If we have learned anything during the past five years, it’s that Silicon Valley was wrong: Technology is not a benign force that will inherently improve the human condition. Nor are multinational technology companies somehow apart from or above politics. Rather, Big Tech is only the latest permutation of malignant capitalism afflicting the globe—every bit as greedy, opportunistic and exploitative as the fossil fuel industry or Wall Street.
Over the course of the last decade we have witnessed companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc. essentially corner their respective markets.
Donald Trump’s precipitous downfall in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol demonstrated that companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook are not only monopolies in their own right, but are able to work in concert with each other, and in doing so possess enough power to deplatform a sitting president.
I won’t deny it was pretty satisfying watching Trump finally get muzzled (after tweeting an estimated 34,000 times since 2015). And Twitter, being a private company, has the right to enforce its own policies. However, if Twitter were actually as concerned about safety as they claim, they should have booted Trump from their platform after Charlottesville.
Instead Twitter, like so many other corporations, only took a moral position once executives were sure it wouldn’t damage the brand or the profits. Twitter waited until after the Democrats won all three branches of government to ban someone who has been violating the terms of the user agreement since at least 2015. Seeing how Youtube, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and the rest of the tech industry followed suit, in an unprecedented and breathtakingly coordinated attack on a political figurehead, the timing makes it difficult to interpret their actions in any other way than as pandering to Democratic lawmakers in order to avoid meaningful regulation that people such as Elizabeth Warren have threatened.
One of the most ominous developments in the aftermath of the Capitol disaster was the fate suffered by Parler, the alternative social media app favored by right-wingers, conspiracy nuts and white nationalists. The Parler app was removed from both Android and Apple stores making it essentially impossible to run on a mobile device. If that weren’t enough, Amazon’s AWS servers discontinued Parler’s web hosting, which meant it pretty much ceased to exist. All of this happened in a matter of hours.
The implications of such coordinated action are, to put it mildly, concerning. Tech companies will argue they are justified, evoking their status as “private” companies, free to make decisions and enforce policies in the name of their shareholders.
But this underlines the problem: How is it that a handful of companies can essentially disappear someone from the internet? Where does one go after their hosting has been taken, they’ve been banned from both app stores and are not being indexed by Google?
While this may not violate the letter of the first amendment, it sure seems out of line with its spirit, given the ubiquitous and monopolistic nature of platforms like Google and Facebook.
Amazon, Google, Facebook (and even Apple to a lesser extent) regularly engage in anti-competitive behavior; they are monopolies and deserve to be broken up the way other monopolies have been in years passed.
But there may be an even better way that we can check Big Tech. There is already convincing evidence that broadband internet could be reclassified as a public utility. Internet service in South Korea is publicly owned and South Koreans enjoy the fastest internet in the world while Americans pay a higher rate than any other country for inferior service.
If the United States was able to implement something like this, it may not be much of a jump conceptually to imagine a publicly owned platform for commerce (Amazon), a publicly owned social forum (Facebook/ Twitter etc.) and public navigation of the internet (Google). And it’s only fair. After all, these companies launched with generous government funding /grants and have spent years doing everything they can to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. If Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest are truly as civic minded as they would have us believe, why not make them actually accountable to the people.