Big Tech crosses the Rubicon

From tech unions to legislators, numerous parties are joining the war for the Internet. It's not obvious that any of them can help make it a better place.

On January 10th more than two thousand years ago, Julius Caesar led his army across the Rubicon: a moment so consequential that it remains preserved in our language a hundred generations later. The first days of this January have seen many imitators, people taking small steps with big implications. The ransacking of the US Capitol at the request of the President was not one of them - Trump didn’t lead his supporters, he enraged them and then ran away to cower in front of the TV - but elsewhere, real leaders took actions whose consequences may take years to become apparent.

Alphabet workers formed a union. Trump was kicked off of Facebook and Twitter. Parler was denied access to Amazon Web Services, and the Apple and Google app stores. Only one of these things had happened when I began writing this piece, but they all form part of the same flow of events, combining with political shifts to set the stage for an almighty collision of forces that will define the coming decades of our life online.

The new Alphabet Workers Union is in itself a pretty normal, fair and uncontroversial thing. No doubt you have opinions about unions, or about Google’s working practices - if not you can find some on the Internet - but company workers banding together to improve their lot isn’t something that should normally trouble the rest of us.

Of course, Google is not a normal company. For better or worse, its colossal, earth-spanning machinery has tremendous influence over how we see - and therefore interact with - the world around us. Its software affects the news we hear, the roads we travel, the shops and restaurants we frequent. It has the power to build businesses or shatter them, to educate minds with great truths or corrupt them with dark conspiracies, to lead drivers to the next petrol station or abandon them in a rural cul-de-sac.

Similarly, the Alphabet Workers Union is not an normal union. That’s partly a function of the extraordinary company that spawned it, but it’s also a consequence of their stated aims. The AWU are not just trying to make life better for their members, or improve conditions for Google’s workforce; they want more control over the machine. In a letter to the New York Times the chair and vice chair say that they: “want Alphabet to be a company where workers have a meaningful say in decisions that affect us and the societies we live in.” They express concern that:

“Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world. They have developed artificial intelligence technology for use by the Department of Defense and profited from ads by a hate group.”

And say:

“Alphabet is a powerful company, responsible for vast swaths of the internet. It is used by billions of people across the world. It has a responsibility to prioritize the public good. It has a responsibility to its thousands of workers and billions of users to make the world a better place.”

It’s striking that this ‘making the world a better place’ language is such an obvious extension of the culture of the company that spawned it. It’s certainly well-intentioned, and it’s quite possible that it could lead to good outcomes. If nothing else, it’s reasonable - even admirable - that members are invested in making their employer a better, more positive citizen of the world.

But if you’re concerned about the idea of tech companies changing the world, if you believe that such ambitions are arrogant or hubristic, that they can lead to negative consequences for societies across the globe, then the AWU deserve as much scrutiny as Google itself. After all, it could be argued that their success would just represent a transfer of power from one group of rich, elite, Western tech workers to another, marginally larger group. Google’s workforce skews, young, white and male, largely college-educated, wealthy and living in Western metropolises. Why should they get more of a say than the rest of us in what constitutes hate speech, or which nations or industries ‘deserve’ access to new technologies?

The events of January 6th led to a series of actions by tech giants that provide timely examples of the kinds of high-stakes decisions on the table. Amazon banned Parler from using its cloud-computing platform and Apple and Google removed it from their app stores, while Facebook and Twitter shut down the accounts of Donald Trump and numerous supporters.

These were trivially-correct decisions, and to argue against them seems disingenuous and frankly detached from reality. We’re not discussing some abstract hypothetical scenario: when the customers of any private venue are getting killed or launching acts of terrorism, that business has both the right and a basic moral responsibility to act immediately. Philosophical debates can come later.

The internal logic and timing of the decisions is worth some scrutiny though, for what it says about how similar decisions might be made in the future. As Jesse Singal and others have pointed out, Twitter’s explanation for the decision - that it was triggered by a Trump’s statement that, “I will not be going to the Inauguration” - is more than a little unconvincing given the many previous, worse examples one could draw on.

The same issue of timing hangs over the Parler decisions. Apple’s reason for suspending the app from its store was that, “there is no place on our platform for threats of violence and illegal activity.” That’s perfectly reasonable, but why only now? Newsweek were listing examples of such threats as far back as December 1st:

One user threatened: "#WeThePeople want to kill all of you cheating traitors and if justice is not served > go ahead and hold your breath wont take us LONG to get to you and settle the score!"

