Face­book, Google and Twit­ter have been get­ting away with dis­re­gard­ing law and avoid­ing tax for far too long

Weekend Gold Coast Bulletin - - OPINION - GRA­HAM HRYCE mal­ice.con­sult­ing@gmail.com

GUS­TAVE Flaubert, the nine­teenth cen­tury nov­el­ist, dis­liked trains be­cause he felt that they “per­mit­ted more peo­ple to move about, meet and be stupid to­gether”.

For the same rea­son – namely, that tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion may pro­mote ig­no­rance – we should be ex­tremely wary of mod­ern tech gi­ants like Face­book, Google and Twit­ter.

For more than ten years the tech gi­ants have been per­mit­ted to run amok and, in the process, have fun­da­men­tally changed western so­ci­ety. From hum­ble be­gin­nings, they have be­come global mega-cor­po­ra­tions worth bil­lions of dol­lars, with an in­flu­ence that ex­tends far beyond their cap­i­talised worth.

The tech gi­ants have de­bauched mod­ern elec­tion­eer­ing, re­shaped mod­ern jour­nal­ism, and im­posed an on­line sys­tem of surveil­lance on their bil­lions of users beyond any­thing that even Ge­orge Or­well could have imag­ined.

And all this has been achieved while dis­re­gard­ing le­gal re­straints, en­gag­ing in mo­nop­o­lis­tic prac­tices and pay­ing as lit­tle tax as pos­si­ble.

Re­cent events, how­ever, sug­gest that the tide may be turn­ing against the tech be­he­moths.

This week the US Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee held hear­ings into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Face­book, Google and Twit­ter did not dis­pute that they per­mit­ted Rus­sian sources to bom­bard Amer­i­can vot­ers with huge amounts of pro-Don­ald Trump “fake news” and bo­gus sto­ries dur­ing the elec­tion.

The tech gi­ants could not ex­cuse their con­duct be­cause they have al­ways main­tained that they bear no re­spon­si­bil­ity for the ma­te­rial that they pub­lish – on the spe­cious ground that they are mere “tech­nol­ogy plat­forms” and not me­dia com­pa­nies.

Se­na­tor Dianne Fe­in­stein was not im­pressed, telling them “you cre­ated these plat­forms and now they are be­ing mis­used. You have to be the ones to do some­thing about it, or we will.” Se­na­tor Richard Burr ac­cused them of “dam­ag­ing the se­cu­rity, safety and sovereignty of our na­tion.”

Sim­i­lar con­cerns were raised dur­ing the re­cent Bri­tish elec­tion about false and mis­lead­ing po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing ap­pear­ing on Face­book, which com­pletely by­passed UK elec­toral laws.

As all main­stream me­dia com­pa­nies are acutely aware, Face­book and Google have changed the face of mod­ern jour­nal­ism in re­cent years by sy­phon­ing off huge amounts of ad­ver­tis­ing dol­lars from news­pa­pers.

Hard copy news­pa­pers are now in dan­ger of dis­ap­pear­ing al­to­gether, and in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism and lo­cal news­pa­pers are un­der threat, as ad­ver­tis­ers con­tinue to de­fect to the tech gi­ants in droves.

Un­der­ly­ing these devel­op­ments is the tech com­pa­nies’ dis­re­gard of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty and defama­tion laws – which, of course, main­stream pub­lish­ers are obliged to com­ply with.

In 1996, the tech gi­ants tried to per­suade the Aus­tralian High Court that defama­tion laws should not ap­ply to them. The High Court re­jected the ar­gu­ment, but more re­cently Google has con­vinced some Aus­tralian courts that is not a “pub­lisher” for the pur­pose of defama­tion law.

Much of the con­tent pub­lished by the tech gi­ants is pub­lished in com­plete dis­re­gard of the in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights of its cre­ators. The mu­sic in­dus­try, in par­tic­u­lar, has suf­fered for years at the hands of the tech be­he­moths in this re­gard.

Amer­i­can and Euro­pean cor­po­rate reg­u­la­tors are now be­lat­edly turn­ing their at­ten­tion to the mo­nop­o­lis­tic prac­tices of the tech gi­ants, and the Euro­pean Union re­cently fined Google 2.4 bil­lion eu­ros for breaches of anti-trust laws.

The tech gi­ants are also ex­perts in uti­liz­ing off-shore tax havens, and the Euro­pean Union re­cently im­posed a sub­stan­tial ret­ro­spec­tive tax li­a­bil­ity on Ap­ple.

The most per­ni­cious as­pect of the tech gi­ants’ dom­i­na­tion, how­ever, is the com­pre­hen­sive covert surveil­lance of their bil­lions of users which they en­gage in.

The tech gi­ants mon­i­tor ev­ery on­line trans­ac­tion, click and post made by their users in or­der to build up de­tailed pro­files – which are then, by means of so­phis­ti­cated soft­ware, used to tar­get ad­ver­tise­ments with a de­gree of pre­ci­sion pre­vi­ously unimag­in­able.

As au­thor John Lanch­ester has noted “Face­book is the big­gest surveil­lance-based en­ter­prise in the his­tory of mankind … what Face­book does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your be­hav­ior to sell ads.”

It is this mass surveil­lance and spe­cific tar­get­ing which has led ad­ver­tis­ers to turn their backs on main­stream me­dia com­pa­nies – who sim­ply can­not offer the same ser­vice.

And this in­va­sive surveil­lance is the ul­ti­mate source of the tech gi­ants’ mas­sive prof­its – in 2016 Face­book alone made al­most $10 bil­lion in profit.

Flaubert was wrong about trains. By pro­mot­ing travel, trade and a wider dif­fu­sion of cul­ture, trains dis­pelled ig­no­rance.

Face­book, Google, and Twit­ter, how­ever, in the words of ex-New Repub­lic edi­tor, Franklin Foer, only pro­mote “fake news, pro­pa­ganda and ma­nip­u­la­tion”.

It is about time that gov­ern­ments, cor­po­rate reg­u­la­tors and the courts started hold­ing the tech leviathans to ac­count – and, at the very least, com­pelled them to com­pete with main­stream me­dia com­pa­nies on a level play­ing field.

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