26 Nov 2019 19:26 IST

Is Big Tech becoming too big?

Perhaps the time has come to break its hold; anything at all that protects free speech

The past week was a chilling chapter for proponents of free speech. Google arbitrarily announced that political ads on Google and YouTube would be blocked if they were directed specifically at audiences based on their public voter records or political affiliations. The new policy will be rolled out first in Britain in January, in time for the general elections there, and later in America, in time for the first votes of the Democratic nomination, in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Just a few weeks ago, Twitter announced that it was banning all political ads, with no exceptions.

As policy earthquakes go, Google’s and Twitter’s announcements measured an 8.0 on the Richter scale. Two companies which have an absolute monopoly in internet search, video advertising and short-form-text messaging made policy decisions that affect hundreds of political campaigns around the world — and impact billions of people.

Before and after internet

Before the internet — and the development of advanced tools such as browsers and cookies — advertising was a largely hit-and-miss affair. If you ran a half-page ad for a product in a newspaper, there was the risk that it never reached the intended audience. For starters, many never bought the newspaper. If they didn’t buy it, they didn’t read it. Even if people bought the newspaper, they may have missed noticing the ad. And if they did notice the ad, they may have quickly glossed over it without the contents capturing their minds.

Television as a medium was different and a little better. Good ads relied on people’s responses to human feelings, such as humour or emotion. The most successful campaigns relied on mindless repetition (Lifebuoy, Nirma, Hamara Bajaj, Colgate, Khaitan fans), etching brands in memory. But doing so didn’t always translate into sales.

The internet changed mass advertising and the media industry forever. When people visit websites, they leave digital trails of what they like and what they don’t. Cookies tirelessly track user behaviour and transmit information to their server masters. There, using advanced Big Data techniques, companies are able to generate user profiles that are shockingly accurate.

When it gets murkier

Facebook has collected such vast troves of user data — through people foolishly sharing their most intimate moments online — that it can offer advertisers the kind of microtargeting services that newspapers can only dream of. If a travel agency wants to promote a Bahamas cruise to people 55 or older in a particular German town with annual incomes of at least €60,000 and those who have previously taken a cruise to the Mediterranean, Facebook tools allow the travel agency to create just such a campaign in minutes.

Even more sophisticated campaigns are possible. Google’s tools allow an advertiser to place ads to specific individuals by employing user lists. Suppose a company has collected, at multiple cricket venues, the names of fans who are all interested in trying out a sports drink, but has no additional information about these people. Google allows the company to upload a list of names and filter them using age, income, and other data that Google already has. The company can then beam these ads directly to the targeted audience. The next time someone in the audience watches a YouTube video, an ad for the sports drink — with a coupon — pops up, urging them to taste the product.

The world of political activism and political campaigns has undergone a metamorphosis unthinkable even a decade ago. By exploiting voter lists and filtering them down using digital fingerprints we all leave, political campaigns can target us like never before. If you watch YouTube videos of a political leader more than two-three times, there’s a very good chance that you will see a request for a donation from that politician within days. The Trump campaign has been extremely sophisticated at using this technique.

Recently, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s Chief of Staff, said a memorable line at a press conference while asserting that all presidents behave the same way when it comes to interactions with foreign leaders. “Get over it!” he said. Immediately, his remark was trending on Twitter and, in just a few hours, the Trump campaign was blanketing supporters with an online pitch on Facebook, Google and Twitter to buy “Get over it!” T-shirts for $30 each. These shirts were made and delivered to you, on-demand, by a T-shirt vendor affiliated with the campaign. Even if the cost of the shirt was just $8, the campaign pocketed a cool $22 for each T-shirt sold. It collected millions of dollars in a single evening.

Who is the big boss?

In an ideal world, the Big Tech companies would simply be technology platforms and nothing else. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are not publishers. The elegant simplicity of the social media sites is that the content is created by the world’s citizens. The platforms do own some responsibility for content put on them — for example, it is fair to expect the platforms to somewhat restrict content related to pornography, gambling, or drugs — but even here, users should be given a choice to opt in. We don’t want the Big Tech companies to be our moral police.

But these companies, led by people such as Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai, who have extremely liberal views, have injected themselves smack into the world of politics and policy debates. There’s nothing wrong if they were to express their opinions at the public square, like everyone else. But to influence political outcomes by exploiting executive control of their companies and announcing policy changes that will directly hit political parties that they don’t like is extremely unfair. Conservatives have always had the upper edge in online campaigns — as we know from Brexit, the 2016 Trump campaign, and the upcoming UK elections — and these campaigns are now impacted because of unilateral Big Tech decisions.

Even causes that Dorsey and Pichai support — such as climate change activism or support for limitless migration — are now crippled. Greenpeace can no longer seek donations of people who lean left, because such microtargeting based on political affiliation is now completely banned on Google.

These executives may invite those of us who disagree with their policies to abandon their platforms, but they know that such action can only be taken at our peril. We are locked into their monopolies already, and switching is not really an option.

When candidate Elizabeth Warren advocated breaking up Big Tech, I was sceptical. She argues that Big Tech companies don’t pay their fair share in taxes and attempt to influence government policy through excessive lobbying. I agree with Warren that these are problems, but I didn’t agree with her proposed remedy. Now, as I see how a few people can chill free speech for the rest of us on the planet, Warren’s idea of breaking Big Tech is worthy of consideration.

Anything at all which protects free speech.