It ought, by now, to be no secret that Angela Merkel, that alleged defender of liberal (in the proper sense of that word) values, is no friend of free speech. Her hectoring of social media has now been given legislative force in Germany after the passing last month of a draconian law designed to punish social media companies that do not enough to prevent the spread of hate speech and “fake news”, a law that, as Newsweek reported, was even too much for the UN:
“Many of the violations covered by the bill are highly dependent on context, context which platforms are in no position to assess,” the U.N. Special Rapporteur to the High Commissioner for Human Rights David Kaye wrote of the law in the run up to its passage.
That’s one of many criticisms that could be made about this disgusting law, but another is the cover that it gives to regimes infinitely more repressive than Germany’s.
Venezuela’s for example.
Venezuela is considering banning messages that promote “hate” and “intolerance” on social media and messenger services, according to Delcy Rodriguez, the president of the country’s all-powerful constituent assembly.
Meanwhile, back here in the U.S., there are increasing concerns about what the dominant position of a handful of tech companies is going to mean for the free flow of opinion in this country. This article by Joel Kotkin is well worth reading for what it has to say about the impact of automation on employment (I’ll post a bit on that later), but focus for now on this:
Both Facebook and Google now offer news “curated” by algorithms. Bans are increasingly used by Facebook and Twitter to keep out unpopular or incendiary views, and especially in the echo chamber of the Bay Area. This is sometimes directed at conservatives, such as Prager University, whose content may be offensive to some, but hardly subversive or “fake.” The real crime now is simply to question dominant ideology of Silicon Valley gentry progressivism.
Even at their most powerful the industrial age moguls could not control what people knew. They might back a newspaper, or later a radio or television station, but never secured absolute control of media. Competing interests still tussled in a highly regionalized and diverse media market. In contrast the digital universe, dominated by a handful of players located in just a few locales, threaten to make a pluralism of opinions a thing of the past. The former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris suggests that “a handful of tech leaders at Google and Facebook have built the most pervasive, centralized systems for steering human attention that has ever existed.”
Ultimately, particularly after the disasters associated with the Trump regime, the oligarchs seem certain to expand their efforts to control the one institution which could challenge their hegemony: government. Once seen as politically marginal, the oligarchs achieved a dominated role in the Democratic Party, in part by financing President Obama and later support for Hillary Clinton. In the Obama years Google operatives were in fact fairly ubiquitous, leading at least one magazine to label it “the Android Administration.” Since then a stream of Obama people have headed to Silicon Valley, working for firms such as Apple, Uber, and Airbnb. Obama himself has even mused about becoming a venture capitalist himself….
In a future Democratic administration, as is already evident in places like California, the tech titans will use their money, savvy, and new dominance over our communications channels to steer and even dictate America’s political and cultural agendas to wield power in ways that even the likes of J.P. Morgan or John D. Rockefeller would envy.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m profoundly skeptical about antitrust law, but this dominance has to be a topic of, at least, some concern.
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