First let’s get the definition right. What is big tech? Big tech is a term generally used to refer to the 4 or 5 of the largest technology companies that dominate the internet space. The list generally includes Alphabet (Google), Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. Each of these companies have a market valuation between $700 billion to over $2 trillion. Though not as big in terms of revenue or valuation as the 5 companies mentioned above, I include Twitter also in this list considering it’s influence on the public discourse.
The power and influence wielded by these big tech companies once again came into focus this week following the attack on the US Capitol building by a mob supporting President Donald Trump. In the days following this incident, Trump was accused of inciting the mob and his accounts were cancelled on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Not just Trump’s accounts but also those of his vocal supporters were also cancelled. Even some of the tweets on the official Twitter account of the President of United States were deleted by the company. These actions left many wondering if this was the culmination of the stormy relationship many tech companies, especially the big 5, had with Trump.
Ever since Trump’s election in 2016, there has been a constant demand from the political left to limit the power of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, to shape public opinion and their voting preferences. They have been pressuring these companies l to act tough on Trump and his supporters alleging dissemination of fake news and disinformation. Such demands came even more strongly from within these companies that are generally dominated by the leftist, social justice warrior (woke) crowd. For record, Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have been extremely lenient in dealing with the fake news and disinformation emanating from the leftists, compared to Trump and supporters. Therefore, the actions against Trump and his supporters has once again ignited discussions on the power of social media platforms in particular, and big tech companies in general, but this time from the other side of political divide, the Conservatives in American politics.
Though generally I am a strong advocate of minimal government interference in the affairs of private businesses, I tend to agree with those arguing for greater regulation of technology companies, especially the big tech companies that have grown so big that today they are a detriment to the public good. Access to information, all information and correct information, to the electorate is a critical prerequisite for a democracy to be an effective mode of governance. There is no doubt that the technology companies have initially played very important role in strengthening this aspect of the democratic process.
While the curation and dissemination of information in the pre-social media world was the exclusive preserve of a few elites in the print and television media (who therefore exerted a great deal of influence), the arrival of social media along with the smartphones truly flattened the ground to empower the masses who not only got access to innumerable first hand sources of information but also a means of directly access to public representatives and politicians. So, it was no more possible for the politicians to lie through their teeth to their constituents in the confidence that a hand full of journalists they had bought over would cover for them; there is always a fact checker waiting on the internet to burst these lies.
Like Spiderman would say, with great power comes great responsibility and the technology companies have been found severely wanting in handling the responsibility handed to them; this is especially true of the big tech companies. The power these companies enjoy is the access to and control over the data about billions of people all over the world and the responsibility they failed in is in the way they treat this data.
I will discuss below a few critical issues I have with the way these companies treat their users’ data that brought me around to the view that they need regulatory oversight.
Spread of disinformation
While sun light is necessary for good health, exposure to UV light will have opposite effects. Similarly access to information is necessary in a healthy democracy, spread of disinformation and fake news is extremely detrimental. And social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp have proven to be fertile breeding grounds for fake news of the worst kind. The very election of Donald Trump to presidency has been attributed to the efficacy of these platforms as a means to spread disinformation. There have been several instances in India where minor public disturbances were amplified into riots due to the spread of fake news on Whatsapp and other platforms. This came to the fore in a big way during the Delhi riots in early 2020.
Mishandling of user data
Another issue is with how these companies handle the data of their users. This became a major point of discussion in the light of Cambridge Analytica scandal when it was revealed that the data of millions of Facebook users was leaked to a shady data analytics company which then used it for behavioural analysis and targetted misinformation campaigns in a way that they were able to influence the outcome of elections in many countries.
The big tech companies are notorious for harvesting all sorts of data belonging to their users without their knowledge or consent in an attempt to increase their advertising revenues. Google and Facebook are probably the most severe offenders in this aspect; so much so that there is now an open war between Facebook and Apple. Facebook is also known to manipulate users’ data as a means to study their behaviour. In pursuit of satisfying their hunger for user data, these companies have often engaged in monopolistic anti-competition strategies such as buying off competitors (Facebook: Instagram, Whatsapp; Google: Android, Youtube, etc) or forcing smartphone manufacturers to pre-install their apps that users cannot uninstall. This keeps happening despite these companies often being exposed to anti-trust lawsuits costing them billions of dollars. Clearly they don’t care for the law as long as they can make more than what they have to pay up.
Peddling political agenda
Coming to the most troubling issue with the big tech and the greatest threat they pose to democracy all over the world – the use of these platforms to peddle the leftist political agenda. Most of these companies are housed in California and are populated with employees who can best be described as radical leftists engaged in perpetuating a social justice war or, in brief, woke crowd. And this is reflected in the way these platforms operate which has become even more prominent since the election of Trump. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube (a Google company) are notorious for de-platforming anyone not in agreement with the leftist agenda. This bias is most apparent this our country where anyone even mildly supportive of pro-Hindu groups is banned at the drop of a hat while rabid Islamists, communists and even those chanting slogans or Bharat ke tukde are left untouched and allowed to propagate their agenda.
Not only does the big tech suppress the voices they disagree with, but also use their platforms to enhance and amplify the agenda of the left. For example, Google has been found to manipulate search results in favour of certain SJW agenda points. Also, if you have used Google News, you would have noticed that they put up fact-checking reports and almost all of these reports tend to be from outlets peddling leftist agenda, even those discredited for spreading fake news like AltNews. Similar ideologically motivated fact-checks can be found on Facebook also. During recent elections in US, Twitter went so far as to put fact checks on the tweets of Trump but there was no such fact-checking on his opponent candidate.
In what could probably the most egregious action of politically motivated deplatforming, two of the biggest big techs, Google and Apple, acted in coordination to remove an app called Parler from their respective Play and App stores, thus ensuring that the app is not available to anyone using a smartphone. To make the deplatforming even more comprehensive, another big tech company, Amazon, removed the website of Parler from it’s servers so that the app cannot be accessed even using a browser on mobile or computer. Now, what is Parler? Parler is a competitor to Twitter offering similar services and one used by Conservatives in America who were banned by Twitter or simply didn’t like it’s political bias. Through these actions, big tech is virtually saying they will not allow any non-leftist ideas to even exist on the internet which in this day is the real town square where people interact and exchange/learn about new ideas.
Now, why is deplatforming of Parler by Apple, Google and Amazon significant for us India? As of this day, internet plays only a minor role in being able to determine the outcomes of election. It is certainly not as influential as in America. But the internet penetration is increasing at tremendous rates in our country. Thanks to Jio, literally thousands are accessing internet every day for the first time in their lives and most of these people are accessing the internet exclusively through apps on their smartphones. The virtual duopoly of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android in mobile software means that they now literally control what content people consume on the internet. So, the influence these two companies could have in the affairs of our country is potentially even higher than in America. And they have clearly shown through their actions in America that they will use this power in the service of the radical leftist ideologies.
To conclude, it is now more clear than ever before that the big tech companies have grown too big and too powerful and have started manipulating what we read, watch and how we think. They have also shown in no uncertain terms that they are willing to use their platforms, money and influence to further the agenda of the radical leftist ideology that has caused destruction of traditions, culture, families, social harmony, and economies everywhere in the world where it had come to dominate. And if we Indians do not wake up to this danger and demand action from our government and public representatives, it could have serious consequences for our society that is just starting to come out from centuries of slavery and poverty.