Big Tech Platforms: With great power and responsibility should also come greater accountability

Big Tech Platforms: With great power and responsibility should also come greater accountability

By Cesar Manso Sayao, 20th July 2023

Artwork by Kruthika N.S.

This blog post is the first in a two-part series on platform accountability. In this instalment, we would like to share some initial reflections around this topic and invite you to join our thematic Strategic Litigation Retreat, to be held in Athens, Greece, from 11 to 14 September. More information on the retreat and  how to apply below.

As Big Tech platforms now mediate most of our digital interactions in an increasingly digitised world, it has gradually become almost impossible to function without them, or to even imagine an viable alternative to them and the ideological hegemony driving them. If we were to juxtapose two influential theses outlined by authors Shoshana Zuboff and Mark Fisher, this could be described as something akin to surveillance capitalist realism.

One of the reasons these business models and platforms have become so ubiquitous has to do with the fact that, while their technolibertarian proponents and venture capitalist profiteers were busy moving fast and breaking things driven by a Silicon Valley Gold Rush, the reckoning process for society at large as to the potential dangers and the actual harms they entail has been gradual and much slower.

No matter how trite the age-old adage may sound, with great power does indeed come great responsibility, and as Big Tech platforms have amassed ever-growing concentrated power, they have also proved to be unequivocally responsible for both online and offline harms, which not only disproportionately affect marginalised communities, but have also severely damaged our human rights edifice and civic space in the process.

This includes Facebook’s specific role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, fueling hate speech and ethnic violence in India, Myanmar and Ethiopia, as well as allowing a generalised distortion of global politics through fake engagement; specific harms to democracy and electoral processes via Whatsapp in India and Brazil, among others ; YouTube’s recommender system functioning as a “radicalisation engine” and unlawfully targeting children with addictive programming and harvesting their data for advertisers. the censorship of Palestinian political speech across all major social media platforms; TikTok’s advancement of Chinese foreign policy aims and invisbilisation of content by persons with disabilities; increased levels of anxiety and depression, especially amongst teenage girls, caused by Instagram; recent spikes in hate speech and trolling on Twitter; widespread climate change and COVID vaccine disinformation; biased Google search results affecting hiring decisions;  Amazon’s use of discriminatory AI recruiting tools; dangerous, intrusive, opaque, precarious and exploitative working conditions in the so-called “gig economy” faced by drivers, riders, sex workers, cloud workers and content creators; recurring instances of toxic and racist AI chatbots such as Microsoft’s Tay, Meta’s BlenderBot3, and most recently, Open AI’s much hyped ChatGPT, not to mention the traumatic and underpaid outsourced work used to train them; and a long list of etceteras. 

However, when it comes to these platforms, great power and responsibility have not yet translated into meaningful accountability, and we believe that one of the ways in which platforms can be held accountable for the power they wield and the harms they are responsible for is through better informed and more robust strategic litigation.

Despite a variety of efforts by civil society organisations, consumer groups and affected communities already seeking to leverage the power of the courts to that end, there is still much more to be done before we see a paradigm shift towards significant platform accountability and a healthier tech ecosystem.

Nevertheless, recent developments might be hinting at that potential shift. Take for example the case of Meta, which has recently settled the Cambridge Analytica scandal case for USD 725 million and was handed a record-breaking EUR 1.2 billion fine on over its transfers of personal data between Europe and the United States. To be sure, these amounts do not represent a major blow to Meta’s finances, let alone its business model. However, a decision from the Court of Justice of the European Union issued a few weeks ago might well be.

In this ruling, the Court determined not only that competition authorities can factor in data protection infringements when assessing abuses of dominant market positions, but also that the tracking-and-profiling-driven personalised advertisements through which Meta finances its activity must necessarily rely on data subjects’ consent.

It remains to be seen if this might close the chapter on surveillance capitalism altogether, but coupled with a recent order from the Norwegian data protection authority banning behavioural ads on Facebook and Instagram unless they obtain consent from users, it might be a glimpse of greater accountability on the horizon.

With all of this in mind, platform accountability is one of our main lines of work at DFF, as well as one of the two thematic focus areas of our upcoming Strategic Litigation Retreat.

Join our Strategic Litigation Retreat in Athens!

Back in July and October 2018, alongside the SHARE Foundation, we co-hosted the first two editions of our Strategic Litigation Retreats in Montenegro and Serbia. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we were forced to remodel these retreats to an online version and held two Virtual Litigation Retreats in November 2020 and April 2021.

This year, we are extremely pleased to announce that we will be returning to the in-person format, and in partnership with Homo Digitalis, we will be co-hosting another edition of our Strategic Litigation Retreat in Athens, Greece, from 11 to 14 September.

These retreats combine training and workshopping sessions to develop participants’ legal skills and tactics, encouraging them to think critically about how litigation can be more impactful if embedded in a wider strategy or movement, as also laid out in our Strategic Litigation Toolkit.

With the return to the in-person format, we aim to create a co-learning opportunity in a relaxed environment where participants can hopefully disconnect from other work pressures and external realities, do deeper work, and thoroughly think through aspects of their cases by collaboratively discussing them with the other participants at the retreat.

Ideally, by the end of the programme, participants will have the foundations of a litigation plan that they can take forward, and we hope to be able to fund some of the cases developed during the retreat as well.

For this edition, the main thing we ask for is that all participants come to the retreat with a digital rights case study – whether existing or hypothetical – which falls under one (or both) of two main thematic focus areas: as outlined above, one of them is platform accountability, and the other is collective redress.

With the EU Representative Actions Directive recently entering into force, we believe that collective redress will be a crucial legal avenue to harness collective power before the courts to unlock meaningful digital rights enforcement. During the remaining of this year and throughout the next, this will be another of the main focus areas of our work and future events, so watch this space if this topic interests you.

To apply for our Strategic Litigation Retreat, please fill out the application form here. The deadline for applications is 31 July. In the meantime, feel free to also share this information with your network, and if you have any questions or comments regarding the event, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

We hope to see you in Athens!

The Strategic Litigation Retreat will take place thanks to the generous support of Luminate Strategic Initiatives. You can learn more about their work here.