Editor’s Note: Evan Greer is an activist, writer and musician based in Boston. She’s the director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights nonprofit known for organizing protests opposing Internet censorship and supporting net neutrality and online privacy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
It’s official: Elon Musk could soon become the king of Twitter. After agreeing to purchase his new crown for some $44 billion, Musk has promised big changes. In truth, no one really knows what Musk will do with Twitter if his bid succeeds. He could make it better. He could make it worse. Either way, despite a shareholder lawsuit that aims to delay the deal, the ease in which the richest man in the world can purchase a platform used by hundreds of millions of people should be a wake-up call.
Musk is right that free speech is in danger – but it’s not, as he claims, because of content moderation. It’s because of corporate monopolies. A tiny handful of corporations, controlled by an even smaller group of wealthy and powerful elites, have a stranglehold over the tools and platforms that the world depends on to communicate and spread their message.
Many who disagree with Musk’s stated vision for Twitter say they will leave the platform. But where will they go? To a different Big Tech kingdom where our posts reach our friends, family, and followers at the pleasure of Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook or Google’s Sundar Pichai, whose company owns YouTube?
Ideally, people could flock to decentralized, open source alternatives like Mastodon and Matrix. But Silicon Valley giants have gone out of their way to make it difficult to switch platforms. They’ve made it almost impossible for these other projects to attract enough users to provide a meaningful alternative for people using social media for activism, professional reasons, or to keep in touch with friends and family.
To fix social media and safeguard freedom of expression for the future, we need lawmakers to act. Not billionaires.
True online free speech – where we have real choice in both what to say and where to say it – will never be possible unless the regulatory ground shifts to allow alternative platforms to achieve network effect. That’s why the best response to Musk’s takeover of Twitter is for lawmakers to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA, S. 2992) and the Open App Markets Act (OAMA, S. 2710), two antitrust bills that will rein in tech monopolies and put us on a path toward a world where people can have real options when it comes to social media.
Make no mistake: Monopoly power is directly antithetical to the promise of a free and open internet. Over the past two decades, online spaces have fallen victim to mass privatization and centralization. Big Tech companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google have effectively cornered the markets for everything from e-commerce to search engines. These giants regularly buy startups rather than competing with them. Or they’ll simply copy a competing service, and then prioritize it on their existing massive platform, squeezing out smaller competitors.
While elites like Musk have often portrayed basic content moderation practices as inherently in conflict with free speech, less privileged Internet users know that having tools to address targeted harassment and hateful content are actually essential for creating online communities where people are safe enough to speak freely. Content moderation is not one size fits all. And there are always trade-offs. We need platforms to experiment with different tools that give users more control over their online experience. When users have fewer or no alternatives to a particular service, corporations lose any incentive to make their services better. Instead, tech monopolies use their power to further entrench their dominance by capitalizing off of users’ personal data and ignoring privacy rights.
Unfortunately, social media is no exception to this. The once wide-open market for digital networking channels has become dominated by a small handful of corporate giants. Without the threat of real competition, dominant social media platforms have been able to operate with near impunity. The result? A social media ecosystem built on surveillance-driven advertising and recommendation algorithms, where racial justice activists, LGBTQ+ content creators, and other marginalized groups are often disproportionately targeted by censorship rules on social media platforms.
Some opponents of antitrust paint the fight to rein in Big Tech as an abstract issue unimportant to real people. But in reality, robust antitrust policies would tangibly improve our online experience – especially for the marginalized communities most harmed by tech monopolies. At a time when civil rights protections are being rolled back across the country, building viable platforms for marginalized people to organize in their communities is more important than ever. But as long as Big Tech’s gatekeeper status goes unchallenged, these much-needed alternative platforms are unlikely to become viable.
Thankfully, we have an opportunity to start building a digital economy where users have real choice. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer needs to act like a majority leader and move the Senate to vote on a motion to proceed with OAMA and AICOA. Then Congress should pass them. In short, OAMA will loosen Apple and Google’s duopolistic grip on app markets, which unfairly disadvantages small developers by requiring them to pay rent in order to have their app usable on most people’s phones. OAMA would force Apple to allow alternative app stores, enabling developers to escape their notorious 30% commission on everything that happens within their restrictive App Store, and it would require Apple and Google to allow people to choose what software to run on devices that they own.
AICOA is a broader piece of legislation that would prevent the biggest tech monopolies from prioritizing their own products at the expense of alternatives. For example, it would crack down on giants like Amazon, which use their massive data harvesting operation to make cheaper versions of popular products and then preference them in search results.
Preventing tech giants from leveraging non-public data to give their own products an advantage is crucial to giving small alternative platforms a fighting chance. Stronger antitrust laws are an overdue intervention and would allow alternative platforms and business models a chance to flourish.
These two bills won’t fix everything that’s wrong with Big Tech. We also urgently need data privacy protections, regulation targeting algorithmic discrimination and harm, transparency measures, and more. But after years of inaction from Congress passing these bills would be a historic step toward cracking down on these companies’ monopoly abuses. That course correction will at least lay the groundwork for a future where people actually have options and can find a social media platform with content moderation and privacy practices that fit their needs. In other words, it’ll help build an Internet where we can throw up our hands and say “I’m leaving Twitter!” and actually have somewhere to go.