Editorial Roundup: What is Big Tech’s status in America?

Published 8:50 pm Tuesday, February 14, 2023

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Every decision you’ve made until now has brought you to where you are. So if you like anything about your life as it is — even though there are things you’d change — you shouldn’t dwell on regrets.

Sorry about the dime-store philosophy. It’s just that it’s relevant to our subject of the day: Big Tech, an industry that has come of age during our times and has become what it is, for better and worse, because of how society has molded and used it. Regrets? Non, je ne regrette rien, as Edith Piaf once put things.

You don’t know much about Edith Piaf? You must remedy this. The internet can help.

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The internet, in fact, is where you can go for an almost unimaginable breadth and depth of information, retrievable with mind-bending efficiency, almost faster than you can think about it all. If you’re more in a mood for entertainment or connecting with others, those options are there, too, in similar volume. On the internet, you can be as serious or as frivolous as you want.

It’s all been the result of a hands-off regulatory environment that encouraged dreamers and entrepreneurs to act first and ask questions later. They’ve been abetted by consumers willing to breeze through lengthy terms-of-service agreements — and any consequences therein — in order to get to the good stuff. And behind it all is the money chasing every new idea — currently, artificial intelligence.

But nothing is ever really “set it and forget it.”

In his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden took aim at Big Tech by calling for stronger data privacy and antitrust laws. The address complemented a commentary he wrote last month for the Wall Street Journal that called additionally for “fundamental reform” of Section 230, the part of the U.S. Code that essentially frees online content providers from liability for moderating — or not — what their many users might post. The president thinks Big Tech companies should bear “responsibility for the content they spread and the algorithms they use.”

He hopes to find bipartisan interest. The problem is that Republicans come at Big Tech from a different angle. As demonstrated by a hearing last week by the House Oversight Committee, a concern they see as paramount is perceived censorship of conservative views by social-media platforms.

Whatever reform Washington might come up with, make no mistake about the industry’s power to resist. After scanning White House visitor logs showing appearances by Silicon Valley’s most senior executives at least 38 times over a 15-month period in 2021 and 2022, the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, speculated that it could explain federal inaction on tech issues thus far in Biden’s presidential tenure. And in New York, which was set to approve a right-to-repair law last year giving citizens more power over the life spans of their electronic devices, industry advocates managed to weaken the changes after legislators’ overwhelming initial approval but before Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature. The bill, which had been poised to become the nation’s first, is now back in the Senate there.

And then there’s the Big Dog, the U.S. Supreme Court. Later this month, the justices will hear oral arguments in two cases involving content moderation, in particular how the use of algorithms can elevate dangerous content, in these cases involving terrorism. The court is also sniffing around cases regarding content moderation laws in Texas and Florida. Those latter cases, still in the district courts for now, are more oriented toward the nation’s culture wars.
Whatever changes arrive, we’d hope for a focus on several principles: First, that it be easier for consumers to opt in to specific practices that may compromise their privacy, rather than needing to avoid them by opting out of a service altogether. Second, that Americans continue to enjoy the right to express themselves freely, even if they do not have a universal right to a platform. Third, that in seeking a balance between expression and curation, algorithms are a necessary tool, though one that can be abused.

Finally, we’d want everyone to accept that technology will continue to evolve in both pleasant and unpleasant ways. For this, we turn to a quote from the Coen Brothers movie “No Country for Old Men.” Although the drug-running scenario in the movie is a bit bleaker than what we foresee for the future of technology on the whole, the sentiment holds: “What you got ain’t nothin’ new. … You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you.”
Thus ends our dime-store philosophizing for the day. And if by chance that reference has triggered your interest in the dime stores of old, well, that’s what the internet is for. One of the things, anyway.

— Minneapolis Star Tribune Editorial Board

About Editorial Roundup

Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

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