Why Big Tech deplatforming should be deeply disturbing for everyone, regardless of your politics

An illustration of Big Tech governing speech through its power as a monopoly.

So many of today’s issues are viewed through a political lens, and that includes Big Tech deplatforming. But in reality, deplatforming is a problem worthy of deeper critical reflection as it touches on topics that are fundamental to democracy itself. 

Once thought of as an untameable jungle of free speech, the internet is now a walled garden, increasingly monitored and controlled by a handful of unregulated monopolies. The gatekeepers to the walled garden, companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, serve as the judge, jury, and executioner for the internet.

The latest display of their power came on late Jan. 29, when Google banned Element, a chat application that uses the federated Matrix chat protocol. Without warning, and through no fault of its own, Element was cut off from the Google Play Store, losing access to the 2.5 billion mobile devices that run on Android globally. Google claimed there was “abusive content somewhere on Matrix,” but this is like banning web browsers because there is abusive content somewhere on the internet.

After a public outcry, Google reversed its decision less than 48 hours later, saying the ban was made in error. Yet “errors” like this have become disturbingly common. There are hundreds of cases of these “inadvertent bans” by Big Tech. Google has also mistakenly blocked Reddit and podcast apps

Regardless of your politics, all instances of deplatforming should be deeply disturbing, even when some might think it’s justified, like in the case of Parler and Trump. The problem is not that Trump (or any other individual) was deplatformed but that deplatforming is possible in the first place. It is a deep societal problem that the public town squares of the 21st century, which are essential for civil discourse, are entirely controlled by a small number of unelected tech oligarchs. 

Google, Big Tech, and deplatforming: How we got here

Deplatforming sits at the intersection of free speech, technology, and antitrust, each of which is a highly complex issue on its own. There is undoubtedly a need for some level of content moderation, and even free speech has limits (for example, one cannot shout “Fire” in a crowded theater). But it is equally important to examine who has the power to decide who is heard and who isn’t.

Under current law, Big Tech platforms have the final word on their services. They have the right to decide which thinkers, politicians, and businesses are allowed onto their platform and which they will expel. This might seem reasonable until you consider Big Tech’s scale and how fundamental the internet is to modern-day life.

Most businesses can’t survive without an internet presence, which is subject to just a few gatekeepers. Facebook and Twitter can destroy a company’s social media presence, and Google and Apple can decide which companies can exist on mobile devices. Meanwhile, critical internet infrastructure companies, like Amazon Web Services, can determine the fate of a company’s entire online presence. 

This is a precarious position. Big Tech companies have repeatedly proven they will ruthlessly pursue their own interests at all costs. These companies allow misinformation on their platforms to increase user engagement. They constantly spy on their users, trying to find new ways to access previously private data, because the more data they collect, the more they can monetize.

How did it get to be this way? Part of the issue is the revolutionary aspect of the internet and the speed of technology. Regulators are always playing catch-up. However, Big Tech could not have accrued this power without the woeful dereliction of duty by the governments of the world’s major democracies. Politicians on both the right and left have allowed Big Tech to buy up their competition, use their platforms to favor their services over their competitors’, and even clone their competitors’ goods and undercut on price. 

Absent any regulation, Big Tech companies continue to expand their invasive reach. Facebook is trying to launch a new cryptocurrency, Google is moving into wearable smart devices, Apple is taking on health care, and Amazon is attempting to wring dollars out of the last few brick-and-mortar shops still standing. Any competitor standing in their way faces getting bought out, deplatformed, or chased out of the market by predatory pricing.

Thanks to this colossal failure, Big Tech now dominates the internet. And they continue working to consolidate their power. Big Tech is now the largest lobbying force in Washington DC. This corruption is present on both sides of the political spectrum. For example, the reported front-runner to head the Biden Justice Department’s antitrust division, Renata Hesse, is a former lawyer who has advised Google and Amazon and whose husband’s firm still works for Google. 

The problem, as clearly stated by Bruno Le Maire, the French Minister of Economy, is that when it comes to Big Tech, “The regulation of the digital world cannot be done by the digital oligarchy.” Unfortunately, the tech giants have increasingly captured the regulators and politicians who are supposed to be representing the interests of the people. 

Big Tech has created an internet and political system that primarily benefits the monopolists. But it does not have to be this way.

What we do now will determine the internet — and the world’s — future

We are faced with a starkly binary choice as we consider the internet’s future:

  • Leave its governance entirely up to Big Tech and concede that the internet will only serve a handful of companies going forward
  • Implement laws, passed through a democratic process, that regulate what tech giants can and can’t do on the internet and return power to the people

Democracy cannot survive an internet under the thumb of Big Tech. Monopolists ignore the proliferation of fake news and the chilling effect constant surveillance has on free speech in the pursuit of ever-greater profits, and they are eroding the foundation of democracy. Politicians around the world need to reassume their role of regulating monopolies and serving the interests of the citizens who have elected them.

While some people take pause at the mention of regulation, it is much preferable to the current system. Democracies are made up of elected representatives and are therefore accountable to the people. Without strong regulation, the tech oligarchs are accountable to no one, and they will only shape the internet to their own benefit.

The solution: strong antitrust laws and people willing to enforce them

Stronger legislation is needed so that businesses can feel confident that a monopolist won’t unfairly undermine them and regulators can step in to ensure that Big Tech follows rules that ensure a fair and open internet. 

