The world is trying to regulate big tech
It hasn’t been a good couple of weeks for big tech.
With the Wall Street Journal publishing a thorough investigation unveiling how Facebook is continuing to use its algorithms and old ways of interacting with its clients, while being aware of the harm that it causes, and Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen testifying to US policymakers on how Facebook has systemically prioritised profit over the safety of its users, the debate over regulating big tech has turned a page.
As such, the opaque ecosystem in which the Silicon Valley elite lives in might finally face some challenges.
With the testimony in front of the Senate commercial subcommittee on October 5th, Haugen painted a damning picture of the reality surfacing at Facebook. Based on her experience working at the company’s civic integrity division, she left Facebook in May, taking with her thousands of documents – she was later revealed as being the source from the WSJ investigation.
During her testimony, Haugen gave a detailed account of the ways she said Facebook employees are incentivized to turn a blind eye to problems its services cause, coupling her own experiences at the company with data from the internal Facebook documents she took with her.
Based on engagement metrics, Haugen says that Facebook has an entire system of incentivisation in place, created by Facebook’s leadership and implemented throughout the company. “By directing resources away from important safety programs and encouraging platform tweaks to fuel growth, these performance metrics dictated operations, a design that encouraged political divisions, mental health harms and even violence”, reports The Washington Post.
In a few words, Facebook has systemically and repeatedly prioritised profits over the safety of its users, painting a detailed picture of an organization where hunger to grow governed decisions, with little concern for the impact on society, and where chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is the ultimate enforcer of this system, controlling the most important decisions made at the company.
Haugen stipulated that he is known to say at the end of each meeting, “company over country”.
Having given this short overview of the tough couple of months big tech, and the Facebook conglomerate has had, coupled with a massive global outage of its platforms, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp at the beginning of the month. The platforms were down for over six hours, costing the company over 65 million dollars and downgrading Mark Zuckerberg’s ranking in the list of the world’s richest people – his own personal wealth was hit by more than six billion dollars.
A vital communication platform used by billions of users, businesses and customers, the outage has given the world a glimpse of how dependable it really is of this one company.
Having said that, what are lawmakers doing to rein in this massive amount of power?
Last week, on October 14th, US Democratic lawmakers have unveiled a major proposal, which could represent the biggest regulatory threat big tech has ever faced in 30 years. this targets the liability protection of big tech platforms, which have shielded digital companies from regulation, moderation of content and lawsuits.
“The legislation would carve out Section 230 so that a digital service could face liability if they knowingly or recklessly make a personalized recommendation that ‘materially contributed to a physical or severe emotional injury to any person’. The bill would apply to recommendations that use algorithms to boost certain content over others based on users’ personal information” reports the Washington Post.
This would set a huge precedent and attempts to weaken this section of the law has been criticised and opposed by both big tech and civil society groups over violation of fundamental rights.
With Facebook knowingly amplifying hate speech, virality and disinformation at the expense of public safety, the company has free control over their own algorithms, choosing to prioritise growth over the greater good that it was invented for.
Just last month, a bipartisan group of state attorneys have sent a letter to lawmakers in Washington, urging them to pass a series of bills that tighten antitrust laws aimed at big tech companies. “We encourage Congress to continue making improvements to these important measures. These include provisions to further enhance consumer protections from unlawful and irresponsible mergers and business practices, as well as necessary improvements to ensure that competition and innovation are not stifled,” the attorneys general wrote.
On European shores, the governing body of the EU is also in caught in the middle, when it comes to regulating big tech.
While last year the EU came up with a radical blueprint of breaking up big tech – a regulation “that would put onerous responsibilities on the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon to clean up their platforms and ensure fair competition”, the bill has since been delayed by strenuous Brussels procedures in the European parliament and is at risk of being heavily redacted, watered down and delayed.
The slow progress and lack of a common position on this topic is frustrating for Brussels lawmakers who want to see some of these policy proposals come into fruition. This allows big tech companies more time to capture key sectors of the economy. then, by the time big tech regulations come in, it might be too late for some markets.
“The two proposed bills are the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which is designed to force the so-called gatekeepers, such as Google, to ensure a level playing field on their vast online platforms, and the Digital Services Act (DSA), which clarifies the responsibilities of Big Tech for keeping illegal content off their services”, reports the Financial Times.
However, the way these packages are defined has split MEPs, namely with regards to how low the threshold should go – in terms of market value excess, and whether this should include digital gatekeepers only, or other digital services from the economy as well. Some believe that regulating a few companies will not fix the underlying problem, while expanding the threshold would mean capturing actors from traditional economy as well.
According to the FT, “under the current rules, only countries where large tech groups are headquartered have the power to impose onerous fines and force platforms to remove illegal content”. And, EU states, naturally, want different outcomes, depending on their own interests.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the fight for digital regulation and what it covers, is only just beginning.
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