What’s Next? Tech Platforms, Power, and Accountability
This article is part of our Tech for Inclusion Blog Series identifying goals and strategies for deploying tech for social and political inclusion in Europe and the United States. Register now for GMF’s Inclusive Leadership Summit: Tech for Inclusion convening virtually on December 1-4, 2020 to explore these topics further.
The technological advances wrought by the internet have undoubtedly been a force for good. Beyond connecting the world in recent years, the power of technology and social media platforms has led to social movements that have allowed us to expose police brutality and sexual harassment and enabled us to continue our lives amidst the coronavirus pandemic. However, as anti-competitive behavior has become the norm for large tech companies, the unfettered power of their platforms presents a growing challenge for democracy, innovation, smaller competitors, and consumer choice and protection. To promote social, economic, and political inclusion and ensure that the internet works for the benefit of all, societies must find equitable ways to hold large tech companies accountable for the content on their platforms, data gathering, and anti-competitive behavior.
Concerns over tech monopolies have increased in recent years as companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon have grown in size, power, and influence. The growth of these companies has been down to the initial liberalization of monopoly/trust laws by the Regan administration. The U.S. approach is different to the European approach, which is based on preventing market dominance rather than on reducing consuming costs. Classically, the size of monopolies stymies competition by pushing out small companies that often drive innovation, which leads to rising prices and limits on consumer sovereignty and choice. As American tech companies have come to dominate the global digital experience, they have become increasingly difficult to regulate as lawmakers continue to be behind the curve in properly understanding the digital space and the implications of tech giants’ behaviors. In regard to their own platforms, the largest tech companies have largely lost the ability to monitor the content of their platforms, allowing for a pandemic of misinformation that have made us and our democracies less safe. From live video streaming of terrorist attacks to political interference in elections and the perpetuation of voter suppression tactics, social media platforms in particular have been unable, and sometimes unwilling, to curb the worst excesses in terms of content. We have seen how bots have been deployed by various countries to stifle democratic movements whilst also spreading misinformation such as in the Brexit vote and the 2016 and 2020 American presidential election campaigns. This interference is widespread globally, yet, independently, most nations are not large or powerful enough to properly enforce guidelines or restrictions on how platforms gather data, monitor content, or advertise.
There has been even less talk about the threat posed by large Chinese tech platforms. Companies like AliBaba, Huawei, and Baidu are essentially extensions of the Chinese state, subjected to even less restrictions. Not only do they benefit from less regulation, they also regularly receive state aid and support. In exchange for this support, these platforms have a responsibility to share information with the Chinese state, with dire implications for European and U.S. consumers. The growth of these companies then represents even more of an anti-democratic threat than the rise of the big U.S. platforms.
Furthermore, tech platforms’ reliance on advertisement and the monetization of harvested data poses a threat to political discourse and consumer safety. Our decision-making processes have increasingly been given over to the algorithms that control what we see on sites such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon. The effects of this influence go far beyond the digital space as we see how social media has drastically transformed the nature of journalism and how Amazon has forever changed retail. If there is any hope in gaining control over these effects, it lies in finding equitable solutions for holding tech companies accountable.
First, we must grapple with our awkward relationship to platform content control. Thus far, platforms have been allowed to self-regulate and moderate in most countries, while a few others, such as Germany, have taken a more active approach though legislating platforms’ obligation to remove content. What is needed is a middle ground to ensure that tech companies acknowledge their duty of care to consumers. The creation of an Independent Online Harms Regulator could establish firm guidelines about permissible content and data collection. This regulatory body could also enforce greater transparency around the data, algorithms, and AI databases that are increasingly used in daily life, including biometric identification, migration, surveillance, and predictive policing. The GDPR has been successful in entrenching and expanding consumer rights to have more control over their data, but it should be a first step in outlining what is both permissible and prohibitive for tech companies. Expanding consumer rights recognizes the power of data and affects how platforms use and share this data on vulnerable populations.
In order to protect the interests of both consumers and democracies around the world, international regulation should be created to control the size of tech platforms and limit the prioritization of profits and shareholders. While breaking up large tech companies may be the nuclear option, together nations can confront how these corporations use their size to justify avoiding paying their fair share in taxes through global tax policy reform. International policy would acknowledge the social benefit these platforms offer while holding them accountable for their outsized social and political influence. The unchecked growth of tech companies is thus a call for leaders across the transatlantic space to work together to redefine the role of technology and the tech industry in our societies.