“Government slammed for backing down to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg” – The Daily Mail
“Facebook V Australia – two sides to the story” – BBC News
When Mark Zuckerberg first launched Facebook back in 2004 to connect with fellow Harvard University students, the internet was a much simpler place. It’s unlikely he would have imagined the headlines his platform would be making less than 20 years on.
As social media usage grows worldwide, what we post and what we read online becomes increasingly important. With almost half the UK’s adult population (45%) claiming to use social media for news in 2020, and Facebook being among the top three news sources, we’re beginning to witness a newfound sense of urgency and responsibility about how we regulate what we post online.(1) Currently, tech giants, like Facebook and Twitter, have huge power to control (if they want to) public opinion with what they allow to be posted/seen online and as the saying goes, “with great power, comes great responsibility.”
Over the last year, there’s been no shortage of news stories that show social media platforms caught in political battles. Large tech corporations are beginning to garner the power to stand up to Governments and political figures, but it’s still unclear how far this may go and what impact this could have in the wrong hands.
On one side of the coin, actions taken for public protection, such as Twitter’s decision to permanently ban Donald Trump following the storming of the White House on 6th January 2021, has proved popular for the social giant. Following Trump’s removal from the platform on 8th January 2021, the corporation’s stock prices rose by 33%, reaching their first record price since 2013.(2) While this decision was made for all the right reasons, we must still ask, is there something problematic about a worldwide corporation making a political statement and quieting individuals?
The ethical motivators of social media giants are increasingly drawn into question as platforms like Facebook, initially built for friendly entertainment, are beginning to stand up to Governments and become (perhaps too?) politically inclined.
Throughout February, a battle has been waged between Facebook and the Australian Government, following the Government’s decision to pass a law that aimed to make Google and Facebook pay to host news content on their platforms. Facebook responded by banning any news from being posted on the platform and prohibiting users in Australia from linking to articles from either Australian or international news sites; an act which demonstrated the extent to which news outlets rely on such platforms and, more concerningly, how easy it is for Facebook to curtail free speech instantly for their own gain.
While this decision was reversed on 25th February, following robust negotiations with the Government which led to changes to the law in question, the build-up of recent events has led many to question the power of social media to subvert freedom of speech and control public news consumption. Watching the events unfold from the US, Democratic Congressman, David Cicilline said Facebook was not compatible with democracy and that its threats to bring an entire country to its knees were the ultimate admission of monopoly power.(3)
A New World Order?
Clearly, the law is running behind when it comes to technology. While processing power has increased by around 1 trillion per cent since the 1960s,(4) our capacity to understand and manage the impact of this power has not developed at the same rate. According to Facebook and Google, the law “fundamentally” misunderstands how the internet works,(5) making it incredibly difficult to police and protect the public’s civil rights online.
As political controversies arise, it is becoming increasingly clear that our technology needs to be used responsibly by individuals and corporations alike to protect ourselves and each other from privacy threats and perhaps more sinister applications.
Following the conflict between Facebook and Australia, Nick Clegg, former UK deputy Prime Minister, now Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs said, “there are legitimate concerns to be addressed about the size and power of tech companies”. He continued, “the internet needs new rules that work for everyone, not just for big media corporations”, “by updating internet regulation, we can preserve what’s best about it – the freedom of people to express themselves and entrepreneurs to build new things.”(6)
The Next Steps
We’re at the beginning of a legislative turning point in internet history.
There is a huge responsibility for tech giants to stay ahead of the changes we expect to see over the coming years as social platforms continue to become politicised and regulated to protect users from the potentially devastating power they currently hold.
As advocates of the opportunities and limitless capabilities of software and technology, we see both the need and the potential for programmes and algorithms to develop to enhance the positive side of social media, the internet, and technology as a whole, allowing safe entertainment and space for free speech and creativity, rather than a platform where our freedom and rights to information are subverted for the benefit of those in power.
(2) Bloomberg.com, Twitter Kicked Donald Trump Out and Its Stocks Surged to a Record, Jeran Wittenstein
(3) bbc.co.uk, Tech Tent: Facebook v Australia – two sides to the story, Rory Cellan-Jones
(4) The Social Dilemma, Netflix
(5) bbc.co.uk, Facebook and Google News Law Passed in Australia
(6) msn.com, Facebook news ban in Australia was result of ‘fundamental misunderstanding’, says Nick Clegg, Andrew Griffin