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Over the past few years, an increasingly popular strategy, both in the U.S. and abroad, is to slap fines on the big social media platforms when they violate certain rules, regulations, or laws. On the surface, that makes a lot of sense. If a company commits a wrongdoing, it should be forced to pay the consequences. But what happens when Big Tech doesn’t pay the fines?
The problem of unpaid fines
Quite simply, Big Tech companies are not paying the fines that are being imposed on them. Government regulators might make a lot of noise by fining a company like Meta (the owner of Facebook and Instagram) hundreds of millions of dollars, but does it really matter if Meta never pays up?
We now have a pretty solid case history to consider, both from the U.S. and Europe. By some estimates, Meta still owes over $2 billion in fines. TikTok owes hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. Companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, and X (formerly known as Twitter) also owe money that hasn’t been paid out yet.
So you can see where I’m going with this – simply imposing a fine on a major company may not be the answer. It will not stop their bad behavior because the penalty simply is not effective. In the best case scenario, companies will pay a partial fine, commit to some minor changes to their platforms, and then are never heard from again. If you’re being cynical, it almost seems like a planned strategy: drag things out as long as possible, promise to take all the right steps, and then wait for things to cool down again.
Is there a Plan B?
The good news is that government regulators and lawmakers have other tools at their disposal. One suggestion, which came up during the 2020 presidential election cycle, was simply to bust up all the big tech platforms. For example, consider Meta. You could easily force Meta to separate into a number of different companies, such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Or what about X? It has plans to become “the everything app.” So maybe regulators block that from ever happening, by forcing X to divide into smaller companies?
And that leads to another suggestion: lawmakers and regulators can simply refuse to consider any application, any license, or any request from these companies until they pay their fines in full. If a Big Tech company wants to merge or acquire another company, well, that won’t happen until the money due is paid in full. If they want to expand into a new jurisdiction or acquire new powers, well, that won’t happen either. Moreover, if any fines are not paid within a certain timeframe, maybe it’s time to start thinking about criminal penalties for top executives.
The lobbyists in Washington
And, finally, there’s another angle to consider: the increasingly powerful Big Tech lobby in our nation’s capital. It’s here where the business of government really gets done. These Big Tech lobbyists are routinely rallying against any new legislation that will hold the big social media platforms responsible, and that is really clogging up the system in Washington. Just when it looks like new legislation might pass, it suddenly dies in committee.
So maybe there’s some step that can be used to rein in all the lobbyist money from Big Tech? The point here is that there needs to be some way to penalize corporations that will directly impact their bottom lines. We thought hefty new fines and penalties would do the trick. But it hasn’t. So now is the time to come up with a Plan B.