Juan Williams: Tech companies must be defanged by government

As the 2020 presidential campaign gets underway, please keep in mind that we are still fighting the last war — the use of outright lies to divide Americans by race, age and sex for political purposes in the 2016 and 2018 elections.

An honest 2020 election is not possible without Congress getting its hands dirty by confronting Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google, the tech corporations often referred to by the acronym ‘FAANG’.

The FAANG gang say they have no responsibility for the use of social media for hate-mongering and propaganda — despite the fact that this is now in the tool box of every American political strategist as well as Russians trying to disrupt our democracy.

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I would even go so far as to say that Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergTech finds surprise ally in Trump amid high-stakes tax fight FTC rules Cambridge Analytica engaged in 'deceptive practices' with Facebook data mining Hillicon Valley: Trump officials propose retaliatory tariffs over French digital tax | FBI classifies FaceApp as threat | Twitter revamps policies to comply with privacy laws | Zuckerberg defends political ads policy MORE is more responsible for the proliferation of conspiracy theories and hateful rhetoric than the Russians, their 2016 candidate Donald Trump or any of Trump’s acolytes in the conservative media echo chamber. 

The New York Times recently reported that Facebook’s senior leadership knew about the poison being spread on their site by the Russians and did close to zero to stop it.

But Facebook did find time to hire a high-priced D.C. public relations firm to launch a smear campaign against Facebook’s critics — specifically by linking criticism to financier George Soros, a man demonized by the far right.

The outrage does not stop there.

Just last week, it was reported that Facebook allowed other high-tech firms Spotify and Netflix to make use of private Facebook messages.

Once again, we have evidence of giant tech companies selling their customers’ private information without their knowledge or, in some cases, permission.

Only in March, 16 months after the presidential election, was it confirmed that the political strategy firm Cambridge Analytica used personal data from Facebook to create “psychographic” profiles of Facebook customers.

With that information, they launched a campaign to politically twist the minds of as many as 87 million people, more than 80 percent of them in the U.S., before the 2016 race.

Karl Racine, the District of Columbia’s attorney general, recently filed the first lawsuit against Facebook for allowing Cambridge Analytica to use personal data from its subscribers.

But Congress and the Federal Trade Commission remain deaf and silent to the abuse.

How can that be?

The Republicans in Congress apparently do not want to add weight to charges that the Russian assault on social media during the 2016 race helped elect their candidate, President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE.

And the Democrats apparently swallowed talking points from social media titans who say it is unfair to blame them for political lies and distortions, even if the target is their customers.

“It appears that Facebook has not been honest with Congress or the public about how it treats its users’ data,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) told The Washington Post earlier this month.

When Democrats take the House majority in January, Pallone will be chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees much of the tech industry.

“I’m concerned that Facebook may have provided [Congress] with inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading responses to our questions, and we’ll be following up,” Pallone added.

The FTC, under the control of a Trump majority of commissioners, remains silent.

The only action from the federal government against this attack on democracy came in the Senate.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: FTC rules Cambridge Analytica engaged in 'deceptive practices' | NATO researchers warn social media failing to remove fake accounts | Sanders calls for breaking up Comcast, Verizon Bipartisan senators call on FERC to protect against Huawei threats Hillicon Valley: House passes anti-robocall bill | Senators inch forward on privacy legislation | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Illinois families sue TikTok | Senators get classified briefing on ransomware MORE (D-Va.), ranking minority member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, introduced the Honest Ads Act in October 2017 along with Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharBiden: All-white debate not representative of party, but 'you can't dictate' nominee Delaney to DNC: Open second debate stage for candidates who qualified for past events There's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down MORE (D-Minn.) and the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMan acquitted over tweet offering 0 to killing an ICE agent Lessons of the Kamala Harris campaign Overnight Defense: Trump clashes with Macron at NATO summit | House impeachment report says Trump abused power | Top Dem scolds military leaders on Trump intervention in war crimes cases MORE (R-Ariz.). It would regulate online campaign ads on websites like Facebook and Google that are paid for by foreign entities.

But neither the House nor Senate voted on that small potato. House and Senate leaders from both parties have given no indication they will take up the limited legislation in the new Congress.

Wall Street money managers have taken notice of the scandal. Facebook’s stock price has dropped by more than 25 percent in the last year, a decline that is estimated to have cost Zuckerberg more than $15 billion.

Even with that depreciation, the financial power of the social media companies and their political donations continue to muzzle Congress.

“It’s a business, and providing dubious access to user data, engaging in and allowing shady political activity, and hiding errors until the last minute, it seems, is perceived as more lucrative than the alternative,” wrote Emily Stewart at Vox. 

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Meanwhile, the American public is increasingly aware that they are being abused.

A November poll taken by Survey Monkey for Axios and HBO found that 55 percent of respondents are concerned the government will not do enough to regulate big technology firms. The number represents a 15-point increase from when the question was asked one year ago.

On the flip side, the poll also found that 40 percent are concerned that the government will go too far in regulating the tech companies.

But if American democracy is to survive, these FAANG companies need to be brought to heel.

The free market has not been able to curb the industry’s abuses and excesses. That leaves government as the only viable route to stop these companies from destroying democracy for profit. 

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel. His latest book, "'What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?' — Trump's War on Civil Rights" is out now, published by Public Affairs Books.