(PJMedia) – All over the world, great power governments are struggling with their respective tech giants for control of the social media platforms. China’s ongoing crackdown on big tech is the most conspicuous. “Take Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba.” The Party called the billionaire in, told him his forthcoming IPO was illegal, and served notice that any new initiatives would need the regulators’ approval. Russia’s not far behind. Moscow sees Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon as a threat and wants them replaced by “sufficiently pliable domestic entities – such as Russia’s large tech conglomerates like Yandex, VK, and Sber.”
On the Western side of the fence, the EU used to see itself as sheriff of the online world . “From enacting the world’s strictest privacy law to placing guardrails against the power of America’s tech titans, the EU has long seen itself as the world’s digital policeman.” But suddenly, Washington has woken up. “In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission – a powerful regulator whose remit sprawls over consumer law, privacy and competition – has already issued one 5 billion penalty for Facebook that’s almost five times bigger than all the combined fines the EU has issued under its privacy law, the GDPR.” What suddenly got into the great power governments? Basically, they realized the tech giants had grown so powerful that they’ve become a threat to the state’s sovereignty and are trying to curb them.
[W]hy is the Chinese state giving its digital darlings a bloody nose? Power. … “The CCP is concerned about challenges to its authority, and increasingly concerned about data leaving China,” said Martijn Rasser, director of technology and national security at the Center for a New American Security. “They had to take pretty drastic steps in order to keep that power in check, and to send a signal to other tech companies that there are very distinct guardrails as to what these companies can and cannot do.”
But American Big Tech has a trump card and will miss no opportunity to play it. All the help Biden got in the past came through Big Tech’s application of Section 230 . “For those who may not be familiar, Section 230 is a previously obscure piece of legislation that was written in the 1990s at the dawn of the internet to ensure free speech protections extended to this new frontier. It’s a very basic law that says websites cannot be held liable for what others post on them, and that business owners get the final say on what speech they promote or kick off their premises-the same as any brick-and-mortar would.”
Since that time, both Democrats and Republicans have introduced bills that would amend Section 230. Some propose that the companies should be held liable for speech if they choose to moderate content in a way that displeases Republicans. Others in the Democrat party suggest they should be liable if they allow content they deem as “misinformation” to stay up. Both sides are essentially seeking to strip social media platforms of their First Amendment rights to moderate content on their platforms as they see fit.
If Big Tech loses its moderation power how can they stop the populists next time? Mark Zuckerberg is offering the Beltway a deal. Give us a de facto monopoly and we’ll keep moderating things in your favor. “Essentially what Facebook wants is for Section 230 to be modified so that companies are held liable for illegal content on their platforms unless they can demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying it.” Only the qualified-ahem “us”-need apply, and we’ll take care of you.
The unstated undertaking is that Big Tech will always break in the Beltway’s favor; thus it won’t be a threat and can escape the fate of Chinese social media. But power hates a rival and it remains to be seen whether the big guy will allow Big Tech to negotiate a fiefdom outside direct control. The management of companies can, after all, change, or market share can change, and while Mark might be fine today, who knows how things will be in ten years?
The obvious parallel is the old media, which Big Tech largely replaced. The state also wanted to control the old media but it was enough to manage most of it, allowing a few old media renegades for appearances. But tech is different, it aims to create an integrated universe in which the user’s innermost desires are analyzed-even anticipated-and friends, sometimes nonexistent ones, are selected for his acquaintance. Products are proffered, ideas are suggested, behavior is nudged, all in what Facebook calls the metaverse .
The word “metaverse” is a term borrowed from science-fiction and refers to a future version of the internet that people access using VR and AR technology, rather than laptops and phones. CEO Mark Zuckerberg first publicly announced in July that he wants Facebook to eventually become a “metaverse company.”
In mid-2021 Zuckerberg described the metaverse as “an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content – you are in it.” Facebook said “that it wants to hire 10,000 people across Europe to help build the company’s own version of a metaverse, which has increasingly captured Zuckerberg’s attention.” You won’t be living the dream, you’ll be living in the dream. The only question is whose dream, apart from the given that it will not be yours but someone else’s. This is an uncompromising question.
The answer for China, at least, is the Communist Party’s dream. Period. For Russia and the EU it will probably be similar. Whether Facebook’s offer to the big guy is enough remains to be seen, but in the context of the metaverse, it seems way short of the mark. All-encompassing social information control constitutes the ultimate political fly-by-liar system and state actors will want to be the pilots. If Joe’s not in the left-hand seat, he’ll be along for the ride.
Expect the struggle between tech and government over the control of the metaverse to intensify, as it can only have one master. Also, expect the world to encounter many more unforeseen crises, “black swans,” and unforeseeable events as the global elites’ artificial reality keeps bumping into the hard facts. The downside of the metaverse is it isn’t the same as the actual universe. After all, it’s been moderated. “There is none so blind as he who will not see” and “everything is beautiful” are both lyrics from the same song. Expect surprises.