A long, powerful essay in The Baffler about the new antitrust actions against Big Tech in the US and the parallels being drawn with the tobacco trials of the 1990s. I agree with its core claim, that equating the problem Big Tech poses with a personal addiction one (a position promoted inter alios by the documentary The Social Dilemma) minimizes the issue of economic dependency and the power it confers on the gatekeepers of key digital infrastructure. I have argued previously that this is at the heart of popular mistrust of the big platforms. However, the pursuit of the tech giants in court risks to be hobbled because of the lasting effect of neoliberal thought on antitrust architecture in US jurisprudence and regulation. Concentrating on consumer prices in the short run risks missing the very real ways in which tech companies can exert systemic social power. In their quest to rein in Big Tech, US lawmakers and attorneys will be confronted with much deeper and more systemic political economy issues. It is unclear they will be able to win this general philosophical argument against such powerful special interests.
French-language news outlets, among others, have been reporting a Facebook takedown operation (here is the full report by Stanford University and Graphika) against three separate influence and disinformation networks, active in various sub-Saharan African countries since 2018. Two of these have been traced back to the well-known Russian troll farm Internet Research Agency; the third, however, appears to be linked to individuals in the French military (which is currently deployed in the Sahel). In some instances, and notably in the Central African Republic, the Russian and French operations competed directly with one another, attempting to doxx and discredit each other through fake fact-checking and news organization impersonations, as well as using AI to create fake online personalities posing as local residents.
The report did not present conclusive evidence for attribution of the French influence operation directly to the French government. Also, it argues that the French action was in many ways reactive to the Russian disinfo campaign. Nonetheless, as the authors claim,
[b]y creating fake accounts and fake “anti-fake-news” pages to combat the trolls, the French operators were perpetuating and implicitly justifying the problematic behavior they were trying to fight […] using “good fakes” to expose “bad fakes” is a high-risk strategy likely to backfire when a covert operation is detected […] More importantly, for the health of broader public discourse, the proliferation of fake accounts and manipulated evidence is only likely to deepen public suspicion of online discussion, increase polarization, and reduce the scope for evidence-based consensus.
What was not discussed, either in the report or in news coverage of it, is the emerging geopolitical equilibrium in which a private company can act as final arbitrator in an influence struggle between two Great Powers in a third country. Influence campaigns by foreign State actors are in no way a 21st-century novelty: the ability of a company such as Facebook to insert itself into them most certainly is. Media focus on disinformation-fighting activities of the major social media platforms in the case of the US elections (hence, on domestic ground) has had the effect of minimizing the strategic importance these companies now wield in international affairs. The question is to what extent they will be allowed to operate in complete independence by the US government, or, otherwise put, to what extent will foreign Powers insert this dossier into their general relation with the US going forward.
A disturbing piece of reporting from Gizmodo (via /.) on the adoption by many US school districts of digital forensic tools to retrieve content from their students’ mobile devices. Of course, such technology was originally developed as a counter-terrorism tool, and then trickled down to regular domestic law enforcement. As we have remarked previously, schools have recently been on the bleeding edge of the social application of intrusive technology, with all the risks and conflicts it engenders; in this instance, however, we see a particularly egregious confluence of technological blowback (from war in the periphery to everyday life in the metropole) and criminal-justice takeover of mass education (of school-to-prison-pipeline fame).
Just attended an EFF-run ‘Fireside Chat’ with US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) on Section 230. As one of the original drafters of the legislation, the Senator was eager to point out the core values it was meant to shield from legal challenge, permitting the full deployment of constitutionally-protected speech online without imposing an undue burden of liability on those hosting such speech.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other digital rights organizations find themselves in a complicated political position, for, having spoken out against the risks and abuses originating from Big Tech long before there was widespread public consciousness of any problem, they now have to push against a bipartisan current that has crystallized in opposition to Section 230. Even some generalist news outlets have seized on the matter, giving scant play to the values and legitimate interests the law was originally intended to safeguard.
It seems fairly clear that mainstream political discourse has been extremely superficial in considering key aspects of the problem: Section 230 has become a symbol rather than a mere tool of governance. It may also be the case that the wide bipartisan consensus on its ills is in fact illusory, simply being a placemarker for incompatible views on how to move beyond the status quo, with the most likely outcome being paralysis of any reform effort. However, the risk that the imperative to do something cause the passage of hasty measures with lasting damage is real.
In a way, the present situation is the poisoned fruit of a narrative that linked the unfettered expansion of the Big Tech giants over the past decade to the libertarian and countercultural ideals of the early internet: when the former came to be perceived as intolerable, the latter were seen at best as acceptable collateral damage. Most of the popular animus against Section 230 that politicians are attempting to channel stems from resentment at the power of social media platforms and digital gatekeepers. Therefore (and although there may well be a case for the need to curb mindless amplification of certain types of speech online), perhaps antitrust action (in Congress or in the courts) is more suitable for obtaining the results the public seeks. Comparative policymaking will also be extremely relevant, as the European Union pursues its own aggressive agenda on content moderation, permissible speech, and monopoly power.