Demands to regulate hi-tech companies like Google, Facebook and Apple are being heard at deafening pitch almost every day. This rush by the political herd on both sides of the Atlantic to make new laws (or to enforce the breakup of these corporations) is no better focused or thought-out than the extraordinary degree of latitude which the same political classes were prepared to allow the same online platforms only a couple of years ago.
The cry for regulation and the laissez-faire inertia of the recent past have a common origin: ignorance. The cure for ignorance is knowledge. And knowledge of exactly what these companies do and don’t do must be the foundation of any further action to get them to shoulder their moral and civic responsibilities. If laws are needed to prevent harm, let them first compel transparency. Any politician pushing that line has my vote.
But suppose that Facebook is open to inspection by national agencies or commissions which supervise elections. That would not necessarily mean open to public inspection, but perhaps to bodies whose duty is to check electoral fairness and compliance with the law. Why would that be so hard?
Digital technologies rewrite the relationships between society’s elements. Online networks decouple, for instance, the generation of information, ideas and entertainment from their distribution (think Facebook for news, Netflix for movies and Amazon for books). New responsibilities arise from these changes. Powerful new actors in society’s communication system acquire new obligations to protect the quality of public reason. The new networks are, whether they like it or not, part of the “infrastructure of free expression”. Zuckerberg himself has said that Facebook is “an important part of the public discourse”.
But attempting to dodge these burdens, another Facebook top honcho was still recently pretending that it is not a publisher, should not be treated as a publisher, and is really just a band of engineers. The argument over whether Facebook is or isn’t a publisher is silly, sterile and the kind of down-the-rabbit-hole squabble which is encouraged by attempts at ill thought out regulation.
Social networks don’t employ writers – although they do employ people who are indistinguishable from editors – so they are not publishers in the conventional sense. But their power and reach give them new duties in the new allocation of powers.
At the minimum, this should require a high degree of transparency, not just about the algorithms they use, but also about all aspects of their operations. Since the hi-tech powers have not been willing to provide this, governments are going to have to require it and legislate to make it stick. The corporations will lobby and complain, citing “commercial confidentiality”. But a sufficiently determined government can solve these issues – and face down threats that jobs will be taken to other, more compliant countries.
Regulation is often ill-conceived and ineffective, not least because it is based on inadequate understanding or information. Greater transparency will disclose whether further regulation is required and make it better targeted, providing specific remedies for clearly identified ills. (An example of Google’s odd combination of opacity and public interest activity is evident in the case of the “right to be forgotten” in Europe.)
Transparency would have its own radical effect inside the tech giants. If Facebook and others must account in detail to an electoral commission or data protection authority for micro-targeting or “dark” ads, are forbidden from deleting certain relevant data, and must submit to algorithm audits, they will forced to foresee and to try to solve some of the problems which they have been addressing so slowly.
Governments have allowed Facebook to build the most lucrative advertising engine the world has ever seen. Facebookers accept that they have “responsibilities” but they’re vague about what those actually are. Enforceable disclosure is the best place to start.
This article first appeared on http://georgebrock.net