In Depth

Can Facebook and Google really be regulated?

After allegations of Russian election hacking, the mood is changing. But is it enough to rein in the tech giants?

The internet's wild west frontier days may be coming to an end as governments look to rein in previously unregulated tech giants.

What has changed?

One word: Russia. Revelations that the Kremlin “weaponised” internet platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to influence last year's US presidential election have sparked talk about internet regulation, until recently anathema to both politicians and Silicon Valley.

 Indeed, “until the political fortunes of the tech industry began to shift in 2017, Silicon Valley fixers helped to make the phrase ‘light touch regulation’ a popular mantra on Capitol Hill”, says Fortune.

Things are different now, says the magazine: “The staggering power of Facebook makes even erstwhile giants like NBC or Fox look like pipsqueaks, and the lack of any oversight is producing some ugly outcomes.”

How would it work?

Many cite successful government efforts in the 20th century to regulate old-economy businesses such as steel, oil and railway giants.

Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon has called for the regulation of Facebook and Google as public utilities, while others, such as such as Keith Ellison, the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, want to use anti-monopoly laws similar to those used against Microsoft in the late 1990s to break-up the tech giants.

In this, the EU has taken the lead, handing Google a €2.4bn (£2.1bn) fine this summer and demanding it halt advertising practices deemed to be unfair.

However, while there is a growing consensus that internet giants need to be made more accountable, “nobody has devised a unified strategy, mainly because tech companies are so different from the giant firms of old that it’s not clear how to regulate them”,  says the Boston Globe.

Will regulation really happen?

In the end, it comes down to political will and whether politicians have the stomach to go up against the world’s most powerful companies.

Last week, a coalition of US senators from both sides of the aisle proposed new legislation that would monitor internet political advertising in much the same way TV ads are tracked. The plan would effectively require major tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to disclose who is purchasing ads on their platforms.

The Honest Ads Act is a “relatively modest” bill, says the Globe, but it comes 11 years after the Federal Election Commission rejected virtually all regulation of political campaign ads on the internet. “How times have changed,” says the paper.

Donald Trump has also signalled he could be willing to throw his weight behind new regulation for internet companies.

Asked by Fox News interviewer Maria Bartiromo this week whether the tech industry merited more regulation, the US President said: “I can go either way on it.”

“Tech companies are voicing support for some form of regulation - while stopping short of offering a full-throated endorsement of the Honest Ads bill’s actual provisions,” says The Verge. Facebook has already committed to making copies of ads publicly available as part of chief executive Mark Zuckerberg's nine-point plan to reset the company’s relationship with democracy in the wake of the Russia allegations.

However, The Independent says technology companies are “girding for a long fight, deploying lobbyists to shape the new proposal” while they face intense political scrutiny.

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