Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
There isn’t much that President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping agree on. Indeed, they’re the leaders of the world’s two biggest rival powers. Yet there’s one policy aim where they’re on the same page: putting a leash on the unchecked influence of Big Tech. That might not be good for the world.
Last month, a U.S. federal judge dismissed a case brought by more than 40 state governments accusing Facebook of pursuing monopolistic practices. The court also sent a case filed by the federal government back to the kitchen, asking that it be returned with more robust evidence against Facebook within a month. It was a setback for Biden but there’s a bipartisan mood against Big Tech in America and the Federal Trade Commission, under its newly appointed head, Lina Khan, is expected to keep the pressure up.
Some 7,000 miles away, Beijing ordered a ban on fresh downloads of ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing’s app, days after the company had launched a blockbuster IPO on the New York Stock Exchange. Didi, until recently a poster child of China’s rising tech dominance, faces antitrust charges. Regulators, it now appears, had also asked the company to delay its U.S. IPO. China has also clipped the wings of e-commerce behemoth Alibaba, whose fintech spinoff Ant Group was forced to delay plans for a mega-IPO late last year.
The reasons for the mood against Big Tech are different in the U.S. and China. But the rare, unspoken unity of purpose between the world’s two most powerful nations, otherwise opposed to each other, grants a range of other regimes with less transparent motives the geopolitical cover to clamp down on critics and free speech. It’s an opportunity that countries from India to Nigeria and Mexico to Poland are gleefully taking.
In America, the backlash from liberals stems from the role of companies like Facebook and Twitter in enabling fake news and election manipulation efforts, apart from the monopolistic control these companies now hold in their sectors. Meanwhile, conservatives insist Facebook, Twitter and Amazon are institutionally biased against them.
China’s reasons for taking on its Big Tech are even simpler: The Communist Party, especially under President Xi Jinping, views any organization that grows big enough to potentially challenge its authority as a threat. That Alibaba, for instance, has more than 800 million active users means that more than half of China’s population now turns to the e-commerce biggie and not the party for many of its material needs. When big firms then demonstrate that they have independent ambitions — like Didi did in going ahead with its IPO despite opposition from Beijing — the Chinese government decides it must step in.
Whatever your views are on the debate in either America or China, Washington isn’t asking tech firms to block government critics from social media and Beijing isn’t claiming to be a democracy. But it’s a lot murkier with several other nations that are seizing this moment to target social media platforms, often using the veil of democracy to impose restrictions that are more from China’s playbook.
In February, as millions of farmers protested against the Narendra Modi administration in India, the government in New Delhi asked Twitter to block handles of news organizations and activists that had shared content critical of the prime minister’s handling of the crisis. Twitter initially complied but then restored about 250 accounts. Then in May, Twitter flagged a fake news post by a spokesperson of Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, as “manipulated media.” The government asked the platform to remove the tag, but it refused to do so. The Modi government yanked legal protections from Twitter to make the company’s officials directly responsible for all tweets posted on the platform, leaving them vulnerable to arrest.
The Indian government has also accused Twitter of not following new information technology rules that social media giants say are draconian. Among those rules is a requirement that firms allow the government to track posts from people who are later charged with any crime. WhatsApp is suing the Modi administration, arguing that this rule would force it to break its end-to-end encryption of messages.
But the country’s suave Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has justified the government’s moves using language that the West can relate to. “In a democracy, we have to ask ourselves . . . you have a big presence, (but) where is the responsibility?” he asked recently, referring to Big Tech. “So you have, in a sense, the opposite of the American Revolution, which is to have representation and no taxation.”
Meanwhile, Nigeria has banned Twitter after the platform temporarily suspended the account of President Muhammadu Buhari, who had posted a threat of violence against protesters in the country’s Biafra region. And after Twitter and Facebook banned former U.S. President Donald Trump, upsetting his supporters, other populist regimes in Mexico, Poland and Hungary have proposed laws and an international consensus to prevent such actions against their own leaders.
To be sure, Big Tech must face accountability for fake news, monopolization and tax avoidance. But when regimes feel empowered to target multinational corporations with the aim of snuffing out dissent, it’s not hard to imagine what they can do with opponents who wield far less power and influence.
Tech giants have the clout and resources to maneuver, strike deals with governments and survive. But if the space for political debate is curbed in the process, democracy — already fragile in many parts of the world — will suffer.