In times of crisis, it is important to stay calm, level-headed, and to avoid rash behavior. And, in times of crisis, it is also important to face reality and deal with it.
A couple of op-ed writers from the Hoover Institution recently published a piece in Silicon Valley’s hometown newspaper, The Mercury News, in which they say it is time to back off criticisms of the Big Tech players. “Powerful voices in the mainstream press have feigned to ignore the contribution of the tech industry to social welfare and doubled down on calls for antimonopoly reform,” they complained. “Message to the… anti-Big Tech activists: When the COVID-19 crisis slows down, it will be game over for Big Tech bashing.”
No one has to “feign to ignore” the good things about tech, including all the ways it has helped us to connect with friends and family, make purchases, and see the doctor online during the pandemic. Of course, others have also persuasively argued that COVID-19, as MIT Technology Review recently put it, “has blown apart the myth of Silicon Valley innovation” by exposing the fact these companies do not actually build anything. That they are reflective of “our diminished ability to innovate in areas that truly count, like health care and climate change.”
Moreover, we are also not going to ignore the bad things they have done and continue to do. These are the same companies that have enabled harms ranging from human trafficking to election meddling to hate speech… and are still doing so, right now, as the pandemic continues.
While the internet platforms like to brag about how they have been “bringing us together” for many years, why is it that we seem to be divided like never before?
TECH’S LONG HONEYMOON WITH THE WORLD
When Google claimed to make “Don’t be evil” their internal mantra, we believed them. When Facebook said their mission was to give people the power to share and make the world more connected (and not surveil users and sell their data to the highest bidder), we believed them, too.
But then, bad things started happening. Actually, there had been a lot of bad things happening for a long time – but travesties such as Cambridge Analytica and the horrible live Facebook broadcast of the New Zealand massacre on Facebook showed just how bad they could be.
The list of harms that were already known was long – sex trafficking, illegal prescription drug sales, counterfeiting and piracy, and on and on. In fact, the world could have taken a huge hint about the dangers of the internet when we saw the way lawless piracy exploded over the years. Members of the creative communities were among the first to be harmed by unstoppable downloading and, later, streaming. Pirates destroyed billions of dollars of value in creative content of all kinds, and pocketed tens of millions of dollars for themselves in the process.
YouTube, by their founders’ own admission, built their entire business on infringement – and it was completely legal thanks to internet safe harbor laws written in the late ‘90s (such as CDA 230, and Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)).
Once the spirit of internet lawlessness was established by the piracy pandemic, a cascade of other harms followed – hate speech, xenophobia, rampant harassment and bullying, election interference campaigns executed by hostile foreign actors, and on and on.
Yes. The notion that tech has made some good contributions to society remains valid. But the notion that the harms that tech has caused, and continues to cause, should be ignored just because tech has put its “good citizen” hat on during the pandemic is dead wrong.
Of course, companies like Google and Facebook are peddling this cynical, disingenuous, and dangerous point of view by spreading around their largesse to get “friends” to speak up in their defense. It’s about what you would expect from an industry that has consistently tapped into the tobacco industry’s lobbying playbook.
That’s why we have no compunctions about attacking the ongoing scourge of piracy, and the role of Big Tech companies in facilitating it.
BIG TECH, SUPERSIZED PIRACY
With the onset of COVID-19, the world is now at home, streaming movies and television shows more than ever before. But, as they have done for most of the past two decades, Silicon Valley continues to facilitate streaming content illegally – and at speeds and picture quality levels that rival legitimate platforms. It has only gotten worse during this pandemic.
In 2019, the data firm MUSO tracked over 174 billion global visits to piracy sites, a number that is already staggering, and now on the rise. Piracy site visits by U.S. and U.K. residents alone jumped about 31% from February to March, and 19,000 website addresses in MUSO’s database drew 137 million page views in a single month.
This spike in piracy could not come at a worse time. While Silicon Valley is supersizing during this crisis, the entertainment industry has shut down – its 2.6 million workers sitting at home, unable to earn a living. Musicians have seen two of their biggest revenue streams – live shows and merchandise sales – dry up due to venue closures. Authors are reeling as bookstores shutter, literary festivals cancel, libraries close down, and reading tours cancel. Photographers, video game designers, and news publishers are not doing any better.
It is not difficult for Big Tech to help curb this piracy. It is simply a matter of innovation and investment. It is a matter of taking some of their egregious profits and getting creative. A few simple actions could help, in big ways, to repair some of the damage to the creative economy caused by the pandemic.
So while we are stuck at home, let’s use the tools of Big Tech for something good: to demand change. Google your Members of Congress for their contact information and let them know you want the antitrust investigations into Facebook and Google to continue. Tell them that the notice and takedown process set up by the DMCA 22 years ago must be updated to better protect creative livelihoods. Sign our Platform Accountability petition or join us to continue getting updates from CreativeFuture as we fight for the rights of creatives to be fairly compensated for their work. Or, better yet, do both!
Contrary to what the Hoover Institution guys think, “Big Tech bashing” is not over because of COVID-19. The harms caused by Big Tech have only worsened during the crisis, and they must be challenged.