Big Tech politics, blurred lines, and power: why the government must take back control

Written by Simon Hansford on 25 June 2021 in Opinion

Online platforms and the major public cloud firms have great – and growing – power. Authorities must now make sure this comes with the requisite responsibility, according to Simon Hansford of UKCloud

Credit: Twitter/@realdonaldtrump

Over a decade ago, the technology industry found itself one of the few winners from the global financial crisis and its pervasive social and fiscal implications. Now, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, it’s no secret that citizens across the world are increasingly anxious about the tremendous influence wielded by Big Tech giants. 

Infamously, earlier this year, Donald Trump’s personal account was axed from Twitter. Not long after, his supporters were silenced by Apple, Google, and AWS as Parler was removed from their app stores and servers. At the time, Parler claimed these actions stemmed from “political animus” and threatened to sue AWS for breaching US antitrust law, asserting that this decision was “like pulling the plug on a hospital patient on life support”. 

Parler’s since dropped the lawsuit and Apple says the company can return to the App Store. Still, irrespective of where one’s political loyalties lie, questions must be asked about freedom of speech and the role gargantuan online platforms – which, in terms of GDP, are more comparable to countries than corporations – have to play.

The reach and socioeconomic impact of these platforms cannot be overstated; they became too powerful for any semblance of neutrality long ago, thanks to their scale and intricacy

For years, these organisations have claimed to be a politically agnostic conduit that simply provided a platform for others to have a voice. In other words, a commodity with no responsibility for content generation. However, the people responsible for the platforms are clearly making editorial judgements.

In fact, antitrust regulators in the UK, Germany and Australia are now mounting a unified attack against the ubiquitous power of Big Tech. They argue that the coronavirus crisis has been weaponised by Silicon Valley giants to accelerate their global dominance. In the UK, the blurred lines between power and responsibility among these firms must be interrogated, for the sake of all citizens.

This is because it’s inevitable that online platforms – whether social media, online retail, or hyper-scale cloud – will be underpinning things that are equally, if not more, repulsive than Parler’s incitement of violence. Fundamentally, the Parler case proves that these platforms are far more than mere commodities; their reach, content, and socioeconomic impact cannot be overstated. Platforms became too powerful for any semblance of neutrality long ago, thanks to their scale and intricacy. 

Control of data
What’s crucial to understand is that these platforms are not just controlling free speech but also data, an issue which escalates far beyond social media. 

NHS staff have made clear their concerns on Big Tech firms handling patient data. The challenge is that such corporations, which are deemed too big to fail, are faceless, reliant on their size to provide seemingly the best value and opportunity, but this often not the case and there’s a much greater cost involved. Entities – whether that’s an organisation, citizen, or nation – handing over their data risk not only losing control of it but causing countless more threats to emerge as a result. These can include – but are by no means limited to – economic ramifications, social discord, and national security risks.

In the UK, our government has launched the Digital Markets Unit, a new public body tasked with overseeing a pro-competition regime for online platforms, to facilitate competition and equip consumers of digital services with more choice and control over their data. It remains to be seen whether this will be enough. Nonetheless, if the government champions corporate social responsibility alongside social value, in tandem with building a national digital capability and taking back control of Britain’s data, then we have a fighting chance.


About the author

Simon Hansford is chief executive of UKCloud

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