In 1931 famed mobster Al Capone was convicted on five different charges and sentenced to 11 years in the high-security prison on Alcatraz. For many years, anyone with eyes in their head could see that Capone was involved in acts of murder, theft, running illegal gambling rings, sex trafficking, extortion, and bootlegging, but the charges he was eventually convicted of had to do with tax evasion. The discrepancy between the apparent reality and its legal or administrative expression raised significant questions regarding law enforcement’s ability to take action and the laws that limit the authorities’ ability to follow common sense and force them to adhere to strict rules in an effort to protect the public from the arbitrariness of the government, but in practice allow for continuous and overt public harm.
Ninety years later and the year 2021 is opening with a challenge to the superpowers that rule the global social order. I’m not talking about the U.S., China, or Russia, but rather on the truly powerful players in the global power struggle - public corporations (whose shares are traded in the capital markets which is the only reason they are misleadingly named “public” even though they are actually controlled by a primary shareholder or a group of people with identical interests), who in fact wield more power than politicians or state authorities. For years, we have known that if Facebook was a country, it would be the most populated country in the world, that the market cap of corporations like Amazon, Google, or Apple places them among the top 10 world powers in terms of GDP, and that in general, the internet breached national borders and enabled the corporations to accumulate financial clout that supersedes the military clout possessed by governments.
The internet fostered the illusion of unmanaged chaos that enables free market forces to operate undisturbed. In truth, it has always been an environment subject to the strict monitoring of governments. While the internet provided a platform for anyone who chose to use it, and many fringe groups were given the opportunity to express themselves in an uncensored manner, it always had gatekeepers that oversaw and regulated activities: authorities forced private and public companies to hand over information on unusual activities, access to the internet is only possible through franchisees who are subject to governments’ authority, and various authorities like the one that licenses domain names that operate as central agencies that provide a measure of order in the chaos.
And then, just recently 30 years after the internet became a household commodity, something happened that caused some of the most powerful institutions in the world — Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Snap, and others — to suddenly, and allegedly independently, explicitly shake off the elected president of the United States, who without trial and without the need for evidence, was accused by them of inciting violence and violating the terms of service of their products, blocking his ability to publicly express himself.
Calls of alarm and of joy were heard from both sides of the aisle: Republicans who had fought an unflinching battle to enable corporations to operate in an unbridled free market, suddenly expressed concern over their ability to arbitrarily hamper free speech, while self-righteous Democrats who have long been vocal about curbing, monitoring, and sanctioning giant corporations, were the first to praise the same companies that they seek to divest of their assets. As usual, a generous measure of hypocrisy and interests hide behind such calls. There is no doubt that Donald Trump is a legal elected official (at least for a few more days). On the other hand, so are Facebook, Twitter, and Snap. The public chose them as the filters through which they learn of worldwide events, subject to the terms and conditions that these same organizations (which I insist on calling “private” since they are under the control of a small group of shareholders, even if they are traded on the stock market) determined as the rules of conduct on tier platforms. In effect, these tools of censorship, silencing and blocking, are methods they have often used in the past, based on their own judgment and subject to public criticism and the watchful eyes of the media that monitors their actions. However, never up to now has there been a case of such widescale and substantial action taken against a public official, never mind the person considered to be the world’s strongest man.
It appears that title at least can be stripped from Donald Trump. The presidency may provide him the authority to legislate, issue sanctions, engage in war, and the like, but it doesn’t grant him the right to force Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to let him speak his mind. So who is actually the stronger man?
Let’s make no bones about it. Trump used the public platform that was given him by those companies to incite, lie, urge harm on minority groups, and pollute the public discourse. He did it openly, knowingly, and brutally, and in light of the mass support he received, did not even have to hide or be subtle about his actions and intentions. It is as clear as day, or even more so, as clear as it was that Al Capone was responsible for acts of murder, theft, gambling, and sex trafficking. For many years the tech corporations avoided taking a tough stance against the terrible uses their products enabled, even though they knew as well as any of us that it had devastating ramifications: encouraging mass acts of violence, harming the reputation of innocents, and sowing hatred and extremism that endangered democracy. The heads of those companies, and particularly Twitter’s Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, rolled their eyes, claiming they were neither judges or executioners and chose not to interfere, all while their platforms’ engagement, earnings, and market caps rose to the skies while ignoring the grievous harm that they caused. The about-turn they took in recent weeks, allegedly because of the riots in Washington DC during the congressional meeting to confirm the election results, may indicate an awakening and repentance on their part.
The dramatic pivot that saw president Trump dumped by social media platforms, along with various other actions like the boycott of alternative social media Parler, cannot be explained simply as a reaction to Trump’s actions, but rather as a reaction to legislative processes that pose a genuine threat to the corporations’ ability to act freely in order to increase their activity and the value of their shares. In light of the rising calls for strict regulation and dismantling of corporations, the latter suddenly recalled that it was within their power to employ judgment and enforce the terms of service that they themselves published, and not fall into the trap that regulators set up 90 years ago in order to fight the mob, but instead to take simple and obvious steps to prevent ruthless individuals from abusing freedom in order to sabotage democratic institutions. True, it’s scary to think that a CEO or a board of directors made up of Silicon Valley tycoons will be the ones to define what’s legal and what isn’t, what’s moral or not, or what constitutes violent or inciteful speech. But for me, it’s even scarier that a sitting president can ask his supporters to prevent Congress from accepting the results of elections that he wrongly claims was won by fraud, lead to the death of multiple people, the injury of many more, and the rest of the horrendous results of his supporters’ riots on Capitol Hill earlier this month, and continue enjoying the presumption of innocence just like Al Capone did back in 1920s Chicago because there was no eligible proof of his wrongdoing. Law enforcement systems in democratic countries do not have full freedom of action but are instead subject to regulations that aim to protect citizens from random abuse of power. It is a vital principle that ought to be maintained, but an eye needs to be kept open to ensure that cynical factions don’t abuse the limitations to harm others. In the case of Al Capone, tax evasion was used to bring him down. In Trump’s case, American legislators flexed their muscles in order to indicate to the tech giants that they had the power to dismantle them and limit their steps unless they start employing common sense and recognize the responsibilities placed on them by virtue of their enormous power.
President Trump will soon, barring any last-minute surprises, be sent to his own Alcatraz-like exile. The fascinating power struggle between the states and business corporations will go on and will continue to be ruled by forces for whom the public good is not necessarily their guiding star.
Shaul Olmert is a serial entrepreneur and the co-founder and CEO of mobile app developer Piggy. He formerly founded interactive content company Playbuzz Ltd.