Shift of Power to the Tech Giants: Lessons for the Regulators

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In the wake of Sunday morning on 9th January 2021, Uganda woke up to big headlines on various social media platforms that pages and handles of some pro- government bloggers/influencers had been brought down.

These included the likes of Duncan Abigaba, Full Figure, Ashburg Kato, among others. This was later to be confirmed by Kezia Anim–Addo, Facebook’s head of communications for Sub–Saharan Africa in an interview with CGTN Africa whereby she stated that the said persons belonged to a network connected with the Ministry of Information which had been using fake and duplicate accounts to impersonate users and boost the popularity of posts.

“They used fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, impersonate users, re-share posts in groups to make them appear more popular than they were,” She said.

However, the government spokesperson hit back in a BBC Facebook Live interview, accusing Facebook of failing to adhere to “natural justice” in closing down the accounts and reechoed suggestions by other government figures that the social network was trying to influence the election outcome.

This came barely a month after the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), a regulator of the communications industry wrote to Google, asking it to shut down several YouTube channels allegedly associated with spreading news likely to be harmful during the election period.

This was coupled with the government body ordering online content creators such as influencers and bloggers to register and have their material vetted before publication, but this was put on hold after it was challenged in court.

A few days back, tech giants of Facebook and Twitter suspended accounts of the US president Donald Trump on allegations of him inciting violence in build up to the events at Capitol Hill.

This points out clearly to the power of Social media which knows no boundaries that it leaves the Powerful powerless. Should we then say we have a trajectory shift of power?

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the politics of the world were highly determined by military superiors. However, with the age of the internet, tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter,among others are turning to have the linch pin of dominance.

The Mark Zuckerbergs of this world appear to have the power to bring the powerful to their knees. The influence of social media can be traced from the 2011 Arab Spring which had a significant toll on the sitting governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. It’s the reason many incumbent governments are aiming at censoring social media.

Also, consider the opportunity the COVID 19 pandemic has given to the tech giants to polarize the world. According to CNBC, Eric Yuen the founder and CEO of Zoom is reported to have become worth almost $17 billion as people rushed to meet via his application.

Revenues quadrupled and profit increased 90-fold putting the company high in the stock market.

In Uganda, the Electoral Commission decided to go the ‘scientific’ way, where by campaigns have been largely based on social media to reach out to voters. One must say that this was just the beginning of digital transformation in the political sphere.

Even the governments and regulators have little control over social media platforms they are mandated to control. In a statement issued by Mark Zuckerberg regarding the suspension of Donald Trump’s Facebook account he said that:

“We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great. Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”

So, what’s next for governments and regulators?

As I write this, the Uganda Communications Commission has just lifted a blockade on the Internet days after it was totally shutdown citing national security concerns.The blockade was welcomed with much scorn from the public as many resorted to Virtual private networks (VPN).

This is not a surprise as the same has been seen in China whereby despite a ban on social media platforms, people are still able to access Facebook, Twitter among others by aid of VPNs.

Such is a good indicator to the world governments of how access to social media is too technical to control and that neither can missiles or atomic bombs put it to its knees.

Therefore, to control well the internet, investments should be made in developing our technologies and enacting laws which provide a conducive environment where tech companies can operate effectively.

Important to note, regulation should not imply curtailing the freedom of expression via the social media platforms.

A leaf should be borrowed from the UK government which has tabled a law through which Social media sites, websites, apps and other services which host user-generated content or allow people to talk to others online will need to remove and limit the spread of illegal content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material, suicide content among others.

More so, the most popular social media sites with the largest audiences and high-risk features, will need to go further by setting and enforcing clear terms and conditions which explicitly state how they will handle content which is legal but could cause significant physical or psychological harm to adults. This includes dangerous disinformation and misinformation about coronavirus vaccines, and will help bridge the gap between what companies say they do and what happens in practice.

All companies will need mechanisms so people can easily report harmful content or activity while also being able to appeal the takedown of content.

Therefore, the new rules are intended to enforce a ‘new age of accountability’ for social media, including the power to hold senior managers of the tech companies liable. They will not affect articles and comments on news websites, and there will be additional measures to protect free speech.

It can be therefore agreed that despite the fact that social media is viewed as a potential agent of destabilising governments, it turns out to be a necessary evil which bears a great impact in our society today.

Economies are thriving on the aid of internet  as powered by the connectivity empowered by social media. What needs to be done is to reasonably regulate the content shared on such platforms bearing in mind the need to protect free speech, right to privacy and upholding national security interests.

Equally avenues should be put in place to ensure social media users are given fair hearings before their social media accounts are suspended. Accountability is key from both parties to ensure there is a conducive virtual space.

Investments in the technological infrastructure should not be ignored. Otherwise he who owns the keys to a social media platform has the power to influence the new world order.


 

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