Sreemoy TalukdarFeb 25, 2021 17:55:40 IST
In a blog post on Tuesday, Twitter wrote that it has permanently suspended 373 accounts which it claimed had ties to Russia, Armenia and Iran and had apparently breached its platform manipulation policies. Interestingly, justifying its decision, it wrote: “A number of these accounts amplified narratives that were aligned with the Russian government, while another subset of the network focused on undermining faith in the NATO alliance and its stability.”
Let’s just take a moment to comprehend Twitter’s actions. The San Francisco-based company has banned a set of handles that, it says, were undermining “NATO alliance and its stability.” I have nothing against transatlantic unity, but for a platform that professes to uphold “freedom of expression”, the taking down of handles on such grounds sits at odds with Twitter’s action in India where it was recently unwilling to remove accounts that were posting fake news and incendiary tweets threatening law and order, or those backed by the separatist Khalistani movement in contravention of direct orders from the government of India asking the American tech firm to do so.
In fact, after refusing to initially comply with parts of the emergency order passed by India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) to block 257 URLs and 1 hashtag under Rule 9(1) of the Information Technology [Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public] Rules, 2009, the US tech giant eventually enforced it in parts, and then rescinded the decision on grounds of “freedom of expression”.
Twitter finally was forced to comply “unwillingly, grudgingly and with great delay” with the substantial parts of the order on being served with a ‘non-compliance notice’ and only after the government had given it a firm dressing down, making it clear that “Twitter is free to formulate its own rules and guidelines, like any other business entity does, but Indian laws which are enacted by the Parliament of India must be followed irrespective of Twitter’s own rules and guidelines.”
We have to remember though that the US tech behemoth, along with its bigger and arguably even more influential peer Facebook, recently snatched the mic away in a dramatic fashion from the world’s most powerful politician — the president of the United States who had been installed in office by the American people through an electoral process in a democratic political system.
The fact that these tech titans possess the kind of power that allows them to ‘cancel’ leaders of democracies or defy the decree of nation-states indicate that they are the neo-feudal tech oligarchs riding untrammeled power and wealth, mined mostly through exploitation of personal data. They cock a snook at states and borders and consider themselves quasi-sovereigns, having taken on themselves the burden of governing the world and its people.
Except perhaps China, where the ruling Communist Party has ensured that big tech is cut to size, liberals democracies around the world are grappling with “the rise of a new ruling class, arrogant and self-assured, with a growing interest in shaping how we are governed and how we live.”
On these tech firms, that evangelise “progressive ideas” with a missionary zeal and appear keen on deplatforming conservative ideas and practitioners, French president Emmanuel Macron recently said: “I don’t want to live in a democracy where the key decisions… is decided by a private player, a private social network. I want it to be decided by a law voted by your representative, or by regulation, governance, democratically discussed and approved by democratic leaders.”
Take Amazon, for instance. Reuters reported that the US tech giant has played fast and loose with financial regulations in India, and repeatedly adjusted its corporate structure each time India imposed new restrictions aimed at protecting small traders and businesses. “Internal documents” reviewed by the news agency show that “Amazon has for years given preferential treatment to a small group of sellers on its India platform, publicly misrepresented its ties with the sellers and used them to circumvent increasingly tough foreign investment rules that affect e-commerce.” While Amazon has denied any malpractice, the report has drawn the attention of India’s financial regulator that has promised to examine findings of the story.
Not just trade manipulations, these tech firms are increasingly indulging in blatant ideological censorship. The Jeff Bezos-owned company recently erased from its platform a scholastic work by a conservative scholar, whose bestselling 2018 book When Harry Became Sally critiquing the transgender movement and the effect of sex-change operations in children, has earned critical acclaim and fills a crucial void in our understanding of the phenomenon.
Professor Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center who represents the Princeton School of social conservatism, is a serious thinker and analyst. Post Princeton he took a doctorate in political philosophy from Notre Dame, reports National Review. Anderson told Newsweek that his book “had vanished from Amazon—as well as the company’s e-reader Kindle, podcast service Audible and used-book sellers—when someone looking to buy a copy informed the author. He said that neither he nor his publisher were notified by Amazon.”
