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The Techlash May Be Due for a Comeuppance, Say Gigi Sohn and Techdirt Founder Mike Masnick



Gigi Sohn

November 9, 2020 — Two technology policy intellectuals said on Friday at the Reboot conference that the “techlash” may due for a comeuppance.

Gigi Sohn, distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology and Policy, and Techdirt Founder Mike Masnick critiqued the techlash movement as lacking in coherence and part of a misplaced concern.

“I feel like its mostly a manufactured concern over a legitimate concern,” said Masnick, referring to the fact that telecommunications companies and Hollywood studios spend far more on lobbying than even bit tech companies. “The public relations ecosystem manufactures narratives and print media loves to hold big tech companies accountable.”

The pair called for a better explanation of what the techlash movement is.

“There is a lot of people who are mad about certain companies and certain actions, but it is not coherent at this point,” said Sohn. “Anytime you try to drill down on what the problem is or how to fix it, you don’t get a comprehensible explanation.”

The techlash is a marker for broader societal issues

“People often don’t have a clear understanding, and may blame tech companies for larger societal issues,” added Masnick. “Things don’t go viral on social media until they first do on Fox News,” he said, offering an example of how the public backlash may be misplaced.

Currently, the four Silicon Valley giants – Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google – may be effectively being scapegoated for other policy failings in the media landscape. Referring to the fact that there is a much broader industry at stake that the so-called GAFA companies, Sohn said: “Tech is bigger than just four or five companies.”

Even in the October report excoriating big tech produced by House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline, D-R.I., “there was a slew of the things included, which made the critiques as nefarious as possible,” said Masnick.

In an attempt to offer possible solutions, Sohn said that Congress should revisit antitrust laws. “Antitrust law is broken and only looks at consumer benefits as reflected in prices,” said Sohn. “Congress should strengthen antitrust laws so they’re not meaningless, as they almost are now.”

The largest tech companies will emerge on the other side of the pandemic much stronger. While techlash rhetoric will most likely continue for some time, the vigor of the movement may be better positioned against current antitrust and other laws governing media companies, rather than against U.S. tech companies themselves.

The pandemic has been strengthening the hand of big tech

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an increased reliance on digital technologies, leading some individuals to foster more positive personal relationships with digital tech.

But others have been turned off by the surging influence the pandemic offered big tech corporations.

Although “techlash” was coined in 2013 by The Economist, it wasn’t until the the Democratic primaries leading up to the 2020 presidential contest that the techlash seemed to be gaining stronger political resonance.

See “Big Tech Gets a Big Lashing by Democratic Presidential Candidates, on Antitrust, Section 230 and Data Privacy,” by Drew Clark, Broadband Breakfast, October 16, 2019

And some of that stems from how, over the past few years, one tech executives after another has been hauled in front of Congress to testify about the harms that their companies are allegedly causing: Russian political interference, the toxic data dump from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, episodes of livestreaming the Christchurch massacre, and more.

Indeed, Andrew Yang’s long-shot presidential campaign seemed to be primarily about the threat that automation posed to American jobs.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., leveraged her longstanding criticisms of banking, energy and pharmaceutical companies to also call for a breakup of Google, Facebook and Amazon early in her campaign.

But it may be that the techlash movement has met its peak in the form of the Trump administration’s antitrust lawsuit against Google filed in October by the Department of Justice, or the apparent antitrust lawsuit that the Federal Trade Commission is preparing against Facebook.

“Half of Americans support the Google lawsuit,” said Sohn, citing recent data from the Pew Research Center, which found that 66 percent of Americans strongly believe the power of big tech is a problem for the U.S. economy. She also noted that 64 percent of people say social media has a negative effect, and over 70 percent say social media companies have too much power today.

Interestingly, however, the percentage of Democrats who believe that major technology companies should be regulated by the government more than they are currently has dropped significantly over the past two years.

It is only among conservatives who vote or lean Republican that that number rose, from 42 percent to 53 percent.



Social Media

Americans Should Look to Filtration Software to Block Harmful Content from View, Event Hears

One professor said it is the only way to solve the harmful content problem without encroaching on free speech rights.



Photo of Adam Neufeld of Anti-Defamation League, Steve Delbianco of NetChoice, Barak Richman of Duke University, Shannon McGregor of University of North Carolina (left to right)

WASHINGTON, July 21, 2022 – Researchers at an Internet Governance Forum event Thursday recommended the use of third-party software that filters out harmful content on the internet, in an effort to combat what they say are social media algorithms that feed them content they don’t want to see.

Users of social media sites often don’t know what algorithms are filtering the information they consume, said Steve DelBianco, CEO of NetChoice, a trade association that represents the technology industry. Most algorithms function to maximize user engagement by manipulating their emotions, which is particularly worrisome, he said.

