Twitter’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump’s account following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot has raised questions about social media and technology companies’ control over the freedoms of speech and expression. Should such platforms be allowed to censor and regulate who posts on online platforms and what they post? How can social media combat fake news while also protecting the fundamental right of speech? Notable political figures, including Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have expressed concerns over the implications of the precedent Twitter has set.
Growing mistrust of Big Tech is not a recent development. Political will in favor of antitrust regulation against technology giants has been growing for years, as companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon pervade all corners of our lives, from retail to entertainment to information control. As debate on antitrust measures against these conglomerates rages, it is imperative to consider the role social media and unregulated technology companies have played in fueling polarization and weakening our democratic institutions.
Last December, the Australian parliament tabled legislation that would force internet companies like Google and Facebook to negotiate fair payments with news organizations for sharing their content. The law was designed to recuperate the financial losses incurred by news organizations due to a decrease in ad revenues that has caused downsizing and shutdowns in the media. The legislation evokes a deal made by Facebook to pay mainstream U.K. news outlets. The proposed Australian legislation was, however, not received well by Google, which threatened to stop making Google Search available in Australia if the law were to pass.
Google possesses a monopoly on search in Australia, with over 94% of internet traffic going through its search engine. Microsoft Bing, the next closest competitor, has less than 4%. Global internet search traffic statistics are similar.
In response to Google’s threat, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said “we don’t respond to threats. Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia.” He has also supported empowering Microsoft to replace Google if necessary.
Meanwhile, Facebook has banned news sharing in Australia and imposed a global ban on posting any articles from Australian sources in response to the bill. Attempting to share any news from Australian websites on the platform simply results in a message explaining that the company has decided to suspend users’ ability to do so due to the new legislation.
Internet companies already have access to a disturbingly large amount of user data. Governments must put their practices in check to protect the people. As noted in “The Social Dilemma,” a documentary about the eerie and invasive practices of social media, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.” While the convenience offered by social media is unparalleled, we must now, more than ever, consider whether the tradeoffs are worth it. Should we passively let our democratic institutions be gradually eroded and hand over power to private companies just for some added benefits?
There are obvious concerns about privacy. Big Tech is capable of tracking anything we do; they extract all of our search history, messages, real life conversations and movements, using them for targeted advertising and psychological priming. This is a highly concerning prospect; users should be able to control how much information is divulged, and to whom it is given. Instead, companies have been violating this mutual trust by providing increasingly targeted content, leading to the creation of online echo chambers and information bubbles that are detrimental to society. The real dangers of these massive global conglomerates lie in their extreme influence over our governments and institutions. Regardless of your position on the political spectrum, we cannot stand by as businesses take politics into their own hands and block the communications of political leaders based on internal decisions.
Trump’s role in inciting the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 should be investigated, but only according to the will of the people, by elected officials and within the confines of the U.S. Constitution. Our democratic institutions exist to hold our leaders accountable. Social media firms cannot be the judge, jury and executioner of such decisions. Despite his actions, Trump was, at that point, still a legally elected head of state, and banning him sets a dangerous precedent on the kind of control social media can have over politics and government, which Australia is attempting to avoid. Lobbying and campaign finance already allow the private sector to make their voices heard. Google is attempting to hold the Australian government and its citizens hostage. It would be a gross overreach of power if the company is successful.
In capitalist countries, private enterprises operate independently and within the confines of local laws. That gives them the right to be heard and negotiate with the government for mutual benefit. It does not, however, suggest that companies can bully countries and reject policies they find inconvenient. Regulation, as a guarantor of a fair shot for everyone to compete, is a key component of free markets, and Big Tech has pushed past the limits of free and fair competition. Australia is leading the way to modifying and enforcing stronger antitrust legislation, and the world must soon follow suit.
Big Tech has begun to gear up for war to better protect their monopoly. Google’s threats to pull out of Australia over justified compensation to news organizations is a prime example of self-preservation. Google is actively pushing news outlets out of business with its anti-competitive actions, and it is unlikely they will easily back down. The market cap of these tech firms exceeds many countries’ GDP, already giving them massive economic power. Let’s not give them political power as well. We must have bipartisan consensus on reining in tech giants to protect our privacy and promote fair economic competition. We must preserve our democratic institutions, and Big Tech threatens to destabilize them.
Aayush Gupta (22B) is from Singapore.
Global With Gupta is a column dedicated to global politics and international relations.