Do Technology and Social Media Have a Responsibility to Society?

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What if, instead of fostering liberté, égalité and fraternité, as the social media and technology giants have long insisted they do, these companies have created flourishing businesses that “have amplified political tensions and spawned new political vulnerabilities?”

The quoted words come from a new report from the Brookings Institution, Big Tech Threats: Making Sense of the Backlash Against Online Platforms. The report compares the response in the United States to that in other countries and suggests that other countries, especially in Europe, have moved much faster to try to rein in the tech giants than has the United States.

While the U.S. concern about government regulation of constitutionally protected free speech is a valid one, companies like Facebook, Amazon and Twitter have additional protection. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 states clearly the U.S. government’s approach to the then-new internet: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

This is the get-out-of-jail-free card that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to play in an interview last year with Kara Swisher of The New York Times: “It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent [of material posted to Facebook].” He goes on to equate making a misstatement with a deliberate lie and reaches the conclusion that Facebook is not going to ban someone “if they get things wrong, even multiple times.”

Because the tech giants are not legally culpable, they have no skin in the game and no reason to police themselves. In other countries, the Brookings report says, there is a “growing international consensus [that] holds that the ways in which today’s dominant online platforms are currently designed poses an inherent threat to democracy. … [T]he ways in which dominant platforms filter and spread information online presents a serious political threat not only to newer, more fragile democracies but also to long-standing Western liberal democracies.”

These countries, Brookings notes, “have identified a clearer regulatory role to mitigate the threat online platforms pose to democratic societies.” In the United States, concerns about violating the First Amendment’s free speech rights have effectively negated any response to “classifying certain content as unacceptable.”

A second way that other nations have attempted to rein in the tech giants is by implementing strict rules on protecting user data and privacy. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is “the toughest and most comprehensive digital privacy law on the books and is grounded in a cultural attachment to protecting the right of individuals to control access to their personal information.” In the United States, however, the “privacy regime largely focuses on protecting individuals from state intrusion and companies from red tape.”

The GDPR became effective in May of last year and in its first year levied fines of just €56 million (about $63 million), most of which (about $56 million) was a single fine against Google. GDPR violations can result in fines as high as 4% of a firm’s global revenue. That’s serious money, even for Facebook and Google; $63 million is loose change found under the couch cushions.

Finally, other countries have taken a much firmer stance against anti-competitive behavior by the tech giants. Since 2017, the European Commission has fined Google more than $9 billion for anti-competitive behavior.

The Brookings paper cites a suggestion from a Canadian government report on anti-competitive behavior: “[M]oving competition enforcement in the tech sector ‘away from price-centric tools’ and toward evaluating the value of data at stake between merging companies.” An EU report goes even further: “Even where consumer harm cannot be precisely measured, strategies employed by dominant platforms aimed at reducing the competitive pressure they face should be forbidden in the absence of clearly documented consumer welfare gains.”

In the United States, Brookings notes, the “consumer welfare standard [is] exclusively focused on low prices [and] has failed to capture concentration in the tech sector as dominant technology companies have evaded scrutiny by offering their services for free or at a low cost.” Google’s domination of search, for example, has left the company open to questions of how it generates search results and who benefits from how those results are presented.

The Brookings authors, research analyst Clara Hendrickson and senior fellow in governance studies William A. Galston, suggest that the challenges of dealing with the digital information sector may be beyond the ability of a single nation and eventually will require international agreements. There is a caveat, however: “[Such agreements] would have to be restricted to countries that share a broad understanding of the importance of individual liberty and a free civil society. … It is not clear, for example, that the People’s Republic of China would ever be willing to embrace the kinds of individual and civic rights for information technologies that liberal democracies consider nonnegotiable.”

If in the United States, “liberté, égalité and fraternité” has focused primarily on the first, in Europe, one could argue, it has focused only on the first two. Achieving “fraternité” has always been the hard part, and it grows more difficult every day. But, for example, Facebook’s shares keep going up, even though nobody trusts the company.

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