Big Tech likes rules, so long as it writes them

The Times (UK)

Carl Szabo is general counsel of NetChoice, one of tech’s most aggressive lobbyists, whose members include Google, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo. He spends most of his time beating back two arguments: that tech companies are too big and should be broken up, and that section 230 — the “liability shield” that has fuelled their rise — needs to be scrapped.

Szabo, however, said that this logic was faulty. Section 230, he said, simply codifies another concept, known as “conduit immunity”, which he argued had been established through decades of court cases. If section 230 goes away, Big Tech is prepared to claim that they are protected by conduit immunity instead.

“At the end of the day, section 230 produces the most good with the least harm,” said Szabo, because it empowers companies to police their content — Facebook, for example has 30,000 post moderators — without fear of legal reprisals.

This is shaping up to be a key battleground. Szabo said the industry would “stand in unison” against efforts to touch section 230. Farid, who testified in Congress on Big Tech’s failings last year, said: “Industry lobbyists can say what they want, but there is bipartisan support for reforming 230. Everybody acknowledges that this is absurd.”

According to industry sources, American politicians are considering borrowing from Britain, where a law set to go into effect this year would impose a “duty of care” on platforms, even allowing for civil suits if companies failed to protect users from a list of harms ranging from pornography to cyber-bullying.

The other area of focus for Szabo is the call to break up Big Tech. The giants’ power was on full display last week. Facebook hit record profits and revealed that an astounding 2.9 billion people used its apps every month. Amazon reported its best three months ever. So did Apple. Amazon’s zooming stock price added $13bn to Bezos’s fortune in a day.

For Szabo, the eye-catching figures are distractions from the reality: none of these companies fits the legal definition of a monopoly, which in America means a company that uses its power to harm consumers. Facebook, for example, has less than a quarter of the global advertising market. Google has about a third. Amazon accounts for roughly half of e-commerce transactions but is lapped by Walmart in overall sales. Apple is one of many in a crowded smartphone market, with about 15% of global sales.

“From an analytical perspective, when you look at whether there is a case to be made for antitrust, it fails every time, aside from the declaration of, ‘They’re too big’,” said Szabo. “When you actually look at the facts, there’s no ‘they’ there.”

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