How to fix the net

Tortoise believes that three substantial steps need to be taken. Break up the internet giants. Regulate them more effectively. And introduce a new type of public service platform.

By Peter Hoskin

Nearly a week ago, the New York Times featured a 6,000-word article calling for Facebook to be broken up and more forcibly regulated. It was extraordinary less for its argument, which has been made before, than for its author. Chris Hughes is not just a former Facebook executive; he is an ex-Harvard roommate of the company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg. He was there at the beginning. If even he now thinks the time has come for the end of Facebook as we know it, the question follows, how bad can things be?

The answer is, very bad. On the day Hughes’s article was published, Tortoise hosted a ThinkIn on the subject of the Internet and its broken promises. What was meant to be a sunlit realm of communication, cooperation and learning has descended into abuse, fake news and endless invasions of privacy. This situation is, at best, tolerated by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. At worst, it is encouraged by them. They are all part of the “new economic order” defined by Professor Shoshana Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism; an order that “claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction and sales”.

Privacy. Big Data. Fake News. So many of the terms in the debate are grand abstractions, but it ought to be remembered that the outcomes are excruciatingly real. Think of the British politician Jess Phillips, who recently “cried in the street” after seeing an online video from a UKIP candidate who had previously “joked” about her rape. Or the lessons of Myanmar, where dishonest Facebook posts have been used to provoke hostilities between local Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims – with deadly consequences.

This is not to deny the complexity of the situation. As Tortoise recently discovered while reporting on a closed Facebook group in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil, that situation is very complex indeed. The same mechanisms that can help people come together and effect positive local change without fear of prying interference can also be used to spread hate and confusion. The Internet is, in general, a great, grey expanse of trade-offs – between democracy and transparency, freedom and responsibility, privacy and convenience.

But just because the issues are knotty it does not follow that the challenge is intractable, or beyond the wit of determined policymakers. We believe that three substantial steps need to be taken. The first is to break up the internet giants. The second is to regulate them more effectively. And the third is the introduction of what might be called “public service platforms”.

The first of these echoes Hughes’s article. He advocates splitting Facebook (with its 2.3 billion monthly active users) from its acquisitions WhatsApp (1.6 billion) and Instagram (1 billion). The main reasons for this are the main reasons for breaking any monopoly: to encourage competition and innovation, and to guard against companies that are too large and too pervasive to be adequately controlled.

Legislators in Facebook’s home country, the United States, already have some power to fix this and have shown that they are willing to use it. In the early 2000s, the US Government took Microsoft to court over its perceived quashing of rivals’ software on its Windows operating system. A judge initially ruled that Microsoft would have to break up into two divisions to prevent it exploiting its monopolistic advantages. This judgement was eventually overturned on appeal but Microsoft still had to make it easier for competitors to have their programs installed on Windows. This has helped other tech companies flourish and hasn’t particularly harmed Bill Gates’s bottom line.

What about legislators elsewhere? The most significant observation made by Hughes is that “just breaking up Facebook is not enough” – after all, even if Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram were forced to be entirely separate entities, each platform can still disseminate lies and threaten privacy. The borderless nature of social media means that the response needs to be international in scope. Different countries must introduce their own regulations to keep social media firms in check.

In some cases, this means simply enforcing existing laws – for example, those against hate speech. In other cases, it may involve minor amendments. As Jamie Bartlett, the author of The People vs Tech, said at our ThinkIn, a repeat of the Cambridge Analytica scandal could be avoided with little more than a bit of openness: “I really don’t think it’s that complicated to update the election law for this. You just make sure that every advert that’s run, every iteration of it, is made public. And you build software so that people can look through them, and that would keep [the social media platforms] honest.”

But enforcement and minor amendments will not suffice. The law as it stands, in so many countries, has proved inadequate for combating the perversities of the Information Age. It is struggling to keep pace with technologies that can adapt at a nanosecond’s notice. The best – perhaps only – hope is for regulators to think broadly. Rather than trying to appraise every scrap of content that goes online, they can set general standards and demand outcomes. As a start, the social media platforms should be held to be accurate, fair, transparent, accountable and safe.

It cannot be denied that this is difficult territory. The recent introduction of anti-fake-news laws in Singapore, where the state decides for itself what counts as fake news, is a reminder that the cure can be poison. But the relative inaction of the social media companies is not acceptable either. A starting point should be the recognition that, while tech companies are not old-fashioned “publishers”, they are not neutral “platforms”, either. A new third category that explicitly recognises the responsibility of these companies for the content they host is needed in our jurisprudence.

Perhaps traditional media institutions can provide part of the answer to this crisis in the public sphere. Thanks to the BBC, we are used to the idea of public service broadcasting – accomplished with public money, with the public interest in mind, and with public accountability. Imagine the same idea applied to the twenty-first-century airwaves of the Internet. A public service platform could promise not to abuse its users’ privacy, nor sell on their data, nor accept the madness that passes for content elsewhere. Its immediate size would also help it to compete against the existing platforms; even in a subverted marketplace where, as Hughes puts it, “no major social networking company has been founded since the fall of 2011”.

For once, the cliché is wholly justified: if not now, when?. As Bartlett suggested, if current trends are left uncorrected, they will only become entrenched: “Your diet is going to be included in this modelling. Your caffeine intake. Your clothes. Your baby monitors. Everything you can imagine being linked up to the Internet will be part of behavioural modelling.” At that point, it will be so much more difficult – bordering on impossible – to fix our broken Internet, and billions more people will have suffered in the meantime. Governments need to act now, or regret at leisure.

For & Against

“So it is for me and perhaps for you: the bare facts of surveillance capitalism necessarily arouse my indignation because they demean human dignity. The future of this narrative will depend upon the indignant citizens, journalists, and scholars drawn to this frontier project; indignant elected officials and policy makers who understand that their authority originates in the foundational values of democratic communities; and, especially, indignant young people who act in the knowledge that effectiveness without autonomy is not effective, dependency-induced compliance is no social contract, a hive with no exit can never be a home, experience without sanctuary is but a shadow, a life that requires hiding is no life, touch without feel reveals no truth, and freedom from uncertainty is no freedom.”

Professor Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

 

“And what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook, because only you see your news feed, and then it vanishes, so it’s impossible to research anything. So we have no idea who saw what ads or what impact they had, or what data was used to target these people. Or even who placed the ads, or how much money was spent, or even what nationality they were…. But Facebook does. Facebook has these answers, and it’s refused to give them to us. Our parliament has asked Mark Zuckerberg multiple times to come to Britain and to give us these answers. And every single time, he’s refused.”

Carole Cadwalladr, TED talk, ‘Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy’

 

“Last week, the Justice Department proposed talks with state attorneys general about the practices of large tech platforms…. Given the unanticipated reach and influence of these companies, this view is perhaps understandable. But it is mistaken and even dangerous, because at its core it is a view that speech — the primary use for these platforms — is not an individual right, but a collective good that should be subject to political control.”

Peter Suderman, op-ed for The New York Times, ‘The Slippery Slope of Regulating Social Media’

 

“Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.”

John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace

Further reading