Lebanon Protests Reveal Risks For Governments In Meddling With Big Tech

Big tech is a problem for national governments. They’re scared of the power the big media platforms have to sway public opinion and influence elections, they’re scared of the apparent ease with which tech corporations avoid paying more tax, and they’re scared of the effects growing technology use has on the mental health of children and adults alike.

But one of the biggest problems of all for governments is that of actually doing something to regulate and control big tech. There appear to be no easy answers to this problem, and the difficulties any national government would face in confronting the FAANGs [an acronym referring to tech giants Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google] of this world was starkly underlined last week, when the Lebanese government announced a daily tax of $0.20 per day for using WhatsApp (and similar VoIP applications such as FaceTime and Facebook Messenger) to make voice calls.

Announced as part of its 2020 budget, the Lebanese government had hoped that the new tax would go on to raise around $250 million a year from the Arabic country’s 3.5 million VoIP users. Instead, it raised something approaching a mini-uprising, as thousands of people took to the streets of Beirut and other towns to protest not only the perceived unfairness of the newly announced tax, but also the economic crisis gripping Lebanon and the government’s failure to do anything significant about it.

“The people want to topple the regime,” protestors chanted, as many burned tires, pulled down billboards and even clashed with security forces.

Given that Lebanon is lumbered with a public debt equal to 150% of its GDP (one of the highest rates in the world), it’s obvious that the protestors weren’t focusing their ire and frustration on the WhatsApp tax, which the government abandoned within a few hours of protests erupting. Still, the events of the past few days provide perhaps the strongest example yet of how attempts by governments to intervene in the workings of big tech and its platforms can spark powerful reactions.

To take another example, France’s famous Digital Services Tax was met with “protests” from the big corporations this tax targeted, as well as from the U.S. government, which is investigating the possibility of launching retaliatory tariffs against France. Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg was caught on tape earlier this month telling employees that Facebook would launch a legal challenge against the U.S. government in a scenario where Elizabeth Warren (or any other Democratic presidential candidate) won the 2020 election and decided to follow through on threats to break up the big tech companies.

Also in October, Apple received criticism from a number of U.S. lawmakers and campaigners after it buckled to Chinese governmental pressure and removed an app from its App Store that had allowed protesters in Hong Kong to track protests. And speaking of Hong Kong, video game developer Blizzard attracted protests and also boycotts after it banned a player from competitions for voicing support for protestors in Hong Kong, a move critics claim arose from the fact that it’s part-owned by Chinese conglomerate Tencent.

All these examples are different and hard to directly compare, but they all underline the risks governments take when they attempt to bend technology according to their political aims. That interference provokes a reaction shouldn’t be surprising, and for two main reasons. Firstly, technology is often a form of empowerment, an extension of our powers and abilities, and so when it’s restricted by governments, those of us who have previously benefitted are unsurprisingly going to act with displeasure if not anger. And secondly, tech is obviously very, very big business, so any government trying to reduce the size (and profits) of tech companies is setting itself up for conflict with some extremely vested interests.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that governments should always avoid interfering with or regulating big tech. It’s just that, as the latest example in Lebanon shows, they need to pick their battles wisely, and make sure that enough people are on their side when they do take the plunge.