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Big Tech Clashes with Internet Freedom Advocates

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

October 3, 2017

A chasm is developing between the tech industry and civil society and it’s likely to widen if things keep going as they are. There was a time when, even recently, the advocacy groups could be sure that big tech had their backs in the FCC/net neutrality fracas. In fact, many tech advocacy groups, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, received significant funding and other financial support from big tech companies. However, the romance may be souring. Let’s explore why the relationship is becoming fractious.

A key reason for the growing divide may rest in the fact that the tech titans have simply become too big. Advocacy groups are thinking what Craig Aaron of Free Press has put out there in print:

“Companies like Google and Facebook have amassed so much power over what we watch, see and read every day. If you’re a true public interest group that worries about media power like we do, you have to have an eye on these guys.”

There are other, more concrete, examples that have irked freedom/privacy activists. One such example can be found in California. There, a bill that advocacy groups favored was lobbied against by the major tech firms. As a result, the bill never even came up for a vote. An industry group led by the likes of Google and Facebook, the Internet Association (which includes Amazon, Microsoft, and many other companies), joined the telecom companies (the villains in the net neutrality brouhaha) in penning a letter to the California legislature opposing an internet privacy bill.

It’s understandable why the lawmakers caved. After all, their bread is buttered with campaign bucks. It’s also understandable why the advocates were so miffed at the apparent knifing in the back. In fact, their dissatisfaction goes back even further and came (curiously timed) amid the contentious net neutrality debate. In the spring, inexplicably, the Information Technology Industry Council, a lobbying group that represents companies such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, publicly pressed Congress to kill the FCC’s internet privacy rules.

This came as a surprise because the companies weren’t in anyone’s crosshairs. Nor were they affected by the rules. It is speculated that they did so because they feared the brush that was tarring the telecoms companies might someday be broad enough to stain them with the arm of regulation. (As I’ve pointed out in previous articles, this is not an unlikely scenario.) Once the regulation-happy, big government crowd smells blood in the water, the sharks will soon arrive on the scene for the kill. Much to the consternation of the advocacy groups – and the delight of the internet companies – the resolution became law.

The reasons for the fractured relationship between privacy advocates and the tech industry may stretch further than that congressional setback. The tech giants have become greater in terms of collecting and disseminating information. They are now a bigger part of the fabric of individuals’ lives. As they’ve grown, they’ve become more protective of this new power.Holmes Wilson, co-founder of Fight for the Future comments,

“They become less antagonistic to existing power and more an extension to that power.”

He could have added, more protective of that power and more reluctant to share it with privacy advocacy groups.

Where Is All This Heading?

The privacy advocacy groups like Free Press, EFF, Public Knowledge, and Demand Progress contend that diminished funding from internet companies and/or other tech companies will not sway them. They say they will proceed with their mission. The tech titans, though they would not say this for public consumption, will be on board just so long as they can protect their bottom line and their turf. This is not encouraging news for the advocacy groups, nor for citizens who depend on those groups making the tech giants toe the line when it comes to personal privacy.

Perhaps the political divide that is hamstringing the US currently may widen to include the tech industry and the privacy advocates. If so, it could tear the relationship asunder by pitting the “haves” against the “have-nots.” Only time will tell.

 Image credit: By Evil_Motor/Shutterstock.com
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