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Breaking up big tech

Jun 12, 2019 • 14m40s

Once a radical thought, the idea of breaking up tech giants to help regulate them is gaining traction with politicians and tech entrepreneurs.

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Breaking up big tech

12 • Jun 12, 2019

Breaking up big tech

[Theme Music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, this is 7am.

Where once it might have seemed radical, presidential hopefuls and even tech entrepreneurs are now talking about the need to break up the social media giants. Osman Faruqi on the battle between free speech and hate speech at places like Facebook.

[Music starts]

ARCHIVED RECORDING - Elizabeth Warren:

"We have these giant tech companies that think they rule the earth. They think they can come to towns, cities, states, and bully everyone into doing what they want. And what does our government in Washington do? Nothing. It is time to break up America’s tech giants."

ELIZABETH:

Osman, if we start with Elizabeth Warren, she's of course the Democratic presidential hopeful, she publishes this plan in March calling for big tech companies to be broken up.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Can you tell me all about that?

OSMAN:

Sure, so Elizabeth Warren is a senator from Massachusetts and she's really made her name pursuing big business in the U.S. Particularly banks and financial institutions in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

ELIZABETH:

Osman Faruqi is a journalist and Deputy Editor of ABC Life. He’s written about tech regulation in the latest issue of The Monthly.

OSMAN:

She's got really detailed policy proposals on a whole bunch of issues-- from education to health care to immigration. And in March this year, she unveiled another really detailed policy proposal, this time on regulating big tech companies. So companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

[Music starts]

ARCHIVED RECORDING - Elizabeth Warren:

"I want a government that isn’t here to work for giant tech companies, I want a government that’s here to work for the people."

OSMAN:

And she basically argued that these companies have too much control over our lives. They've got too much power on the economy, on society, and on democracy more generally. She argued that we need regulators to actually break up these companies, who she points out in recent years have swallowed up a whole bunch of competitors and basically act as monopolies now. You know, Google is the one place you go to to search. Amazon is the one place you go to to buy goods online. Facebook, since it swallowed up WhatsApp and Instagram, is the most popular social media platform to have ever existed. She argued that these companies wield too much power and it's time to treat them less like companies and more like utilities. So think about things like the sewage system, the water system, the cables that run connecting houses to phone lines and internet. That's the way that we need to start thinking about companies like Facebook.

ELIZABETH:

So, this is a pretty big proposal to say, you know tech companies need to be considered in a way we haven't thought about them before. How radical is it for Warren to be suggesting that these companies be forcibly broken up?

OSMAN:

It's a really radical proposal. And if you think about the American story in the past couple of decades, it really has been one of tech entrepreneurs, you know, creating entire industries--creating thousands of new jobs all around the world, creating billions and billions of dollars in revenue. And it's an extraordinary proposal from an American politician to say that it's not as good as they've been telling us. They've actually, you know, gone beyond their reach when it comes to the power that they've accumulated. The most interesting thing about Warren's proposal, I think, is that despite it being quite a change to the way Americans think about those two things, the way that government connects to the private sector, it wasn't met with ridicule.

ELIZABETH:

And after Warren’s statement, did tech companies, like Facebook, did they give any sign that they’d taken note?

OSMAN:

So a couple of weeks after Elizabeth Warren's intervention where she unveiled this policy proposal, Facebook started to get anxious. They thought look we've been able to get away with a lot. We've built this huge company but now there is scrutiny being applied to us.

There's people questioning what our purpose is, questioning whether perhaps we've pursued growth at the expense of civil discourse, and the right of users to be safe and have their privacy maintained. So Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, decided to respond by intervening himself. And he said he agreed that there needed to be more regulation when it came to social media. And even in particular when it came to Facebook.

ELIZABETH:

So what happened between Warren’s intervention and Zuckerberg’s response?

OSMAN:

A couple of weeks after Elizabeth Warren's intervention, an Australian-born man walked into two mosques in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand and killed 51 Muslim worshippers, and he live streamed the whole slaughter. It was up for about 20 minutes on Facebook, and once it was taken down after it was reported, it was re-uploaded more than one and a half million times.

ELIZABETH:

And the thing that makes the case of the Christchurch shooter different is that it has kind of two parts--both in terms of broadcasting the event, but also in terms of how this person actually became radicalised. How is that different online versus other forms of radicalisation?

OSMAN:

And look, there’s something even more simple and more basic and more fundamental to what's going on than either of those things. And that's the way that social media, in particular, Facebook, is being used as the prime organising, recruiting, and propaganda forum for white-nationalist extremists around the world-- including here in Australia.

If you look back 10-15 years ago there was really one place white-nationalists, on the Internet, were able to talk about ideas, spread neo-Nazi propaganda, and that was a forum called Stormfront. But now those discussions, those conversations are happening in groups on the most popular social media platform to have ever existed.

ELIZABETH:

Right, and arguably in a feed where you might have pictures of family and friends and all these other kind-of things mixed up with it.

OSMAN:

Absolutely, absolutely. It has become ... not only does Facebook allow people to talk about these ideas, to spread these ideas, to recruit, and radicalise others--it does it in a space that makes it so normalised you don't even think twice about it.

Regulators and the tech companies themselves have refused to actually acknowledge there's an issue. And that's the thing that I think worries me the most. It's like okay, we can all agree on whether we want to stop the dissemination of videos of people killing other people. But what about the groups and the pages where people recruit people to far-right organisations? Where they put them on the path to radicalisation? That is happening on a private multi-multi-multi $100 billion market cap company, that is literally profiting from those kinds of posts, from that kind of organising, and that kind of recruitment.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Osman, after Christchurch, Zuckerberg’s op-ed calls for regulation. But then there's a third piece that's published. Can you tell me about that one?

