Tech giants need to be held accountable

Published by The i paper (23rd February, 2021)

Earlier this month I wrote an article for UnHerd in response to the World Health Organisation trip to Wuhan in search of the pandemic origins. My piece was scathing about the belated exercise, arguing that a crucial inquiry for global safety was compromised by shameful appeasement of a dictatorship. It criticised how the team – vetted by Beijing and including one scientist with a clear conflict of interest – disregarded evidence to push China’s narrative that a laboratory leak was “extremely unlikely” and not worthy of further investigation, while claiming the virus might have been imported to the country on frozen food.

This is not a controversial view. Studies point to the virus originating in China, few scientists take the idea of food transmission seriously and many experts now say that on current evidence it is possible Covid-19 could have come from a laboratory. Other mainstream media such as The Washington Post made similar points. But soon after my article was posted on UnHerd’s Facebook site, it was blocked in an eerie echo of the censorship routinely used by the Chinese Communist Party.

Facebook posted a sign warning of false information and alleging “this post repeats information about Covid-19 that independent fact-checkers say is false”. My editors were furious since this impeded sharing of a time-sensitive article, while I was dismayed by a serious allegation that could damage my reputation. Luckily, I was able to track down a senior executive for the company, who after rapid investigation apologised for their mistake and discarded the sanction. “A fact-checking label was wrongly applied to this post yesterday and it was removed,” he said in an email. “We’re very sorry for any inconvenience or confusion caused.”

Blocking this article gave me a glimpse into Facebook’s flawed fact-checking, reliant on algorithms and artificial intelligence. The firm, rightly criticised for its inflammation of conspiracy theories and fake news, says any item deemed “false” is “content that has no basis in fact”. So I was fortunate I could get hold of someone to sort the matter out quickly – and ultimately, the fuss on social media probably attracted many more readers for my article. Yet this is a company – rooted in sexism to rate “hot” female students at Harvard – that has accumulated extraordinary power and wealth in its 17-year existence. Unfortunately, it is power without responsibility.

On the same day I was frantically trying to free my article, I read reports about the conviction of one of Britain’s worst child abusers. David Wilson trawled social media platforms, especially Facebook, posing as a girl to find boys who would send him images. The grooming turned into abuse, with threats of blackmail that so terrified some victims they ended up recording attacks on younger children. Yet top police officers said Facebook was ignoring warnings that boosting encryption will make it easier for paedophiles to get away with such actions. “They appear to be putting the pursuit of profit above the safety of people, especially children, on their platform,” said a director of the National Crime Agency.

Facebook, like other digital giants, has always been ruthlessly focused on hoovering up revenues. There is good reason why eight of the 10 richest Americans are technology titans. They pose as liberal forces for good while fiercely resisting anything that constrains their freedom to make more money, then sprinkle a few dollars on good causes to cloak themselves in compassion.

Facebook talks of empowering communities and making the world a better place yet, like its Silicon Valley soulmates, disregards the collective need to pay fair taxes. Instead, it shuffles paper profits around the planet to exploit loopholes and outwit outdated legislation. Its revenues more than doubled in three years, even before the pandemic. So a fight that has broken out on the other side of the planet has huge significance. Australia has challenged their might in a vital test of the power of nation states in the digital age – and Facebook responded in a petulant style that turns the spotlight on its attitudes.

This follows a long-running dispute over whether such firms should pay when taking news from other sources and monetising the material by earning cash from advertising placed beside the stories. Canberra said they must negotiate payments to publishers, with an arbitrator to rule on disputes. Google threatened to withdraw access to search engines then gave in – but last week Facebook stripped such content from pages and barred 17 million users there from posting news links.

This was a spectacular own goal that wiped material from pages of public health bodies in a pandemic – along with cancer research groups and domestic violence charities – yet left anti-vaccine content untouched. Four in 10 Australians rely on Facebook as a news source. Regardless of any rights or wrongs of the measure, the firm is using its muscle to thwart a democracy’s right to set rules on its terrain. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was right to say that its aggressive response confirms fears in many countries “about the behaviour of big tech companies which think
they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them”.

These companies do not care about facts or news, let alone the destruction of traditional media or the corrosion of democracy. They care about cash, which is based on data – and remember if something is free, you are the commodity. Facebook and Google are an advertising duopoly with immense power over shaping debate and a profound impact on society. Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the world wide web, fears bringing in charges for linking online alters the internet’s beauty with free exchange of ideas and information. Yet much initial optimism about the digital age has been mugged by reality and the behaviour of these big tech behemoths. Let us hope Australia beats the Facebook bullies – and this is the start of a global fightback to rein in these arrogant and anti-social firms.

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