At one time or another during the past year, lockdowns have been part of the measures to counter the spread of the coronavirus. These confinements and the subsequent changes of lifestyle have caused a sharp spike in the internet traffic worldwide. We are doing so much more online, from gaming, to shopping, ordering food and drink, seeking medical services and so on. When using the web, our first instinct is to type something into the search box. It would appear our freedom of choice is unchecked. However, recent insights into how companies like Google, Bing, Yahoo, Facebook and YouTube use algorithms to tailor results of our feeds has raised questions about how much freedom we really have.

By monitoring your searches, these internet giants get to know you and literally give you more of what you want. Facebook says it’s their way of tailoring relevant content to their users. On the other hand, critics say it’s a way of getting users addicted to their sites and cementing their lucrative role as gatekeepers to consumers’ wish lists. As such, most advertising goes to them. Regulators in major industrial countries such as France, Germany and the UK, are not happy. More so since some of these internet giants are not paying their fair share of taxes.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission plans to introduce the world’s first mandatory code to regulate social media giants. This code is to compel Facebook and Google to pay news publishers for their content. Facebook has already struck a deal that will see the mainstream media in Britain rake in millions, as the social media giant again prioritises the corporate press over independent media. Zuckerberg announced that the platform will launch its Facebook News service in the UK — the first country outside of the United States — after it signed deals with British MSM outlets including Sky News, the Financial Times, the Daily Mail and The Guardian and also a couple chosen local news sites.

The deal will see Facebook pay millions of pounds sterling to news publishers in the UK. This is in an apparent attempt to prop up the mainstream media, which has seen advertising revenues and circulation plunge in the face of aggressive independent digital platforms led by such names as Google. The pandemic and the accompanying economic downturn have only made things worse.

Local businesses advertising on digital media cannot always be assured of effective results. In countries like Chad, Gabon, Iran, Myanmar, Turkey and Uganda, authorities have completely shut down the internet or temporarily blocked social media platforms. If you had an ongoing ads campaign, under these restricted circumstances, the impressions will have dropped off completely.

Many netizens have resorted to using VPN to access the blocked IPs but in turn they get served ads from liberal countries like France, German and the UK. These countries in turn, will easily call out developing countries for banning social media even when prominent democracies like Australia are considering banning Google search from their country unless Google pays publishers for their news content. Can you imagine a world with no Google search, but the Aussie government says we can do without it!

But forced up against the wall, Google has accepted the new terms. Several countries are also now looking to make similar deals. Bearing in the mind the difficulties of taxing and regulating such companies as Google and Facebook, the basic question remains how powerful should national governments allow these companies to become? The popularity of social media in the midst of a pandemic makes them almost untouchable even as they pile up billions in profits.

How could Twitter permanently delete a sitting President’s account in its home country?
This year is poised for dramatic changes in terms of new regulations following the Australian deal. France recently reminded internet giants it is still determined to tax them more fully.
But perhaps of more importance, we the internet users, must pause and ask ourselves: do we really not mind what these giants are doing with our personal data?

About the Author: Rogers Niringiye

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