It may not be a popular perspective, but I’m increasingly convinced it’s a necessary one. The new publishers of the modern age—including Facebook, Twitter, and Google—should be subject to some type of external oversight that’s driven by public interest-focused government regulation.
On the eve of government hearings with the leaders of these tech giants, and in an increasingly harsh environment for the tech industry in general, frankly, it’s fairly likely that some type of government intervention is going to happen anyway. The only real questions at this point are what, how, and when.
Of course, at this particular time in history, the challenges and risks that come with trying to draft any kind of legislation or regulation that wouldn’t do more harm than good are extremely high. First, given the toxic political climate that the US finds itself in, there are significant (and legitimate) concerns that party-influenced biases could kick in—from either side of the political spectrum. To be clear, however, I’m convinced that the issues facing new forms of digital content go well beyond ideological differences. Plus, as someone who has long-term faith in the ability of the democratic principles behind our great nation to eventually get us through the morass in which we currently find ourselves, I strongly believe the issues that need to be addressed have very long-term impacts that will still be critically important even in less politically challenged times.
Another major concern is that the current set of elected officials aren’t the most digitally-savvy bunch, as was evidenced by some of the questions posed during the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica hearings. While there is little doubt that this is a legitimate concern, I’m at least somewhat heartened to know that there were quite a few intelligent issues raised during those hearings. Additionally, given all the other developments around potential election influencing, it seems clear that many in Congress have been compelled to become more intelligent about tech industry-related issues, and I’m certain those efforts to be more tech savvy will continue.
From the tech industry perspective, there are, of course, a large number of concerns as well. Obviously, no industry is eager to be faced with any type of regulations or other laws that could be perceived as limiting their business decisions or other courses of action. In addition, these tech companies have been particularly vocal about saying that they aren’t publishers and therefore shouldn’t be subject to the many laws and regulations already in place for large traditional print and broadcast organizations.
Clearly, companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google aren’t really publishers in the traditional sense of the word. The problem is, it’s clear now that what needs to change is the definition of publishing. If you consider that the end goal of publishing is to deliver information to a mass audience and do so in a way that can influence public opinion—these companies aren’t just publishers, they are literally the largest and most powerful publishing businesses in the history of the world. Period, end of story.
Even in the wildest dreams of publishing and broadcasting magnates of yore like William Randolph Hearst and William S. Paley, they couldn’t imagine the reach and impact that these tech companies have built in a matter of a just a decade or so. In fact, the level of influence that Facebook, Twitter, and Google now have, not only on American society, but the entire world, is truly staggering. Toss in the fact that that they also have access to staggering amounts of personal information on virtually every single one of us, and the impact is truly mind blowing.
In terms of practical impact, the influence of these publishing platforms on elections is of serious concern in the near term, but their impact reaches far wider and crosses into nearly all aspects of our lives. For example, the return of childhood measles—a disease that was nearly eradicated from the US—is almost entirely due to the spread of scientifically invalid anti-vaccine rhetoric being spread across social media and other sites. Like election tampering, that’s a serious impact to the safety and health of our society.
It’s no wonder, then, that these large companies are facing the level of scrutiny that they are now enduring. Like it or not, they should be. We can no longer accept the naïve thought that technology is an inherently neutral topic that’s free of any bias. As we’ve started to learn from AI-based algorithms, any technology built by humans will include some level of “perspective” from the people who create it. In this way, these tech companies are also similar to traditional publishers, because there is no such thing as a truly neutral set of published or broadcast content. Nor should there be. Like these tech giants, most publishing companies generally try to provide a balanced viewpoint and incorporate mechanisms and fail safes to try and do so, but part of their unique charm is, in fact, the perspective (or bias) that they bring to certain types of information. In the same way, I think it’s time to recognize that there is going to be some level of bias inherent in any technology and that it’s OK to have it.
Regardless of any bias, however, the fundamental issue is still one of influence and the need to somehow moderate and standardize the means by which that influence is delivered. It’s clear that, like most other industries, large tech companies aren’t particularly good at moderating themselves. After all, as hugely important parts of a capitalist society, they’re fundamentally driven by return-based decisions, and up until now, the choices they have made and the paths they have pursued have been enormously profitable.
But that’s all the more reason to step back and take a look at how and whether this can continue or if there’s a way to, for example, make companies responsible for the content that’s published on their platforms, or to limit the amount of personal information that can be used to funnel specific content to certain groups of people. Admittedly, there are no easy answers on how to fix the concerns, nor is there any guarantee that legislative or regulatory attempts to address them won’t make matters worse. Nevertheless, it’s becoming increasingly clear to a wider and wider group of people that the current path isn’t sustainable long-term and the backlash against the tech industry is going to keep growing if something isn’t done.
While it’s easy to fall prey to the recent politically motivated calls for certain types of changes and restrictions, I believe it’s essential to think about how to address these challenges longer term and independent of any current political controversies. Only then can we hope to get the kind of efforts and solutions that will allow us to leverage the tremendous benefits that these new publishing platforms enable, while preventing them from usurping their position in our society.