But third-party software, such as Sightengine and Amazon’s Rekognition – which moderate what users see by bypassing images and videos that the user selects as objectionable – could act in place of other solutions to tackle disinformation and hate speech, said Barak Richman, professor of law and business at Duke University.

Richman argued that this “middleware technology” is the only way to solve this universal problem without encroaching on free speech rights. He suggested Americans in these technologies – that would be supported by popular platforms including Facebook, Google, and TikTok – to create the buffer between harmful algorithms and the user.

Such technologies already exist in limited applications that offer less personalization and accuracy in filtering, said Richman. But the market demand needs to increase to support innovation and expansion in this area.

Americans across party lines believe that there is a problem with disinformation and hate speech, but disagree on the solution, added fellow panelist Shannon McGregor, senior researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina.

The conversation comes as debate continues regarding Section 230, a provision in the Communications Decency Act that protects technology platforms from being liable for content their users post. Some say Section 230 only protects “neutral platforms,” while others claim it allows powerful companies to ignore user harm. Experts in the space disagree on the responsibility of tech companies to moderate content on their platforms.

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Big Tech

Surveillance Capitalism a Symptom of Web-Dependent Companies, Not Ownership

Former Google executive Richard Whitt critiqued Ben Tarnoff’s argument in ‘Internet for the People’ during Gigabit Libraries discussion.



Photo of Ben Tarnoff, co-founder of magazine Logic and the author of “Internet for the People”

July 15, 2022 – A former Google executive  pushed back against a claim that the privatization of broadband infrastructure has created the world’s current data and privacy concerns, instead suggesting that it’s the companies that rely on the web that have helped fuel the problem.

Richard Whitt, president of technology non-profit GLIA Foundation and former employee of Google, argued that while the World Wide Web is rife with problems, the internet infrastructure underlying the web remains fundamentally sound.

Whitt was responding to claims made by Ben Tarnoff, a journalist and founder of Logic Magazine, at the Libraries in Response event on July 8. Tarnoff argued – as he does in his recent book, “Internet for the People” – that the privatization of broadband infrastructure in the 1990s has allowed the use and commodification of personal data for profit to flourish (known as surveillance capitalism).

The discussion took place during the Gigabit Libraries Network’s series “Libraries in Response.” The session was titled “If the Internet is Broken, How Can Libraries Help Fix it?”

Privatization, Tarnoff claims, has raised such issues as polarization of ideologies and the “annihilation of our privacy.” As a result, he said, the American people are losing trust in tech companies that “rule the internet.”

Whitt responded that the internet is working well based on the protocols, standardized rules for routing and addressing packets of data to travel across networks, derived at the onset of the internet.

The World Wide Web, a system built on the internet to allow communication using easy-to-understand graphical user interfaces, allowed for browsers and other applications to emerge, which have since perpetuated surveillance capitalism into the governing approach of the web that it is today, said Whitt, suggesting it’s not ownership of the hard infrastructure that’s the problem.

The advertising market that encourages surveillance extraction, analysis and manipulation is, and will continue to be, profitable, Whitt continued.

The discussion follows a Pew Research Center study that found that only half of Americans believe tech companies have a positive effect in 2019 compared to a seventy-one percent in 2015.

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Big Tech

American Innovation and Choice Online Act Has Panelists Divided on Small Business Impact

The bill is intended to prohibit product preferences on tech platforms, with some saying it could harm small companies dependent on those platforms.



Panel at CSIS event on Thursday

WASHINGTON, July 6, 2022 – Observers are still divided about the effect on small business of legislation that is intended to keep large technology platforms from giving preference to their own products over others.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted experts last month to discuss the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which was introduced in January. The event heard both support for the bill, as well as concern that it could negatively impact smaller businesses that rely on the larger platforms.

“Existing antitrust law is not going to be enough to rein in the power of the largest tech platforms,” Charlotte Slaiman, competition policy director at public interest group Public Knowledge, said, adding the AICOA is very important for small business competition “to get a fair shot.”

“Fundamentally this is a really important…for competition because this protects small companies that are potential competitors against one of these large platforms,” she added.

Krisztian Katona, vice president of global competition and regulatory policy at the Computer & Communications Industry Association, however, said that after performing a cost-benefit analysis of AICOA, he expects the legislation will hurt business competition.

He said that the legislation would increase operating costs for smaller companies and force these companies to reduce the cost of their services. He predicts that close to 100 companies by 2030 would be negatively impacted by the legislation if it becomes law.

Others agree with Katona. A report in March by the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council said small business owners felt the AICOA could be detrimental to them, saying it could increase prices. Meanwhile Michael Petricone, senior vice president of the Consumer Technology Association, said in June that small businesses would be affected the most by big tech regulation because they depend on those platforms.

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