Trouble Comes for Big Tech

Could Jonathan Kanter have better timing?

I hardly think so, given the lovefest on display this week at his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Nominated to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division, the decidedly tough-on-tech Kanter spoke to lawmakers just as Facebook was getting a shellacking by the persuasive whistle-blower Frances Haugen.

Meanwhile, the social media giant was spinning in all sorts of directions about Haugen. Among the whispered and very loud aspersions from the company is that she is a nobody who was not in the room where it happened and does not understand the documents she provided. But there was also darker stuff. People speaking on behalf of the company have implied that Haugen was a thief by calling said reports “stolen.” (She is not, given her whistle-blower status.) Perhaps worst of all, there is a crazy conspiracy theory lurking around conservative news outlets that she is a plant inside Facebook for Democrats/Google/socialist demons.

It’s more than a little sickening to attack the messenger, although not at all unusual, of course. Facebook is also trying to create confusion about what Haugen said. On Twitter, the longtime political operator Steve Schmidt nailed the company’s effort perfectly, deconstructing a CNN interview with the Facebook executive Monika Bickert. You should read the whole thread, but here was my fave line: “The quagmire that results is purposeful. The answers are supposed to be stultifying, boring, inaccessible and incomprehensible.”

To say that Facebook has worked D.C.’s last nerve is an understatement, and Kanter benefited from all of it. He sailed through his hearing with bipartisan praise to spare, indicating a rallying by lawmakers to hold Big Tech’s feet to the fire. He certainly has the juice as one of the most prominent antitrust lawyers in Washington.

He’s obviously popular with the progressive wing of the Democratic side, but a lot of the kudos he got were from Republicans.

“Mr. Kanter has been a forceful critic of Big Tech companies. So have I,” said Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s top G.O.P. member. Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina spoke of lawmakers from both sides joining hands and jumping into the battle against tech.

Kanter will presumably be approved and join what is jokingly being called on Twitter and at cocktail parties the new law firm of Wu & Khan & Kanter — there are actual mugs you can buy on the internet. The trio includes Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan, who’s written about the need to change antitrust law, and Tim Wu, a technology and competition policy adviser to the White House, who’s compared the concentrated power of Big Tech to that of Gilded Age companies. The ascendance of these three certainly makes a powerful statement about the mood in D.C. that something needs to happen now.

That is a good thing, since much of what has gone on has been all talk and no action. Kanter vowed to remedy this, noting at the hearing that “I’ve been a strong proponent of vigorous antitrust enforcement in the technology area, among others.”

“Vigorous” would be novel, but we’ll see how much he can accomplish without broad consensus to change antitrust law by Congress.

At this point, it should be clear that tech is gonna tech. We can’t expect much from them. But we can and should expect a lot more from our elected officials.

A hero gets her due

The news today that the Filipino American journalist Maria Ressa has won the Nobel Peace Prize should be a wake-up call for Facebook executives and, really, all of tech. Given her new prominence, it will be harder for social media companies to ignore her warnings about how dangerous their platforms can be in the hands of malevolent players. The founder of Rappler, a digital media company that focuses on investigative reporting in the Philippines, was the canary in the toxic coal mine of social media after the Duterte regime used it to go after her.

As the Nobel Prize committee said, she “uses freedom of expression to expose abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism in her native country.”

And she has paid a steep price. As I wrote in 2019 in The Times: “Rappler has been all over President Duterte’s brutal regime, publishing articles on extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses. In mid-2017, in a State of the Union speech, the president struck back by criticizing Rappler for being owned by Americans (some of its investors are indeed from the United States). He attempted to get its license revoked. Ms. Ressa was then charged with tax evasion. Then the arrest for cyberlibel, which is considered a criminal act.” The regime also used social media to attack reporters such as Ressa with all manner of misinformation.

Still, she persisted. And also pleaded with tech companies to help by removing false information on their sites as well as death threats aimed at her.

“Facebook is now the world’s largest distributor of news, and yet it has refused to be the gatekeeper,” she told me in one interview in 2019. “And when it does that, when you allow lies to actually get on the same playing field as facts, it taints the entire public sphere.”

In a different conversation the year before, she told me, Facebook has to “take down the lies,” noting later that “a lie told a million times is truth.”

Well, here’s another truth about Maria: She is my hero.

Tech workers fight back

Speaking of protecting people, California signed the Silenced No More Act into law this week. It is aimed at strengthening protections for workers who come forward with allegations of harassment and discrimination. While a previous law banned enforcement of nondisclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment, this one updates the effort by including discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or age.

It has been championed by a former Pinterest employee Ifeoma Ozoma, who broke the company’s N.D.A., along with her co-worker Aerica Shimizu Banks, to allege that there was racial discrimination at the social network and that it was hard to report issues there. Ozoma recently launched the Tech Worker Handbook — funded by the Omidyar Network — for those in need of workplace guidance. She describes it as a “collection of resources for tech workers who are looking to make more informed decisions about whether to speak out on issues that are in the public interest.”

From Haugen to Ressa to Ozoma, it looks like the idea of the silent and satisfied tech worker is a tired trope that might be finally over.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Related Articles

Back to top button