The internet was supposed to usher in an era of democracy and personal empowerment. It has morphed into a system that knows where you drive your car and what’s in your refrigerator to your web of relationships and the details of your deepest personal preferences.
There is a storm of rage in America, and Facebook is at its vortex. Its misuse of the private information of 50 million Americans and leading role in debasing our elections have appalled the country’s sensibilities. But the problem runs much deeper than one company or one scandal — it’s a generational challenge posed by the rise of the Big Tech platforms and their unrivaled economic and political power.
The idea that Facebook, Google, Amazon and other “Edge Giants” invade your privacy to explore your information is not surprising. It’s their business model, “a feature not a bug” as they say in Mountain View, California. Unrestrained by any standards, these giants thirst to know everything about you. Cambridge Analytica is just one of too many examples.
But invasions of privacy are just one facet of a larger pattern of abuse.
Today’s Big Tech giants have redefined the concept of “monopoly.” While earlier giants like Standard Oil and AT&T made and sold things, Facebook and Google don’t “sell” products or services; instead they are connectors and “market makers” that forge and then manipulate online communities. They are a new kind of “natural monopoly” — driven by data and a strategy for ongoing surveillance to control your online life.
The Big Tech platforms suck up the economic value others create in these new communities — a sort of digital racketeering that increasingly impoverishes creators with little ability to resist. Google and Facebook suck the advertising lifeblood out of newspapers and other media by scraping valuable work so that captive users never need to leave Big Tech platforms. YouTube’s open invitation to the world’s worst content pirates is far from a dirty secret, even though readily available technology could help thwart them. But by forcing artists to compete with their own, stolen products, they can drive down royalties in a never-ending race to the bottom.
And Big Tech’s dominance has chillingly spread to the regulatory system itself, where tech’s massive war chest and unprecedented scale are used to extract “regulatory rents” from targeted industries they seek to absorb. Google, for example, recently sought an FCC rule to give it free access to pay TV streams in order to create its own “cable service” competitor to Netflix and others — only without negotiating, or paying, for the content.
And now Big Tech is back, with a campaign to promote a contorted, narrow version of “net neutrality” that would immunize it from neutrality’s basic premise — that online traffic cannot be prioritized for revenue-driven reasons. Yes, internet service providers should not be allowed to discriminate against online content or traffic. But neither should Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or anyone else.
In the face of these epochal social and economic challenges, we have seen little more than a handful of bills slightly improving user privacy and requiring more disclosure for political ads. But what’s really needed is a modern equivalent of the trust busting of a century ago.
One place to start is by expanding the net-neutrality debate. Neutrality was supposed to protect us from internet providers acting as “gatekeepers,” directing us to their preferred partners and content. Yet that’s exactly what Big Tech does to make its profits. Let’s apply neutrality in an evenhanded way, including to the Big Tech platforms where it is needed most.
Another is to build on the recent bipartisan rollback of immunity for Big Tech’s role in online sex trafficking and expand that approach to other abuses — so that the platforms can no longer turn an irresponsible blind eye to the illegal gun sales, election interference and content theft they enable. In fact, Google feels so threatened by even the most minimal standards that it lobbied extensively and took other actions against the “SESTA” sex trafficking bill that limited Backpage’s immunity for postings on its site facilitating human trafficking.
And finally, we need real enforcement of antitrust and competition laws. Both the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission need to wake up and aggressively investigate these platforms and their ability to shape, dominate and manipulate the online markets under their control. And that may well include busting up the Google Alphabet Trust — denying it the ability to collect personal data in one line of business and then leverage it to dominate another. Too many of my own fellow Democrats have given Big Tech a pass — it’s time to end the patronage politics and cultivation of relationships with pols and campaign operatives. Democrats will one day suffer if they do not stop the free ride for Big Tech.
The internet was supposed to usher in an era of democracy, decentralization and personal empowerment. It is rapidly morphing into a system that knows everything about you, from where you drive your car and what’s in your refrigerator to your web of relationships and the details of your deepest personal preferences. We must recognize the risks this hegemonic power poses. The dream of the internet hangs in the balance.