It’s time for presidency to control large tech in a method that places the pursuits of customers first
There are few images that better summarize the fundamental shift in our approach to technology: A CEO from Silicon Valley with a background artfully arranged with plants and books on a Zoom call and being grilled by politicians.
That was the case again this week when major tech CEOs were dragged before Congress to explain tech’s role in the Capitol riots in January of this year.
What it captures is our belated caution about digital technology and social media. After rushing to embrace the transformative appeal of a new, shiny, digital world in the 2000s, we’ve since realized that it has many drawbacks: misinformation and conspiracy theories, polarization, distraction, and perhaps most importantly, an insidious, evolving one Form of capitalism based on surveillance, exploitation and worse.
So we’re trying to regulate this – asking tech companies to contain the evils of digital platforms so we can soften the bad and hold on to the good.
But how and what we regulate is an important question. Note: Prior to testifying before Congress, Mark Zuckerberg submitted a written testimony on Section 230, a US law that protects tech platforms from liability for the things its users post. It is an important law that has been deliberately misrepresented by the American right.
However, when asked how tech companies could be regulated, Zuckerberg argued, “Instead of receiving immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place to identify and remove illegal content.”
Be careful when monopolies invite their own regulation. Billions of things are published every day on technical platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others. The only way to mitigate this informational miasm for hateful or illegal content and more is through automated, digital tools – and the only companies that can truly do this on this scale are those with cutting edge technology, huge R&D budgets, and deep Bags.
In other words, Facebook wants to be regulated, but in a way that only a company like Facebook can be. Give it what it wants and its power will only grow because other competitors simply don’t have the resources to keep up.
This is the problem we face: we know we have to do something about technology, but if we get it wrong, our problems won’t just go unresolved. it could cement the dominance of the current tech oligopoly.
The risk here is that when large companies grow to be a problem, they themselves become a problem. Their size and wealth enable them to do things that other organizations cannot and that individual countries must control.
A recent article in the Washington Post outlined how a slew of internet companies – not just the big platforms we know, but also more obscure companies that operate the underlying infrastructure – effectively use police languages on the internet. In the vacuum created by a lack of government oversight, a handful of American companies are deciding what can and can’t happen online.
In fact, we have outsourced decisions about the nature of the modern public to a group of private organizations, some of which – Facebook and Amazon in particular – are disproportionately controlled by billionaire men who are not accountable to anyone.
What do we do then? A start would be to prioritize regulation, which did not favor the power of tech companies at all, and ask them to essentially stay as they are, but with a little tighter or better moderation.
Instead, regulation should be about the public and what’s best for them. One such idea is the simple but important concept of a “wearable identity”: a transferable social media profile that doesn’t need to be linked to a particular company’s network. Right now, we’re more likely to stay on Facebook or Twitter because it cuts us off from our social networks or the news when we’re not around. A wearable identity could be the beginning of a cross-platform connection and, most importantly, enable the emergence of competing platforms that don’t have billions.
It’s just an idea. But that’s exactly what only a government can insist on, precisely because it goes against the interests of big tech.
But that is exactly what regulation is supposed to do. And if we want to start scrutinizing technology – to live in a digital world where the rise of technology doesn’t just bring harm and social deterioration – then it’s time to stop inviting tech companies to telling us how they want to be regulated. Mark Zuckerberg may have ideas about what might be best for Facebook, but that’s not our concern. And with governments now struggling to regulate the technology, they should ignore the requests of the big tech companies and do what they should, at least in theory, do: put the interests of the people they represent first.
Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance technology columnist for the star. Follow him on Twitter: @navalang
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