Talking tech since 2003

The world’s biggest technology companies are also some of history’s most successful business entities of any kind. A small handful of companies, led by unelected individuals, have almost completely unchecked control over residential, commercial, and mobile telecommunications; cloud computing services; web searches and access to information; and social media channels.

Some of these same companies also want stewardship over automobile operating systems (CarPlay, Google/Waymo), our credit cards (Apple Card), our health data (Google/Fitbit), our personal media consumption (Apple and Amazon TV studios), and how we buy groceries (Amazon acquires Whole Foods).

Is this too much concentrated power? Many people, on the left and the right, who recoil at concentrated government power, don’t seem to think so.

But many do think so — including many privacy and free speech activists as well as those who believe the government should do more to regulate Big Tech. Let’s dive into several controversies that cut to the heart of how, and whether, we regulate tech companies.

Brand-New Calls for Regulating Big Tech

We can look to 5G as evidence that Big Tech companies see market share as political and social power. The U.S., China, and several other developed and developing economies are ferociously defending themselves from foreign-made 5G communications infrastructure. There could be no more important battle going on right now than who owns tomorrow’s global digital landscape.

The influence of technology companies has become a major political priority. One of the ways we can see this play out is the United States’ ongoing trade discussions with Mexico, Canada and others.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has noted that these trade deals, including a revised NAFTA, incorporate sweeping protections for international technology companies and online digital platforms. One of these is the so-called “liability shield” known as Section 230. It dates back to the unpopular Communication Decency Act of 1996, much of which was found to be unconstitutional.

In essence, Section 230 says that providers of “interactive computer services” should not be held accountable for the content published on their platforms. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) would, as a spokesperson for Speaker Pelosi recently said, “enshrine the increasingly controversial” liability shield into brand-new trade agreements.

The crux of Speaker Pelosi’s argument is that, with Big Tech already under such intense scrutiny on so many other fronts, this is no time to strip accountability from these companies. The crux of the opposition’s argument is that technology companies provide access to communication and other services and nothing more. They should not be assumed liable for content uploaded or published by their users.

This is a worthy debate. And it only throws into sharp relief the other fronts on which Big Tech is fighting for some of its fundamental business models.

A Brief Look at Big Tech Regulation Debates

If Speaker Pelosi is unsuccessful, these trade deals will go forward with liability protections in place for Big Tech companies. Whether or not this eventuality plays out, there are several other ongoing debates that will shape the degree to which tomorrow’s government further protects or further regulates Big Tech. Here are some of them:

  • Regulating fake news: Dishonest political ads are some of the most fertile soil for conspiracy theories and viral fake news to take root. Facebook has indicated it has no intentions to curb political ads of any kind. Twitter, meanwhile, recently said the opposite. Does one platform or another have a stronger commitment to “free speech”? Do “platform companies” have a responsibility to ensure they provide only truthful content?
  • Protecting users on social media: Mark Zuckerberg’s unrepentant appearance before Congress after the Cambridge Analytica scandal hasn’t made the questions go away. Among these: Does the U.S. need a GDPR-style data protection regulation so social media users have more information about, and a greater say in, how and when their data is collected and sold?
  • Breaking up big tech: Some presidential candidates are calling for Big Tech companies to be “broken up.” Does it make sense for Google’s search engine division — many internet users’ sole gatekeepers for information on the Web — to also sell ads that rearrange and re-prioritize that information for a profit? And does it make sense for one company, Amazon, to control 40% of the internet by hosting it on AWS servers?

The debate about breaking up Big Tech comes at a critical moment. As Congress debates liability protections for tech companies at the trade agreement level, Google steamrolled ahead on a partnership that gave it access to tens of millions of Americans’ health records.

Meanwhile, Microsoft employees protested the company’s $480 million deal to supply the military with AR tech. “We didn’t sign up to develop weapons,” they said.

Unanswered Questions About Big Tech’s Influence

This is a whole lot of questions without clear-cut answers. Should we require technology companies to take a harsher stance on how their users actually interact with their services? The faintest possibility of non-compliance and liability is why the Craigslist “Personals” section vanished overnight. A minor loss, maybe, but it has some free speech advocates worried.

And is it wise to tell technology companies they don’t have any responsibility to help us keep fake news, dishonest advertisements, and even criminals off their platforms? After all, there are accessible ways to achieve proper credentials for security, but these tend to be voluntary, opt-in programs. If we give ground here, activists say, we risk giving up ground elsewhere and setting the precedent that neither mandatory nor voluntary standards are public priorities.

How long until Facebook’s next social engineering scandal? How long until Amazon’s CIA surveillance apparatus backfires on us? And why does Uber fight so hard against California lawmakers classifying its drivers as “employees”?

From industries-wide monopolies masquerading as vertical integration, to urgent questions about who controls access to information and who does our online fact-checking, there is no shortage of questions about Big Tech’s influence on modern society and politics.

Collectively, Big Tech makes close to a trillion dollars in revenue each year. We know financial power equals political power, which means Big Tech doesn’t need our protecting. What it may end up needing, however, are a practical set of laws that impose reasonable limits on their reach and the degree to which they can sidestep accountability for how their products are used.

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