their own face-recognition projects on hold. Last week, many other giants took steps that would have been completely unimaginable at the start of this year. Reddit took on forums on its platform that allowed hate speech and banned over 2000 of them, including the largest pro-Donald Trump forum on the internet. Twitch, an Amazon-owned gaming platform, suspended President Trump’s account for “hateful conduct".

YouTube banned several prominent far-right figures last week, including “white" nationalist leader Richard Spencer, right-wing internet personality Stefan Molyneux, and David Duke, the former wizard of the Ku-Klux-Klan. Twitter, Trump’s electronic weapon of choice, has had the gall to censor his tweets (Trump, for his part, claimed in an election speech that a “fascist left-wing" was trying to undo the nation).

The rest of corporate America has now woken up. It appears that America’s Black Lives Matter protests, and their calls for racial justice have inspired it to take action, and rein in American Big-Tech firms, which they think haven’t been policing themselves enough. Facebook had been a hold-out until several large corporations, in response to a movement of the US’s Anti-Defamation League called #stophateforprofit, (bit.ly/2ZFrGz5) boycotted the social media platform and pulled their advertising. Mint reported on 27 June that in response to the boycott, Facebook’s shares had plunged 8.3% the previous day, erasing $56 billion from the firm’s market value.

In my opinion, most of these moves during an election year are because American Big-Tech is betting that there is a decent chance of President Trump not getting re-elected. They may well be making these adjustments in anticipation of a President Joe Biden, who has made clear that Section 230 should be modified to make Big-Tech responsible for the content it proliferates. Profit, not social justice, is always the motive.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India

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