Another user wrote: "We only have a brief moment to strike and win the Civil war if Biden does steal the election. This will be the day before inauguration. If it doesn't happen then we already lost and can never have a free country again. #civilwar #civilwar2."

All of these actions were taken after two things changed on the same day: the Democrats won both run-offs in Georgia to take control of the Senate, and the incitements to violence finally resulted in the storming of the Capitol. No doubt the latter had the biggest impact, but a great unanswered question is whether the same actions would have been taken in a world where Trump had won four more years and the GOP still controlled the Senate.

Instead, tech companies face a world of institutions controlled by Democrats who, furious over the events of the last four years, are coming at them with great vengeance and furious anger. Liability reforms, anti-trust legislation, even breaking up companies, all measures are on the table. It’s hard to imagine that the ghost of Congress future didn’t play at least some small part in influencing some of the choices above.

The mere existence of such powerful platforms means an inevitable war for control over them. Tech companies have been fighting this war on multiple fronts for over a decade now, against competitors, governments, wider business and society, and now against factions of their own staff. Regardless of the particular motives of each group, all these battles come down to two basic questions: should anybody control this power, and if so who?

Those who advocate breaking up these companies would argue for ‘nobody’. It would be nice to put the genie back in the bottle, but it’s never really been explained how dismantling, say, Facebook, would not just open the way for a new monopoly based outside the United States. It also fails to explain how this would actually address the problem: Parler was created to provide competition to Twitter, and the result was a group of users completely and utterly divorced from reality, sharing fake news stories about the Pope being arrested and the declaration of martial law. If you’re worried about the fragmentation of society, it’s hard to imagine - to put it bloody mildly - how identity-sorting the population into parallel information ecosystems will help that.

For the rest, the answer lies somewhere on the spectrum between democratic oversight, or control by a small elite. Few of these options are convincing. Excitable calls to ‘nationalise Facebook’ suffer from the same issue as knee-jerk calls to nationalise anything: changing ownership of a system doesn’t magically fix all the problems in that system, and while theoretically public ownership could support greater accountability, there’s nothing intrinsically democratic about a service being run by civil servants. Tech unions and activist groups might act as a counter against the worst urges of private, but they still represent a small, powerful elite - one that carries little legitimacy with broad swathes of the US population

Lost in this game of whos are the whats, hows and whys. What actually is the problem, why is is happening and how do we fix it?

Ashli Babbett was an Air Force veteran and former Obama voter. Her story ended in gunfire as she stormed the US Capitol last week. Bellingcat have done an incredible job trying to piece together the story that connects those two sentences, but their reporting raises more questions than answer. Doug Sweet, another attacker, was a family men who fell down a rabbit hole into a paranoid fantasy-land and never returned. “I’m not going to go open a court case saying [Ms. Clinton] eats children,” he told the Wall Street Journal, “but I can believe that she might eat children.” His own daughter struggles to recognise him.

There are many cases like these, and in each there’s a sense of disappearance, of a person gone missing. The accounts are uncannily similar to those you hear from the families of cult members, even Alzheimer’s patients. The shell remains but the identity is somehow lost, subsumed and hopelessly tangled, until what remains is scarcely recognisable. The person they loved is now a stranger, the words they speak are unfathomable, divorced from any common frame of reference.

What happened to these people? How were they radicalised? What role, if any, did technology play in this process? And how will these various attempts to regulate or democratize big tech actually address this role? For all the noise and fury, it’s not at all clear that any of these groups have the solution. In fact it’s not obvious that they even have the right questions.

Would fragmenting social media actually help, or would it simply accelerate the polarisation of American society, cutting the links between two populations each talking to their own people, consuming their own news? Would censoring content according to the tastes and opinions of union members or politicians really solve anything, or does the problem lie in how the algorithms driving these platforms surface and promote content, ratcheting users down a one-way path to conspiracy land?

This is absolutely not an argument for maintaining the status quo - the status quo seems pretty grim and unsustainable - but there’s a very real danger that the fight for the Internet becomes, ultimately, a fight about power, about who gets to call the shots. And that may be important, but what it absolutely isn’t is any kind of solution.