If we had seen our Prime Minister fall from power because three companies decided that their dominance in society should be used to bring her down, we would be outraged. Yet that pretty much just happened in the United States. The deplatforming of President Trump by Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon was the move that redirected and silenced political support for President Donald Trump. Local Police response was small. The armed forces didn’t move against him. Electricity companies never wavered. Mainstream media companies couldn’t get enough. His own party was hardly united against him. Nothing regulated him at all. Until President Trump was brought down by three companies acting in unison. It looked like a cartel in operation.
There are, as the title of a book from 2019 says, twenty-six words that created the internet; they constitute a clause inserted into the 1996 Telecommunications Act. That created a liability shield of online platforms. Users can upload videos to Youtube, post reviews on Amazon and Tripadvisor, and enables Facebook and Twitter to offer social networking platforms to billions – all without incurring legal liability for what’s done on those platforms. Section 230 is the secret get-out-of-jail secret behind countless internet fortunes – and if it were repealed tomorrow, many of those platforms would shrivel.
We have good reason to thank these social media giants for finally bringing Donald Trump low. But in part I can use the collective noun “we” because “we” are not supporters of Donald Trump. There is no regulation that would stop that same political power within Big Tech from turning on the left and on the Democratic President and bringing him down as well. I hate Donald Trump, but I hate even more any power that can bring down a democratically elected leader – and big tech is clearly more powerful than the most powerful government in the world.
Silicon Valley bosses did not silence Mr Trump in a fit of conscience. If Big Tech supported the left or even supported democracy itself then it would not have enabled the rise of racism and populism the world over in the last decade. No, that dominant apparent cartel acted precisely to send a signal to both the Republicans and the Democrats and indeed to the new Democratic President that they have the power to stave off anti-trust actions by a Democrat-controlled Congress. Elizabeth Warren threatened to break up big tech and blasted Facebook for “spreading Trump’s lies and disinformation.”
In her post, Here’s How We Can Break Up Big Tech, she said in 2019:
As these companies have grown larger and more powerful, they have used their resources and control over the way we use the internet to squash small businesses and innovation, and substitute their own financial interests for the broader interests of the American people. To restore the balance of power in our democracy, to promote competition, and to ensure that the next generation of technology innovation is as vibrant as the last, it’s time to break up our biggest tech companies.”
Her plan to turn social media into platform utilities offers a way to advantage social values such as telling the truth over the bottom line. But with her consumer protection hat on, her focus was less on the political power they hold and more on consumer choice and commercial innovation:
Now Republicans and Democrats alike want to reign in Big Tech. For the Republicans, it’s a bit late. Their party has been massively damaged through this Presidency and in particular the last three weeks – with more damage to come through all the investigations and charges. Trump’s movement can only wither because the Big Tech platforms that rose him to prominence have decided to lower him and the world of his opinions back down again.
Social media’s moves against the President last week weren’t a coup in the way that his supporters wanted a coup the other way, but it was a way-faster destruction of political power than our own Employment Contracts Act or the US Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act.
The Australian federal government has really only regulated social media as a news distribution platform, and there is no sign of further regulation.
And of course regulating this largely unregulated sea of power is hard.
But the rapid fall of Trump shows that failure to adequately regulate Big Tech will continue to give them the power to bring down any democratically elected government that they like. Big Tech need to have that power removed from them.