Foreign Policy

January sixth Tech Perpetually modified

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 associated with Trump. The train was suddenly 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, 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.

Nonetheless, there was a second momentous event on January 6th that may have contributed to this sudden wave of arrogance. The Democrats took two seats in the Senate in Georgia that day and will control all three branches of government after 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 can't 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 disseminator 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 action 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 will 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” in 50 state capitals be planned in advance of the inauguration day? On the other hand, the enactment of laws that make the platforms directly responsible for all content brings with it new risks, 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 piecemeal 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 is not just a modern version of the telephone 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 over 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 needs to take steps to reform the technology, but the focus should change. The drumbeat before the election revolved around anti-competitive behavior and antitrust law. These are important concerns, but more substantial concerns have arisen and should take precedence. As I already mentioned, antitrust disputes historically drag on for a long time and usually lead to comparisons. Antitrust is winning headlines and is sure to keep some powerful backers who want to hold on to it: Senator Amy Klobuchar, a likely attorney, 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 a secret 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 Communications Decency Act, which provides websites, including social media companies that content created by others with immunity from liability is hosted or moderated, which allows them to host a wide variety of content.

There is little doubt that a systematic revision of this liability shield will have the political winds blowing on your back. Democratic Representatives Anna Eshoo and Tom Malinowski intend to update and reintroduce a bill that will remove this protection when it comes to content that promotes civil rights violations or terrorism. Democratic MP Jan Schakowsky also plans to take action to limit Section 230 protections for companies that do not consistently enforce their terms of use. But the circumstances of the past week have shifted the balance in the reform of Section 230. Aside from the difficulty of finding a clean way to revise the law, one of the problems with its consistent development was that Republicans felt that the shield licensed social media platforms to censor conservative votes while the Democrats felt that the shield allowed too many such voices to get a megaphone. To make matters worse, Biden had proposed repealing the law altogether – which would have shut down the Internet as we know it and, unfortunately, cannot be seen as serious guidance from the President. Now there is likely to be more urgency and consensus on the goals of reform that will address the many concerns and help find a better way to reformulate it.

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 the 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. So inevitable seems to be so inevitable that it would seem straightforward to even take the first steps to prosecute the man for the second time, despite being an event of historic proportions. Now the hard work of establishing the basic democratic institutions must begin. A major part of this effort is technology repair. The first step in this 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. Technology, too, is now fundamental to the American project and to others around the world. It is time to apply these principles of wisdom and foresight to the way we use technology.

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