Facebook vs Australia and the new battle to cut big tech right down to size

STAND-OFFS between nations are nothing new. But an extremely public spat between a government and a commercial company, where each accused the other of taking citizens hostage and threatened sanctions, certainly seemed novel when it broke out this February.

This was the case of Facebook versus Australia, where the tech giant briefly take off access to some parts of the web through its platform because of its 17 million Australian users, in response to a proposed law that could force it to cover linking to news stories. Opinions are still divided on the rights and wrongs – but this skirmish appears like just a foretaste of bigger battles to come.

Around the world, governments are concluding that tech giants such as for example Facebook and Google exercise too much power and so are undermining the general public good by allowing hate speech and misinformation to proliferate. Not merely in Australia, but also in the united kingdom, the united states, the EU and elsewhere, plans are afoot to bring them to heel.

That determination brings with it risks, though. Clamp down too much and you can damage freedom of expression, and distribute the wrong signals to authoritarian regimes worldwide. Bring in several rules in different places and you risk Balkanising the web, destroying the universality on which it is built. Not the tech companies deny that something should be done. The question is, what?

Big tech has certainly become big. Facebook, Google and other tech companies’ incomes have ballooned as they have benefited from the changing ways we communicate and access information and services. If Facebook’s $86 billion income in 2020 were a …

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