This is going to be a controversial column. But these are not normal times. Two terrible things happened last week: The Mueller investigation found that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election. And 17 people were tragically killed in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Although these two events are clearly not related, one common thread is that the three prevalent global communications, advertising, and social networks — Google, Facebook, and Twitter — played a role.
Note that Robert Mueller, in his report, described the Russian actions as “information warfare”. In the case of the Florida shootings, Nikolas Cruz had placed a variety of gun- and violence-related posts on social media. Now I am not saying that these companies are to blame for what happened, or bear any direct responsibility. But this is a moment in time to recognize that Google, Facebook, and Twitter, while enabling many wonderful things in our daily lives, can also be tools or vehicles for some very bad things. I single these companies out because of their outsized global role and influence: Google is the dominant search engine; Google and Facebook own a huge percentage of the market for digital advertising; and Facebook and Twitter between them are prevalent sources of digital communications, and news/content distribution and consumption.
I believe it is time to start having a serious conversation about the role these companies should play in our national interests. If cyberattacks represent among the greatest dangers to the international community today, one could argue that companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter could be the digital/information equivalent of giant defense contractors such as Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. Now this might get me into hot water on privacy and a host of other issues, but I believe that the Department of Defense and key intelligence agencies should be working a lot more closely with these companies than they probably already are. I would also argue that Google, Facebook, and Twitter, as U.S.-based companies, have some obligation here as well. One could see this as the 21st century equivalent of the Manhattan Project.
In the wake of the Russia investigation, we should be demanding that Facebook take steps to prevent similar meddling in the mid-term elections and the 2020 Presidential election. Of course, this might go against their politics, their ethos, and might not even be good for their bottom line. But, their collective resources, the information they possess, and their growing capabilities in AI and big data are becoming as important to our national security as any military hardware. In the wake of the Mueller investigation, and other sordid examples of cyberwarfare, shouldn’t Messrs. Pichai, Zuckerburg, and Dorsey be raising their hands and asking, “How can we help?”
Among the many issues a conversation like this raises are how this would be operationalized. After all, these are global companies, and they do huge business in some of the countries that are not exactly our friends. But there should be some arm, or division, within these firms that provides critical services to our national intelligence. It’s likely that cyber-intelligence will be as critical in preventing, say, an attack on our electrical grid or our banking system as any satellite, drone, or other physical piece of military technology.
If it were known that there was a stronger relationship between our government and this tripartite, then perhaps our enemies would think twice about using them as platforms for bad behavior. Plus, the public might feel reassured that our defense agencies are more ‘on it’ on the cyber front.
Now, I think there are similar issues and obligations with respect to incidents such as the Florida school shooting, or other recent mass casualty events, such as the shootings in Orlando and Las Vegas. These are incidents of domestic terrorism. In some cases, ISIS or other international bad actors might be involved (or certainly influence). A critical question is whether a company such as Facebook has an obligation to more systematically alert the authorities when someone such as Nikolas Cruz posts what he posted. What are Google’s obligations if someone is doing a search on “how to make a bomb”? This clearly gets us into murky territory on issues such as privacy. But we should recognize that our ability to use a platform such as Facebook or Twitter represents sort of a social contract. We know every day that our searches are being tracked, by virtue of the ads that we see. So, for example, if we’re talking about better background checks, doesn’t it make sense to be thinking about how someone’s actions on Google/Facebook/Twitter might figure in here? The rapid development of AI and analytics tools should be able to be helpful in alerting us to whether someone’s application for a gun might be for illicit purposes. Still further, perhaps these tools can be used to enable us to get help to these individuals before it’s too late.
We are in a unique moment in time. The same digital/cyber tools that make our lives better, more convenient, and entertaining are also enablers of some of our society’s darkest forces and attacks on our personal and national security. So I believe it is time to be having a deeper, and likely difficult and uncomfortable conversation, about the role the Internet giants should have in working more closely with those agencies that we pay and expect to protect and defend us, on a local and national level.