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Donald Morrison: Is Congress ready for the war against Big Tech and big money like Facebook and Google?

Astronaut on moon with flag

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands beside a U.S. flag on the moon July 20, 1969, during the Apollo 11 mission. A message Aldrin and crew mates Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins were asked to deliver in the language of a Native American tribe member to "sacred spirits" on the lunar surface drew a laugh once the men had it translated.

To train for their famous 1969 mission to the moon, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins spent time in the lunarlike deserts of the American West.

One day, they ran into an elderly Native American man. He recognized them from TV — and asked them for a favor.

“My tribe believes sacred spirits live on the moon,” he said. “Could you give them a message for us?”

The astronauts agreed. So, the man had them memorize a phrase in his native language. When they asked him what it meant, he demurred: “It’s a secret between our tribe and the moon spirits.”

What happened next was one of the most poignant skirmishes in the age-old war between past and future, natives and colonizers, tradition and technology. That conflict is a bit like the one we’re currently waging with the large tech companies.

You know: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google, Twitter and so on.

We let them into our lives, which they promised to make better. They did, sort of. But, they also stole our privacy, poisoned our politics, wasted our time, degraded our human interactions and messed with the minds of our children. Meanwhile, these electronic pirates have made fortunes off our personal information and their skill in addicting us to their products and services.

In a rare show of bipartisan comity, our elected and appointed leaders seem to be awakening to the problem. Congress has held hours of hearings and introduced dozens of bills over the past year to protect us from these invaders. The measures would strengthen privacy protections and strip social media companies of their protection from legal liability for the harm they cause.

That latter privilege was accorded them by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The loophole allows websites to be treated as “common carriers,” like a phone company routing calls obliviously, instead of as self-interested gatekeepers crafting algorithms to determine who sees what online — and selling microscopically targeted advertising to accompany that content.

To protect young people from such intrusive behavior, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey has introduced an update of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which he helped craft in 1998. The new version would spare kids from targeted advertising, stiffen security standards on electronic devices marketed to them and include an “eraser button” to eliminate kids’ personal info at will.

Another tool for taming Big Tech is antitrust law. The House Judiciary Committee has finished work on six bills that would help prevent tech companies from using their monopoly power to maximize profits and smother competition.

The courts have become the latest antitrust battleground. A federal judge this week allowed a Federal Trade Commission suit against Facebook to move forward. The FTC alleges that the company, which controls 70 percent of the daily social media market (98 percent among desktop users), has maintained its position by buying up potential competitors. Google, which has more than 80 percent of the market for internet search and 90 percent for Android app sales, is facing three antitrust suits over its treatment of competitors.

Encouraging as those efforts may be, chances of success are slim. The tech industry now accounts for more than one-third of the total U.S. economy. Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google alone are worth more than $7 trillion, bigger than the gross domestic product of any country in the world, except the U.S and China.

That kind of money buys a lot of lawyers, lobbyists and, alas, politicians. Tech executives are among the biggest contributors to political campaigns, and getting bigger. Not surprisingly, hardly any of the bills introduced in Congress are expected to be debated, let alone passed. Even the FTC suits are considered by many legal experts to be long shots, partly because of the plaintiffs’ impressive array of top-drawer lawyers.

This mismatch in firepower reminds us of what happened to Native Americans when the white man first arrived on this continent, with his superior wealth and technology. The locals never had a chance.

The old geezer who confronted Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins in the desert clearly knew his history.

When the astronauts returned to their base that day, they searched for an expert who understood the man’s language. They finally found one and repeated the words they’d memorized. The translator burst out laughing. Then he told them the meaning of that message:

“Don’t believe a single word these white men tell you. They’ve come to steal your land.”

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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