The deplatforming of Donald Trump and some of his radical supporters from social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook has led to worries over whether Big Tech is the next big threat to free speech.
In fact, Big Tech has, after the 6 January storming of Capitol Hill by Trump supporters, even deplatformed rival social media platforms, including Parler, which has been a favourite with some Trump supporters and Conservative opinion-makers.
Amazon, Apple and Google recently banned Parler from their web-hosting services and/or app-stores. Other platforms, including Reddit, Pinterest and Snapchat, have implemented similar bans on the Trump brigade.
If anyone had any doubt that it is Big Tech, and not just authoritarian governments, which want free speech curtailed, this ought to be exhibit A.
However, we need to ask more subtler questions of Big Tech, and it has little to do with free speech.
For starters, let’s accept that social media platforms and tech biggies actually benefit from traffic. Controversial opinions, violent ideas, and dubious content, including pornography, generate significant amounts of traffic and revenues for Big Tech.
This is true not only of the GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) monopolies of US Big Tech, but even our own Reliance Jio or Airtel, whose pipes and platforms benefit from vicarious viewing of porn or violent videos.
In short, Big Tech has no particular reason to deplatform a sitting President who generates huge social media traffic (he had 88 million highly engaged Twitter followers before he was “cancelled”), or to ban “fake news” or anything that decent people would normally object to.
Then why deplatform a Trump or even a rival platform like Parler, you may ask, when all that is good for traffic?
The short answer is commercial self-interest. Big Tech is under attack in both the US and Europe, both from the Right and the Left, for different reasons.
The Right is attacking Big Tech because it believes that it censors their views to the benefit of its Left-liberal elites.
The Left is apoplectic for two different reasons. Unlike Right-wing critics, the Left believes that Big Tech is not censoring Right-wing opinion more aggressively (especially what it calls “hate speech”, a term that is not well defined). The Left also believes that the rise of new technologies (like artificial intelligence, etc) are destroying jobs and aggravating income and wealth inequalities.
The job market has already polarised between a highly paid, tech-literate skilled workforce and the vast majority of tech-challenged workers, who have been forced to accept gig-work and jobs that barely pay enough to get by. The middle-skill, middle class jobs that make the social pyramid complete have been shrinking in most countries due to the replacement of such jobs with technology-based alternatives.
So, the problem is not that Big Tech wants to censor news, though it is certainly doing so now, but that it frets about what politicians and regulators may have in store for them in future. Opinions among regulators and politicians are clearly veering round to the view that the power of Big Tech needs to be curtailed through anti-trust action – just as Big Oil and Big Telecom (AT&T, for example) were dealt with in the twentieth century. That is, broken up into smaller businesses.
In December 2020, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and attorneys-general from 48 states filed two separate lawsuits against Facebook in order to divest it of control of Instagram and WhatsApp. While there is little doubt that the trio control a huge portion of social media and private conversations, breaking them up into three separate companies would rob Facebook of its ability to combine their firepower and generate even more revenues from advertising.
But what applies to Facebook should apply equally to Google or Amazon or Apple or Microsoft, which dominate the entire platforms businesses in the West. In February last year, the FTC started looking at every acquisition made by the tech giants between 2010 to 2019 to check whether the latter were reducing competition in the process. So, it’s not just about Facebook; the rest will also face the music shortly once the FTC scrutiny gathers steam.
Amazon is not only the world’s biggest online marketplace, but plays host to several million users of its web platforms. By being able to monitor what its seller-partners are able to sell, it can create those very same products and sell them on its platform with its own brand names.
In short, Amazon cannibalises the businesses of its own customers. This process began with books, where Amazon initially began life as a seller of books, and then got into publishing itself. It is now doing the same with other products and services. For example, Solimo is an Amazon brand selling products, from kitchen appliances to storage boxes, that compete with many of its seller partners.
At the very least, Amazon should not be able to use confidential information that it obtains from its sellers to destroy their businesses. Its server farms should be hived off into a separate business, and data provided by its users – both buyers and sellers – should not be used only to its own advantage.
The same thing happens with Google, where it can use the power of its search engine and ad-serving technology to offer services that its customers pay good money for. A search for “Indigo flights” will get you not only links to the Indigo Airlines website or makemytrip.com, but also ads from competitors placed on top of the search results page so that Indigo could lose traffic to rivals in the process.
There is an equally strong case for Google to be divested of its various businesses, with only search and mail remaining with it. Maps, and platforms like Chrome and Android, could easily be divested.
It is only in the case of Apple, which is largely into designing gadgets and owns the iOS operating systems that give it power over developers, etc, that one can reasonably say that the monopoly relates to the quality of its products, and not necessarily something more sinister.
But there is no doubt that a monopoly of sorts exists even here. The Apple appstore cannot be given sole rights to its platform. Rival appstores ought to be given rights of placement, just as Microsoft was forced to accept that Internet Explorer cannot be the only web browser allowed on its Windows operating system.
Big Tech is deplatforming Trump and his supporters not because of its love for keeping conversations decent, but because it fears that the new Democratic administration, in combination with the Republicans, will force it to break up.
The current lucrative monopolies will still be lucrative after the break up, but competition can now knock at their doors with greater confidence.
In future, Facebook cannot just buy out a WhatsApp and nip potential competition in the bud. It will have to consider the possibility that it can be divested.
The deplatforming of Trump is the sacrificial head Big Tech is offering the incoming administration in order to prevent a complete evisceration of their monopolies. Some of the anti-trust actions will certainly happen, but they may not be as bad as one might expect.
Consider Microsoft: it did a deal in the mid-1990s where it made only minor concessions to the trust-busters despite its total dominance of the market for desktop computer operating systems and related office-productivity products.
A court which looked into the anti-trust case against Microsoft, says one report, found that “for the most part, Microsoft had not done anything wrong. Their punishment was, therefore, a mere slap on the wrist. Microsoft was forced to change some licensing packages of its operating system. Microsoft could not force manufacturers to pay for licenses of DOS or Windows on computers where those were not installed, and Microsoft could not corral the manufacterers into multi-year guaranteed contracts for the operating system licenses. Beyond these orders, Microsoft was free to continue its methods of operating system and application development and marketing (sic).”
What the GAFA quartet and Microsoft will be hoping for is a similarly light rap on the knuckles from the courts and regulators. Hence the need to be seen to be acting against Trump’s supporters and please the incoming Democratic administration. It is sucking up to the incoming Democratic administration by reading their minds on getting Trump out of the way.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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