Will you choose the blue pill or the red pill? This cultural reference refers to the movie The Matrix where the protagonist Neo is awoken to find out his world is merely a computer simulation. Nothing he knew as real life was truly real but rather humans had been enslaved by computers and machines. What does this fictional plot to a blockbuster movie have to do with political policy, real life technology or social issues? This week our Sunday Read will focus on the impact of giant tech companies, mass data collection, disinformation and how what is meant to bring us together may actually be driving us apart. This letter was inspired by the documentary The Social Dilemma, a thought-provoking documentary on the impact of “Big Tech” that was originally made popular by Netflix, I encourage you to watch it, but first let’s explore…
Social media is a term that refers most commonly to companies such as Facebook, its subsidiary Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat etc… More broadly thinking in terms of “Big Tech”, one can include Google as well. These companies were largely founded on the idea of bringing people together, creating connections, and using the full capacity of the internet to do so. However, the way these companies’ function has morphed significantly over the past decade or so. On the surface they work as connection brokers but on a deeper level they are giant data collection machines. This data collection has come to drive conflicts behind national security, social justice and climate change to name a few.
In order to understand the impact these technologies have we must first understand what drives the companies behind the technology. Companies such as Google or Facebook have designed their business model around a service, searching the internet, or connecting with friends and exposure to content. This same idea applies to YouTube as well. However, we don’t pay for those services provided by these companies. Afterall, googling is free, and Facebook doesn’t charge for its usage either! How can these companies make money by providing free services? The answer… advertisements. Tristan Harris, a former senior employee at a big tech company and founder of The Center for Humane Technology was quoted in the Netflix film as saying, “if you are not paying for the product, then you are the product”. What he means is, since we do not pay to use these services, big tech is selling their ability to hold our attention and influence our behavior to the highest bidder. That might be Lulu Lemon, or it might be Fox news, but they have an algorithm for that.
Surveillance Capitalism is the monetization of the infinite tracking of millions of data points. When, where, how long and what time you interact with applications such as Facebook are tracked. These data points are used to establish what content keeps you engaged longer and prompts responses from you, through shares, link clicks or responses. This information is then used to optimize their advertising revenue. How does Facebook know to show you that advertisement for that perfect pair of shoes? Because it has millions of data points from your own behavior online as well as from those it thinks are like you and then uses that data to compute what it thinks you will like or do next. Certainly, it is easy to think, “What’s so wrong with having great suggestions for my next YouTube video”? What happens when these services decide what news to show you next? Or what impacts a virus has, or whether it is necessary to wear a mask? Are the ice caps melting at a faster rate than normal? When you are done reading this, search google by typing in “climate change”. Compare your autofill results and the first few links to that of a family member… do they match? This “trick” was highlighted in the Netflix film and really underscores a significant implication of big tech and big data. How can we agree on what is factual if the sources we rely on for information are distributing different information to each of us?
A news article in Forbes Magazine by Peter Suciu highlights a study done by the PEW Research Center which reports that 55% of adults in the US get their news from social media ‘often’ or at least ‘sometimes’. This means that over half the voting adults of the United States are relying on information that is not verified as true, but rather has been tailored to them through the sale of their own habits, beliefs and practices. Let’s try a mental exercise. Imagine if you lived in the times of early exploration and for all your life believed the world was flat. You talked about a flat earth at the dinner table, with your friends and even at school. Now imagine a neighbor’s family across the street who believed the world was round. They held discussions about this in a similar manner as your family. Finally, when word of an explorer’s journey reached back to your town herald (the guy that announces things at a royal court), instead of announcing the discoveries for all to hear, he told your family that based on what he had heard you talking about in town, he was glad to report that the world was indeed flat. Just as he did the same for the other family, noting that the explorer found that the world was in fact round. One can see from this mental exercise the significant dissension this could cause. It seems ludicrous to imagine this scenario, but an identical one is playing out on Google and Facebook alike and has already occurred in the 2016 presidential election.
So, who is responsible in this scenario for the information disseminated to the public? Certainly, if it came to light that the town herald was telling outright lies or giving different stories to various townspeople, they themselves would likely be without a job. But what about Facebook, Google and other Big Tech companies? Is Facebook responsible for what you write or share? Are they responsible for what Fox news or CNN shares on their individual organizational pages? This question has massive implications towards free speech, propaganda, and publisher/distributer rights. The Communications Decency Act has a section 230c which is the prevailing legal section that dictates the behavior of online distributors today. To better understand this, let’s look at an article published in The Verge. It notes the origination of the distributor vs publisher argument in 1950’s Los Angeles, where a town ordinance identified the presence of explicit material in a store as a criminal act of the store. This was eventually prosecuted out through a case against a store owner who had a book in his store with explicit material in it. The store owner was eventually charged criminally, and the case made its way to The Supreme Court. The Court ruled in this case that the store had no way to review all the material in all the books it sold and was therefore not responsible for that material. They were in essence a distributor not a publisher. Fast forward to the age of the internet, the same question is posed to Facebook and Twitter.
Section 230c (found here):
This article states that if an internet company censors any content it forgoes the benefits of being a distributor and assumes the role of publisher, therefore becoming responsible for all content on its site. The law does provide some protections for “Good Samaritan Blocking”. The law loosely defines what subject areas and content may fall under these Good Samaritan protections however the guidelines are vague and often left up for interpretation. Most recently questions regarding the censorship of misinformation regarding the Covid-19 virus and pandemic have come into question. Twitter has recently censored information published by The President of The United States, and yet the Department of Justice told a court that information posted from the Official Presidential Twitter account may constitute national policy. The lines for censorship, data collection and its use are blurry at best. Who do we hold responsible for our political divides? Do government leaders enjoy special exceptions to censorship rules as a matter of policy distribution?
We will explore these questions and proposed solutions in Part 2 of The Sunday Edition: Whose tech is it anyways next week.
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Ben Velardi, Founder/Author