Thanks Big Tech. But We’ll Still Need to Talk.

About ten minutes after the world went into self-quarantine, and we all instantaneously became more dependent on internet platforms, you could almost hear the keyboards clacking, as various pundits raced to announce that the techlash is officially over. And that it never should have happened.

For instance, Ryan Bourne of the libertarian CATO institute said as much. Writing on April 9 for The Telegraph, he declared, “In many ways, our current crisis is seeing the promise of Big Tech fulfilled. The value of greater online connectivity – tech ‘bringing us together’ – has never been clearer. HD quality video calls allow the elderly to continue to see grandchildren while in isolation.”

Cue montage for every anthemic Google TV spot we can expect to see in the near future. And to be fair, we cannot deny that internet platforms do provide resources and capabilities that, in an emergency like the present, go from being merely important to absolutely essential. We do not need to list the many ways in which digital technologies and internet platforms are sustaining many basic functions and some semblance of commerce at the moment. We’re all living those examples every day. 

In case you happen to be unfamiliar with the term techlash, it is shorthand for describing the general shift in attitude, beginning in early 2016, when the public, the media, and lawmakers all, rather suddenly, opened up to the idea of holding the major platforms responsible for some of the content they host and/or the data they abuse. This change in mood was of course sparked by revelations that Russian agents had meddled in the 2016 U.S. election, that troves of Facebook user data was used by political manipulator Cambridge Analytica, and that our social platforms were full to bustin’ with “alternative facts.” 

While many pundits, and the internet companies themselves, will continue to burnish Big Tech’s image against the contextual stone of COVID-19, there were some rather important policy discussions just beginning to take meaningful form when the microbes hit the fan.  And we should most certainly not, as Bourne proclaims, “… put the crude ‘reining in Big Tech’ agenda straight into the policy dustbin.” Granted, he is primarily responding to anti-trust action in the EU and murmurings of same in the U.S., arguing, “The benefits of winner-takes-most competition right now are clear.” And while the breaking-up Big Tech discussion deserves its own forum, there are other matters on the table.

As a general statement, Bourne’s conclusion is irrational, given the impetus for its writing. The more a private industry proves itself to be of vital public interest, the more it deserves fair but rigorous public scrutiny. It would be preposterous to decide, now that we’ve seen how much we rely on Big Tech, that these companies should be allowed to do whatever the hell they want. Though I get why a libertarian would say otherwise. 

Specifically, there was a very critical policy debate (long overdue) that was finally taking place, thanks in part to the so-called techlash. And if we were to take Bourne’s dustbin comment seriously, we would only succeed in sweeping whole dust bunnies of unresolved problems back under the rug. That conversation is whether all platforms should continue to enjoy absolute immunity from civil liability for harm caused by means of certain content they host and, quite often, monetize. 

Harassment victims, whose troubles are exacerbated by the liability shield, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, will still have a complaint or two when this crisis is over. Likewise, creators, whose music, photos, films, etc. are chronically pirated via platforms immunized by Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, are hardly finished having that conversation. After all, it only began in earnest on February 11, when the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing in what was scheduled to be a yearlong review of the DMCA. 

When those hearings resume, I imagine we will see a lot of post-crisis inspired enthusiasm for Big Tech seep into testimony on the Hill and the talking points of Silicon Valley’s network of activist/PR agencies. It is easy to anticipate, for instance, declarations like, COVID-19 revealed just how essential internet access is for everyone, and, therefore, no provision should ever bar that access

In context to the DMCA, this would be a swipe at §512(i), which requires that a platform wishing to avail itself of the “safe harbor” provision, must implement an effective termination policy for repeat copyright infringers. COX Communications is now the poster child for what happens when an ISP implements a Potemkin termination policy, having lost a one-billion-dollar lawsuit in December 2019.  In its amicus brief on behalf of COX, the EFF cited access to education, employment, and government services as rationales; so it is a safe bet these same arguments, though unpersuasive to date, will be reinvigorated by the coronavirus experience.

Naturally, if the ISPs were persuasive that access is a human right, this could abrogate the “repeat infringer” provisions of Section 512. And while there is reason to be skeptical that the ISPs can successfully argue the “access as right” principle as a matter of law, the generalized “importance of the internet” trope has been used for years to militate against holistic enforcement of the statutes as they are written. (Also, I would not expect the access providers to take the human right principle so far as to offer free access to all during a crisis, though I would applaud them if they did.)   

As noted in my post about the second DMCA hearing, Professor Justin Hughes observed that §512(j), which provides for injunctive relief by means of site blocking, has hardly been implemented in the United States. And despite a preponderance of evidence that site-blocking has been effective in other jurisdictions in combating piracy without harm to speech rights, I imagine we can expect a litany of headlines and memes saying things like, Imagine your child can’t get her homework done during the next crisis. Tell Congress no site-blocking.

Of course the homework thing (and related examples) will have nothing to do with implementing §512(j), but trivial realities have never stopped the “digital-rights activists” from engaging in this kind of hyperbole before. Why would they restrain themselves in a climate of renewed ebullience for Big Tech that will probably follow the ebb of this pandemic? 

By all means, let us share a golf clap in recognition of the fact that, thanks to internet platforms and related technology companies, many of us can adapt to functioning at a distance in this strange and difficult moment in history. But let’s not trip over ourselves in fawning adulation. These encomiums to Big Tech are typically overbroad, presuming to conclude that the benefits of an industry obliterate the public interest in holding that same industry accountable for any potential harms. No corporate entity deserves that much free rein. Not ever. When this crisis subsides (and I hope it subsides), we will all need to heal in one way or another, and after thanking Big Tech for all it can do, and has done, we’ll still need to talk about a few things.

Photo by: Ansonlu

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