OSMAN:

Chris Hughes was Mark Zuckerberg roommate and the co-founder of Facebook. But he drifted away from the company about a decade ago. He published, what I think was one of the more interesting perspectives on Facebook. It basically said, you know, word for word, ‘the most problematic aspect of Facebook's power, is Mark's unilateral control over speech.’ So, he echoed the call in the first part of his piece, that Warren had made saying look well, Facebook is too powerful as a corporate company we should split it up. That's a no brainer.

But then he went further and said Facebook is already making decisions and monitoring what people say, how they say it, and the consequences for when they breach their rules. But Facebook is not the right company to do that.

What he's observed, in the last you know five to ten years of the trajectory Facebook’s been on, is that Mark Zuckerberg, and the Facebook board more generally, have sacrificed safety, civility in the pursuit for clicks which in a Facebook context means money.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

So, Osman, all this is going on. Hughes is having this debate. Warren is putting it out as part of her presidential run. Zuckerberg is wading in and saying we'll accept some regulation but we don't want to be broken up. What is happening in the government space in the meantime? What is New Zealand doing specifically after Christchurch?

OSMAN:

So quickly after Christchurch, Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, put a call out for something called the Christchurch Call.

ARCHIVED RECORDING - Jacinda Ardern:

"The Christchurch Call to action and action plan for change, is a global response to a tragedy that occurred ... "

OSMAN:

Which was an attempt to get government leaders together in a room, and talk about what role governments and legislatures could play in regulating the dissemination of violent and extremist conduct on Facebook.

ARCHIVED RECORDING - Jacinda Ardern:

"Our goal is to stop what happened on the 15th of March, and the aftermath online, from ever happening again, so there are specific requests ... "

OSMAN:

Now that led to--a few weeks after Christchurch--a non-binding agreement between a whole bunch of different government leaders, calling for further regulatory powers to be, I guess, passed by governments or handed over to, you know, communication monitoring agencies that would allow them to take violent extremist material offline and fine or otherwise punish companies that refused to act quickly on it.

ELIZABETH:

Does the Christchurch call ask for those tech companies to be broken up, is that part of the proposal?

OSMAN:

No, it's not. It's not part of the proposal. The proposal is very specific in terms of focusing on the dissemination of violent and extremist material, it doesn't capture these broader conversations.

ELIZABETH:

Osman, let's talk about free speech. In Australia, how are we coming at this question of essentially free speech versus everything else in all of its forms?

OSMAN:

I don't think that discussion is really being had, I think like I think it's being had more so in America. Americans, remember Americans have got the great First Amendment protection for freedom of speech? The idea of controlling what people say, whether it's in print on television, on their own social media platforms, is completely, you know, it's anachronistic to Americans to think about that sort of stuff. But you've got prominent American politicians, tech employees, commentators saying that despite the importance of that First Amendment right. We actually need to still control hate speech because of the seriousness of the issue.

The one thing we do talk about when it comes to freedom of speech is the right for people to express controversial political views, you know, in public forums or on social media. That is where Australia's free speech debate is, I think, essentially stuck. The one thing that can't be curtailed is, in the words of our former Attorney-General George Brandis, your right to be a bigot.

ELIZABETH:

When we talk about free speech here, it sometimes seems as if we’re not always posing the right questions or asking the big questions?

OSMAN:

And I think that's a consequence of who controls the debate around freedom of speech in Australia, and at the moment it is overwhelmingly columnists and commentators on the right. It is the NewsCorp papers, it is Sky News. They're the ones that decide how we talk about freedom of speech and the terms on which those debates are had. And if you look at the federal election, for an example, despite the fact that the election was bookended on one end by the Christchurch massacre, and by you know, investigations showing that far-right material is propagating online--that the Christchurch shooter was posting it himself in the months leading up to the Christchurch massacre, the debate about free speech in Australia wasn't about, is it okay or is it not okay to be a white-nationalist on social media? The debate on free speech in Australia was ‘Should Israel Folau be allowed to denigrate and post homophobic material on his Instagram page without consequence?’

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

And why do we narrow it so significantly, why do we narrow the debate in that way?

OSMAN:

Because the people who get to decide how it's talked about, are the ones who only have one interest when it comes to freedom of speech. And that is, the right to be a bigot. And I think that's been evidenced in so many situations-- there is no fundamental conservative commitment to freedom of speech in Australia.

ELIZABETH:

Osman Faruqi, thank you so much for being with us on the show.

OSMAN:

Thanks so much Elizabeth. Thanks for chatting to me.

[Music ends]

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[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that he found it "concerning" that Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo telephoned a senator to caution him over comments regarding recent AFP raids on journalists. Pezzullo confirmed that he telephoned Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick, but said he was not trying to intimidate him with the call.

And Opposition leader Anthony Albanese, has moved to have John Setka expelled from the Labor Party, after comments the Victorian secretary of the CFMMEU reportedly made about family violence campaigner, Rosie Batty. Setka reportedly said ‘Batty had made it so men had fewer rights.’ He says his comment was taken out of context. In a separate incident, Setka has indicated he will plead guilty to harassment charges involving a woman.

This is 7am.

I’m Elizabeth Kulas.

See you Thursday.

[Music ends]

Where once it might have seemed radical, presidential hopefuls and tech entrepreneurs are now talking about breaking up the social media giants. Their power has become too great and they are not able to regulate themselves. Osman Faruqi on the battle between free speech and hate speech at places like Facebook.

Guest: Journalist and deputy editor of ABC Life Osman Faruqi.

Background reading:

Hate speech isn’t freedom of speech in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. 7am is produced by Elizabeth Kulas, Emile Klein and Ruby Schwartz with Michelle Macklem. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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12: Breaking up big tech