Comment: Bill’s aim to regulate tech could hit Black businesses

The Washington Build Back Black Alliance warns of unintended consequences in a U.S. Senate bill.

By Jamila Bey / For The Herald

As the country and its small businesses try to emerge from the ravages of the covid-19 pandemic, our government from the federal to the local levels have worked to keep the economy in motion.

Companies that managed to retool and revamp were offered grants and low interest loans- programs that help keep in business the minority-owned employer firms that contribute $1.48 trillion and 9.43 million jobs each year to the U.S. economy. Politicians on all sides came together and asked, “How can we better serve our small business owners?”

Unfortunately, in the case of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (S.2992/H.R. 3816), the connection is poor. The speakers on each end are frustrated because the message just isn’t getting through. Helping small business is necessary, but forcing through a law that is intended to reign in “big tech” is harmful if it takes away the very tools the smaller players have come to rely upon to be competitive.

In a survey of 2,000 U.S. small business owners and senior decision makers, these job creators admit that digital tools have helped “level the playing field” for diverse small- and medium-sized businesses. Free tools such as maps and search engines have allowed leaders, freelancers and gig workers alike to perform their jobs more efficiently, drive more revenue and ultimately to create more jobs. About 83 percent of Black-led small and medium-sized businesses recognize a noticeable impact when using digital tools to expand their business; 85 percent of Black business leaders said that digital tools increased their businesses’ ability to collaborate, work efficiently, be more agile and shift strategy in response to changed circumstances.

Locally, the Washington Build Back Black Alliance was formed in the fall of 2020 when a group of Black and other BIPOC non-profit executives and business leaders consolidated their influence to speak to issues that impact our state’s Black community at the local, state and federal levels. Our group instantly recognized that this federal law, if passed, would inadvertently put technology, information, and opportunity further out of reach for minority-owned small businesses and communities of color.

Ollie Garrett, president and CEO of Tabor 100, recognized the importance of gathering the Tabor members in person so they could connect with local governments and decision makers. During the pandemic, safety was definitely a factor and a concern. “We decided to move from an in-person model to a hybrid model at the height of covid-19. We relied heavily on our SM platforms to get the message out using applications like Hootsuite to communicate simultaneously. We also kept our members abreast of the changes via Facebook,” Garrett said. Tabor’s project managers were able to share a YouTube video of her covid-safe meetings. Garrett says it was an instant hit. “People were able to maintain some sense of normalcy with their routines, and we kept our doors open.”

As business owners, we’re pragmatic and fully understand the need for regulations in the technology sector to ensure fairness and competition. But as our elected officials are looking to pass legislation on the digital services we rely on to provide services each day, we must be mindful of the dramatic impacts on technology the bill carries. And as it is written, S.2992 is rife with potential problems.

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act, by forbidding “self-preferencing” by big technology platforms could negatively impact services that businesses use for free or for very low cost. Companies won’t be able to recommend their own services in their marketplaces. Under this law, Google couldn’t allow searches to curate results using Google Maps to illustrate the proximity of a vendor to a business. This law means that businesses that are accustomed to filming tutorials for free on YouTube will have to find pricier alternatives with a fraction of the reach and limited ability to use geographic suggestions to serve their clients and potential customers.

The bill hurts the businesses who need the assistance most. The act will make it illegal for platforms to help veteran, LGBTQ and Black-owned small businesses find audiences through targeted campaigns online. At the same time, this law could actually make it harder to protect these very groups against the hate speech and threats that unfortunately target them.

Prominent Democratic senators recently sent a letter voicing their concerns with the bill’s language that “would also hinder content moderation practices” and could, as written, “supercharge harmful content online and make it more difficult to combat.” Effectively battling the scourge of online hate speech and misinformation means that the act isn’t yet ready for the light of day.

The bill could prevent top tech platforms from moderating and removing some of the most toxic sites and services without being sued for supposed discrimination against those businesses. For example, a business selling neo-Nazi paraphernalia could sue, under this bill, that their paid ads can’t run alongside content posted by synagogues.

We know this isn’t the intent. But this is what this bill could allow.

Legislators must proceed cautiously before advancing legislation like the American Innovation and Choice Online Act that would increase small business burdens and negatively impact the digital tools upon which businesses in our community depend.

Jamila Bey, writing on behalf of the Washington Build Back Black Alliance, is a journalist and radio talk show host. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and elsewhere. As a speaker and writer, Bey’s areas of expertise include U.S. culture, race and politics, science, health and family policy, and all issues concerning the First Amendment particularly issues concerning religion and the separation of State and Church.

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