However, the real solution is to eliminate the monopolies altogether. Progress is being made, and there are things you can do to fight back:

  1. While it is not perfect, we support the European Union’s proposal, the Digital Markets Act. If vigorously and swiftly enforced, it could effectively curb Google’s and the other monopolists’ anticompetitive behavior. If you live in Europe, write or call your MEP and tell them you are in favor of a strong DMA.
  2. And we are encouraged by the dozens of US state attorneys general who have filed suit against Google, Facebook, and other Big Tech companies for antitrust violations. If you live in the United States, write or call your elected representatives and tell them you are in favor of strong antitrust investigations into Big Tech.
  3. Finally, you can choose to do business with companies and organizations that respect your privacy and freedom.

We must hold our elected representatives accountable for defending our interests, as opposed to Big Tech’s interests. If we fail to do so, we will only have ourselves to blame when tech giants continue to put profits over fundamental human rights.

We can make the internet free and fair once more, but there is not a moment to spare. This is not just a fight to rein in monopolies and allow innovation and the markets to flourish; It is a fight to preserve democracy.

Updated Feb. 22, 2021

About the Author

Andy Yen

Andy is the Founder and CEO of ProtonMail. Originally from Taiwan, he is a long time advocate of privacy rights and has spoken at TED, SXSW, and the Asian Investigative Journalism Conference about online privacy issues. Previously, Andy was a research scientist at CERN and received his PhD in Particle Physics from Harvard University. You can watch his TED talk online to learn more about ProtonMail's mission.

 

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16 comments on “Why Big Tech deplatforming should be deeply disturbing for everyone, regardless of your politics

  • “even when it might seem justified, like in the case of Parler and Trump. ”

    A totally unprofessional statement. It’s shocking to see how unprofessional a company ProtonMail really is.

    Reply
  • by the way, the real solution is very simple: ad blockers. They will crash the entire business model of many of these companies. If they can’t display ads, they won’t make money, and tracking won’t make any sense, either.

    Reply
  • Alex, protonmail is professional and about “Parler and Mr former USA president Donald Trump”, considering all facts, it had to be done.
    Now it is not just by adblocking. Because these adblocks developers hardly receive donations and can’t run for long on their own means. Majority comply with tech. giants, so that specific trackers or add are being let through in exchange of finance. All of this contribute in profiling you.

    In the case adblocks become purely transparent, some sites will break, restrict access or just block services.

    What should be done is to call out the injustice, sensitize our relatives about the threat and do as Protonmail stated.

    Cause No One is above the law.

    Reply
  • @Alex I don’t think that’s an unprofessional statement, he said “might seem” he clearly didn’t take a stance on the issue. He was simply tying the article into current events.

    Reply
  • So Protonmail.com is an alt-right platform. Scary what a stranglehold mentally ill and personality disordered people have over freedom to speak on internet. Right! We should be able to teach other theories like how the world is flat, Jews cause all the problems, God created the world in 7 days and illegal immigrants are coming to take all the jobs/security away. One day the alt-right will pay a high price for enabling this I hope.

    Reply
  • I think the real long term solution should be decentralization. Letting the government tell companies what they can and cannot do does not give power back to the people, it’s just continuing to pass along the hot-potato ticking time-bomb that is corruption due to power. This is why we need to support companies like Twitter’s new project Blue-sky, and non-profits like Signal

    Reply
  • I cannot agree with the statement regarding being justified to delist or take Parler off and even Trump. Any ‘justification’ would then be based on the view of the platform which is why we are having these freedom rights removed and isn’t this what your main premise or complaint is about. And I agree with what you are saying in principle.

    Reply
  • We need an alternative for all these companies. The Big Tech is full of talk about democracy and rights, yet they rule like dictators. People can easily make an impact just by stop buying their products and services. The only way to bring them down is to hit them where it hurts – their money.

    Reply
  • Alex, what you have written is an example of quoting out of context.

    The full quote from the article is the following:

    “Regardless of your politics, all instances of deplatforming should be deeply disturbing, even when it might seem justified, like in the case of Parler and Trump. ”

    It should be pretty clear that Proton’s position is that “all instances of deplatforming should be deeply disturbing”, including the deplatforming of Trump.

    Reply
  • This statement, “even when some might think it’s justified, like in the case of Parler and Trump,” does not prove or disprove Andy’s political position. Even if Andy turns out to be a liberal, it sounds like he understands the core values of privacy, freedom of speech, and respect for differing opinions. This is where we need to get back to as a nation. Agreeing to disagree. Honoring one’s freedom to choose. Making laws that stop monopolies. Protecting privacy, freedoms and liberties.

    I enjoyed and agree with this blog.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  • Realmente tudo isso é muito perturbador. A matéria vai ao cerne da questão e nos remete a profundas reflexões sobre novas posturas devemos adotar enquanto cidadãos usuários da internet. Por outro lado, tenho notado em diversos artigos sobre as Big Tech, nos quais são frequentemente citados o Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon e até Apple, mas não me lembro de ter visto nenhuma referência à Microsoft. A omissão à essa Big Tech significa que ela trata com mais respeito a privacidade dos seus usuários?

    Reply
    • Oi Marcos. É mais que a Microsoft realmente não fornece uma plataforma pública, como tal, da maneira que as outras empresas mencionadas fazem.

      Hi Marcos. It’s more that Microsoft doesn’t really provide a public platform, as such, in the way that the other companies mentioned do. Edit. My apologies to Marcos and thanks to Cassidy for pointing out that my initial response was in the wrong language.

      Reply