Tech companies’ larger role, and bigger dilemma
Do tech companies need to take a stand on controversial online activities? This question was a headline of an article in Forbes magazine. There is probably no simple, definite answer, because “controversial online activities” are what they are – controversial. Taking a stand on the question itself can be contentious.
Tech companies have directly or indirectly controlled the platform operations of social media. As we all know, the likes of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have become major tools of activists of all kinds. Opinions have been advocated on those platforms in all possible ways, including belligerent or insensitive means. Trolls are common, and sometimes anti-trolling activities are no less annoying. In many cases, anti-trolling users have become trolls themselves.
So, the question should be how far tech companies should go to contain such activities. Do too much and the firms can come under criticism for, say, disrupting freedom of expression. Do too little and things can get out of control, affecting “innocent” users. The closure of the popular “comment” section in www.imdb.com, one of the most famous and comprehensive websites on world movies, is said to be a result of “uncontrollable” activities of users that simply overwhelmed web administrators.
Comments in opinion forums online are always explosive. There are many reasons for that, but a major one is that people don’t have to really show themselves while taking a stand. They are safe and sound at their homes, not having to confront any real person. This gave rise to the term “keyboard warriors”, and tech companies responsible for popular public websites have dealt with it by requiring some sort of identities, but measures have often been got around.
On the one hand, www.imdb.com can be criticised for “overdoing” it. On the other hand, what choice did it have? Taking selective action against trolls can subject the website to charges of being biased or even undemocratic. Shutting down the comment section entirely helped prevent such criticism, although the website had to pay a big price in terms of a big decrease in web traffic.
The answer to Forbes’ question may lie in the question itself. The magazine asked: “America has been built on free expression, but when this expression violates the rights of others online, do technology companies have a right to stop the behaviour from affecting other users?” While the “free expression in America” has been questionable lately, not least because of the limited scientific debate on the 9/11 issue as well as the mainstream media’s coverage of the debate, Forbes’ question was framed in such a way that answering it may not be too difficult. Yes, if other users rightfully feel violated by certain “expressions”, the expressers should be made to find a new stage.
Forbes noted that Google and GoDaddy have recently made their voices heard by banning a controversial site from interacting on their platforms. Not surprisingly, though, charges of impeding free speech have abounded.
This whole issue underlines the growing importance of tech companies in various facets of life. It used to be newspapers and TV stations that faced the dilemma of allowing combative attitudes and keeping peace or protecting privacy. Now, companies run partly or wholly by young nerds will have to make the decision. It’s difficult, but Forbes’ question is obviously easier than the other one that has also been rumbling for quite some time. That question is, should tech companies take a stand on controversial issues, like whether Catalonia should gain independence or whether Donald Trump is a bad president?
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