Federal governments the internet platform reform campaign has escalated dramatically this week. The general surgeon cited misinformation as a danger to public health. The White House press secretary called on Facebook to remove 12 accounts that could be responsible for as much as 65 percent of Covid’s misinformation on that page. Referring to Facebook, President Joe Biden said, “They’re killing people,” to walk back a day later. He then appointed Jonathan Kanter, the architect of the EU’s antitrust case against Google, to head the Antitrust Department of the Ministry of Justice. Finally, a table can be set for the necessary reforms.
Facebook, Youtube, Instagram and Twitter have become key communication platforms in our society, but together they undermine public health, democracy, privacy and competition, with catastrophic consequences. Most Americans understand this, but don’t want to be embarrassed by losing what they like on online platforms. And they struggle to grasp the scope of the problem. The platforms have successfully blurred the waters, using their vast wealth to co-opt huge sections of academia, research centers and NGOs, as well as many politicians.
It is easy to see why platforms are fighting so hard to resist reform. Secret disinformation, undermining democracy, violating privacy and anti-competitive behavior are not mistakes. They are examples of business models of Internet platforms that work exactly as they are designed. The problem is that platforms like Google and Facebook are too big to be safe.
To its current extent, with roughly twice as many active users as people in China, platforms like Google and Facebook pose a systemic threat analogous to climate change or a pandemic. Repairing them would be a challenge at best. But today the courts are leaning towards economic power, and Congress remains paralyzed, leaving the administration to us as the best hope. Forty years of deregulation and reduced funding have left our regulatory infrastructure with few tools and little muscle tone. Fortunately, the appointment of former FTC adviser Tim Wu to the National Economic Council, antitrust Line Khan as FTC chairman, FTC commissioner Rohit Chopra to head the Bureau of Consumer Finance, former head of the GEC’s Gensler Trade Commission , and Kanter are brilliant moves because these leaders understand the problems and will make the most of the limited tools available to them. The payoff for achieving this right will be huge.
The first challenge facing the president and his team is properly shaping the problem. The tendency of policy makers so far has been to view the damage on internet platforms not as systemic, but as a series of random problems. With limited tools and time, management must look for high-leverage options.
Internet platforms are media companies, dependent on consumer attention, but they have huge advantages over them traditional media. They have unprecedented proportions and impact. They are monitoring engines that collect user data. They supplement this by collecting location data from mobile phones; health data from prescriptions, medical tests and applications; web browsing history and the like. In addition to all this, the platforms create data voodoo dummies that allow them to predict user behavior that can be sold to advertisers and trigger power manipulation mechanisms. Platforms could use this power to make users happier, healthier, or more successful, but instead use the data to exploit each user’s emotional triggers because it’s easier to do and generates more revenue and profits.
Over the past five years, they have proven that internet platforms cannot be persuaded to reform. They do not believe that they are responsible for the damage caused by their products. They believe that this damage is a reasonable cost to their success. As a result, Facebook did nothing significant after learning it was used to interfere in Brexit and the 2016 presidential election. Why the company shrugged after the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the live terrorist attack in Christchurch. Why he ignored warnings about radicalizing users in QAnon and using it to organize and carry out the uprising. And why Mark Zuckerberg and his team pretend they are not responsible for spreading Covid’s misinformation. 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 leaders they are constantly choosing a company in relation to the country.