Can Washington regulate Big Tech? Not until representatives get their act together
The hearing was evidence that trust in Big Tech and in the government are at an all time low for a reason
I recall joking with friends during my college years that if any company was going to take over the world, I hoped it would be Google.
Among the younger generations of today, tech giants like Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc., have become somehow synonymous with “the internet.” It’s almost as though without these monolithic search and social media entities, the World Wide Web would cease to exist or, at the very least, would cease to be of importance in their young minds.
To be clear, I don’t actually want Google, or any of the other tech giants, to take over the world. In many respects, the largess of these companies and the power they hold through the massive amounts of data they controls from everyone who has ever, in any way, used their services is terrifying. But they have become an unavoidable necessity of our times and, at this precise moment in time, I wonder if they would be more capable of level-headedly running things than those who are actually in charge.
When it comes to the power of content control in this nation, Google reigns king. Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook shuffle around like nobles of the court.
Their amount of power is disconcerting and, given their dominance, there is a reason these tech giants have come under fire as monopolies of the modern era. Antitrust lawsuits and Senate Commerce Committee hearings are just the latest ways trying to reform them. But such reform will likely require more than just a few comments, complaints and long-winded government hearings.
Yesterday’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing was a grueling four hours of interrogation-like inquiries from Republican representatives who lashed out at the tech giants, spewing accusations, cutting off their responses and repeatedly asking them why they seem to favor the left. And when the Democratic representatives chimed in to repeatedly state their disappointment that such a hearing was taking place just days before the election and made claims that the hearing itself was being used by the right as a political stunt to allude to election tampering and cast doubt on election results, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes.
The official agenda item of the hearing was meant to be a discussion of modernizing the Communications Decency Act, particularly Section 230, which protects online platforms from being held liable for third-party speech on their sites, but elected officials strayed wildly from that course.
Demonstrating the upheaval of norms during a year marked by an overly dramatized election and a worldwide pandemic, the political party roles at the hearing yesterday strayed from the status quo.
Republicans — typically the defenders of the free-market and private business — called for more restrictions and greater reforms. Democrats — usually those in favor of greater government oversight — demonstrated a surprising amount of trust for the companies’ ability to regulate disinformation. And yet, befitting of this year, the hearing itself was still nothing short of a predictable, preelection political sideshow.
Meanwhile, the three tech chiefs — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai — displayed a surprising sense of civil decorum as they responded to questions from both sides. Although the hearing itself teetered at times on the brink of being a hostile attack on the companies’ policies and practices for censoring or limiting the spread of disinformation, the tech chiefs provided direct and simple answers, as well as sometimes evading direct responses with vague and generalized statements in defense of their companies and practices.
As the senators sat squabbling about the potential biases of the companies based on the political makeup of their employees, largely pulled from Democratic states like California, and complaining about censorship of conservatives (the recent New York Post article concerning Hunter Biden and a series of emails was brought up more than once), they failed to really address the bigger issue at hand.
By the end, it was clear these tech leaders aren’t phased by partisan politics.
As global companies, the interests of Google, Twitter, and Facebook go beyond the partisan lines of the U.S. and their chiefs understand that more is at stake when looking to reevaluate their policies and practices.
The hearing was evidence that trust in Big Tech and in the government are at an all-time low for a reason. And the questions of “How to determine the lines between free speech and censorship online?” and “Who should be determining those lines?” unfortunately are no clearer than they were before the hearing began. But what was made clear is that our elected officials know next to nothing about how Big Tech and even big business really function. And the calm collected responses of Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Picha are evidence that, not only are they better equipped to handle the debates about Big Tech’s future, but also they know the government can’t, or at least won’t, do much to restrict them until they learn to stop squabbling and gain a better understanding of what they’re up against.
Yesterday proved that if we want to protect the future of free speech and equality online, we need government representatives who are willing to better educate themselves about Big Tech and are willing to reach across the aisle to address the real issues head on.