October 10th, 2022 | 12:45 CEST
Opinion dictatorship of big tech like PayPal: The government must do its homework
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For years, tech companies have been criticized for their growing influence. Both the US government and the EU are keeping an eye on the companies and have already initiated antitrust proceedings in the past. But is that enough? Can't state institutions react and intervene wherever the claim to power of "big tech" obviously oversteps the mark? Facebook, Alphabet and Microsoft have long been involved in research, acting as conference partners and awarding millions in funding. Researchers have to actively apply and ultimately the respective tech company, such as Meta, decides who gets funded. That this procedure indirectly tempts researchers to align their research goals at least somewhat with the interests of Big Tech is obvious: "What goes around comes around."
Big Tech silences even scientists
While a little creativity in applying for funding is commonplace in the scientific community, and the agenda of Meta, Alphabet and Co. reads innocuously on the surface ("transparency" or "fairness" or "privacy"), the lines between well-intentioned funding and concrete influence are more blurred than one might think. Even before PayPal threatened users who "spread misinformation" with a USD 2,500 fine, which the corporation has since retracted, users with disagreeable opinions were removed from the Venmo platform, which belongs to PayPal. Among them is evolutionary biologist Colin Wright, who critically follows and scientifically comments on the activities of the LGBTQIA+ community. In a video on YouTube Wright sums up the case under the title, "PayPal blocked me for statements about basic biology".
While classical media pursue the claim to present debates and factual issues objectively and it belongs to the journalistic basics to let all parties involved in an issue have their say, companies like PayPal and other Big Tech companies can deprive unpopular opinions of public access with just a few measures. Such opinions are sometimes under pressure anyway: evolutionary biologist Wright reports private messages full of agreement from scientific colleagues, but who would be afraid to publicly like or comment on tweets or other social media posts. Public discourse that can contribute to the objective formation of opinion hardly takes place anymore and is further hampered by the activities of Big Tech. Individual users even report account blockings simply because usage guidelines were violated in the course of private mail traffic.
Digital currency as an instrument of power: Central banks consider CBDC
As if the influence of Meta, PayPal or Alphabet on the web were not already great enough, companies from the industry are constantly pushing new business models. Amazon, for example, has long been considered a serious player in the field of autonomous driving, and Meta even wants to come up with its own digital currency. Such plans had already been launched when the Company was still operating under the name "Facebook". The more extensive the activities of big tech, the more dangerous it becomes when companies intervene in the formation of public opinion - there is another drastic difference between a blocked account on social media and exclusion from payment transactions.
This is probably also why state actors are increasingly taking aim at digital currencies and planning their own projects. So-called central bank digital currencies (CBDC for short) are under discussion in various currency areas. This is a digital currency that is issued by traditional central banks and has the same exchange properties as "normal" money. This means that it is also fungible with cash and fiat money. The currency area that launches its digital central bank currency first is likely to have advantages in the race for supremacy as the world's reserve currency. At the same time, states are unlikely to want to hand over their monopoly on money to private companies, which have already been dragging their feet for some time.
States must strengthen pluralism of opinion
But a CBDC that is knitted too closely with a hot needle also harbors risks. Citizens are already increasingly uncomfortable with centralized projects that lack transparency and potentially undermine the privacy of their users. To remain credible, lawmakers must protect opinions and public discourse and prevent parallel legal spaces. There should be no difference between the policies of a tech company and the parallel legislation of religious communities and other groups. Only when the state categorically protects individual freedom and prevents any qualified weighing of opinions does it retain its legitimacy to implement large-scale projects, such as a CBDC.
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