With political polarization likely to become more intense the closer we approach the November midterm elections, one problem that increasingly angers individuals across the ideological spectrum is the excessive power of Big Tech.
Transpartisan concerns are legitimate that Big Tech corporations have incredible influence over our lives, are too economically and politically powerful, and are publicly unaccountable.
Similar outrage on the political right about corporate power in general is more recent. Mitch McConnell may have begun the criticism last year when he instructed “corporate America” to “stay out of politics” (though pivoting after realizing corporations bankroll GOP political campaigns). The annual convention of the conservative Federalist Society featured one speaker who stated, “The Chamber of Commerce is not our friend” while another lamented that “[m]assive corporations are pursuing a common and mutually agreed upon agenda to destroy American freedom.” “Big Business is not our ally,” said Marco Rubio, while Ted Cruz proclaimed “Big Tech is malevolent. Big Tech is corrupt. Big Tech is omnipresent.”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has provided a new round of unilateral censorship by Big Tech against those critical of U.S. militarism, corporatism, and kleptocracy. YouTube has flagged Oliver Stone’s documentary Ukraine on Fire. The banning or limiting the visibility of Russia Today (RT) by Microsoft, Apple, Meta-Facebook, Google, YouTube and TikTok has meant the silencing of voices like journalist and author Chris Hedges and commentator and comedian Lee Camp – both of whom opposed the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Netflix has gone so far as to shelve a production of Anna Karenina. The U.S. government hasn’t had to formally do any of this censoring as corporations have effectively assumed that role.
Opposition to corporate power differs given the issue (i.e. political elections, lobbying, commenting on social issues). On Big Tech, however, there’s much agreement about their power to dictate in secret what ideas are promoted, which ones are suppressed and who is allowed to participate on their platforms.
The core issue is free speech. How much power should Big Tech have to assert their own “corporate” free speech to protect their own interests? And how much power should they have to deny free speech to others?
Big Tech corporations shouldn’t have constitutional rights to influence public policies favorable to them through political campaign contributions and lobbying, nor be the referee of free speech rights of billions of people. Meta-Facebook and Twitter decide the rules of those who access their electronic corporate “property.” The same is true of Google with its own authority to censor information and groups.
These corporations are driven primarily not by providing an arena for “free speech,” but their bottom lines. Sensationalism sells. Polarization is profitable.
Their business model is to keep users on their sites as long as possible to sell specific advertisements based on data mined from their online interests. The more lurid and outrageous the content, the longer viewers stick around and the more cash rolls in. This explains Meta-Facebook’s ads for body armor and other military equipment next to content promoting false election information and the attempted coup. Meta-Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen confirmed that the corporation has “a system that amplifies division, extremism, and polarization… Their profit maximizing machine is generating self-harm and self-hate — especially for vulnerable groups like teenage girls.”
Both sides have only themselves to blame for the creation of these technological Frankensteins. Meta-Facebook would never have become so profitable (with a market value above $1 trillion) nor able to monopolize social networking (with its acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp) if not for incredibly weak antitrust laws and regulations on privacy, market power and advertising fraud that the political right constantly fights to maintain The political left, meanwhile, has largely taken a hands-off approach in Congress to the divisive and constitutionally-challenging issue of limiting free speech via legislation by permitting Big Tech companies to establish their own internal free speech rules.
So how can we make Big Tech accountable to We the People?
One proposal that’s not a real solution is regulation. Regulating monopolies throughout history had led to entrenched monopolies and captured regulatory agencies and regulators – leading to greater economic concentration and political power by the industry.
A better option is to break up the monopolies. Several bills in Congress have called for breaking up Meta-Facebook and Google. The result would be greater economic competition and somewhat weakened political power. This needs to be coupled with rethinking, if not reimagining, technological communication as a public utility, with some services/platforms public or democratically controlled.
Another option is to alter or abolish Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The law has become an incentive for corrupt business activities as the tech corporations are protected from any liability.
More fundamental is to shift back from the private/corporate arena to the public the issue of free speech – despite its complexity. An absolutist reverence to “free speech” in all its forms is neither noble, nor based in reality. While free speech is a critical requirement in any authentic democratic society, it must be balanced against the rights to safety, dignity, respect and integrity. “Freedom to speak” anywhere at any time on any platform threatening violence toward others with differences should not be protected. Political free speech is already limited in our society – whether time limits to testify in public forums or times of the day/night to read aloud the Constitution in your front yard.
Finally, constitutional rights of Big Tech corporations – in fact, all corporate entities – should be abolished by passing HJR48, the We the People Amendment. First Amendment “free speech” was intended solely for human beings. The hijacking of the First and other Amendments by corporate entities have corrupted the political process and insulated corporate entities in a variety of ways from public accountability and the ability to achieve political self-determination.
Many, if not all, of these solutions have support from vast numbers of people on the ground across the country and across the political spectrum. Now is both a teachable moment and organizing opportunity to search for transpartisan common ground to organize for ways to make Big Tech accountable to all people.
Greg, Jennie, Shelly, George, Leila, Daniel, Saleem, Jessica, Kaitlin, Joni, Milly, Jason, Alfonso & Tara