This is a shorter version of an article I wrote for cigionline.com back in February. It never got picked up, but I’m pretty happy with the way it holds together. While it is mainly focused on the vulnerability of US social media companies to US governmental pressure, its underlying argument — that social media companies and online platforms are not tools of liberation, but reflections of the interests and vulnerabilities of whoever runs them — speaks directly to the threat posed by Elon Musk’s Twitter to free discourse far beyond the United States. To put it bluntly, it’s been an enormous mistake for non-Americans to entrust huge swaths of their communication infrastructure to unaccountable (to non-Americans) American (and now Chinese) corporations. These aren’t global platforms; they’re American and Chinese platforms with global reach. That difference matters, and it’s time we started analyzing them in those terms.
A brief housekeeping note: I’ve deactivated my Twitter account and have no current plans to join any other social media platforms. Though if anyone can point me toward a decent, sane social media space, I’d be much obliged. In the meantime, I’m probably going to be redirecting my public-writing energies here.
Fears of authoritarianism have a particular resonance in internet-governance circles. The spectre of an authoritarian China and Chinese companies controlling the internet — think the 5G debate — has haunted discussions of platform regulation for years now. Charges of “digital authoritarianism” continue to dog attempts to regulate online companies, such as Germany’s NetzDG law.
But what would happen if the problem government were the United States?
After all, it’s practically impossible these days to find a serious thinker who believes that US democracy is in fine shape.
Not only did the Jan 6, 2021, insurrection end a two-century tradition of peaceful transitions of power, it occurred alongside the Republican Party’s ongoing descent into illiberalism and authoritarianism.
Digital rights activists are quick to call on tech companies to resist authoritarian governments, but what happens if the authoritarians are inside the house?
I wouldn’t count on these companies to have our backs. The problem comes down to the nature of global power and the relationship between companies and the state.
Though we might think of the internet as a global network and the US as a declining power, the United States possesses what political scientists call structural power – the ability to shape the rules and norms under which others operate – over online activity. What happens in the United States matters for the internet more than what happens elsewhere.
For example, January 2022 marked the tenth anniversary of the successful Stop Online Piracy Act protests. These protests targeted a pair of US copyright bills that critics claimed would “break the internet.”
As Paul Keller, who was involved in that protest, notes, these bills would have had extraterritorial effects due in part to the size of the US market. The giants that dominate the online world, “have incentives to comply with rules that apply in sufficiently large markets, which means that regulatory regimes are often exported well beyond the jurisdictions where they have been originally enacted.”
The United States also uses its market power to convince other countries to implement its preferred internet governance policies via trade agreements — nobody wants to get shut out of the world’s richest market.
What happens in the United States matters to the world. There is little reason to believe that an autocratic or illiberal United States wouldn’t reshape the internet.
The investigations sparked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen offers a stark reminder that these (American) companies are uniquely responsive to American legislators. Consider whose calls Facebook/Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg returns. Hint: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s not on the list.
Or how the role of an American social media company in an actual genocide (albeit outside the United States) wasn’t enough to trigger sustained calls for reforms from the US Congress, the only body with the power to regulate effectively these companies.
The European Union is attempting to challenge the American status quo by using the size of its market to impose itself as a regulatory superpower through laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation, which regulates the European market in personal data and is emerging as a global standard.
But it lacks globally dominant companies. In contrast, US firms like Amazon and Google allow the United States to exert structural power over online activities, indirectly but no less powerfully than more-direct legislation or treaties.
US tech companies influence US economic policy, while in turn creating an economic – US government contracts are worth billions — and political dependence on the United States. Communication scholars Shawn Powers and Michael Jablonski refer to this symbiotic tech-state relationship as the “information-industrial complex.”
To be clear: these tight nationalist links aren’t authoritarian; they’re normal politics. But that doesn’t help us avoid the conclusion that appeals to international human rights law are unlikely to help them resist an American autocratic turn.
American companies remain uniquely vulnerable to influence by their home country. They can’t abandon the US market, and they depend on the US government to open foreign markets via instruments such as trade agreements.
They may be powerful, but powerful states have proven more than capable of forcing even behemoths like Google to do speech-limiting things they wouldn’t otherwise do, such as copyright and trademark enforcement. Ultimately, the definition, nature and limit of tech companies’ commitment to free speech and human rights are set in the United States.
Whether the United States goes full autocrat or remains a flawed democracy, tech companies will do what companies have always done: with the support of the US government, they will attempt to dominate foreign markets to meet their material interests and create an international economy conducive to American profits and values — whatever those may be. After all, there are always ways to make money under authoritarianism. Google won’t save us.