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Big tech vs Democracy

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - February 20, 2021 - 12:00am

“Today we are all Australians,” declared Shoshana Zuboff, a professor who may have written one of the most influential books this century, in an interview on the UK’s Channel Four News on Thursday evening. “Every government is the Australian government, because we all face this unaccountable power in exactly the same way. It’s time for democracy to wake up and we, together: citizens and lawmakers, build the infrastructures of laws and rights that we need to tether all of this to fundamental rights, tether it to public service and make this digital century safe for democracy.”

She was referring to Facebook blocking anyone in Australia from sharing or viewing local or international news content on Wednesday night. What’s happened there has implications on our lives wherever we are in the world.

Facebook’s blockage is in response to Australia’s “News Media Bargaining Code.” The core intent is to protect and support Australian public interest journalism and would require Google and Facebook to negotiate with news outlets for payment. Neither wants to pay. Google softened its stance just before the Code reached parliamentary debate, negotiating deals with Australian companies under its Google News Showcase.

Facebook has not been so amenable. The headlines have reflected the Big Tech vs Little Guy narrative: “Facebook Australia: PM Scott Morrison ‘will not be intimidated’ by tech giant” said the BBC; Reuters news wires went with “Facebook ‘unfriends’ Australia: uproar as news pages go dark;” “‘Arrogant’ and ‘wrong’: Australia slams Facebook’s move to block news as unnecessary and heavy-handed,” said CNBC. They still do not reflect the gravity and full extent of issues being debated.

Back to Professor Zuboff, whom I mentioned at the start of this piece. She is Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School and author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” She was asked what governments around the world should be thinking as they look at what Facebook has done in Australia.

“International governments, especially the world’s liberal democracies, should be thinking this is a wake up call. Because we are living in a world right now where a group of surveillance empires dominate the digital world. There has been no democratic law to stop them. They’ve declared private ownership over all of our personal data. They have declared absolute control over critical information systems and infrastructure. They have control and authority over the world’s knowledge and information and the systems and infrastructures that carry that knowledge and information. If they want to turn it off, they can turn it off; if they want to tweak it, they can tweak it; if they want to put it back on, they can put it back on. They can do whatever they want. Why? Because for the last 20 years, while they’ve been developing these capabilities, our democracies have been sleepwalking so the rest of us are marching naked now into this digital century. We need laws that put our personal information back under our control. Our personal rights have always been regarded as inalienable. These are sovereign rights of the individual, but they’ve simply usurped those rights.”

Zuboff described how the template for what’s happening in Australia was set in 1997 when Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page decided to ignore the complaints of companies who they were ranking in their brand new search engines. They got away with it and they did the same thing to journalism. According to Zuboff, “that has left us vulnerable to the scourge of disinformation that really is tearing our societies apart.” Are these companies simply too big to beat now? “Only democracy has the countervailing power to take on these huge corporations. So our challenge is how do we reclaim the digital and digital technology for democracy and for society so that we can actually get on with our lives and look forward to the democratization of knowledge and solving all kinds of you know, really big problems that the digital century was supposed to offer us. The hard and harsh truth here is that as we move into this third decade of our digital century, we have a critical question to ask ourselves: we can have a surveillance society, or we can have a democracy. It is literally impossible for us to have both. We decide how we’re going to be governed in a democracy. Facebook can do whatever it wants, so can Apple, so can Google, so can Microsoft, so can Amazon: it’s unaccountable power.”

In Southeast Asia the battle for influence is being fought with blood. Award-winning Philippine-British author and journalist Candy Quimpo Gourlay left Facebook at the end of 2018, after a process that started with feeling “wracked with discomfort and guilt” for enjoying the social network. Gourlay weighed up the personal advantages of connecting with friends and family as well as promoting her work against Facebook’s record.

“It is Facebook’s effect on smaller, poorer, weaker states that we see profound damage. In the Philippines – where most mobile phones can view Facebook for free – a Facebook-enhanced election has led to a drug war (drawing its oxygen from yet more Facebook weaponizing) that has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. In Myanmar, killings incited on Facebook are being called a genocide,” she wrote in a blog post.

Digital authoritarianism has taken hold at the same time as real authoritarianism in the region. Both get their oxygen from us: because for most of us it feels too hard and too big to combat them but to deny ourselves the choice is to make a choice. So, before you check in on your social media timelines or search something up, today or in the days to come, why not at least get informed about why you’re seeing those items, and decide where you stand?

What’s happening in Australia is an inflection point. The battle between big tech and democracy will define our lives for years to come.

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