Addressing the tech giants’ control over a wide range of economic and expressive activity
Katy Glenn Bass
The ad model is driving many of our online speech woes: Facebook, Google, and the other tech giants collect massive amounts of data about their users, which is then used to make predictions about the kinds of content those users want to see. This “ad model”— selling advertisements to companies wishing to take advantage of the intricate profiles of potential consumers developed by the tech giants—is how many of them have made their fortunes
This is particularly true of Google and Facebook, which now command an effective duopoly over online advertising. And this ad model differs from conventional advertising in that the data the platforms gather interacts with algorithms that are designed to hold users’ attention and keep them on the platform (in order to collect additional information about their behavior)—a dynamic that favors controversial and inflammatory content and contributes to filter bubbles, polarization, and the spread of misinformation and disinformation.
Where many problems are observed, many tools are required: Even the proponents of using anti-monopoly tools to limit the power of the tech giants to distort discourse agree that these measures alone cannot address all the problems observed on the platforms. Symposium participants discussed many additional approaches to protecting the speech environment online, including strengthening protections for user privacy on the platforms, taxing the tech giants and using the proceeds to fund public-minded technology and news initiatives, building social media algorithms that are optimized for different goals (other than maximizing ad revenue), introducing more friction into the process of sharing information online, and self-regulation efforts or the development of internal ethical codes by the tech companies.
The ailments of the free press need special attention: With local news outlets shuttering in droves and the few remaining national outlets facing an uncertain future. The redirection of advertising revenue away from traditional media companies towards the new platforms, the growing incentives for newsrooms to create content that will maximize user engagement, and the power the tech giants have over media outlets’ ability to reach existing and new audiences are altering both the economics and editorial approach of the news business.
Deconcentration in the tech sector would help the media industry, it would be far from sufficient to ensure an independent, diverse, strong future for news. Doing so will require special efforts focused on articulating the kinds of news initiatives that we want and designing tools to support them, with an emphasis on the development of non-profit and publicly funded models of journalism.
It’s time to imagine a different internet: As unhappiness with Big Tech grows, a space may be opening to consider not only how to change the existing tech giants but also how to re-imagine the internet itself. If we want a more vibrant environment for discourse online, we should be prepared to consider paths that look very different from the ones that led us here.
What other models could we envision for existing and new companies? What new forms of funding might we need to realize these ideas? The U.S. tech giants are essential to remaining competitive with the Chinese tech sector, arguing instead that breaking them up would be better not just for market competition but also for national security.
We need more research access to the platforms: For all of the diversity of perspectives and ideas. There are enormous gaps in our understanding of how the tech giants affect expression, discourse, and the free flow of information. This is due in large part to the lack of transparency on the part of the platforms about their human and machine-made decisions, and how these decisions are shaping and distorting speech online. Among the impediments to understanding how the platforms work is the companies’ refusal to allow researchers and journalists to access and analyze data that could illuminate these processes.
Excerpts from: “The Knight Institute is currently engaged in discussions with Facebook about amending its terms of service to make it easier to conduct public-interest journalism and research on the platform: New Essay Series: The Tech Giants, Monopoly Power, and Public Discourse. Courtesy: Knight First Amendment Institute
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