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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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