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Why the backlash against Silicon Valley?

7:00pm, Thursday 28 June 2018, Calthorpe Arms, 252 Grays Inn Road, Holborn, London, WC1X 8JR

What a difference a few years make. Not long ago, Silicon Valley, and internet-related companies in particular, were seen as facilitating not just technological innovation, but political liberation, too. Back in 2008, many hailed a brilliant social media campaign led by Barack Obama for helping to bring America its first black president. Nowadays, in contrast, the political use of the internet is more often associated with crass outbursts by Donald Trump.

But the shift cannot be reduced to the shift between two contrasting presidents. Think, for example, how the use of social media was hailed for its role in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011. One left-wing writer was typical of many when he described the upsurge in Egypt as ‘a revolution planned on Facebook, organised on Twitter and broadcast to the world via YouTube’.

The backlash against Silicon Valley is taking many forms. For example, many have argued that the monopoly power of Silicon Valley enables it to distort fair competition and undermine democracy. The European Commission has fined Google €2.4bn (£2.1bn) for anti-competitive practices. And in Germany, a new Net Enforcement Law (NetzDG) means that fines of up to €50m can be imposed on platforms that fail to remove ‘hate speech’ promptly. Meanwhile in Britain, the allegedly damaging impact of social media on children has been one of many lines of attack by critics.

Questions to consider

1) To what extent has opinion towards Silicon Valley shifted over the past couple of years or so? Is it fair to talk of a ‘techlash’?

2) What are the main factors driving this shift?

3) What factors underlie the popularity of social media among the public?

4) How do challenges in relation to free speech online differ from those off-line?

5) How would you assess the case for more stringent regulation of key Silicon Valley companies - for example, Amazon, Facebook and Google - on the grounds that they are monopolies? For example, that there are ‘network effects’ which means it is difficult to compete with established leaders in the field.

6) How convincing are recent attempts to understand the impact of digital technologies on society? For example, the ‘attention economy’ (James Williams) or ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Shoshana Zuboff)?

Listen to the opening remarks


Daniel Ben-Ami
journalist; author, Ferraris for All: in defence of economic progress and Cowardly Capitalism


The backlash against big tech is in danger of going too far
Jamie Bartlett, Spectator, 6 November 2017
(Also the theme of his two-part BBC documentary)

The Know It Alls
Daniel Ben-Ami
Unedited version of a review of Noam Cohen’s The Know It Alls that originally appeared in the Financial Times, 5 December 2017

Do social media threaten democracy?
The Economist, 4 November 2017

Matt Stoller on modern monopolies
Econtalk podcast, 25 December 2017
(Includes links to further articles in turn)

Hard Questions: Social media and democracy
Katie Harbath, Facebook Newsroom, 22 January 2018

Is Germany’s bold new law a way to clean up the internet or is it stifling free expression?
Christian Science Monitor, 8 April 2018

Extracts from Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy
James Williams, The Nine Dots Prize, 30 May 2017

The secrets of surveillance capitalism,
Shoshana Zuboff, Frankfurter Allgemeine, 3 March 2016

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