forthcoming events

Why the backlash against Silicon Valley?

6:45pm, Tuesday 13 February, Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London

What a difference a few years make. Not long ago Silicon Valley, and internet-related companies in particular, were seen as facilitating not just technological innovation but political liberation too. Back in 2008, many hailed a brilliant social-media campaign led by Barack Obama for helping to bring America its first black president. Nowadays, in contrast, the political use of the internet is more often associated with crass outbursts by Donald Trump.

But the shift cannot be reduced to the shift between two contrasting presidents. Think, for example, how the use of social media was hailed for its role in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011. One left-wing writer was typical of many when he described the upsurge in Egypt as ‘a revolution planned on Facebook, organised on Twitter and broadcast to the world via YouTube’.

The backlash against Silicon Valley is taking many forms. For example, many have argued that the monopoly power of Silicon Valley enables it to distort fair competition and undermine democracy. The European Commission has fined Google €2.4bn (£2.1bn) for anti-competitive practices. And in Germany, a new Net Enforcement Law (NetzDG) means that fines of up to €50m can be imposed on platforms that fail to remove ‘hate speech’ promptly. Meanwhile, in Britain the allegedly damaging impact of social media on children has been one of many lines of attack by critics. The Children’s Commissioner has called for social-media giants to be made more transparent and accountable in the wake of numerous reports about cyber-bullying, grooming and the damaging effects on mental health.

Questions to consider

1) To what extent has opinion towards Silicon Valley shifted over the past year or so? Is it fair to talk of a ‘techlash’?

2) What are the main factors driving any shift?

3) Could it, at least in principle, help facilitate political freedom?

4) What factors underlie the popularity of social media with the public?

5) How do challenges in relation to free speech online differ from those off-line?

6) How would you assess the case for more stringent regulation of key Silicon Valley companies (eg, Amazon, Facebook and Google) on the grounds that they are monopolies? For example, that there are ‘network effects’ that means it is difficult to compete with established leaders in the field.

SPEAKER(S)

Daniel Ben-Ami
journalist; author, Ferraris for All: in defence of economic progress and Cowardly Capitalism

READINGS

The backlash against big tech is in danger of going too far
Jamie Bartlett, Spectator, 6 November 2017
(Also the theme of his two-part BBC documentary)

The Know It Alls
Daniel Ben-Ami
Unedited version of a review of Noam Cohen’s The Know It Alls that originally appeared in the Financial Times, 5 December 2017

Children unprepared for social media ‘cliff edge’ as they start secondary school, Children’s Commissioner for England warns in new report
Children’s Commissioner, 4 January 2018

Do social media threaten democracy?
The Economist, 4 November 2017

Today’s tech oligarchs are worse than the robber barons
Joel Kotkin, Daily Beast, 11 August 2016

German opposition calls for abolition of online hate speech law
Reuters, 7 January 2018

Matt Stoller on modern monopolies
Econtalk podcast, 25 December 2017
(Includes links to further articles in turn)