There is no rest for the Big Tech corporations of today. A growing animosity toward Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon has gained mainstream traction, seen by increasingly louder calls by activists and politicians from across the political spectrum to regulate tech markets.
This phenomenon – commonly referred to as “techlash” – is a bipartisan policy concern albeit for vastly different reasons. US Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren decried Big Tech as posing risks for American democracy due to public reliance on it, while Republicans such as Trump and Senator Ted Cruz have lambasted Big Tech for an inherent self-regulatory bias against conservatives.
But before we jump to the conclusion that government bureaucrats need to rein in Big Tech, we must constantly keep in mind and appreciate just how gargantuan of an impact the Internet has had in ameliorating liberal democracies and human freedom.
Democracy before the Internet
Before the advent of the Internet and social media, the scope of democratic participation for the average citizen was minimal. The pre-Internet society was heavily constricted by the one-way information flows of traditional media models. The types of social issues that people rallied for and against were by and large filtered through agendas set by a class of elite journalists and political leaders.
This hierarchical institutional structure that shaped how public discourse developed is best explained by the underlying economics of the media industry. To be in the business of information production i.e., a news organisation, one used to require large up-front physical capital investment costs for setting up a broadcast station, printing presses and/or mainframe servers.
Thanks to gradual technological improvements and lower costs of computer parts, the material costs necessary to participate in the production of information goods today are widely decentralised and owned by end-users. We purchase our own computers and set up our own internet subscriptions through which we receive our news, rather than purchasing a newspaper from the stand.
In other words, the old business model of high fixed costs and low marginal costs of news production is no longer dominant.
This simple difference in the economic conditions of information production and distribution has made a great difference in shaping modern liberal democracies. In the past, the investigation of any given topic was the sole duty of full-time professional journalists. The average person interested in fulfilling their democratic duty of being politically-informed had to rely on the professional judgment of elite opinion leaders with little scope for scrutinising their source claims or voicing their opposition.
Today, anyone with a social media platform or smartphone camera are themselves “journalists”, able to voice one’s outrage and expose scandalous affairs to a wide audience within a moment’s notice of the incident happening. It is common practice on most forms of digital content to link and cross-reference to original materials, promoting a culture of healthy scepticism.
The scope for evaluating the credibility and accuracy of claims in politics has also considerably widened. While the average news consumer may not possess the technical expertise to evaluate claims, open access to the information ensures that some group of people out there with the competence to do so can and will act as a safeguard against false claims. This is seen in the form of professional organisations such as Politifact that verifies the truthfulness of claims made by politicians, as well as a politically-active citizenry on social media.
As Yochai Benkler succinctly puts it, thanks to the internet, the spirit of public discourse saw a patterned shift from “trust the elites and professionals” to a participatory “see for yourself” culture where consumers are encouraged to join the conversation, rather than receiving it passively. In the era of the Internet, information is conveyed to the end-user, along with an open invitation to report on, debate, question and collaborate.
The popular “Someone is wrong on the Internet” joke, meant to playfully mock “keyboard warriors” who spend too much time on online social media forums bickering with others, captures the participatory essence of the networked information economy that we live in today.
In the networked information economy of today, the average person enjoys instant access to personal supercomputers that bridges us to a wealth of information at our fingertips, a reality unimaginable just a mere twenty years ago. The heightened extent by which the average citizen can play a role in the wider democratic process manifests in many ways: political discourse on social media, online citizen journalism, the empowerment of minorities and activists to voice injustices, and more.
It is not hard to understand why authoritarian governments such as Myanmar and China have went to such great lengths to control its digital spheres. They do it because the Internet is the most anti-authoritarian tool to ever exist in the history of humankind. Case in point: the Arab Spring revolutions serve as arguably the best example of how internet access enabled the revolutionary efforts of domestic dissidents to topple their dictatorship governments.
Rationalising regulation of Big Tech today
Those who advocate a larger government regulatory oversight over Big Tech must be reminded of mankind’s recent history and how the Internet has enabled civil freedoms (and continues to do so).
It is exceedingly easy to infer that government regulation is necessary by pinpointing isolated instances of how social media has been used for undesirable purposes, or have led to problems of misinformation or data privacy.
But this line of thinking lacks nuance if its baseline for justifying greater regulation of Big Tech is an ideologically utopian standard of tech platforms that are perfectly self-regulating and free of problems.
That’s a nice and grand ideal to strive for, but unrealistic if used as a benchmark for policymaking purposes. Against such a hard-to-achieve and flawless standard, there would be infinite reasons for regulators to interfere in tech markets and ever-present grounds for widening the scope of regulation.
Instead, the right standard against which to assess the need for tech regulation should be based on a comparative analysis to the democratic realities in times past, and properly calculate whether alleged harms outweigh public benefits – such as the historical improvements in democratic engagement I have briefly sketched out.
Increasing government regulation of Big Tech is not a costless action. It would also spell higher potential risks of government manipulation of society’s main communication channels as other tech policy analysts have pointed out here.
If history is any guide to action, we would still be far better off in a world of imperfect self-regulation.