THE ROADMAP TO FIX SOCIAL MEDIA
The platform monopolies Facebook and Google are so powerful that when they are manipulated, there is real damage to our public discourse. High time to reintroduce serious anti-trust regulation.
Awareness of the role of Facebook, Google and others in Russia’s interference in the 2016 election has increased dramatically in recent months, thanks in large part to congressional hearings on Oct. 31 – Nov. 1, 2017. This has led to calls for regulation, and the Honest Ads Act, sponsored by Senators Mark Warner, Amy Klobuchar, and John Mccain, to extend current regulation of political ads on networks to online platforms. Facebook and Google are opposed, insisting that government regulation would kill innovation and hurt global competitiveness and should be left to the industry. But we’ve seen where self-regulation leads. This problem is just too complicated. First, we must address the filter bubbles. Polls suggest that about a third of Americans believe Russian interference is fake news, despite unanimous agreement to the contrary by the country’s intelligence agencies. Helping them accept the truth is a priority. To do this, Facebook must be required to contact each person touched by Russian content with a personal message saying, “You, and we, were manipulated by the Russians. This really happened; here is the evidence.” And include every Russian message the user received. There’s no doubt Facebook has the capacity to do this. No matter the cost, they must absorb the price for their carelessness. Second, the chief executives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter – not just their lawyers – must testify before congressional committees in open session. This is particularly important for the employees. While the bosses are often libertarians, the people who work there tend to be idealists, who want to believe what they’re doing is good. Forcing tech CEOS like Mark Zuckerberg to justify the unjustifiable would go a long way to puncturing their cults of personality.
REGULATORY FIXES: A FEW IDEAS
1) Digital bots must not impersonate humans. Bots distort the “public square” in a way never possible in history. At a minimum, the law on bots should require explicit labeling, the ability to block, and liability on the part of platform for the harm they cause. Platforms must be accountable.
2) New acquisitions must be blocked until platforms have addressed the damage and taken steps to prevent future harm and allow open competition. Platform growth has often depended on gobbling up smaller firms to extend their monopoly power.
3) Transparency about the sponsors of political and issues-based communication. The Honest Ads Act is a good start, but should also cover issue-based messages.
4) Transparency about the algorithms. Users deserve to know why they see what they see in their news feeds and search results. If Facebook and Google had to be up-front about the reason you’re seeing conspiracy theories – namely, that it’s good for business – they would be far less likely to stick to that tactic.
5) Equitable contracts with users. Facebook and Google have asserted unprecedented rights in their terms of service, which can change at any time. All software platforms should be required to offer a legitimate opt-out, increasing transparency and consumer choice, and forcing more care in every new rollout. It would limit the risk that platforms would run massive social experiments on millions of users without prior notification.
6) Limits on the commercial exploitation of consumer data. Currently the platforms are using personal data in ways consumers do not understand, and might not accept if they did. And they will use that data forever, unless someone tells them to stop.
7) Consumer ownership of their own data. Users created this data, so they should have the right to export it to other social networks. The likely outcome would be an explosion of innovation and entrepreneurship. Startups and established players would build new products that incorporate people’s existing social graphs, forcing Facebook to compete.
8) Return to traditional antitrust law. Since the Reagan era, antitrust law has focused on prices for consumers, allowing Facebook and Google to dominate several industries—not just search and social media but also email, video, photos and digital ad sales. This approach ignores the social costs of addiction, manipulated elections andreduced innovation. All of these costs are evident today.
Increasing awareness of the threat posed by platform monopolies creates an opportunity to reframe the discussion about concentration of market power. Limiting the power of Facebook and Google not only won’t harm America or Europe, it will almost certainly unleash levels of creativity and innovation that have not been seen in the technology industry since the early days of, well, Facebook and Google. Before you dismiss regulation as impossible in the current climate, consider this. Nine months ago, when Tristan Harris and I joined forces, hardly anyone was talking about these issues. Now lots of people are, including policymakers. And while it’s hard to be optimistic, that’s no excuse for inaction. There’s far too much at stake.
“It reads like the plot of a sci-fi novel: A technology celebrated for bringing people together is being exploited to drive us apart.” ROGER MCNAMEE is the managing director and a cofounder of Elevation Partners, an investment partnership focused on media and consumer technology. He is the brother of METROPOLE Editor in Chief Dardis Mcnamee.