The White House has a plan for Big Tech
This week, the White House released its long-anticipated plan for addressing monopoly in the tech sector. Fixing Big Tech is important, because a free, fair and open internet is a necessary precondition for organizing all our other fights about human rights, equity, labor, the climate, and racial and gender justice.
The White House plan is a mixed bag. They set out six action points, each of them amorphous enough that they could all be summarized as “the devil is in the details” — that is, depending on how these are handled, they could be great, or terrible.
But one point stands out as especially fraught, controversial and dangerous: a vague promise of “fundamental reforms to Section 230,” which is incorrectly characterized as “special legal protections for large tech platforms.”
I’m going to go through all six of the points below and describe how they could go right, or wrong, and in the end I’ll get into more detail on 230 — it’s one of the worst-understood areas of internet law, a favored punching bag of the right and the left, and getting this one wrong could deliver permanent dominance to Big Tech platforms.
I. “Promote competition in the technology sector”: This covers both meat-and-potatoes trustbusting (breakups, merger scrutiny) and modern, tech-specific tactics, like interoperability mandates and bans on self preferencing. This is generally great stuff, but there are three important pitfalls to avoid:
i. Interop mandates that expose users to risk through hasty action. The EU’s Digital Markets Act unwisely kicked off by mandating interop in messaging tools on an unrealistically short timeline. Maintaining the security of encrypted messengers is extremely important; failures in messaging encryption are a source of existential risk to human rights workers, journalists and marginalized people all around the world. Recall that Jamal Khashoggi was lured to his slaughter by the Saudi government after they broke into his peers’ encrypted messages using a cyberweapon…