With great power comes great responsibility.
It’s an adage that cuts to the heart of how we believe influential people or organizations ought to behave. Even if popularized by the Spider-Man comic books and movies, its merits are widely recognizable even for those who do not consider themselves fans of superhero stories.
As Big Tech exercises powers scarcely dreamed of by the heads of state or business tycoons of the past, however, Americans rightly wonder whether it is doing so responsibly.
Take censorship. Mass censorship is at odds with our country’s tradition of free speech, yet some tech companies seem willing to indulge their ability to silence speech. Even worse, they do so without clear standards for what they consider impermissible. Terms like “misinformation” or “disinformation” have too often equated to political opinions the companies do not like, and offenses are punished arbitrarily and without a sense of process.
The social media giants are the most obvious offenders in this regard, but they are not the only ones. Recently, the financial tech company PayPal unveiled a user agreement that would prohibit transactions that “involve the sending, posting or publication of any messages, content, or materials” deemed objectionable, including for “misinformation,” at “PayPal’s sole discretion.” Offenders would face a $2,500 fine.
The steep penalty, opaque standards, and apparent restrictions on speech all provoked significant concern about the new policy. PayPal later retracted the user agreement as an incorrect one sent out in error and said it would not fine people for misinformation.
Further explanation for how such a policy could be apparently adopted ought to be forthcoming. The House Energy and Commerce Committee on which I serve has jurisdiction over telecommunications. As the Republican Leader of its Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, I joined a letter with leaders of Energy and Commerce and the House Committee on Financial Services requesting more information on how this policy was developed and how it would work.
As Big Tech too often threatens to suppress voices merely for offering different opinions, it has also failed to crack down sufficiently on conduct that actually threatens safety.
Drug overdose deaths in the United States have topped 100,000 annually. Contributing to the enormity of the crisis is the ready availability of illicit and deadly substances on social media apps. Drug dealers sell to users, including young people, via the apps. Sometimes the pills bought and sold on the apps are counterfeit. Sadly, sometimes the counterfeits contain deadly fentanyl or fentanyl-related substances.
Tech companies have taken some steps to prevent illicit drug sales on their platforms, but considering that 71,000 people in the United States died of fentanyl or fentanyl-related substances last year, it is clear that more must be done.
To that end, I sent a letter, again with my colleagues leading the Energy and Commerce Committee, to TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram urging them to take more proactive measures to protect their users from illicit substances. The sheer scale of the drug overdose crisis requires them to rise to the occasion.
Another threat to public safety enabled in part by social media is the ongoing crisis at the southern border. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 19 how smugglers post on apps offering cash for drivers. It quoted the top Border Patrol agent in the Tucson Sector saying, “About 90% of the…drivers that we are seeing, in post-arrest interviews, are admitting that they were recruited through social media.”
Many of us enjoy the benefits Big Tech companies provide and find that their products bring convenience or fun. But the dominating presence of these companies in our society and the great power they can exercise over individuals call for safeguards.
I urge Big Tech to step up its responsibility as it exercises great power. More focus on policing its platforms for criminal conduct and less focus on policing speech would be a good start.
If Big Tech doesn’t step up, Congress will!