Federal government Campaign to reform Internet platforms has intensified significantly this week. The Surgeon General cited disinformation as a threat to public health. The White House press secretary called on Facebook to remove 12 accounts that could be responsible for up to 65% of the Covid disinformation on the site. Referring to Facebook, President Joe Biden said, “They’re killing people,” to come back a day later. Then he appointed Jonathan Kanter, architect of the EU antitrust case against Google, to head the antitrust division of the Department of Justice. The table can finally be set for a necessary reform.
Facebook, Youtube, Instagram and Twitter have become essential communication platforms in our society, but they collectively undermine public health, democracy, privacy and competition, with dire consequences. Most Americans understand this, but don’t want to be inconvenienced by losing what they love on Internet platforms. And they find it difficult to understand the magnitude of the problem. The platforms have succeeded in blurring the lines, using their enormous wealth to co-opt huge swathes of universities, think tanks and NGOs, as well as many politicians.
It’s easy to see why the platforms are fighting so hard to resist reform. Covid disinformation, subversion of democracy, invasions of privacy and anti-competitive behavior are not bugs. These are examples of internet platform business models that work exactly as expected. The problem is, platforms like Google and Facebook are too big to be safe.
At their current scale, with roughly twice as many active users as there are people in China, platforms like Google and Facebook pose a systemic threat analogous to climate change or the pandemic. Fixing them would be a challenge at the best of times. But today the courts are turning to economic power and Congress remains crippled, leaving the administration as our best hope. Forty years of deregulation and reduced funding have left our regulatory infrastructure with few tools and little muscle tone. Fortunately, the appointments of former FTC adviser Tim Wu to the National Economic Council, Lina Khan, antitrust specialist at the FTC chair, FTC commissioner Rohit Chopra as head of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau , from former Head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission Gary Gensler at the SEC, and Kanter are brilliant moves as these leaders understand the issues and will make the most of the limited tools at their disposal. The payoff of getting this right will be enormous.
The first challenge for the president and his team is to frame the problem. The tendency of policy makers to date has been to view the damage caused by Internet platforms not as systemic, but as a series of coincident problems. With limited tools and time, the administration must seek out opportunities with high leverage.
Internet platforms are media businesses, dependent on consumer attention, but they have huge advantages traditional media. They have unprecedented scale and influence. These are monitoring engines that collect data about users. They supplement this by acquiring location data from cell phones; health data from prescriptions, medical tests and apps; web browsing history and others. With all of this, the platforms create voodoo dolls of data that allow them to both predict user behavior that can be sold to advertisers and fuel manipulative recommendation engines. Platforms could use this power to make users happier, healthier, or perform better, but instead they use data to tap into each user’s emotional triggers because it’s easier to do and generates more revenue. and profits.
The past five years have proven that Internet platforms cannot be persuaded to reform. They do not believe they are responsible for the damage caused by their products. They believe that these harms represent a reasonable cost to their success. That’s why Facebook didn’t do anything meaningful after learning it had been used to interfere with Brexit and the 2016 presidential election. Why the company shrugged after the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the terrorist attack broadcast live in Christchurch. Why he ignored warnings about the radicalization of users in QAnon and its use to organize and execute the insurgency. And why Mark Zuckerberg and his team claim they are not responsible for the spread of Covid disinformation. Since 2016, politicians, civil society groups and activists like me have been trying to persuade Facebook to change its business practices for the public good and for leaders. have always chosen the company rather than the country.