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US government gears up for another attack on big tech

Legal gavel and smartphone

Ahead of another attempt to bring big tech companies to heel, the White House got a bunch of experts together to list its many sins.

No representatives of the companies – Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google – were invited to this gathering of people apparently cherry-picked to give testimony in favour of the government’s grand plan. “Today, the White House convened a listening session with experts and practitioners on the harms that tech platforms cause and the need for greater accountability,” said the announcement.

Why a silly concept such as a ‘listening session’ was required when written testimony would have sufficed isn’t clear, but political theatre was presumably a factor. There were some important topics covered, such as the effect of big tech on the broader markets in which they operate, data privacy, the excessive power and influence of their algorithms and the effect of social media on the mental health of children.

But inevitably the prospect of political censorship soon reared its ugly head, with vague, subjective terms such as ‘misinformation’, ‘toxic online cultures’ and ‘radicalization’ scattered liberally through the published highlights. Just as with the UK’s Online Safety Bill, this initiative seems designed to conflate partisan objectives with issues everyone can agree on. Here are the resulting ‘core principles for reform’, together with excerpts of the explanatory blurb.

  1. Promote competition in the technology sector. We need clear rules of the road to ensure small and mid-size businesses and entrepreneurs can compete on a level playing field, which will promote innovation for American consumers and ensure continued U.S. leadership in global technology.
  2. Provide robust federal protections for Americans’ privacy. We especially need strong protections for particularly sensitive data such as geolocation and health information, including information related to reproductive health.
  3. Protect our kids by putting in place even stronger privacy and online protections for them, including prioritizing safety by design standards and practices for online platforms, products, and services.
  4. Remove special legal protections for large tech platforms. Tech platforms currently have special legal protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that broadly shield them from liability even when they host or disseminate illegal, violent conduct or materials. The President has long called for fundamental reforms to Section 230.
  5. Increase transparency about platform’s algorithms and content moderation decisions. Platforms are failing to provide sufficient transparency to allow the public and researchers to understand how and why such decisions are made, their potential effects on users, and the very real dangers these decisions may pose.
  6. Stop discriminatory algorithmic decision-making. We need strong protections to ensure algorithms do not discriminate against protected groups, such as by failing to share key opportunities equally, by discriminatorily exposing vulnerable communities to risky products, or through persistent surveillance.

To be fair, they all have their merits. Legislation and regulation have always been several steps behind big tech and they desperately need to play catch up. However, as the tweet below touches upon, noble aspirations are one thing but implementing them in a constructive and even-handed manner is quite another.

The Section 230 stuff is especially fraught. Of course there need to be protections for online platforms that allow third party contribution, otherwise much of the social internet would be impossible. But our position is that those protections should come with the condition that platforms are prohibited from censoring beyond the confines of established law.

If Section 230 does, as implied above, make it impossible to prevent the publication of illegal material on ‘platforms’ then that does need reform. But the rhetorical we have consistently heard from US politicians is that they, like many of their UK counterparts, would like extra-legal power of censorship over online platforms, especially where the content may influence their own careers, and Section 230 reform could be used as a tool to achieve that.

It’s common for legislators, especially in the US, to introduce sprawling laws with names like ‘The make everything better bill’, in which they launder pet projects, pork and other contentious items by bundling them in with an unrelated but laudable broader aim. It has long been our suspicion that the underlying motive for US government action against big tech is more to do with extorting control, especially over social media content and this announcement does little to allay that.

 

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