While it’s no secret to anyone watching the stratospheric growth of Facebook and Google over the past decade, the recent congressional report on antitrust and the technology sector made it clear: We have a problem, and its name is Big Tech.
The groundbreaking report, authored by House Judiciary Committee staff, details the abuses that occur when a handful of giant firms dominate almost every aspect of the online marketplace. “To put it simply,” the report reads, “companies that once were scrappy, underdog startups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in the control that the two companies exert over online advertising. And the consequences have been devastating — not only to the news industry, which has seen its sources of revenue evaporate as advertisers have abandoned traditional placements in print, radio and television, but also to the sort of civil discourse that is the lifeblood of a functioning democracy.
There’s a way out of this mess. But it requires actions that go beyond antitrust enforcement to include updating privacy laws to protect the civil rights of platform users, taxing online-advertising revenues to support independent journalism, and modifying these companies’ community standards to prevent the spread of hate and disinformation across their networks.
Make privacy rights civil rights
These tech companies make money by collecting our personal data and repackaging it for sale to the highest bidder. Facebook uses information about our likes, dislikes, friends and families to place ads in our feed that are designed to provoke a particular response. Google uses data about our online searches, browsing histories and offline locations to give advertisers a full-field view of user behavior and place targeted ads throughout our internet experience.
Our data is the most valuable commodity these multibillion-dollar companies hold. And they wield it in ways that enable discrimination against people of color, women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, religious minorities, immigrants and other marginalized communities.
A 2016 ProPublica investigation found that a Facebook ad-targeting tool allowed realtors to sift through our data and restrict who could see housing-related ads based on our “Ethnic Affinities.” Even though Facebook agreed in a 2019 settlement to fix this problem, the company still allows advertisers to manipulate these tools to accomplish similar discriminatory results.
We must outlaw discrimination in the data economy. To that end, Free Press Action and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law created draft legislation and called on Congress to treat privacy rights as civil rights. We must have control over the ways our personal information is used, and prohibit any company from manipulating our data to build systems that disenfranchise and oppress.
Impose a platform ad tax for journalism
Since the launch of Facebook in 2004, the number of U.S. newspaper employees has dropped by more than half, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hundreds of newsrooms have folded altogether, and right now more than 1,000 communities are news deserts without any local-news outlets.
Many factors have contributed to the news industry’s demise. Runaway newspaper consolidation has burdened many conglomerates with debts they can no longer repay, while venture capitalists have swooped in to purchase struggling local-news outlets, strip them of their assets, flip them and move on. The emergence of Facebook and Google, which have wielded their command of our data to control more than 60% of digital-ad revenues, has also undercut the industry.
Traditional advertising once helped underwrite the production of news that people relied on to stay informed and participate in our democracy. But now online advertising is controlled by two companies that aren’t in the business of news.
To restore this social contract, Free Press Action has proposed a tax on targeted online advertising to respond to the crisis in journalism and fund diverse, local and independent news and information. For example, an annual 2% tax of online enterprises of a certain scale would yield nearly $2 billion for a new and independent endowment to fund local-news projects of all types — bringing water to news deserts across the country.
Change the terms and stop the spread of hate and disinformation
Facebook has long known that its ad-driven business model amplifies divisive posts over friendlier fare. But the company, which prioritizes growth above all else, buried an internal report warning against dangerous uses of its advertising and engagement algorithms.
As a result, the platform is now a megaphone for the spread of bigotry and disinformation. Recently, a local paramilitary group used Facebook event pages to urge people to arm themselves against racial-justice protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Facebook’s engagement algorithms pushed this call to arms into the feeds of thousands of users, despite it being flagged as harmful 455 times. It was only after an armed man killed two protesters in Kenosha that Facebook admitted to a so-called “operational mistake.”
With our allies in the Change the Terms and Stop Hate for Profit coalitions, Free Press has crafted policy changes that online platforms should adopt to curb the spread of toxic and hateful activities online. These include reining in algorithms that recommend or amplify content from groups associated with hate, disinformation or conspiracies.
Many platforms have already adopted some of these policies. But others, including Facebook and Google-owned YouTube, have ignored most of our recommendations.
We struggle every day to convince their executives to stop profiting from hate and disinformation, to rewire the technology that drives their dominance of the multibillion-dollar advertising marketplace.
Their obligation to users’ health and safety must be greater than that.
Congress’ antitrust report offers sobering evidence of the scale and dominance of these tech giants. But antitrust enforcement is just one piece of a patchwork of actions our country must take to rein in their power and protect everyone from groups associated with hate, disinformation or conspiracies.