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Don't be evil.

You may have missed it among all the chaos in the world at the moment, but last month Google threatened to withdraw its search function from Australia. This was in response to the Australian government's attempts to introduce a law to force Google and Facebook to pay media companies for displaying their news.

In fact, prior to this threat, Google had already been experimenting with blocking access to Australian news for a small proportion of the country, claiming that it was measuring its worth to local news companies.

Predictably, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government has been hitting back pretty hard, courting Microsoft to replace Google, and accusing Google of blackmailing the country.

While arbitrarily blocking news for a percentage of random users seems dodgy to say the least, Google is completely within its rights to withdraw its search engine or even to withdraw all of its services from Australia. A company doesn't have to provide its services to a specific region or country if it chooses not to do so, whatever the reason, whether economic considerations or political ones, or even just because the CEO doesn't like the weather.

But the hullabaloo does raise a wider question. Imagine that Google followed through on its threat to withdraw its search capacity from Australia, and in fact went further and its parent company Alphabet withdrew all of its services. What a catastrophe it would be, especially in this time of lockdowns and working from home. Workers "down under" would suddenly lose access to huge swathes of the internet ? and of their lives. On an economic level, companies would surely go out of business across the country, but on a personal level, people would lose all kinds of personal data, photos, emails, no more YouTube videos (presumably of kangaroos rather than cats) to provide relief and entertainment or to keep the kids quiet in a time of intermittent lockdowns.

The thing about a company like Alphabet is that it runs so much of our lives that it's hard to even realize the extent of it. Google isn't just a search function. Of the eight apps on my phone's homescreen, five are provided by Alphabet companies: maps, email, YouTube, calendar, and translate ? and I live in a country where Google isn't even the dominant search engine.

Of course, we must acknowledge how much good the tech giants have done for the world. The world I live in today is practically unrecognizable from the one into which I was born, and most of the biggest changes have been caused or facilitated by the rise of the internet giants. The tech companies have surely helped bring about the greatest and fastest period of development in history, affecting almost every area of our lives, and all in the space of a lifetime.

But we cannot allow big tech to dictate terms to national governments.

Google's threat to Australia is terrifying because it shows where the real power lies, and it's not with the elected government of a sovereign state. We live in an age where a few massive companies hold a digital oligopoly in huge swathes of the world. The Silicon Valley tech giants are truly enormous, bigger and more powerful than many nation states.

And while they compete in some areas, they are not above working together for their own collective interest. Google's protests against the Australian law have come alongside Facebook's, and we saw a similar instance of Silicon Valley co-ordination at the beginning of the year when what felt like half the companies in California banned Trump in one way or another.

The most famous of the bans was of course Twitter's. The tweets that allegedly broke the tech giant's back read: "The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!"

And: "To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th."

Twitter claimed that these tweets broke their policy on the glorification of violence. It's a flimsy argument, to say the least: while Trump may have done plenty of wrong in the lead-up to the Capitol Hill riots, these two specific tweets were hardly incendiary.

That isn't to say that I support Trump at all; I don't and I never have or will. Nor am I claiming that Trump had no role in the riot at the Capitol building, but it is clear that Twitter merely used the violence there as a pretext for finally banning a man they've wanted to ban for years.

Many people fretted at the chilling effect on free speech that these bans have, but every legal challenge to Twitter based on the First Amendment right of free speech has failed. The amendment prohibits only the government from "abridging the freedom of speech"; it does not dictate private companies or individuals to uphold free speech.

And this makes sense, of course: the government should and must not require private companies or individuals to promote views they disagree with or air content against their will. So in that light, Twitter's ban on Trump is entirely reasonable, even if the company's given justification is wafer-thin. They just don't like him, and they don't want him on their site. Fair enough ? to be honest, if I hosted a website I wouldn't want him on my platform either.

However, while the companies are not doing anything wrong per se, they are clearly far, far too powerful. They seek to dictate laws to national governments, and have the power and confidence to work in concert against even the president of the USA.

These enormous tech giants need to be broken up now, for the sake of competition and, above all, for the sake of national sovereignty. Those who wring their hands about interfering with market forces and free trade forget that the first antitrust laws, targeting steel and oil monopolies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, were introduced by the US, the most capitalist nation in the history of the world.

We need to take the same approach now to stop elected governments of sovereign nations being dictated to by increasingly confident Silicon Valley companies. Obviously, the antitrust laws of bygone centuries aren't perfectly applicable to the tech giants of today. New legislation is needed for this millennium to combat the dominance of our lives by a few Californian companies.

But instead of supporting such measures, the American government has so far done precisely the opposite, putting diplomatic pressure on those countries seeking to curtail the power of the digital giants. When France sought to introduce taxes on digital services, Trump announced import duties on French handbags and makeup. As for the Australian fiasco, the US government lobbied against the proposed law in favor of the tech companies just before Biden took office.

In this honeymoon period of his presidency, Biden has the opportunity to right this wrong and seek to curtail the power of the tech giants. His administration has rightly delayed Trump's tariffs on France, though I've yet to see a comment on the Australian issue. Let's be realistic, though: he probably won't come down too hard on Silicon Valley. And if he doesn't, news stories of tech giants vying with national governments will become more and more common online ? until, suddenly, they disappear altogether.
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Publication:The Korea Times News (Seoul, Korea)
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 7, 2021
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