Tech CEOs dodge accountability, again

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At least CEO Jack Dorsey was honest enough to admit that Twitter had played a role in the January 6 US capital riot.

The other two tech giant CEOs being grilled by US lawmakers last year – Google’s Sundar Pichai and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – didn’t directly reply to the simple yes or no question put to them.

Research has already shown that Facebook played by far the biggest role in armed militia organising to storm the US capital building to stop the final certification of President Joe Biden’s win. Spurred on by former President Donald Trump, this mob ransacked the symbol of American democracy and sent lawmakers scurrying for safety.

This year’s hearings – again by video conferencing – focussed on how the tech firms made vast amounts of profit from the hate speech, disinformation, conspiracy theories and other patently untrue drivel. US lawmakers are also looking at the contentious Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields social networks from responsibility for what is published on them.

“You’re not passive bystanders. You’re making money,” said Democrat Frank Pallone, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The last time big tech CEOs appeared before lawmakers – including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos – they concluded “this pattern of behaviour raises questions about whether these firms view themselves as above the law, or whether they simply treat lawbreaking as a cost of business”. The 16-month investigation, released in October, founds these big firms to have “exploited, entrenched and expanded their power over digital markets in anticompetitive and abusive ways”.

In December the 48 US states – along with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – sued Facebook for using its “monopoly power to crush smaller rivals [and]snuff out competition”. They are proposing it sell off Instagram and WhatsApp.

Last week over on Planet Republican, they continued to whine about social networks “censoring Conservative voices” – despite all evidence to the contrary. Trump spewed lies and other falsehoods throughout his presidency, while Zuckerberg overruled his own Facebook moderators who wanted to ban the controversial Alex Jones, thereby prolonging his ability to spread hate speech and conspiracy theories.

Democrat Mike Doyle asked all three CEOs for a yes or no answer to whether their platforms played a role in the January 6 riots. Zuckerberg and Pichai deflected but Dorsey replied “yes”.

He added: “But you also have to take into consideration the broader ecosystem. It’s not just about the technology platforms we use.”

Doyle wasn’t going to let Zuckerberg off the hook. “How is it possible for you not to at least admit that Facebook played a leading role in facilitating the recruitment, planning and execution of the attack on the Capitol?” he asked.

“I think that the responsibility here lies with the people who took the actions to break the law and do the insurrection,” Zuckerberg deflected, also blaming the spreaders of the disinformation.

Doyle aptly pointed out, as have so many commentators, “but your platforms supercharged that”.

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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