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With the recent revelations that “Google allowed “Nazism” to be associated with the California Republican Party in searches, to YouTube removing purely mechanical gun content, to the news that Facebook allowed far greater access to private data than anyone realized, it’s time to have a conversation about what these social and tech giants really are.
We should acknowledge social media has had a positive effect over the years in breaking the monopoly on information flow. The traditional gatekeepers can no longer stop conversations they don’t approve because social media platforms have been an extraordinary means for people and groups to connect and communicate locally, regionally, and internationally. They’ve allowed upstarts, outsiders, and disrupters like Donald Trump, or movements like Brexit, to break through and actually win.
For almost 20 years, the federal communications and competitive regulatory environment that was in place allowed companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google (and their many competitors that either no longer exist or that have been subsumed into the victorious behemoths) to operate more freely and with fewer regulatory impediments compared to other traditional communications companies like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon. For example, Facebook, Google and Amazon had far looser federal policies to adhere to related to the kind of personal data they could collect about their customers, how long they could store that data, and what they could sell or share with other entities. The “traditional” communications companies had to adhere to much more stringent rules.
That was then. Now we need a conversation about social media and tech giants in light of what they’ve become. They’re all grown up now and it’s time for the kids in Silicon Valley to start operating under the rules that govern the other adults. And by that, I mean media and telecommunications companies.
If entities are creating content, selling advertising, streaming both live and produced original content, publishing original content, deploying broadband and wireless internet, even offering voice and video communications services, haven’t they become publishers and telecommunications companies? Because that’s exactly what they’re doing and exactly what they are.
No Longer Open Forums
Facebook creates original content, including broadcasts of Major League Baseball games. Google via YouTube is doing the same, as is Amazon. Google is also installing broadband across the country and serves as the de facto search engine for the nation, if not the world. Twitter, while more niche, uses its trending moments feature to cyber bully teenagers going to prom.
These aren’t the actions of neutral platforms, but rather those of highly competitive content creators and distributors.
Then consider this: these tech and social media giants on a daily basis collect, store, and use more personally identifiable data—where you go, what stores and offices you enter, what you buy, what you view online, what you share online, what you write to other people via Gmail or Yahoo email services—than the NSA. And more troubling, unlike the NSA, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, and Amazon use that data for their own and their clients’ purposes.
Entities like Google, Facebook, and Amazon have immense power to control information flow, to define individuals and politics by what is seen or unseen. Mistakenly, we have made them some of the greatest repositories of private human data in world history. It’s time we as human beings, regardless of country, draw a line and declare that we have rights.
We should acknowledge that rule by algorithm can be just as stringent as any rule by a dictator, perhaps even more so as it is vague, faceless, and hard to define. These algorithms decide what you see and don’t see in your timeline, subtly determining for you what is “worthy” of your attention. Facebook treats this algorithm like a black box, we’re never allowed to look inside and see what’s going on, we’ll only ever see the results on our news feeds. A world ruled by algorithms—just like the one it replaced controlled by network executives—closes off views, closes off debates, and further Balkanizes people. So in fact how can these social media and tech giants save democracy when in fact they’re becoming less democratic?
Social Media Program Directors
Fact is, social media companies are anything but neutral platforms. We saw the revelation that Facebook was purposefully suppressing conservative news stories in its trending section in 2016. The radically left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center, which regularly labels mainstream conservative ideas as hate speech, regularly instructs Facebook, Twitter, and Google on how to root out “hate speech” on their platforms. It’s clear these companies are aligning themselves publicly with these liberal and left-wing groups.
We know that both Facebook and Twitter have cooperated with governments hostile to free speech, such as Turkey, India, Pakistan, and Morocco to suppress opposition speech. Google, in order to operate their many other businesses in Europe and Asia contractually agrees to cooperate with local governments to limit free speech. They do it in France and Germany, as well as in China. Do these social media companies represent American values to the world or are they willing to help governments curtail the natural rights of the people in other countries and here to ensure that Facebook earns market share? If social media companies are so ready to abandon the values they say they care about in America, who’s to say they will have any compunction about skirting the free speech of Americans?
While algorithms are necessary to serve up the content people want, social media companies failing to be transparent on this front are dangerous.
Algorithm tweaking isn’t neutral and it has a massive “follow on” effect in the digital industry and political world, changing the kind of content that people see everyday. So if the algorithm starts filtering say, controversial or sensitive opinions about issues like abortion, it puts a thumb on the scale, favoring one side over the other. With a small handful of controllers over the algorithms, it’s appropriate to ask who controls the controllers?
Tech companies are trying to get ahead of any regulation. Facebook apparently is uncomfortable with the consequences of its actions (namely the “support” social media gave to Trump-friendly political forces) and has decided to try to scale back the resources he used to help win. Something tells me they wouldn’t have gone this direction if Hillary Clinton ended up in the Oval Office.
In fact, we saw Obama’s campaign celebrated for using the same tools and online strategies, while denigrating the Trump team. While Facebook’s response to Cambridge Analytica made sense, they did not, of course, have the same response to the Obama campaign which leveraged the same data for the same purposes.
Even the simple act of telling people to register to vote with Facebook tools isn’t neutral. Facebook’s demographic, while growing across ages, skews young and younger voters skew Democrat. Just by registering these young voters, the company might be adding to the rolls of Democratic voters. And that’s even assuming they play entirely neutrally and equally push registration to all individuals regardless of age or other demographics.
Defining the Problem to Solve It
Instead of continual hand wringing about what should be done regarding these companies, we must take the first step toward solving the problem by defining the problem.
The problem is that these companies are no longer what they were in the beginning. The 1996 Telecommunications Act is rightfully credited with much of the expansion of the Internet. Not only did it create the space for higher speed internet access, it also allowed for the growth of tech companies and social media. Most cite the very short Section 230 as the genesis of these companies, it reads:
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.
Until now, these companies largely have acted not as content creators or speakers, but simply as platforms. Unfortunately, their decisions over the past decade have compounded and they can and should rightfully be considered publishers. Given the role these tech companies serve as providers of information and censors of speech and discussion, they are now publishers and telecommunications companies and therefore should be brought under the 1996 Telecommunications Act with the FCC providing the governance and oversight of these entities with no 230 exceptions.
We can use these rules to force Facebook, Twitter, and others to operate in ways that actually encourage competition, allowing everyone to play by the same rules.
We should also not be afraid to break up monopolies to protect freedom of speech and expression and to promote a healthier democracy.In many ways, the Kings of Silicon Valley are the Robber Barons of the 21st century. There’s actually a tradition in Republican politics of breaking up monopolies; think Ronald Reagan and his breaking up Ma Bell.
A healthy, thriving democracy is defined by rigorous debates, in the public arena, in public venues, on public platforms. The Internet is the modern day forum or agora, a place of open assembly and venue for free expression of thought and ideas, but often times social media companies do more to restrict speech than open our society.
We must ask ourselves: should we allow social media and tech companies to be the arbiters of this assembly and free speech? Or should in fact the duly elected representatives of the American people and the Constitution be those arbiters?
To allow a very small handful of people to control debates, speech, and assembly online via algorithms is to in fact undermine democracy, to destroy it. As times have changed, and tech companies have changed by the choices they have made, repeatedly showing themselves incapable and unwilling to be responsible corporate citizens, it’s time to redefine their role in our society. If we do that, it will be a good step toward protecting our rights of privacy, assembly, and speech.
Photo credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images