Scrutiny of big tech only going to increase

President Trump supporters climb at the West Front of the US Capitol in Washington

SOCIAL media companies have been in the spotlight almost as much as Donald Trump as a result of last week's siege of Capitol Hill in Washington DC by pro-Trump rioters.

Given that social media was seen to have been used to incite the trouble, the big players in the industry were very much under scrutiny regarding their response.

Facebook for its part blocked President Donald Trump "indefinitely," according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. He said the company believes "the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great." He said Facebook would extend a block on Trump's account "for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete."

Twitch, the popular gaming platform owned by Amazon, also placed an indefinite ban on Trump's channel, which he had used previously to broadcasts rallies.

Twitter on the other hand allowed Trump to tweet again after being locked out of his account for 12 hours. Twitter did though say it would ban him "permanently" if he breached the platform's rules again.

With regard to YouTube, Google's employee union wrote an open letter to YouTube executives accusing the platform of fostering fascism and failing to act in the wake of the siege on the US Capitol.

Some critics have described the response by Facebook and Twitter as a sticking paster on a bullet wound. But it's unclear how the big social media companies can move forward from the historic unrest and the disinformation that led to it.

Viral disinformation is a major challenge for lawmakers, big tech companies and society as a whole. (Indeed, disinformation around the pandemic and the vaccines that have been developed is another major concern.)

The change of President will be seen as something of a landmark in efforts to tackle disinformation given that Trump is seen as such a symbol of disinformation. What is also clear is that the US Presidential election winner Joe Biden will have social media companies and the regulatory environment in which they operate in his sights.

The Democrats will now also control the Senate after winning both run-off elections in Georgia, giving Biden even more power.

One of the President elect's main priorities will likely be passing a data privacy law. Two have already been introduced. Such a law would impact advertisers, agencies, adtech companies, and tech platforms' longstanding practice of using people's data to create and target ads.

Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris, when she was California's Attorney General, helped pass laws that restricted apps and browsers from tracking users and established a statewide privacy protection and enforcement unit.

President-elect Biden also is expected to work closely with Democratic senators like Ed Markey, Richard Blumenthal, and Elizabeth Warren who have sharply criticised social media companies and the tech and ad industries.

Some people expect the Biden administration to introduce a "privacy czar" or a new privacy agency similar to the one the Vice President Elect established in California.

Scrutiny of the tech giants and how their platforms are being used has clearly already been underway. With the new President and his VP coming into office and the recent events on Capitol Hill, the scrutiny is only ongoing going to intensify.

:: Patrick McAliskey is strategic adviser at Cancom, a multi-national IT company headquartered in Munich, with 4,000 employees worldwide and 350 based in Belfast.

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