Context for a debate about “techlash”
Since the early 2000s, social and economic interactions have increasingly developed through a collection of online platforms, which play a role in organizing societies in a global order. The platform ecosystem can be divided into two categories: infrastructural platforms for information services that contribute to public value and sectoral platforms with the values of platform operators, while market power and information are monopolized by tech giants (van Dijck et al., 2018).
Platformization results from a constant drive to integrate infrastructural platforms and sectoral platforms, that is, over the last 25 years, the balance between public value and private interests has decisively shifted (Flew et al., 2019; van Dijck et al., 2018). Conflicts over public values of stakeholders in digital and social media platforms involve not only economic and social aspects, but inevitably political impacts and ideology, consequently, the “techlash” phenomenon has emerged.
Global “techlash” phenomenon
The term “techlash” was first coined by Wooldridge (2013) in The Economist, and this phenomenon is still relevant. In 2018, the business practices of major platform companies including Facebook, Twitter, and Google became the focus of a “techlash” in America, accused of being related to a range of actual events (Hemphill, 2019). “Techlash” can broadly be defined as the present critique of the power of information and technology corporations driven by opinion-leading elites and advocates, and the scale and scope of the criticism can be seen as a global phenomenon. To be clear, the global techlash phenomenon manifests itself in a negative reaction to information monopolies, and in support of policies to regulate technology companies. Thus, governments, civil society organizations, and even technology companies themselves should re-examine the balance struck in the late 1990s to require digital platforms to be under greater scrutiny (Mac Síthigh, 2020).
Public concerns with major technology companies
To discuss a range of technology issues behind the techlash that trigger public concerns, this section is divided into two parts: societal and economic issues, and ideological forces in the public sphere.
Societal and economic issues
1. Dataveillance and privacy
Dataveillance involves a social contract pertaining to privacy and the liberties between enterprise platforms and government agencies on citizens, namely, users. When Edward Snowden, U.S. National Security Agency employee, exposed a program called PRISM about the U.S. government’s practices of clandestine surveillance for metadata, major internet platforms such as Facebook and Google sparked a public debate (Nakashima, 2021). Snowden revealed this increasingly normalized practice, that is, users provide metadata to obtain communication services, and this form of exchange has become the norm. Users have to sign Terms and Conditions once they register on the platform, hence, metadata that users actively or passively input can be considered as the costs for online services. In this case, online media technologies can provide the objective quantification and potential tracking of various human behaviors and socialization when users involve in sharing metadata from social media platforms, internet agents, and other communication technologies (van Dijck, 2014). Until the platforms’ regulatory policies and accountability are addressed, NSA surveillance programs exposed by Snowden continue to raise privacy concerns years later (Nakashima, 2021).
2. Exploiting users in the capitalist production process
It is not only privacy issues that are at stake as platforms’ database of desires, demands, and preferences can promote metadata as a trace of human behavior for commercial reasons (Jarrett, 2014; van Dijck, 2014 ). Generally, online platforms use automatic algorithms to predict and manipulate user behavior to monetize metadata (van Dijck, 2014). To illustrate it, users’ metadata can be considered as a kind of invisible asset, technology companies’ business model can reconstitute user activity into demographic information, thereby selling them to advertisers. Clearly, user data collection is exploitative because the value of data is not equal to the service it pays for. One profound implication of platforms’ databases is that reification and alienation of user activity are reiterating a context in which private traits and attributes become the permanent driving force of the capitalist process of technology companies (Jarrett, 2014).
Ideological forces in the public sphere
3. Disinformation and hate speech to abuse political advertising
Complaints against technology companies include facilitating hate speech and platforms’ involvement in disinformation campaigns. Russia used social media platforms to spread disinformation in an attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. election (BBC News, 2018). Politically charged advertising and inflammatory messages aimed to split social stability across the ideological spectrum (Lee, 2017). Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has been heavily criticized for the manipulation of the company’s consumer user data by third parties, including by Cambridge Data Analytics during the 2016 U.S. election. Moreover, Sacha Baron Cohen (2019) claimed that Facebook, which does not vet political ads for authenticity has helped spread hate speech and disinformation. Arguably, platforms can employ algorithms to predict political preferences through tweets, and amplify the content that appeals to users, such data filtering and algorithms as manipulating user behavior. According to the 2019 Harris Poll, which ranks the reputations of major corporations in the United States, Facebook’s reputation fell 43 slots, one of most precipitous drops on the 100-company list. Until 2021, Facebook and Twitter are rated as worst-performing companies by reputation dimension through trust, ethics, and citizenship (The Harris Poll, 2021).
Challenges of platform governance and Internet content regulation
Content regulation has been an aspect of media policy with regard to Internet regulation, and an ongoing question is whether these digital platforms are considered immune to content curation (Flew et al., 2019). Specifically, platforms position themselves as content intermediaries distinct from mainstream broadcasters and publishers, using the term “platform” as part of their legislative strategy and thus not being liable for their excesses (Gillespie, 2010). Moreover, such prospective challenges ranging from the platforms’ novel business model to the public concerns about freedom of speech posed by government intervention, should be taken into account (Gorwa, 2019).
The platform governance triangle – Robert Gorwa
The techlash phenomenon involves the concept of public interests, in addition to the state government, private organizations composed of citizens have played supervisory functions on corporate responsibility. Thus, command and control regulation has to be moved towards transnational governance in a global context where multiple stakeholders can practice regulatory initiatives through collaborations (Gorwa, 2019). In terms of the platform governance triangle, there are three main groups of actors: ‘firm’, which are technology companies; ‘NGO’, namely civil society organizations; ‘state’, which includes individual state government or multinational political unions (Gorwa, 2019).
Inherent commercial conflicts do exist when individual companies agree to self-regulate, whereby a ‘media’ model of liability should refocus legislative and political efforts on corporate social responsibility (Hemphill, 2019; Mac Síthigh, 2020). Generally, technology companies’ learning algorithms and automated applications with human moderation can apply Internet content moderation policies to a global context ensuring consistency (Flew et al., 2019). For example, Facebook Oversight Body can be conceptualized as a private informal governance arrangement that mediates public discourse and matters of content.(Bulkeley et al., 2012; Haufler, 2003, as cited in Gorwa, 2019). By this, illegal and harmful online content would be minimized to enforce positive communications and to protect individuals. Platforms’ self-regulatory in this case is similar to traditional media companies, which regulate speech for both public and commercial benefit.
Civil society organizations
Civil society organizations would be made up of industry-leading organizations among citizens to define responsible innovation principles and regulate compliance by technology companies (Hemphill, 2019). For example, a new Contract for the Web was launched in Lisbon at Web Summit to establish clear norms, laws and standards for networking (Berners-Lee, 2018). Another notable example is the Christchurch Call that was signed by eighteen governments and eight major technology companies to combat terrorist content (Gorwa, 2019). Civil society organizations can help technology companies respond to government requests about Internet content or user data as an important transparency practice.
Government regulation can set regulatory rules and standards to address public concerns of dataveillance, privacy and national security. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force on 25 May 2018, enacted by the European Union (Palmer 2018, as cited in Hemphill, 2019). Eventually, U.S. technology companies have to face a new public regulatory environment in a global web community, the GDPR can effectively be applied to any organization operating within the EU (Hemphill, 2019). Importantly, when it comes to platform governance, the state role is relatively complementary to the informal oversight of firms and the supervision of civil society organizations.
Technology firms have developed a global influence, the public needs to look at the connected platforms in the entire web ecosystem rather than merely focusing on the negative impacts of information technology. More importantly, platform co-governance can help individuals and policy makers to revisit multistakeholders’ competing values.
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