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Imagine if Google or Facebook took a line on the EU referendum

Imagine if on June 23 this year British citizens looking at found the words #VoteIn towards the bottom of the search page. Perhaps they would ignore it and go about their business, or perhaps it would remind them that they had not yet voted and ought to before it was too late. Whatever their views on the EU referendum, such an expression of partisanship may surprise them.

Why? Because most of us still think of Google – and the services of other tech giants such as Facebook or Twitter – as a neutral platform, driven by algorithms and serving only as an unopinionated conduit between users and the information they seek. But tech giants are not neutral, nor are they simply conduits. In fact my new study suggests they are increasingly taking on civic roles, raising questions about their societal responsibilities – responsibilities beyond those to their customers or shareholders.

Billions of people worldwide use Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or Apple’s services: as a newswire, to join or start campaigns, co-ordinate collective action, or show solidarity. Civil rights campaigners upload videos of human rights abuse to YouTube, voters alert their social network to the fact that they have voted, survivors let followers know they are alive after an attack or natural disaster.

These organisations have empowered people through the tools they provide. Sociologist Manuel Castells has written that the “expansion of mass self-communication” they and others have enabled has “supported an unexpected, extraordinary broadening of the ability of individual and social actors to challenge the power of the state”. Simultaneously, these same organisations gain power as more of us use their services: the power to amplify or obscure campaigns, to filter the news that finds its way into your newsfeed, to activate safety or privacy services or not activate them.

For example, Facebook turned on its Safety Check after the recent attacks in Brussels and Lahore, and the Paris attacks in November last year. But it chose not to enable the feature, which allows people to find out quickly if loved ones are safe, following the bombings in Beirut earlier the same month (Facebook subsequently changed its policy). This, as techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has said, “demonstrates the profoundly political nature of the choices made by major internet platforms”.

The power of these organisations to control these services, who uses them, and how they are used, would be less of an issue for civic society were they not so big. Apple, Google and Microsoft were three of the four most valuable companies at the end of 2015. In the same year Facebook had almost as many active users as there are Muslims worldwide (around 1.5 billion). More than nine in ten smartphones sold globally in 2015 used either the Android (Google) or iOS (Apple) operating system.

Their size and dominance, when combined with the benefits of the network effect (where the value of a service increases the more people use it), suppress effective digital competition and undermine the corrective ability of the market. The level of infrastructure investment required to compete is already out of reach of all but the largest corporations or governments. For example, to run its services Facebook has built four data centres in the US and a fifth in Lulea, Sweden, at a cost of more than US$300m each.

We need a democratic response towards the growing role tech is playing in civic society. Backbone Campaign, CC BY

The scale and reach of the tech giants and the growing civic roles they play make it inevitable that governments – democratic and otherwise – will respond. Some already have. In April last year the European Commission launched an antitrust action against Google, claiming it had abused its dominant position in the search market to ‘systematically favour its own comparison shopping product in its general search results pages’.

Yet most of these responses are destined to fail. This is for three reasons: democratic governments have not yet adequately defined the problem with these tech giants that they are trying to solve. They are using legislation and policy approaches unsuited to dealing with these tech organisations and their products. And they do not have a vision of where they would like a future digital society to end up.

It’s urgent we figure out what sort of digital societies we want to live in, and what role the tech giants ought to play. As each week goes by the services provided by these organisations evolve and grow, and become more and more integral to the lives of billions of us. From August 2014 to September 2015 Facebook’s WhatsApp added more users worldwide than the populations of Germany, France, Italy and the UK combined (adding about 300m users). At the same time the tech corporations expand the civic services they offer, from Facebook Instant Articles and Twitter Alerts to Apple News and YouTube’s Human Rights Channel.

The idea of Google encouraging British citizens to vote in or out of Europe in the referendum may seem unlikely, but it is certainly not fanciful, nor would it be unprecedented. On May 22 last year, the day of the Irish referendum on gay marriage, towards the bottom of the home page of were the words “VoteYes”.

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