Washington coming under pressure to regulate tech giants
For three decades now, it has seemed that the only serious government oversight and regulation of the big tech companies would come from Europe. As far back as 1993, the European Commission began investigating Microsoft for anti-competitive practices; a case that ultimately resulted in a €497 million ($794 million) fine and required distribution changes. The EU has since fined tech companies multiple times, most notably issuing a €4.34 billion fine just this summer to Google for unfair practices in the mobile phone business. The US government, in contrast, has been quite lax on these big tech firms, which are mostly American.
However, this may be about to change — and it all comes down to politics. Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter have come under the spotlight in mostly conservative American circles because of their apparent attempts to squelch politically and socially conservative speech within the US. This has led to calls in the conservative media for investigation and regulation of these firms.
The US Constitution guarantees free speech only against government interference. Businesses, on the other hand, are permitted to impede the speech of individuals. Yet free speech is a peculiarly sacrosanct right and a non-negotiable tenet of society for many Americans. While tech businesses can legally limit speech on their platforms, it strikes many Americans as dangerous when these powerful companies appear to favor some speech over others.
Twitter has been accused of banning conservative commentators and “shadow banning” Republican politicians. Shadow banning is the practice of maintaining an individual’s account but making it less likely for followers to see the account’s posts. Most recently, Twitter faced a minor revolt among conservative users when it banned, without warning, Jesse Kelly, a retired Marine and two-time failed Republican congressional candidate. Twitter would not state what Kelly had done wrong to warrant the ban, and Kelly had a large following of conservatives who rallied around him. Eventually, Twitter relented and contradicted itself, saying that Kelly had been suspended only temporarily.
Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, has testified before Congress and denied his company’s apparent political and social biases. Yet many conservatives are coming to believe that he says one thing while his company does another. Twitter was notoriously late to take down a tweet depicting a gun pointed at the head of the daughter of long-time senator John McCain. Twitter has, to this day, failed to take down tweets by Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, that referred to Jews as termites and espoused other virulently antisemitic, homophobic and generally hateful stances. Nor was Farrakhan’s account suspended, despite thousands of complaints. At the same time, Twitter has said that it is now a violation of its policy to refer to a transgender person by the person’s birth gender.
Last week, it was reported that Google employees considered manipulating search results to hide news sites deemed conservative. YouTube, which is owned by Google, has been accused of bias for months now. PragerU, which posts conservative web videos, claims to have 36 clips banned from YouTube for political reasons.
Facebook, which is going through other public relations nightmares — from accusations of complicity in Russian efforts to spread disinformation to privacy concerns of users to claims that it provided false data to advertisers — has been accused of manually manipulating news feeds over the last couple of years to favor politically liberal causes.
Amazon was founded and is still controlled by Jeff Bezos, who is also the owner of the Washington Post. The Post is the largest newspaper in the US capital and the most powerful in political circles. It is also liberal-leaning. For example, it frequently criticizes Donald Trump, and the president often calls it out for its alleged bias.
Free speech is a peculiarly sacrosanct right and a non-negotiable tenet of society for many Americans.
Ellen R. Wald
Many conservatives have been calling for change, but no voice is more forceful on this than Tucker Carlson’s. Carlson is a veteran newsman who currently hosts the second most popular cable news show in the country, and he has been arguing for months that big tech is dangerous to American society in its current form. He says that social media addiction is harmful to the youth and that the powerful platforms of big tech represent monopolies that must be regulated.
Here is how the US government could regulate tech: Firstly, some of the businesses could be investigated and sued as monopolies, forcing them to break into smaller pieces. This would primarily consider the impact on consumers purchasing products, not social media users.
Secondly, while online platforms are exempted from liability for what others place on them, all of this political selection and monitoring could open the social media firms to liability. The argument would be that, if they can limit some content, they should be required to limit other content, such as defamation. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act exempts online platforms like social media from the type of liability a publisher might have because it is assumed the platform cannot fully police all content. However, as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook prohibit certain political and social conduct, they might be held liable for others.
Finally, in the US there are laws limiting the size of campaign contributions and there is an argument that social media bias that favors particular candidates or parties could be perceived as campaign violations.
While big tech is powerful in America, big government loves to regulate. At some point, the massive bureaucracy in Washington will set its sights on the big businesses in California. And the government always wins.
- Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy