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The impending war with big tech

The last few weeks have seen a substantial ramping up of rhetoric from Westminster towards big tech. Facebook’s dramatic show of power against – and subsequent capitulation to – the Australian government over its new law obliging it to pay news outlets to host their content made for gripping viewing, and it has since become clear that senior ministers across the British government were tuning in to the action.

Matt Hancock came bursting out of the blocks to declare himself a ‘great admirer’ of countries which have proposed laws forcing tech giants to pay for journalism. Rishi Sunak has been bigging-up this year’s G7 summit, which will be held in Cornwall. From the way he is talking, it sounds like he is preparing to lead an army of finance ministers from around the world into battle with Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, Oliver Dowden, the cabinet minister with responsibility for media and technology, indicated that he has been chatting to his Australian counterparts to learn more about the thinking behind their policymaking process. He followed that up with a series of stark and very public warnings to the businesses themselves,promising to “keep a close eye” on Facebook and Twitter, voicing his “grave concern” over the way big tech companies are operating and threatening sanctions if they step out of line.

This one-way war of words comes against the backdrop of a menacing new regulatory body slowly looming into view. The Digital Markets Unit, a quango which is set to form part of the existing Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), will be the chief weapon in the government’s armoury. As things stand, we know very little about what it is intended to achieve.

Big tech in its current form is a young industry, still struggling with teething problems as it learns how to handle owning all the information in the world. There are plenty of areas where Facebook, Google, Amazon and countless others are arguably falling short in their practices, from users’ privacy to threats to journalists, which Dowden and others have picked up on.

But the natural instinct of state actors to step in has the potential to be cataclysmically damaging. The government is running out of patience with the free market and seems poised to intervene. Countless times, haphazard central policy has quashed innovation and sent private money tumbling out of the country. Against the backdrop of the forthcoming corporation tax rise, there is a fine balance to strike between effective regulation and excessive state interference.

The nature of government interventions is that they block innovation, and therefore progress. Superfluous regulation is like a dazed donkey milling about in the middle of the road, bringing the traffic to a halt. Of course, the donkey is then given a charity collection bucket and the power to oblige passers-by to contribute a slice of their income for the privilege of driving society forwards, generating unfathomable wealth and providing us all with access to free services which have improved our quality of life beyond measure.

As the government ponders the appropriate parameters of the new Digital Markets Unit and seeks to place arbitrary limits on what big tech companies can do for the first time in the history of their existence, it should consider users’ interests first. There is a strong case to be made for shoring up the rights of individuals and cracking down more harshly on abuse and other worrying trends. But let’s not fall into the same trap as our cousins Down Under in making online services more expensive to use and passing those costs down to consumers.

As the much-fabled ‘post-Brexit Global Britain’ begins to take shape, we have a valuable opportunity to set an example for the rest of the world on how to go about regulating the technology giants. The standards we will have to meet to do that are not terribly high. In essence, all the government needs to do is avoid the vast, swinging, ham-fisted meddling which has so often characterised attempts at regulation in the past and Britain can become something of a world leader in this field.

Originally published here.

Latest round of online deplatforming shows why we need increased competition and decentralization

Another week means another politically-charged rampage of deplatforming of social media profiles and entire social media networks.

Following the storming of the U.S. Capitol by some of his supporters, President Trump was promptly suspended from Twitter and Facebook and later dozens of Internet services including Shopify and Twitch.

Even the image-sharing site Pinterest, famous for recipes and DIY project presentations, has banned Trump and any mention of contesting the 2020 Election. He’ll have to go without sourdough recipes and needlework templates once he’s out of office.

Beyond Trump, entire social media networks have also been put in the crosshairs following the troubling incursion on Capitol Hill. The conservative platform Parler, a refuge for social media dissidents, has since had its app pulled from the Google and Apple stores and had their hosting servers suspended by Amazon’s web service company AWS.

This pattern of removing unsavory profiles or websites isn’t just a 2021 phenomenon. The whistleblower website Wikileaks – whose founder Julian Assange remains in prison without bail in the UK awaiting extradition to the United States – was similarly removed from Amazon’s servers in 2012, as well as blacklisted by Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, and their DNS provider. Documents reveal both public and private pressure by then U.S. senator and Intelligence Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman was instrumental in choking Wikileaks off from these services.

Then it was politicians pressuring companies to silence a private organization. Now, it’s private organizations urging companies to silence politicians.

However the pendulum swings, it’s entirely reasonable for companies that provide services to consumers and institutions to respond quickly to avoid risk. Whether it’s due to governmental decree or public backlash, firms must respond to incentives that ensure their success and survival.

Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Gab, or Parler, they can only exist and thrive if they fulfill the wishes and demands of their users, and increasingly to the political and social pressures placed on them by a cacophony of powerful forces.

It’s an impossible tightrope.

It is clear that many of these companies have and will continue to make bad business decisions based on either politics or perception of bias. They are far from perfect.

The only true way we can ensure a healthy balance of information and services provided by these companies to their consumers is by promoting competition and decentralization.

Having diverse alternative services to host servers, provide social networks, and allow people to communicate remains in the best interest of all users and consumers.

Such a mantra is difficult to hold in today’s hostile ideological battleground inflated by Silicon Valley, Washington, and hostile actors in Bejing and Moscow, but it is necessary.

In the realm of policy, we should be wary of proposed solutions that aim to cut off some services at the expense of others.

Repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, for example, would be incredibly harmful to users and firms alike. If platforms become legally liable for user content, it would essentially turn innovative tech companies into risk-averting insurance companies that occasionally offer data services. That would be terrible for innovation and user experience.

And considering the politically charged nature of our current discourse, anyone could find a reason to cancel you or an organization you hold dear – meaning you’re more at risk for being deplatformed.

At the same time, axing Section 230 would empower large firms and institutions that already have the resources to manage content policing and legal issues at scale, locking out many start-ups and aspiring competitors who otherwise would have been able to thrive.

When we think of the towering power of Big Tech and Big Government, some things can be true all at the same time. It can be a bad idea to use antitrust law to break up tech firms as it will deprive consumers of choice, just as these companies are guilty of making bad business decisions that will hurt their user base. How we respond to that will determine how consumers will continue to be able to use online services going forward.

All the while, every individual Internet user and organization has it in their power to use competitive and diverse services. Anyone can start up an instance of Mastodon (as I have done), a decentralized micro-blogging service, host a private web server on a Raspberry Pi (coming soon), or accept Bitcoin rather than credit cards.

Thanks to competition and innovation, we have consumer choice. The question is, though, if we’re courageous enough to use them.

Yaël Ossowski is deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center.

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