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Stop Moralising the tech giants

We’ve come to loathe the gigantic companies and wealthy people that build Big Tech just as deeply as we love the products and services that they’ve built.

It’s easy to see why. Over the last decade, child abusers and terrorists have exploited social media. We’ve witnessed the facilitation of fake news, conspiracy theories and electoral interference. And don't forget the widespread intellectual property theft, the undermining of creative industries, and the effective creation of data and platform monopolies.

There is a broad public, intellectual, and political consensus that executives at the tech giants haven't taken these problems seriously enough, or addressed them effectively. In February 2019, Facebook was labelled “digital gangsters” by a British parliamentary committee. Three months later, US Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren erected a billboard – in the middle of Silicon Valley – promising to break up Big Tech. Countless books are dedicated to unpicking the damage Big Tech is inflicting on society.

Much of this is Big Tech’s fault: for telling the public theirs was a social mission, not a commercial enterprise. “Don’t be evil”, said Google. “Bringing the world closer together”, said Facebook. “Serving the public conversation”, said Twitter. And our response has been single-minded: to try to hold them to their word. Get them to care more, do more, to live up to their mottos. We’ve tried to use morality against them because they claimed to be moral.

It has been ten years of reform through public embarrassment, political criticism and public exposé. Media coverage and political pressure have been the key external force driving the tech giants to confront these problems – an often public-spirited and noble force, and the only thing to have any impact. But we cannot spend the next ten years doing the same.

First, telling the tech giants to sort out the problems they’ve caused just makes them more powerful, with enormous latitude to both define the problem and work out solutions. We have asked them to become counter-radicalisation specialists. Social cohesion experts. Digital literacy trainers. Cybercrime police. Guardians of open journalism. In some cases, the arbiter of truth itself.

This simply isn’t what private companies are set up to do. They lack the accountability, democratic oversight, or public transparency to make morally hazardous distinctions like defining fake news. Especially when those distinctions can transform the global news diet.

We need to remind ourselves that technology companies are profit-maximising entities with fiduciary duties to their investors. They have earnings calls. They need to return dividends. They need to show capital appreciation. The solutions they propose are business decisions as much as moral ones. In a clash of incentives, they are always going to pick growth over safety, and engagement over decency. It’s not because they’re evil. They’re just not not evil. They’re companies like any other, trying to make money within the law – because that is actually what their legal responsibility is.

Reform through embarrassment is also incredibly iniquitous to the countries and communities that cannot embarrass the tech giants. Facebook has been active in fighting electoral interference in America, Germany, and the UK. But the story is very different if you’re in Georgia or Kosovo. Smaller markets, less widely spoken languages – or just people who aren’t journalists, politicians or celebrities – always lose out when the enforcement of basic standards and rules boils down to corporate reputation-management. The rich, visible and powerful tend to be protected in this arrangement while others lose out.

Finally, moralising the tech giants is an enormous distraction from what actually has to be done: reforming the moral architecture outside them. We need a re-organisation of the police so that they can act as easily across borders as the online criminals that they’re trying to catch. We need a surge of librarians and teachers to teach people how to sort truth and lies online. The Competition and Markets Authority has to redefine the nature of monopoly in the digital age. To respond to information warfare we need new multilateral treaties, sanctions and a robust idea of what a “just” war using information is. Right now, we have none of these things.

When the activities of the tech giants themselves need to be shaped, public embarrassment must be replaced by clear laws that protect everybody. Laws, for instance, that clearly defines what platforms’ responsibilities are during elections, or what is legal to say or not say on social media. Laws that forces transparency of political advertising, or how much money each platform needs to spend on moderation. The EU and a series of countries, including the UK, have begun to become more active here, but there are still far more legal gaps than plans to fill them.

Refreshing our moral order for the digital age does not boil down to corporate social responsibility, or to shaming a specific industry into doing a specific thing. It’s down to all the rest of us. We need to stop trying to turn private companies into something they’re not, and start building a new moral, institutional and legal order to express the values, rights and standards that we hold into the digital realm. It’s not about whether Mark Zuckerberg is good or bad, vampire or human. It’s about getting to a place where we don’t have to care.

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