The digital uprising finally happened.
Last week, Twitter blocked @realDonaldTrump for life. In the meantime, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg wrote: “We believe the risk that the president can continue to use our service during this time is simply too great,” when US President Donald Trump shut down his own company from millions of digital disciples Length of his presidency. Subsequently, the digital payments company Stripe started all payment activities related to the Trump campaign while Shopify closed the online stores affiliated with Trump. Suddenly the train was overwhelmed with Pinterest, GoFundMe, Snapchat and many others. As the dominant platforms became inhospitable to the Trumpists, there was a rush for more welcoming alternatives; However, the main refuge, Parler, soon found that Google, Apple, and Amazon had turned off their oxygen.
All that can be said is January 6th – the day a pro-Trump mob overran the Capitol – is going to change technology as we know it. Perhaps the siege served as the proverbial last straw, and even Big Tech, in all its efforts to facilitate full communication, couldn’t look the other way after much of the day’s violence had erupted on their platforms.
Even so, there was a second momentous event on January 6th that may have contributed to this sudden wave of haughtiness. The Democrats took two seats in the Senate in Georgia that day and will control all three branches of government following the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. The Democrats already had a 449-page report from the House of Representatives Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law Subcommittee that allowed them to come up with a case for reviewing and reshaping the power of big tech that has long been a target of the party, and now it had to do that too.
After last week’s violence, it seems like a good thing that a new reality for tech is unfolding. However, there are several reasons to be concerned as well.
The main cause for concern is one I wrote about earlier this month: Technology is not a high priority for the most important person in the new administration, Biden. But now, to get it right, Biden cannot simply turn to the industry as a convenient scapegoat. It needs to take a more holistic view and see the sector as a tool to address many of its priorities: pandemic response, economic recovery, racial justice and climate action.
Second, calls for tech companies to restrain their power – and for the industry to respond – are inevitably reactive. This was true when news of data breaches such as Facebook’s contract with Cambridge Analytica emerged. It’s true when concerns about misinformation – about a raging pandemic or political conspiracy theories – reach a boiling point. It’s true when a president’s Twitter account with over 88 million followers is closed at its peak after already delivering 59,558 tweets full of falsehoods, provocations and downright dangerous content. Trump has been analyzed as the biggest driver of pandemic misinformation and the most prominent propagator of misinformation in elections, but his social media accounts were allowed to continue until rioters took over the Capitol. In view of the central position of the industry in the global discourse, in the world economy and on the stock markets, it is unacceptable that Big Tech did not actively consider and foresee the risks and opportunities of its products. The same applies to governments that are still struggling to cobble together forward-looking political and legal frameworks that can withstand and avoid the uninterrupted succession of crises. If remedial action is taken by Twitter or Facebook CEOs, it should worry everyone that a few people can wield so much power to determine the future of democracy. You should be wondering why elected officials let it get this far.
Third, any drastic measure that is expedient and reactive can have unintended consequences. For example, by banning certain users on their platforms, Twitter, Facebook, and Google are creating fertile ground for new splitter platforms to gain followers – and soon you’ll have Fox News’ digital parallels. To make matters worse, these alternatives can be under the radar of law enforcement or regulators when they turn to end-to-end encryption and blockchain technologies. How else would organized armed “protests” be planned in 50 state capitals in the run-up to the inauguration day? On the other hand, the enactment of laws that make the platforms directly responsible for all content brings new risks with it, as only very large, dominant players like Facebook, Google and Twitter will survive as they are the only ones who can afford the legal consequences.
All of this doesn’t mean January 6th broke technology and there is nothing to be done. Instead, there are three ways Biden and tech leaders, as the new president might say, can better back down.
First, Biden should appoint an Internet Tsar and set up a regulator with oversight over the entire tech industry: maybe a Federal Digital Commission? The United States should have a single point of accountability and integration. There is currently no such agency overseeing one of the most significant, complex and multi-dimensional industries in the country. The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have problems because some of the problems are theirs. Holistic regulation of technology, however, requires more than incremental approaches or litigation that focus on narrow issues, either because there isn’t a government agency with a broad enough mandate, or because lawyers don’t believe they can win a more complex case. Technology isn’t just a modern version of the phone or the telegraph. It integrates communication, algorithmic analysis and decision making, cybersecurity and public safety, commerce, payments, user-driven innovation and creativity, entrepreneurship, social justice and inclusion, artificial intelligence, automation and data insights, and much more.
One of the historic challenges in setting up a brand new federal agency was splitting the government. While both Democrats and Republican lawmakers had an interest in limiting the power of technology, they could never agree on their core concerns. Now, with full control of the government, the Democrats have the votes to finally establish a dedicated regulator with the power to regulate the technology sector in an inclusive and proactive manner.
Second, the government must take steps to reform the technology, but the focus should be changed. The pre-election drumbeat revolved around anti-competitive behavior and antitrust law. These are important concerns, but more substantial ones have emerged and should take precedence. As I already mentioned, antitrust disputes historically drag on for a long time and usually lead to settlements. Antitrust measures are making headlines and will certainly keep some powerful backers who want to hold on to them: Senator Amy Klobuchar, a likely lawyer, is now writing a book on the subject. However, a lengthy process could completely overshadow a more pressing, unsolved technological problem that emerged as the key lesson from the January 6 attack. This has to do with an arcane but essential law that has been described as “one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet”: Section 230 of the Law on Decency in Communication, Websites, Including Social Media Company, providing content created by others with immunity to liability to be hosted or moderated, which enables them to host a wide variety of content.
Finally, investors – who are ultimately the most powerful stakeholders influencing the decisions of technology company executives – should be reinforced. In recent years, environmental, social and governance (ESG) ratings have become an important part of investment-ability considerations. ESG investments are expected to accelerate in a post-pandemic world. And so the CEOs of tech companies have an incentive not to run counter to this growing class of investors. After January 6, a substantial part of the “S” in the ESG on big tech should include a company’s impact on democratic institutions and actions to protect society from violence, “infodemia” or misinformation in either area of public health and public discourse and civil unrest – even if open discourse and free speech are supported.
Shutting down @realDonaldTrump after the Jan 6th mayhem was the easy part – though it took an unprecedented national crisis to get there. Even the first steps towards indicting the man for the second time, though an event of historic proportions, seem so inevitable that it seems straightforward. Now the hard work of establishing the basic democratic institutions must begin. An essential part of this effort is technology repair. The first step on that journey is to realize that one of the most powerful foundations of the American democratic project, threatened and then revived last week, is the Constitution. It has held up mainly because of the wisdom and foresight of its authors. Tech, too, is now a basic requirement for the American project and for others around the world. It is time to apply these principles of wisdom and foresight to the way we approach technology.