Facebook’s audacious blackout of Australia has made global headlines but Google, the ubiquitous tech behemoth, has courted comparatively less scrutiny even though its actions have been no less controversial. In response to Australia’s introduction of a new code of conduct that forces both Google and Facebook to pay news publishers for their content or else be subject to hefty fines, Google initially threatened to shut down its search engine from the country before settling on a series of last-minute licensing deals with Australia’s major news publishing companies to avoid falling foul of the proposed code.
Australia’s proposed code has drawn both criticism and praise. Questions remain on whether other countries would follow the model where the government acts as an arbitrator to decide on fees if social media giants fail to cut deals with news publishers out of their own accord. Whatever be the outlook, Australia’s regulatory action has highlighted a grey area in the fast-changing news and content business where traditional media have been hit hard by the advent of social media giants that draw large number of readers and wipe out lion’s share of the sales revenues through free content.
London-based Financial Times, that has since cut a deal with both Google and Facebook, writes, “The internet and the tech giants have torpedoed the economics of traditional media… The impact is especially acute on local journalism — a keystone of healthy democracies. By forcing platforms such as Google and Facebook to pay for media companies’ content on their sites, Canberra aimed to help Australian news publishers fight back.”
Voices have begun to rise in other countries such as India where news content producers are demanding similar regulatory framework to “level the playing field”.
A case has to be made that these companies, that claim to be merely “platforms”, are in effect publishers of content — an important distinction that will put them inside a regulatory framework which these tech companies have steadfastly avoided.
Important to note here that though Google has since changed its position, it did not do so willingly. In fact, after threatening to pull out its search engine from Australia — where it enjoys 95 percent market share — it did an “experiment” last month whereby some Australian news sites were omitted from its search results. Guardian had reported in January that Australians are “seeing current news disappearing”, and being “replaced by old links and old news: in some cases news outlets have disappeared altogether. Google says it is displaying older or less relevant content to 1 percent of users.”
We all know about Facebook, that refused to initially comply with the proposed code in Australia and last week abruptly blocked sharing of news in the country altogether in a move that included banning posts from “any Australian publisher from being seen anywhere in the world”. It also blocked “all users in Australia from seeing any news content, even from non-Australian publishers”, and its actions affected some government websites that posted information on emergency services.
The move drew a furious public backlash. Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison in a Facebook post called the social media giant “arrogant” and called out the “behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them. They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it.” Morrison also wrote that he is in “regular contact with the leaders of other nations on these issues.” Among that list is prime minister of India Narendra Modi with whom Morrison had a chat over the phone on Thursday.
Facebook later reversed its decision. After arguing that that the legislation “fundamentally misunderstood” its interaction with publishers and penalised the company “for content it didn’t take or ask for”, the Mark Zuckerberg-owned company on Tuesday agreed to restore Australian news on its platform, claiming that it was satisfied that “a number of changes and guarantees it had agreed with Australian government addressed its concerns over the bill.”
For the tech moguls, paying for sharing news content on their platforms one grounds that it is unsustainable is a position hard to defend. As Emily Taylor, fellow at British think tank Chatham House writes in World Politics Review, the playing field for news content in increasingly getting skewed in favour of the tech giants. “Traditional news outlets’ revenue has tanked over the past 10 years as advertisers have been drawn to the low-cost and high-precision microtargeting of the major online advertising services of Google and Facebook. Whereas roughly 50 percent of US newsroom jobs have been lost since 2008, Facebook’s revenues have grown tenfold since 2013, from nearly $8 billion to $87 billion. Local news has suffered particularly badly.”
To put things in perspective, tech titans Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft — that make up half of the top 10 most valuable companies on the American stock market — are among the top 30 US tech companies that possess the same market value, combined, as the annual GDP of Europe’s five largest economies, reports Politico.
In the midst of a global pandemic that has crippled and devastated economies around the world, these tech titans have reported soaring profits, are notorious for evading taxes, and employ less people as workforce despite greater market cap than past plutocrats and yesterday’s oligarchs.
