After Oz showdown Big Tech’s reckoning awaits

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Fresh from a bruising public relations disaster in Australia, Facebook – as well as Google and Twitter – have much bigger problems this month when US lawmakers will grill them again for spreading misinformation about politics and Covid-19.

Facebook has the most to worry about – especially the January 6 “insurrection” on Capitol Hill where it was used as the primary organising platform by right-wing rioters – and its reluctance to ban former President Donald Trump until after five people died because of that same riot.

Last month the world’s largest social network, with over 2.3bn users, managed to score yet another own goal with its clumsy reaction to the Australian government’s admittedly imperfect law that Facebook and Google should compensate news publishers.

Since CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 announcement that it would “pivot to privacy” and drop the news feed, Facebook has become a pariah for its failure to reign in its billions of users from spreading disinformation, conspiracy theories, misogyny, anti-Semitism and baseless propaganda like Trump’s claim that last year’s election was “stolen”. Instead, Zuckerberg’s focus on groups has proven to be the ideal breeding ground for fact-free conspiracy theories like QAnon, and for the US’s Trump-supporting militia groups.

Set to start on March 25, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will grill Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for, amongst other things, how disinformation has flourished with “real-life, grim consequences for public health and safety”. Or, a riot in the grand domed US building where all the US lawmakers work.

“For far too long, big tech has failed to acknowledge the role they’ve played in fomenting and elevating blatantly false information to its online audiences. Industry self-regulation has failed,” said Democrat Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. “We must begin the work of changing incentives driving social media companies to allow and even promote misinformation and disinformation.”

But, having settled with the Australian government over their clumsy, but critically important, legislation, Facebook has signed deals with three publishers – the details of which are still secret. The eight-day news blackout – which included the pages of essential government services and even Facebook’s own corporate page – has humbled Facebook, despite whatever posturing it makes now.

It’s worth noting that this was the first time – globally – that an elected government set the prices for what news organisations are paid by a commercial company – and not set by that same company which is always going to be in a more powerful bargaining position.

Other countries now have seen that Facebook and Google, which blinked first, can be forced to follow the legitimate laws of a country. Until now, no country has had the, well, balls to stand up to the might of these tech giants.

As Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “global tech giants, they are changing the world, but we can’t let them run the world”. Australia just won the first Test.

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail.

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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