At the crossroads of social movements and political change in the 21st century lie communication power and Big Tech. And in recent weeks, this power has been undergoing a shakeup.
On May 28, Twitter flagged US President Donald Trump’s tweet on the George Floyd protests for sensitivity, claiming his message incited violence. Responding almost immediately, Trump threatened to revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 and signed an executive order urging federal agencies to re-evaluate their interpretation of that law.
In the weeks since, the US government has revved up its scrutiny of Big Tech in preparation for the battle of elites and monied interests in the November elections.
This scrutiny has been largely bipartisan, albeit for different reasons. Both Republicans and Democrats have attacked social-media platforms for how they manage their content. The former tend to target these companies for blocking certain conservative views, while the latter complain that the platforms do too little to prevent the spread of disinformation.
Section 230 has since its enactment acted as a sword of Damocles that the US Congress holds over the major Internet platforms.
At its core, Section 230 allows Internet platforms that host third-party content to avoid liability for what those third parties post online. While there are a few exceptions to this, the law in essence allows the online big-data ecosystem to thrive because it eliminates substantial transaction costs for businesses that distribute content.
This content attracts views that generate behavioral data tracked through online tools such as cookies. Complex analytics solutions then use this data for a range of services and value-creating activities that form the commercial architecture of the Internet.
Without Section 230 or a watered-down version of the law, platforms like Twitter and Facebook would have to spend resources verifying third-party content to avoid liability. This would result in a significant upgrade of their content-monitoring systems to ensure legal compliance.
This strikes at the heart of media power in the 21st century as platforms like Facebook and Twitter become inseparable from public discourse, the electoral process, and how officials engage with the masses.
Because of this, Facebook and Twitter have gathered significant power over politicians – including President Trump – who use their services to disseminate political messages directly to the public.
Indeed, these companies could simply decide to block or otherwise flag a politician’s message and diminish its effectiveness before it reaches the target audience. No law currently prevents these companies from doing so – in fact, Section 230 gives these platforms the power to restrict access to any content they deem objectionable, granting them broad discretion to define what qualifies as acceptable content.
This corporate-conglomerate shakeup has disrupted the delicate balance of communication power that in the past tied political influence directly to broadcast and print media through political advertisement, setting agendas, and influencing information channels.
In recent years, the US Congress has entertained amending (and in some instances actually has amended) Section 230 multiple times.
The law has become a political hot potato for politicians on both the right and the left as Twitter and Facebook become more integral to public discourse. Both right-wing and left-wing groups have complained of being subject to political censorship from these platforms, which has generated scores of lobbying efforts in Washington to push for a new interpretation of what Section 230 does and does not mandate.
The great geopolitical game
While this remains a domestic US issue, the current relationship between Washington and Silicon Valley raises questions about digital geopolitics and US tech firms’ dominance abroad. Coinciding with the debate about Section 230, international scrutiny over Silicon Valley has intensified in recent weeks and could produce significant consequences for international relations at large.
These issues must be seen in relation to the larger geopolitical trends that continue to unfold – including the larger project of Eurasian integration, the rising tension between the US and China, the economic crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, and the inevitable integration of automation, the Internet of Things, and 5G (fifth-generation wireless telecommunication) into the social fabric of daily life.
Last week, the United States backed out of negotiations with the European Union over the digital services tax (DST), a move that many see as signaling the possibility of a trade war. Announced in 2018, the DST is Europe’s way of asserting sovereignty over American tech firms by requiring those companies to pay additional taxes for offering digital services to EU consumers.
In response to the trade tension, the Trump administration has threatened to raise tariffs on US$3.1 billion worth of European goods, including vodka, gin, wine, olives and chocolates.
The move coincided with an announcement by the European Commission that it had initiated two antitrust lawsuits against Apple as well as the EU-China Summit, which reaffirmed (if somewhat haphazardly) the necessity of cooperation between the two parties.
For years, Silicon Valley has enjoyed a privilege with respect to US policymakers who gladly accept campaign contributions and support from the companies. And this privilege rests on a consensus in the US government that sees Silicon Valley’s interests as identical to America’s when the country engages with other international actors. In turn, this support has been critical for the spread and dominance of American tech firms across the world.
To be sure, this consensus isn’t always clear – many activities of the US government, especially in the Trump administration, have created issues for Big Tech’s role in the global economy.
Yet for tech policy at large, the United States has been relatively consistent in promoting its vision of digital space: a world of liberalized cross-border data flows, industry-driven technological standards based on intellectual property largely owned by US firms, trade facilitation of ICT (information and communication technology) products, favorable licensing requirements for data centers and cloud-computing software, and market access through lowered trade barriers.
The takeaway: All this revolves around giving Silicon Valley access to more markets (and more data) for use and therefore more profit-share.
This gets to the heart of the fraying US-China relationship: China’s own vision of digital sovereignty and digital territory (witnessed through Made in China 2025, Standards 2035, and the Digital Silk Road, etc) challenges the dominance of American tech firms in other countries by offering alternative products and in turn prohibits these companies from gaining market share in China.
It also explains why the United States continues to insist upon favorable environments for big tech in its trade deals, including the ongoing US-Brazil, US-UK, and US-Kenya negotiations, those recently concluded such as US-Japan and USMCA (United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement), and those that have fallen apart such as the one with India.
Yet as elections gear up in the US, policymakers have put the heat on Silicon Valley, directly challenging the privileged consensus the industry has so far enjoyed.
From congressional hearings and antitrust threats by the Department of Justice to enhanced content-monitoring scrutiny and backlash from all segments of the political spectrum, Big Tech is suddenly getting a lot of attention.
Even the Trump administration’s recent decision to suspend all H1-B visas until December was a message to Silicon Valley to get its act together – a power play that says help conservatives propagate their message or else lose the ability to hire foreign talent.
Reforming Section 230 could trigger a rebalancing of the power in Washington as well as cripple the ability of Big Tech to generate data through its business models. This is why the major social-media companies all made voluntary commitments to sift disinformation, foreign interference, and irregular content out of their platforms well before 2020.
The fear of the sword of Damocles, it seems, did much to regulate Big Tech in the absence of the law. Yet the future of Big Tech and communication power is still open as geopolitics increasingly remixes to the digital and becomes even more central to those who wield power and try to hang on to it above all else.