The public spat between Facebook and Australia earlier this year presages a new effort to regulate big tech companies – but could that threaten the whole future of the web?
STAND-OFFS between nations are nothing new. But a very public spat between a government and a commercial company, in which each accused the other of taking citizens hostage and threatened sanctions, certainly seemed novel when it broke out this February.
This was the case of Facebook versus Australia, in which the tech giant briefly cut off access to some parts of the web through its platform for its 17 million Australian users, in response to a proposed law that would force it to pay for linking to news stories. Opinions are still divided on the rights and wrongs – but this skirmish looks like just a foretaste of bigger battles to come.
Across the world, governments are concluding that tech giants such as Facebook and Google exercise too much power and are undermining the public good by allowing hate speech and misinformation to proliferate. Not only in Australia, but also in the UK, the US, the EU and elsewhere, plans are afoot to bring them to heel.
That determination brings with it risks, though. Clamp down too hard and you can damage freedom of expression, and send out the wrong signals to authoritarian regimes worldwide. Bring in different rules in different places and you risk Balkanising the internet, destroying the universality on which it is built. Not even the tech companies deny that something should be done. The question is, what?
Big tech has certainly become big. Facebook, Google and other tech companies’ incomes have ballooned as they have benefited from the changing ways we communicate and access information and services. If Facebook’s $86 billion revenue in 2020 were a …