While some digital media companies are in confrontation with the Government of India, this may be part of a bigger battle worldwide that the Silicon Valley companies will have to face as more governments around the world are challenging their so-called principles on online freedom. In an interview on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show in March 2017, Amber Rudd, the then UK Home Secretary, condemned end-to-end encryption, which protects the privacy of WhatsApp users. Rudd was of the firm opinion that “there should be no place for terrorists to hide”. Then, in an opinion piece in The Daily Telegraph in July 2017, Rudd said that “real people” are not really interested in security features that stop the government and criminals from reading their messages. Although some critics called her claim “dangerous and misleading”, her idea persists. Subsequently, in July 2019, senior ministers from the group ‘Five Eyes’, comprising the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, said encryption should not come at the expense of public safety. “The Five Eyes are united that tech firms should not develop their systems and services, including end-to-end encryption, in ways that empower criminals or put vulnerable people at risk,” said British Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Meanwhile, Russia is increasingly pressuring Google, Twitter and Facebook to adhere to the Kremlin internet crackdown orders or risk restrictions inside the country. A Russian court recently fined Google six million rubles for not taking down a piece of illegal content. President Vladimir Putin recently signed a law ordering Facebook and Twitter to store all data on Russian users within the country.
We know that the influence of these online platforms on society is tremendous. The Cambridge Analytica episode would keep haunting us for many more years to come. As these tech platforms are becoming instrumental in many activities of national and international importance—from election campaigns to organising various types of protests—not to ignore several kinds of criminal acts as well, it is not surprising that they will be pressured to abide by the rules and guidelines of the lands.
This, however, is just one side of the coin. The other side is no less important. While the US is trying to protect Big Tech’s business interest in the international arena, there is every sign that it is trying to clip their wings at home. This June, when Joe Biden appointed 32-year-old Lina Khan as a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission, Elizabeth Warren, who ran on breaking up Big Tech in her 2020 presidential campaign, described Khan’s appointment as “tremendous news”. And Financial Times’ reaction was: “Khan, the New Antitrust Chief taking on Big Tech!” Yes, Khan emerged as the leader of the “hipster antitrust” movement among young scholars since her paper titled Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox was published in the Yale Law Journal in January 2017. “A small group of private executives are setting the rules of who gets to use the infrastructure and on what terms,” Khan said in a recent BBC interview.
Australia’s recent face-off with Facebook has tremendous potential to reshape the future of the tech giant’s grip on this planet. Australian news outlets complained about the role of the digital giants in destroying their business model. Consequently, the Australian parliament got engaged in the process of passing a law that would force Facebook and Google to pay publishers if they host their content. Reportedly, both Google and Facebook put forth the argument that their platforms enhance the visibility of news content, and also that the proposed rules would expose the Internet companies to “unmanageable levels of financial and operational risk”.
The two companies, however, have responded in different ways. While Google has agreed to multimillion-dollar contracts with some major Australian news outlets, Facebook retaliated—it banned Australian users from sharing or viewing such content on the platform. It intensified the bitter war. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his country would not be intimidated by an American tech company. “They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it,” Morrison said. Did Morrison sound similar to Khan?
Facebook’s tussle down under may be a changing point in the history of the digital world that would redefine the relationships of big tech companies with society. The rest of the world keenly watched the face-off, and a bigger war might be brewing. Countries such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines being home to the most Facebook users outside the US, it would be a completely different ball game if such issues pop up in some of these nations in the near future. In any case, after a series of talks between Australia and Facebook, a concession deal was struck and Facebook restored Australian news pages after Canberra offered four amendments to the proposed law. Still, that may be the beginning of a war in the broader perspective. Microsoft had urged Joe Biden to bring in similar legislation in the US. There are signs that countries such as the UK, Canada and nations of the European Union are impressed with the Australian law.
Overall, is an opening of floodgates in different countries on the cards then? There might well be a paradigm shift in the business model and type of functioning of the tech giants due to all these issues.
Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata