DIGITAL THIEVES MUST BE STOPPED
Facebook, Google and Twitter have been getting away with disregarding law and avoiding tax for far too long
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.