After heavy pressure from the Kremlin, Google and Apple have removed a voting app created by the Russian opposition to mobilize voters against Kremlin candidates in the 2021 parliamentary elections. Apple was also forced to disable iCloud Private Relay in Russia, which keeps users and websites they visit confidential on a web browser. Safari.
This is not a big surprise. Authoritarian regimes like Russia and China have always put pressure on big tech to comply with their demands in order to operate in their jurisdictions. What should worry big tech is that democracies are also beginning to put pressure on them with increased regulations, penalties, and lawsuits.
So, should the world’s major tech companies change the way they operate? lets take alook.
Why are big tech companies in trouble?
For authoritarian regimes, the Arab Spring was not only a teachable moment, but the stuff of nightmares. The ability of citizens to organize revolutions and bring down governments via Facebook and Twitter reminded these regimes of exactly why they have always restricted the internet in their areas – or banned it entirely.
Democracies, on the other hand, are driven by a more complex web of drivers that include privacy, national security, and economic considerations. After the 2016 elections in the United States, in which social media played such a prominent role, democracies realized that an unregulated internet could be used by malicious actors.
But the pressure is now at the employee level, too. Workers from Amazon, Uber, and others have tried to pressure these companies to raise their salaries and improve benefits. Other employees have sought to combat offensive content on the platforms of the companies they work for.
Public sentiment is moving against big tech, too. for example, Pew Research Center I discovered in 2020 that 47% of Americans believe the largest tech companies should have higher levels of government regulations.
Many people have also expressed concerns about how these companies collect and use their data. Some, like Facebook, have also been fined for breaching local data regulations.
How do autocratic governments control big tech companies?
Many people around the world live in countries where their governments have taken steps to limit internet freedom. Below is a breakdown of some of the biggest examples of big tech control.
China is arguably the most famous internet censor. Since the criminalization of unauthorized use in 1997, the country has passed several laws restricting freedom. The government can monitor online communications, along with blocking the likes of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
The most populous country in the world has also adapted to the modern era. The VPNs that have managed to bypass Chinese firewalls are basically blocked using cyber attacks.
Russia has also passed laws forcing major tech companies to closely control content. In 2021, for example, the country’s draft legislation meant that major tech companies from the US, such as Facebook, would need to open offices in Moscow. In the months leading up to this legislation, the government slowed Twitter traffic.
Turkey is another country that takes a strict approach to internet regulation. In 2021, it was revealed that the country’s lawmakers were planning laws to tackle what they believed to be “disinformation.” Some groups have expressed concerns about this, however, given the country’s record on freedom of the press and so on.
Many parts of Africa have limited access to the Internet. People living in English-speaking parts of Cameroon had to contend with a blocked internet in 2017, while social media was banned in Uganda in 2021 — even after a complete internet blackout was lifted.
Uganda also imposed taxes on internet use, which followed the introduction of taxes on social media use. Meanwhile, Nigeria banned the use of Twitter for a period of four months between June and October 2021.
Democratic countries are also taking a stronger stand against big technology
It is easy to think that only countries with low levels of freedom do not tolerate big technology. However, democratic countries have also taken a tougher approach – as you will see below.
The United States has taken a stronger stand against big tech companies, an example being President Joe Biden’s signing of an order in 2021 to crack down on big tech companies. The legislation included more scrutiny of mergers, along with many other areas. The laws were introduced because management believed that big companies were “undermining competition”.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed by Congress in 1996, protects big technology and allows it to thrive by protecting it from lawsuits for whatever users post. However, Biden said Section 230 should be repealed.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, his administration made several efforts to ban TikTok – although a court ruling said this was not allowed.
Australia has passed the Digital and Media Bargaining Act, which forces big tech to negotiate and pay local media when sharing Australian content on their platforms. Notably, a wage dispute led to Facebook temporarily blocking news content for users who live here – although this has since been resolved.
The member states of the European Union (EU), along with Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein, are bound by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This gives consumers the right to claim access to their personal information.
Big tech companies have fallen foul of regulations in Europe more than once. In 2020, both Google and Amazon were fined millions of dollars for adding processing cookies without consent. Meanwhile, the European Union imposed a fine of more than 1 million euros on Google in 2019 for blocking its online search competitors. That same year, Google also received a separate fine for GDPR violations.
Big Tech: The Golden Age Is Over
We can’t say for sure that big tech will become regulated, but the golden age is definitely over. Around the world, governments and consumers alike are becoming more and more cautious about how these companies operate.
While companies should not be allowed to do what they want, it is important to strike a balance. Big tech companies haven’t helped themselves in the past, but they can stop excessive regulation by policing themselves. If they choose not to do so, they leave themselves in the hands of governments that might stress them out.
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