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November 20, 2020

Big Tech Just Keeps Getting Bigger

It’s not just censorship, but collection and use of the private data of users.

We’ve all heard how Big Tech uses algorithms to manipulate the content that appears on our screens and how it mines our personal information to share it with other behemoth companies like Amazon. Let’s face it: None of us who scroll through a Facebook feed really believes our information is private anymore.

Even the Federal Trade Commission hit Facebook with a $5 billion fine last year for privacy violations. But that’s small change for a company that rakes in tens of billions annually.

This year, however, the Internet giants took a more direct role in controlling our ability to access information. In mid-October, just two weeks before the presidential election, the New York Post, one of our nation’s oldest and largest-circulating newspapers, broke an explosive story about the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop. Within hours, Facebook and Twitter had launched themselves into censorship mode in order to protect the Biden campaign.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote at The Intercept in October, “The Post, for all its longevity, power and influence, ran smack into two entities far more powerful than it: Facebook and Twitter.” While Facebook suppressed the article on its platform, Greenwald added that Twitter’s efforts “went far beyond Facebook’s.” How? “[Twitter] banned entirely all users’ ability to share the Post article — not just on their public timeline but even using the platform’s private Direct Messaging feature.”

Ironically, Greenwald wrote this just before leaving the publication he founded over censorship of this same Biden story.

Facebook relies on two tools to monitor and censor its users: Tasks and Centra. Tasks works along with Twitter and Google to engage in direct censorship of its users, while Centra monitors a user’s activity within Facebook — and across the entire Internet.

So what’s to be done? Congressional hearings seem to be nothing more than a show designed to make us think government is reining in the tech behemoths.

This week, we had another such hearing, and another chance to hold them accountable. The Senate Judiciary Committee questioned CEOs Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter. When Missouri Senator Josh Hawley asked Zuckerberg whether Tasks and Centra are used for censoring and controlling Facebook’s users, Zuckerberg claimed he wasn’t familiar with them. Zuckerberg added, “I’d be happy to follow up, and get you and your team the information that you would like on this. But I’m limited in what I can — what I’m familiar with and can share today.”

Maybe it’s not so amazing that Zuckerberg refused to cough up any details. After all, Facebook has never been honest about its behind-the-scenes agenda.

Then again, the social media platforms are seemingly protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. So long as they are indeed platforms, Section 230 shields them from any liability whatsoever regarding the content posted on their platforms. Yet that hinges on keeping them from being labeled publishers, even though their editorial control rivals that of any print publication.

So what’s to fear from a toothless Congress that often threatens to strip them of their Section 230 protections but never goes the distance? Maybe one of the reasons for our elected representatives’ lack of resolve is that many of them are funded by the very social media companies they claim to be reining in.

One solution proposed last year by our own Arnold Ahlert is that we should be allowed to copyright our personal data, and “every company using one’s personal data to make a profit should be required to pay a percentage of that profit back to each individual they track.”

It’s a good idea, but until we pressure Congress to act, the Facebooks, Twitters, and Googles of the Internet will strive to ensure that both free speech and personal privacy are relics of the past.

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