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The rapper and the President’s son

29 Jul 2020  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The rapper and the President’s son

Source: Wiley Official/YouTube

Today, Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon will appear together for the first time in front of Congress. They’ve got a lot of explaining to do, writes Ray Snoddy

Twitter has not exactly covered itself in glory over the way it has dealt with the rapper Wiley and Donald Trump Jr.

There has of course been four years of questions over the tweets of Donald Trump Snr and the endless stream of abusive, misleading and downright untrue communications.

Twitter has occasionally attached a question mark over the veracity of some of the statements made by the President of the United States, much to Trump’s fury. Yet, you would hardly expect the company to close down the account of its most precious asset with his 84,290,554 followers (and counting - ed).

I guess it’s possible to make a special case argument for the tweets of Donald J. Trump, who has sent 2,798 tweets so far this year. It amounts to the core of his presidential archive and will amuse biographers for years to come.

This week, President Trump even re-tweeted a controversial video about the benefits of hydroxychloroquine - claiming it was a cure for Covid-19 that made masks unnecessary, even though the World Health Organisation says there is no evidence of any such benefits.

But when Trump Jr did the same thing, Twitter swooped under the heading of spreading misleading information about the virus and removed some of the facilities of Twitter from the President’s son for...err...12 hours.

Then there’s the case of the grime artist and rapper Wiley and his series of tweets about anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, calling Jews “cowards” and “snakes” and even comparing the Jewish community to the Ku Klux Klan.

It took Twitter more than 48 hours to remove the offensive material and Wiley was at first temporarily blocked and then given only a seven-day ban after he started up all over again.

A 48-hour boycott of Twitter by members of the Jewish community and many others by way of protest against the platform’s relative inaction raised the stakes. But the 12 hour and seven day ban for Wiley has amounted to a pathetic response from Twitter and the attacks will continue unless the company starts to take stronger action against misleading information and anti-Semitic hate speech, which could actually cost lives.

Meanwhile, Facebook and its sister company Instagram - after an initial seven-day block - have now removed Wiley’s accounts “for repeated violations of our policies.”

A revealing skirmish but a skirmish all the same.

Signs of much larger battles to come involving the scale and impact of the Californian social media and technology companies are now gathering strength.

The charge sheet is a long one and goes far beyond a failure to take adequate action to remove hate speech and every conspiracy theory under the sun.

The most dangerous charge the tech giants face - from Amazon and Apple to Facebook and Google-owner Alphabet - is that they have simply become too big and too dominant in the market and are causing untold damage to sectors as diverse as retail and traditional media.

And while many organisations have suffered during the Covid crisis, they have prospered and are now worth a collective $5 trillion.

Anyone who tries to launch a company against them is either crushed – or more probably acquired.

And so it is that today, a quartet of high-tech leaders will give evidence before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.

Never before have Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sundar Pichai of Google, Tim Cook of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon all appeared for questioning together before Congress.

It’s just the latest investigation. The House Antitrust committee has been examining the market power of the tech giants for more than a year and the Federal Trade Commission has also been taking a detailed look.

Some of the social media giants have even suggested there should be a greater degree of regulation and government action to head off something worse, such as a break-up.

However, the impact of anything said at today’s Congressional committee will all come down to politics and ultimately what happens on Tuesday 3 November.

It’s quite complicated. Trump has a love-hate relationship with social media, which he used to gain power. When Twitter put a “fact check” label on one of his tweets in May he threatened to close the company down and he has regularly railed against what he sees as left-wing social media trying to silence conservative voices.

As things stand, or at least as opinion polls stand, by 4 November Joe Biden will have been elected President of the United States and, if the polls are correct, he will have backing from a Democrat House and Senate.

It’s therefore not clear what, if any action he will take against the tech giants.

Biden was the only Democratic presidential candidate who called for the revocation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which mainly exempts online platforms from legal liability for users’ posts.

But the furthest Biden has gone so far is to say that dismantling companies such as Facebook is “something we should take a really hard look at.”

Taking a really hard look at a dismantling falls a long way short of a commitment to take action against the tech giants, although they probably face more of a threat from a Biden presidency than the continuance of an erratic Trump.

Meanwhile, Facebook has been under scrutiny from EU competition regulators since last year and this week there were growing signs of tension between the two.

Facebook is suing the European Commission for seeking what it sees as too much irrelevant data.

Newspapers have an obvious interest in seeing the tech giants, which have “stolen” so much of their advertising revenue, taken down a peg or two.

Even here there is complexity though, with some newspaper executives warning about the consequences of getting what you wish for.

In an interview before it was announced he was leaving the New York Times, Mark Thompson, the paper’s chief executive, was wary about giving governments or regulators more control over the funding of news. It would be dangerous unless arms length processes could be set up, Thompson believes.

How all these battles and issues play out is far from clear but there’s one thing that can be said with certainty - an occasional divorce at the very top of the tech giants can have a very beneficial impact on society.

MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Jeff Bezos, has given away $1.5 billion of her Amazon-generated wealth to charity. How this compares with the £4.6 million Amazon paid in corporation tax in the UK last year. Plus, it’s considerably more than all its direct and indirect tax payments.

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