The attack on the US Capitol was incited and planned over Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other digital media platforms, and it is a warning to Europe.
Unfortunately, the recently proposed policies by EU Commission vice president Margrethe Vestager and the European Commission, called the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA), are poorly equipped to deal with the extreme toxicities of the digital media platform business model.
These interventions, like many of the previous ones from Vestager, are narrowly framed in terms of their impact on competition and consumers.
But most of the worst atrocities of the Big Tech Media business model cannot be dealt with through a competition frame.
The commission’s proposals not only lack regulatory strength, but also a broader vision for how the digital platforms should work.
My contacts in Silicon Valley are rolling their eyes because they believe DSA/DMA will change so little.
Since the birth of the digital media platforms 15 years ago, democracies around the world have been subjected to a grand experiment: can a nation’s news and information infrastructure, which is the lifeblood of any democracy, be dependent on digital technologies that allow a global free speech zone of unlimited audience size, combined with algorithmic (non-human) curation of massive volumes of mis/disinformation that can be spread with unprecedented ease and reach?
The evidence has become frighteningly clear that this experiment has veered off course, like a Frankenstein monster marauding across the landscape.
Facebook is no longer simply a “social networking” website – it is the largest media giant in the history of the world, a combination publisher and broadcaster with approximately 2.6 billion regular users and billions more on the Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Instagram.
A mere 100 pieces of Covid-19 misinformation on Facebook were shared 1.7 million times and had 117 million views – that’s far more viewers than the New York Times, Washington Post, Bild, Daily Mail, Le Monde, ARD, BBC and CNN combined.
The Facebook/Google/Twitter media empires have been used by bad actors for disinformation campaigns in over 70 countries to undermine elections, even helping elect a quasi-dictator in the Philippines; and to widely amplify and even livestream child abusers, pornographers and the Christchurch mass murderer.
How can we unite to take action on climate change when a majority of YouTube climate change videos denies the science, and 70 percent of what YouTube’s two billion users watch comes from its sensation-driven recommendation algorithm?
The commission doesn’t seem to recognise how the competition frame utterly fails to address these abuses. So what alternative approach should the EU take?
Reclaiming the promise of the internet
These Silicon Valley platforms are creating the new 21st century infrastructure of the digital age, requiring a whole new business model.
The EU should treat these companies more like investor-owned utilities, as Europe and the US previously did with telephone, railroad and power companies (Mark Zuckerberg himself has suggested such an approach).
As utilities, they would be guided by a digital license – just like traditional brick-and-mortar companies must apply for various licenses and permits — that defines the rules and regulations of the business model.
Along those lines, the EU should realign its digital media market according to a fiduciary ‘duty of care’ obligation, a kind of Hippocratic oath and precautionary principle that entails a legal responsibility to ‘first, do no harm.’
British authorities have been trying to erect the foundations of this approach.
For example, these companies never asked for permission to start sucking up our private data, or to track our physical locations or mass collect every “like,” “share” and “follow” into psychographic profiles of each user.
They started this massive data grab secretly, forging their destructive brand of “surveillance capitalism.”
Now that we know, should the EU continue to allow this? Shouldn’t the default regulation require platforms to obtain users’ permission to collect any of our personal data, i.e. opt-in rather than opt-out? The DSA gets it backwards, providing only a vague “opt out” right, and the GDPR’s user consent requirement is riddled with loopholes.
The new model also should encourage competition by limiting the mega-scale audience size of these digital media giants.
And it should restrain the use of specific ‘engagement’ techniques, such as hyper-targeting of content, automated recommendations, addictive behavioural nudges (like autoplay and pop-up screens) and filter bubbles that allow manipulation.
These frequent outrages against our democracies and humanity are supposedly the price we must pay for being able to post our summer vacation and new puppy pics to our “friends,” or for political dissidents and whistleblowers to alert the world to their just causes.
Those are all important uses, but the price paid is very high.
With so much at stake, it’s not clear why the European Commission continues to rely on the small hammer of a narrow “competition” frame.
The challenge now is to establish sensible guardrails for this 21st century digital infrastructure, so that we can harness the good that these technologies provide, and greatly mitigate the dangerous impacts.
[Steven Hill is the former policy director at the Center for Humane Technology and author of seven books, including Raw Deal: How the Uber Economy and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers and The Startup Illusion: How the Internet Economy Threatens Our Welfare.]