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Silicon Valley Congressman bats for tax on digital firms to support local journalism

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Big tech companies must have better-designed deliberative platforms, individuals must own their data under an internet bill of rights, social media companies must be held accountable for content inciting violence while allowing all political viewpoints, and they must not enjoy blanket immunity under the guise of being intermediaries, Ro Khanna, the Indian-American Congressman who represents California’s 17th district that is home to Silicon Valley, has said.

In an interview, Khanna also advocated a tax on digital companies that goes into an independent fund to support journalism and said there should be compensation for use of content on links on social media if that content is coming from journalism or newspapers.

Khanna, who has recently authored a book, Dignity in the Digital Age: Making Tech Work For All, added that January 6, the rise of QAnon and misinformation about public health have woken up tech companies, the blinders are off in Silicon Valley, and there is “almost” a desire for regulation but they are waiting for the US Congress to take the hard calls. In the Congress, there is “inertia” and other urgent issues have taken precedence, but Khanna said he expected movement on regulation in the next year.

The Congressman also acknowledged the success of Indian-Americans who now lead some of top tech companies in the valley and the role of the wider community in his political rise. “I am very proud of Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai and Parag (Agrawal) at Twitter. I think they have this quiet leadership. They are not showmen. They are extraordinarily competent at what they do. They are reflective. They are listeners. And they succeeded by sheer hard work and by their temperaments. And I am the beneficiary of that because the Indian-American community is so respected in the valley.”

Khanna, 45, added that when he ran for the Congress, no Indian-American of Hindu origin had been elected to the US Congress. “And I had a lot of people in the Indian-American community who said, you know, if this is going to happen, it should happen from Silicon Valley. And a lot of people took a chance on me, people at some of the highest levels in technology and in the business world.. I wouldn’t be in Congress if it hadn’t been for their mentorship and support.”

While praising Silicon Valley for innovation in information and communication, medicine, climate technologies, and synthetic biology, Khanna said there were two issues. “One, it needs to be more democratised. There are parts in the country that have been left out from modern prosperity. And two, there have to be rules on privacy, and a better design on deliberative forums on the digital public sphere to improve democracy.”

Battling for an internet bill of rights to deal with these concerns, Khanna said that its premise was that individuals owned their data. “An individual has the inalienable right to their data, and nothing should happen to their data without them knowing about it and consenting to it. And if we pass this, it will also help diminish the rise of hate and misinformation online.”

When asked what governments should do to crack down on hate speech and misinformation while protecting free speech, Khanna said that incitement to violence, misinformation about public health and products harming teenagers must not be allowed and there can be “smart regulation” on them. But he said that diverse political viewpoints must be allowed. “Social media should not say we are going to censor Republican views or Democratic views, or Congress party views or BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) views.”

To a question on whether he agreed with tech companies that they were merely intermediaries and therefore not liable for what was posted on their platforms, or believed they must be held accountable, Khanna said, “They have a responsibility to remove, for example, violent content that is inciting action. But you can’t hold them accountable for all the millions of posts, for everything on there. That would too big a burden…But they should be held accountable if a court finds that content is egregious in inciting violence, in violating public health and orders that down. That should be a carve out to the section 230 blanket immunity that they currently enjoy.” Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act provides immunity to platforms with respect to third party content.

But how do you create a mechanism where they are held accountable but don’t engage in arbitrary corporate censorship? Khanna suggested giving the authority to courts, and allow courts to set up standards on speech. “And there’s precedent for this. Right now, they remove things that are copyright violations. They do remove content if it violates copyright because they know someone could go to the court and order them to remove that. So if you have court standards on speech, then you may find them engage in content moderation consistent with the first amendment.”

In his book, Khanna notes the adverse impact of digital companies on local journalism in the US. When asked about what should be a mechanism to preserve vibrant and healthy journalism, while keeping tendency of Big Tech to monopolize revenue for content created elsewhere, Khanna advocated strong support for journalism and local media.

“The big publications in the United States – The New York Times, Wall Street Journal – have done fine and well on a digital subscription, but it’s very hard for local newspapers to do that. I don’t know the Indian landscape as well..What I would say is that we ought to have a tax on these digital companies that goes into an independent fund to support journalism, to make sure you can have local papers, community papers, and that there should be some compensation perhaps for the use of content on links on social media, if that content is coming from journalism and newspapers.”

Khanna added that just because everything was free online didn’t mean that there was no value to the content creation. “So there has to be a look at how we can support vibrant journalism in a digital age.”

Khanna said he believed that there was an “increasing desire almost for regulation” in Silicon Valley. “The reason is they want Congress to make the hard calls. They don’t want to be blamed themselves for making the hard calls. And I think that there’s an increasing recognition that there are things that have gone out of whack after January 6 and the insurrection, when you see the total misinformation on vaccines, when you see the rise of QAnon. There was a recognition that these platforms that were touted as responsible for the Arab spring or facilitating Arab spring have now also become destructive.”

He added that there was greater introspection in the valley for the need for smarter regulation and greater recognition that they needed liberal arts majors in humanities, thinkers, philosophers to help them “design the modern digital public sphere”. “We have to be more intentional on the design of these platforms and what can facilitate a liberal exchange of ideas, what can facilitate equality. At least the blinders are off in the valley and they understand that there are deep philosophical questions that need to be addressed.” When asked why the Congress wasn’t taking measures, Khanna pointed to other urgent issues taking precedence. “It’s a little bit hard to get momentum on some of these issues of the design of social media platforms, though, I think, January 6 woke people up to how destructive they can be. I am hopeful in the next year, we are going to get some movement.”

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