Should we keep the "Tech Giants" politically neutral?

October 5, 2018

 

The US President Donald Trump’s accusations towards technology and internet based companies open up and intensify a debate regarding the regulation of these companies. Mr Trump has repeatedly suggested that these companies, because of their political bias, are trying to silence out conservative voices. “Tech Giants”, as the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook have come to be known, provide a service that pervades public discourse like nothing before. Therefore, regulating these behemoths is vital, as it ensures that voices from all across the political spectrum can be heard. We need to explain why these businesses need regulation but also why each section of technology that affects wider society greatly needs incredibly specific regulations geared towards how that society is impacted. Similarly, due to the unique nature of modern technology, this sort of regulation is something that needs to be global in scale; if companies go across states,  mutual regulation between states is needed.

 

On the face of it, one could assume that this matter is a simple argument between free speech and censorship – an argument that’s becoming especially potent at universities and places of further learning. However, what is at stake here warrants an element of nuance. On the one hand, a complete lack of regulation champions the concept of the autonomous citizen (and by extension, the private business), independent of an authoritarian state that wants to control everything. However (and this is the view I take), a regulated set of businesses – businesses that have an impact on the social fabric of both domestic and international society much greater than any newspaper ever has or will – would allow voices otherwise suppressed via political bias. This is not simply a matter of repressing conservative voices; it’s a matter of unaccountable companies having a more significant impact on the daily lives of the public than any accountable government.

 

Firstly, we must draw distinctions between the different types of “Tech Giant” and what type of regulation may be respectively necessary. For example, very few people use services provided by Amazon in order to digest news and receive information about current affairs. Comparatively, regardless of the search engine used when searching for information online, using said engine is still referred to as “Googling” something. Therefore, it’s clear that the fields of technology and innovation, at least, are dominated by specific companies. A blanket set of “Tech Giant” regulations would thus be, not only incredibly difficult to pass through any sort of parliamentary-style democratic system, but would also be too broad to effectively address the risk these companies pose as significant players in shaping public discourse.

 

Matt Prince, the CEO of internet security site Cloudflare, summed this argument up perfectly in an interview with The Hill in August 2018: “While I totally respect the decisions for an Apple or a Facebook, which are much more editorial platforms in terms of deciding whether or not a certain piece of content is or is not allowed online, when you have the actual infrastructure of the Internet making editorial decision that’s particularly dangerous.” In short, these technology companies and their search engine manifestations, which form the backbone of the Internet “structure” that people actually use on a day to day basis, must be regulated with a much greater focus on addressing political bias.

 

Of course, the issue then is at what point do certain sites become part of this structure? This is an incredibly difficult question to answer and one which is linked to a number of different factors, including the extent of the companies’ respective monopolies over a certain areas of technology, its comparative monopolisation of these areas in one country compared to others, and so on. For example, although Facebook is hugely popular in Europe and the United States, China heavily restricts its usage. Thus, Facebook clearly has a larger impact in Europe than in China; so the extent of their regulation would be different and the way it is perceived as a intrinsic part of the Internet for some people would differ drastically. Due to the clear complexity of problems like these, it would be incredibly brash to even attempt to resolve these matter in a few hundred pages, never mind a few hundred words.

 

This brings me to the final part of my article. The Internet is a relatively new concept; what is unique about it, as everyone knows, is its reach. A woman in Florida could sell online goods to a man in Bangladesh with a few clicks and the transaction would not only be secure, but the goods could be shipped to that man instantly. The same immediacy of transaction exists regarding information. It’s instantaneous and global. Thus, regulation (if it’s wanted and needed) must also be global and involve as many states as possible coming to a consensus as to what this level of regulation should be. Cooperation between states is therefore vital in order to both generate openness and fairness across societies, but also so all citizens can access the same information across states and not have significant international disagreements purely because certain citizens are able to access certain information and certain citizens are not. This will obviously be incredibly difficult, but it’s definitely an admirable goal to strive for.

 

To conclude, “Tech Giants” are a unique and relatively new type of company, and are thus having a unique and unprecedented impact on society. Due to both their global reach and their increasing impact on the daily lives of normal people, they cannot be left alone or trusted with maintaining a politically neutral stance that many assume they maintain. If these ‘Giants’ are allowed to suppress news sources (whatever part of the political spectrum they come from) to suit their own agenda, they are actively suppressing and extinguishing debate on a variety of topics. Some of the more famous Internet based companies have more consumers than most countries have citizens! This, combined with the fact that they are currently relatively unaccountable, means that the chance they could significantly damage society is high. Thus, regulation is necessary.

 

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