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Big tech has finally grown too big for its boots

PA Wire/PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Google and Facebook pushed back the frontiers of cyberspace as champions of freedom and transparency. Now, they are the villains

My libertarian instincts are under attack. By whom? Er, me. Or, to be more precise, my conscience is struggling with Big Tech.

The battle involves considerable agonised soul-searching for someone who has long championed the glories of the internet, the frontiers forged by Google, Facebook, Twitter, at al, and served on award-judging panels recognising revelations based on the controversial activities of Assange’s Wikileaks and Edward Snowden.

Just three weeks ago the internet reached its 28th birthday, but celebrations were tempered by a timely open letter warning from its British inventor Tim Berners-Lee accepting these are worrying times for his brainchild.

The rapidly-escalating complexities and dangers created by the explosion in misinformation and fake news, the mass capture of our personal data, the intensity of targeted advertising and political propaganda. All these are starting to scare Berners-Lee himself and should do the same to the rest of us. Libertarians included.

If Orwell’s chilling vision of 1984 hasn’t quite arrived, then it’s perilously close. The power of the big tech giants, governments, political parties, terrorist organisations and extremist conspirators on both the far right and the far left to influence and manipulate us overtly and covertly is rapidly assuming Orwellian proportions.

The story of how much these powers were a factor in Donald Trump’s presidential victory and in the Brexit referendum result is still an unfolding one. How much they will figure in the upcoming French and German elections is the subject of much scrutiny and investigation, not least among European intelligence agencies. That these dark forces are at work is now beyond any serious question; the only real questions surround their scale and impact.

All of this represents painful reality for those of us who have long hailed the internet as the equivalent of the invention of the wheel, the discovery of fire, the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment in the affairs of mankind.

Just as painful has been watching Google and Facebook make the journey from brave new world Silicon Valley innovators to commercial behemoths that now de facto threaten the very democratic freedoms they once symbolised. Behemoths for whom data-mining and tax-avoidance are the cultural currency.

The statistics, needless to say, reduce mainstream publishers to tears. Facebook’s user base is on the brink of bursting the two billion barrier (over 25% of the world’s population!) and its revenues during the last three months alone were within a whisker of nine billion dollars.

Incredibly, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, the world’s most powerful editor, continues to deny that he’s an editor at all, or even a publisher, but merely a ‘platform’ provider and neutral search engine facilitator.

It’s a grand deception that, even for those of us who have loudly lauded him in the past, now looks (unlike Facebook itself) morally bankrupt and deeply dangerous.

The same applies to Google, now valued at well over 500 billion dollars and with a global search statistic running at around a staggering one and a half trillion, repeat trillion, searches per annum.

Long gone is the appealing image of Facebook and Google, and others, as the ‘geekocracy’ of fresh-faced techie geniuses challenging the established order in the name of freedom and transparency, using the pioneering, wild west frontier of cyberspace. Yes, of course that spirit lives on to an extent, but the plucky entrepreneurial underdogs of yesteryear are now far more the dominant corporate colossi bestriding the globe, bypassing national tax and regulatory rules and rendering governments largely impotent.

Look no further than the plight of mainstream newspapers in the UK, US and Europe in the face of the mass defection of advertising revenue online. Title closures, journalist job culls, budgetary blood-letting; the components that threaten the viability and very survival of a free press in the digital age at a time when democracy needs it more than ever.

In the US, for example, the Pew Center’s research recently reported that 75% of America’s 60 billion dollars annual digital advertising spend now goes to just five techno giants — including Google, Facebook and Twitter — and that this pattern was destined to increase to the detriment of the mainstream media, whose print ad revenues have already crashed by over 30 billion dollars since 2003. It’s a grim pattern.

All of which explains why, in the context of that personal libertarian U-turn, I find myself welcoming signs of a new spirit among politicians, advertisers and watchdogs to challenge the might of the tech giants.

Last month Google, owners of YouTube, finally acknowledged that they did have a measure of publishing responsibility. It was a concession triggered by a revolt of over 200 major advertisers who objected to their ads being placed alongside violent, voyeuristic videos and other content celebrating terrorism, hate agendas and child sex exploitation. Although the revolt would only have registered a pin prick on Google’s 60 billion dollars annual revenue stream, it did represent a new sensitivity to criticism.

OK, some critics complain that the expose of Google’s algorithm-driven advertising ‘shame’ originated with Rupert Murdoch’s Times and was driven by self-interest, as the tech giant swallows around 85% of digital ad revenues across the media sector.

No doubt, but that doesn’t devalue the veracity of the story, and the fact that Murdoch’s bête noir The Guardian was among the advertisers to boycott Google in response speaks volumes. And among newspapers of the left and the right, there was little quarrel with News Corp chief executive Robert Thompson’s charge that digital giants provide ‘platforms for the fake, the faux and the fallacious’.

By the same token, I find my sympathy lies with the German government’s move toward levying fines of up to 50 million euros against social media networks that fail to remove fake news, terrorist content, hate speech and defamatory material within 24 hours of its posting. The German authorities have also launched an unprecedented legal case against Facebook, challenging the scale of the tech giant’s consumer agreements and how much personal data consumers have to ‘surrender’ in return.

In addition, the European Commission is now exploring whether the social media giants’ data harvesting of our personal data breaches its anti-trust rules and the EU’s scheduled Data Protection Directive – due to come into force in 2018.

And while I’m no great admirer of Britain’s Brexit U-turning Home Secretary Amber Rudd, she was right recently to summon major tech companies to a meeting on the thorny issue of extremist material on the internet. It was a call sparked by the revelation that Khalid Masood, the middle class, mixed race Muslim convert who staged last month’s Westminster carnage, had used the Facebook-owned WhatsApp encrypted message service moments before his attack.

Public opinion does seem to be moving behind Rudd’s sentiment that ‘end-to-end encryption should not provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other’.

But although her summons drew vague pledges from Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft to ‘work closely’ on the general issue of extremist material, the tech firms are highly protective on encryption, a key ingredient of what they offer. On that point there was precious little hint of concession. Because behind the PR-speak, Big Tech sees itself as private corporate champions of mass communication, and not the internet content police or an instrument of government control.

It’s hard to disagree with Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, who branded the meeting a ‘bit lame…all the government and social media companies appear to have agreed is to discuss options for a possible forum in order to have more discussions about discussions’.

But the real message Yvette Cooper and the Labour party ought really to be hammering home is that if the UK is serious about holding Big Tech to account, our chances of doing so have receded badly with the triggering of Article 50.

While Brussels begins to flex its muscles and put on the gloves for a genuine contest with the uglier, bullying face of Facebook, Google and co, Brexit Britain risks being locked impotently in the dressing room.

It’s a scenario that also poses something of an awkward dilemma for those British newspapers – not least the Daily Mail – who have been lashing out against the legitimate dangers spawned by the tech giants’ almighty clout.

With public opinion and the kind of aggressive international teamwork the EU is beginning to show the best weapons available for this particular battle, Brexit is the wrong, lonely corner to be in if you want to make an impact in the big fight.

Another lightweight round of tea and biscuits with Rudd is no way for the UK to land a punch on the reigning heavyweight champs of cyberspace. But those extra muscles over in Brussels just might. As a pro-Remain libertarian convinced Google and Facebook have finally grown too big for their boots putting a democratically vital free press in peril, I’ll be cheering them on.

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and a co-author of the recent book, Last Words?:How Can Journalism Survive The Decline Of Print? published by Abramis

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