Second Opinion: How Governments Are Turning to Big Tech

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Governments around the world are questioning the immense power of big tech, making politically motivated confrontations between their officials and tech companies become more common.

In mid-September, as voting began in Russia’s parliamentary elections, Apple and Google capitulated to continued government demands to remove from their online stores a smartphone app created by allies of opposition leader Alexei. Navalny. To deflect support for the Kremlin’s preferred candidate, the app improved strategic coordination among voters and advised them on which candidates are most likely to defeat those backed by the ruling party.

The alarming decision of the companies is part of a larger global pattern. Governments around the world are increasingly exercising their regulatory power to control freedom of expression online and gain better access to private information. To respond to the immense power of the tech industry without emboldening state digital repression, regulations must make human rights and democratic values ​​a priority.

The use of regulation for political ends was on full display in Russia, as state authorities coerced the two California-based tech titans into censorship amid tightly controlled elections, limiting the ability of opponents of the government of Vladimir Putin to organize.

Against the backdrop of an 11-year decline in internet freedom around the world and a 15-year decline in comprehensive democratic rights around the world – as identified in Freedom House research – the question of how much and what kind of regulatory power governments should have over tech companies is both urgent and delicate.

In a recent Freedom House report on Internet Freedom, we found that 48 of 70 countries surveyed had taken at least some form of regulatory action on online content, personal data, or competition against tech companies. over the past year. More than a dozen new laws threaten the future of free expression online. More and more governments are pressuring companies to remove large swathes of content, often under the pretext of protecting users from disinformation, hate speech or harmful content. Their real goal is to suppress anti-government rhetoric, investigative reporting and expressions of LGBTQ + identity and other messages that may be politically disadvantaged.

Some government leaders have taken the opposite approach and attempted to ban platforms from moderating content, which could allow the proliferation of bogus or hate propaganda and threats of violence to stifle genuine discussion and debate. In only a few cases, the laws require companies to be more transparent about the moderation of their content, their advertising practices and the use of algorithms, and offer content producers a remedy when their content is restricted.

Dozens of laws introduced to regulate corporate data management are also ripe for government exploitation. Many are asking companies to undermine end-to-end encryption – a security method that prevents access to data by anyone other than the sender and recipient – in their products, or require that user data be stored on servers located in the country. In practice, the weakening of national data encryption and storage expands the government’s ability to access people’s most private information. Even laws that ostensibly enshrine the rights of users to control their data often contain vague exemptions from surveillance for national security.

More positively, industry regulators around the world have also been zealous in cracking down on anti-competitive and abusive business practices, and fining big tech companies for failing to protect data and harness their market power. A few countries, such as Germany, have introduced measures that would prohibit companies from denying interoperability and data portability.

But competition policy can also be formulated and used for political ends. For example, Chinese regulators have been among the most aggressive in tackling the monopoly practices of the country’s tech giants. However, their interventions – such as forced corporate restructurings and politicized pressure on business leaders – have raised concerns that the government is more interested in restricting the autonomy and influence of such businesses than in competition. fairness and consumer protection.

The global drive to control Big Tech is occurring alongside a historic crackdown on internet freedom. In 56 of the countries covered by our report, officials have arrested or convicted people for their online speech in the past year.

Governments have suspended internet access in at least 20 countries, and 21 others have blocked access to social media platforms, most often during times of political turmoil such as protests and elections. Authorities in at least 45 countries are suspected of having obtained spyware or data mining technologies from private vendors, giving themselves unprecedented extrajudicial access to private communications.

Some of the most illustrative cases of digital crackdown in the past year have occurred in Myanmar, Belarus and Uganda, where electoral disputes have led authorities to shut down internet service, censor social media platforms and media outlets. digital independent, and to physically attack Internet users.

With so many aspects of our lives evolving online, new internet regulations are likely to have a lasting impact on our ability to express ourselves freely, share information across borders, and hold the powerful to account.

We must ensure that regulation does not become a tool for governments around the world to exercise greater control over the digital sphere. Advocates of a free and open Internet – including those in governments, civil society and the private sector – should push for new laws that prevent power from accumulating in the hands of a few dominant actors, whether this either in the private sector or the state. This means making freedom of expression a priority in moderation of content and requiring platforms to be much more transparent and accountable when they suppress speech.

Data privacy laws should allow users to control their information, institute safeguards against government surveillance, and protect encryption. And policies that govern competition should foster innovation to enable people to make informed decisions about their online experiences.

Regulation is not a panacea, but well-designed rules and incentives can ensure that the internet retains its emancipatory power, with all its potential to spur personal and societal progress.

Adrian Shahbaz is Director of Technology and Democracy at Freedom House. Allie Funk is Senior Research Analyst for Technology and Democracy at Freedom House. They are co-authors of “Freedom on the Net 2021: The Global Drive to Control Big Tech. “

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