Everyone seems to have a beef with Big Tech these days, with politicians and pundits from across the political spectrum blaming consumer technology’s largest companies for everything from income inequality and wage stagnation to #fakenews and President Donald Trump. Now we can add internet advocacy groups, long seen as allies with the Googles and Facebooks of the tech world, to the list.
These companies have often thrown their weight behind advocacy groups like Demand Progress, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, Free Press, and Public Knowledge, each of which promotes policies they believe advance internet freedom and openness. The internet giants give the activists in these campaigns a massive signal boost and help propel obscure policy battles into the mainstream. The advocacy groups, meanwhile, help give the tech industry’s positions some grassroots credibility, and on some issues, like net neutrality and internet censorship, the alliance is still strong. Last summer, a veritable who’s who of internet companies joined activists and non-profits in protesting the Federal Communications Commission’s apparent plans to roll-back its net neutrality rules in a “Day of Action.” This echoed previous group efforts such as the 2012 protests against an expansive SOPA/PIPA intellectual property bill that critics worried would enable internet censorship. Thanks in part to the group effort, that bill failed.
But a rift is growing between the tech industry and civil society, and “it will probably only continue to get more pronounced,” says Craig Aaron of Free Press. “Companies like Google and Facebook have amassed so much power over what we watch see and read every day. If you’re a true public interest group that worries about media power like we do, you have to have an eye on these guys.”
One major flash point: privacy. Google, Facebook, and the tech coalition called the Internet Association (which includes Amazon, Microsoft, and many other companies) joined the telecommunications industry in sending a letter to the California legislature opposing an internet privacy bill. The bill, which died without a vote last week, would have banned carriers like Comcast and Verizon from selling your web browsing history without your permission. The letter argued that the rules were too vague, would desensitize users to privacy warnings, and deprive carriers of information they use to prevent cybersecurity attacks.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has received funding from both Google and Facebook, blasted the letter and called its major claims lies–pointing out, for example, that the bill explicitly says carriers could keep using user data for security purposes.
In a similar showdown last March, the Information Technology Industry Council–a trade group that represents companies including Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft–publicly called on Congress to pass a resolution to jettison the FCC’s internet privacy rules. It’s not clear why the industry opposed privacy rules not aimed directly at it, but it’s possible the companies either hoped to use carrier data to target ads, or were simply concerned that the rules would lead to regulations that would target them later. Whatever the reason, and over the protests of just about every internet advocacy group, the resolution was passed by Congress in March and signed by President Donald Trump in April.
Then there are antitrust issues, many of which got their start in governmental oversight. The European Union has already issued Google a $2.7 billion fine over its shopping search practices, and may issue more fines over its handling of Android or other issues. Meanwhile, former top Trump advisor Steve Bannon reportedly said that he led an effort inside the White House to treat tech companies like utilities while Congressional Democrats’ “Better Deal” proposal would crack down on mega-mergers.
Now the advocacy groups are joining the fray. Public Knowledge, for one, applauded the EU for investigating potential anti-competitive practices from Google and welcomed the “Better Deal” plan, despite listing Google as a platinum-level funder and receiving funds from Facebook as well.
Antitrust and privacy are perhaps the most contentious issues between advocacy groups and Big Tech, but there are other sources of tension. Earlier this month, Demand Progress launched a petition calling for Facebook to release the ads its sold to a Kremlin-linked propaganda group. Last year, the same organization joined Free Press, Fight for the Future, and dozens of other groups in asking Facebook to be more transparent about its content removal policies.
Politics, content, civil discourse: there is no issue that Big Tech doesn’t touch today. “As these companies grow past a certain threshold,” says Fight for the Future co-founder Holmes Wilson, “they become less antagonistic to existing power and more an extension to that power.”
The rift between Google and internet groups could ultimately mean more than just a war of words. Last month New America, a think tank funded in part by Google, fired antirust scholar and frequent Google critic Barry Lynn. Although New America denied that the search giant pressured the organization into letting Lynn go, the incident drew attention to the influence Google could wield over non-profits and academia. But the groups we spoke with say they’re not worried about losing funding over their criticism of big tech. For example, Aaron says Free Press takes no corporate donations. Public Knowledge, meanwhile, has a long history of criticizing some of its biggest funders, including AT&T. “We might not agree on all issues but we get support from companies because of the way we do our work,” says Public Knowledge vice president Chris Lewis.
The groups also emphasized that they hope to keep working with big tech companies on issues when they have common ground. “When they’re on the right side of a policy issue, we welcome their activity and support,” says Aaron.
But if this year is any indication, those issues may become fewer and further between.