Today’s US tech oligarchs pay as little as possible to the taxman. As Joel Kotkin had pointed out in a 2017 piece for Daily Beast, “Facebook paid no taxes last year, while making a profit of over $1 billion. Apple, “a pioneer in tactics to avoid taxes,” has kept much of its cash hoard abroad, out of reach of Uncle Sam. Microsoft has staved off nearly $7 billion in tax payments since 2009 by using loopholes to shift profits offshore, according to a recent Senate panel report.”
Fortune magazine, quoting findings by the non-profit Fair Tax Mark in 2019, had reported that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix—the ‘Silicon Six’ — used legal tax avoidance strategies between 2010 and 2019 to pay $155.3 billion less than the actual tax rates accrued collectively by the companies across all global territories in which they operate.
Despite their vast and rapidly increasing wealth, monopolistic market share, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are reportedly avoiding $3 billion in taxes in poorer nations. According to a BBC report, aid charity ActionAid estimates that counties such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria and Bangladesh are missing out on up to $2.8bn (£2.2bn) in tax revenue from these US-based tech firms that could have been used to tackle the pandemic. As has been noted, these companies posted record revenues during the pandemic.
India is belatedly waking up to this reality. To counter tax evasion by big tech, the Narendra Modi government has announced several amendments to a 2 percent “equalisation levy” on digital services, introduced in April last year, which analysts said amounted to an expansion of the tax, reports Financial Times.
These tech titans have also created a unique system, largely avoiding government scrutiny, that allows them to continue with their monopolistic behavior. New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo in a 2017 podcast with NPR had contended that Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook “are collectively more powerful than many governments.”
Manjoo explained that “one of the things that these five companies have done kind of masterfully is create these platforms that startups have to use to get to customers. So they all own these cloud-storage services. So Amazon is an example. If you want to store your media online – so, for example, all the movies that you watch on Netflix are actually stored on Amazon servers – so every time you use Netflix, Netflix is kind of paying Amazon for that kind of storage.”
For all their virtue-signaling, political correctness and ‘progressivism’, these neo-feudal tech oligarchs are more interested in power grab, and their moral evangelism — based on which they take value judgments like deplatforming elected leaders — is hollow. But they pose a deeper danger to democracies. These tech titans are mostly young. Their inordinate wealth and concomitant power lead them to believe that they can shape the human destiny. This hubris is frequently reflected in their actions. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, 44, had said in an interview in 2013 that he wants to be the Mayor of New York one day.
Most of these tech titans also invest heavily in the US political system, and this fund is spent shrewdly to shape their desired outcome. CNB reports, quoting Center for Responsive Politics, that tech executives were among the top political donors in the 2020 cycle, and the vast majority of that money went to getting President Donald Trump out of office. About 98 percent of their political contributions this cycle went to Democrats, according to the report.
To return to Kotkin’s essay in Daily Beast, “today’s new autocrats seek not only market control but the right to sell access to our most private details, and employ that technology to elect candidates who will do their bidding.”
The key question, therefore, for nation-states is that whether they will clamp down on the tech oligarchs and force them to play by their rules, or cede their right to govern to unelected tech firms who like any other businesses are driven by profit motive but operate at such an enormous scale across national boundaries that they believe they can challenge the writ of sovereign nations. Facebook acted the way it did based on a conviction that it can force the government of Australia into changing its policy. Twitter thought that it can afford to take a position of non-compliance with the orders passed by the government of India, effectively challenging the writ of a sovereign.
The nub of the issue, therefore, is legitimacy. Can a bunch of unelected, unaccountable feudal tech lords who rule digital domains be allowed to shape policies, or that right should be reserved for an elected government of a state? It is imperative, therefore, for nation-states to form a global coalition against the tyranny of Big Tech.
If the monopolistic behavior of this pan-global ruling class if left unchecked, then going by political theorist Carl Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty — “that sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception: If there is some person or institution, in a given polity, capable of bringing about a total suspension of the law and then to use extra-legal force to normalize the situation, then that person or institution is the sovereign in that polity” — these tech giants will be the new sovereigns.