The dominance of these companies requires that the government consider their role in the integrity of our democracy
As lawmakers grapple with the revelations regarding Russia’s manipulation of social media during the 2016 election, many are shocked to learn the outsized role that the major tech companies play in so many aspects of “peoples lives”. Not simply do they guide what we realise, read, and buy on a regular basis, but their dominance- specifically in the market of information- now requires that we consider their role in the soundnes of our democracy.
Last week’s hearings has showed that these companies may not be up to the challenge that they’ve created for themselves. In some instances, it seems that they’ve failed to take commonsense precautions to prevent the spread of propaganda, misinformation, and detest speech.
Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, asked Google, Facebook, and Twitter some really tough questions in a judiciary committee hearing, and he captured my takeaway from recent events perfectly: the power of these companies” sometimes scares me “.
The platforms that big tech has designed may now be so large and unruly that we can’t trust the companies to get it right when they do start paying attention. If you have five million advertisers a month utilizing your highly sophisticated, nearly instantaneous ad platform, can you ever really know who all of them are? Can you ever catch all the signals that would seem obvious to a pair of human eyes- for example, political ads that are paid for in rubles?
Before I move on, I want to be very clear about something. In my view, the size of these companies is not- in isolation- their own problems. But I am extremely concerned about these platforms’ apply of Americans’ personal information to further solidify their market power and consequently extract unfair conditions from the content inventors and innovators that rely on their platforms to reach consumers.
And as has become alarmingly clear in recent months, these companies have unprecedented power to guide Americans’ access to information and potentially shape the future of journalism. It should go without saying that such power comes with great responsibility.
As the founder and top Democrat on the judiciary subcommittee on privacy, technology, and the law, I’ve watched as the tech community’s collecting and care of users’ personal information has evolved over the years. In the past, I’ve raised concerns about Facebook’s use of facial recognition technology, and I’ve pressed Google on its unauthorized collecting of K-1 2 student data.
While I appreciate that these companies have taken steps to improve transparency of their apply of Americans’ personal information in recent years, regrettably, amassing massive troves of information isn’t just a side project for them; it’s their whole business framework. We are not their customers; we are their product.
Facebook and Google’s vast collection of our personal information has fueled their advertising business, which has now become their main source of revenue and given the companies a strong duopoly in the digital advertise marketplace. Facebook announced that it constructed $9.3 bn in the second one-quarter this year, with 98% of that coming from its ad business.
Google constructed $26 bn, with 87% coming from advertise. Once these companies establish predominance over our data, they can more easily erect barriers to entry for potential competitors- in the digital advertising market as well as the other marketplaces in which they operate. Ultimately, they have even less incentive to respect our privacy going forward or more closely monitor their advertising tools for use by bad actors.
You may not like that Facebook utilizes your likes, shares, and remarks to decide for you which advertisements or pals’ posts are most relevant for your News Feed. And you may not like that Google can now deliver ads to you by blending its DoubleClick data on your web-browsing behavior with your personally identifiable information that it collected through your Gmail account. But are you ever going to delete the profile and connects you’ve spent times establishing on the world’s dominant social network? Or get rid of your Gmail account?
The information that these companies compile can also be a very dangerous weapon if it falls into the wrong hands. ProPublica recently revealed that up until two months ago, Facebook permitted advertisers using the company’s self-service ad-buying platform to target more than 2,000 people who expressed interest in the issue of quote “Jew hater” and other antisemitic themes.
While these categories were apparently automatically generated by an algorithm based on consumers’ self-reported interests, it is Facebook’s responsibility to monitor such tools and ensure that it isn’t facilitating or- worse- making a profit on such hateful activity. Facebook ultimately removed the categories from the ad platform, but only after reporters advised the company about it.
Algorithms seem to be a convenient forgive. Facebook has cited its algorithms for creating hateful advertising categories and failing to catch a hostile foreign power utilizing its platform to spread lies and sow discord. Google has now been said that its algorithms necessarily include websites dedicated to illegal activity in search results, such as pirate websites, even as in other instances it maintains that its results do indicate Google’s judgment.
And at the same day, Facebook, Google, and Amazon have employed their algorithm to extract unjust terms and fees from those dependent on its platform, promote their own products and services above those of vying companies, and even manipulate the emotional state of its users.
In 2014, Facebook wrote its findings from an experiment in which it altered its News Feed algorithm for a segment of its customers- unbeknownst to them, of course- and filtered posts based on their emotional content. As orchestrated by the altered algorithm, some customers visualized mainly positive content while others understood mostly negative content. Unsurprisingly, the big takeaway was that Facebook has the power to influence our psychological state.
So on the one hand, the troves of user data and automated algorithms attain these companies appear virtually clumsy. But on the other, they’re a sophisticated strategic tool used to maintain and strengthen their own power. As Americans have lost meaningful control over their personal information, the contents inventors that rely on platforms to reach customers have lost all of their leverage.
Shortly before I was finally seated in the Senate, back in July of 2009, then-Majority Leader Reid asked me to serve on members of the judiciary committee. I pointed out that there are a lot of lawyers in the US Senate and that I wasn’t one of them. But Harry, in his wisdom, said that that was exactly why he wanted me on the committee:” We require members with that view on judiciary. You’ll be great !”
Of course, Harry was just BSing. I was the last senator to arrive, and he had a place to fill on members of the judiciary Committee.
Nonetheless, it’s through my work on judiciary- and more specifically my work on engineering policy- that I belief my perspective as an entertainer has been of most value. I understand what it is meant to dedicate your life to letter, making, and praying that somebody somewhere will eventually get to appreciate your work.
In more styles than not, the internet, along with all the companies we’re discussing here today, has built it was feasible for every American- no matter their corner of the country- to express themselves to their friends- and to people all over the world.
But as the wealth of information available on the internet has grown, big tech has taken it upon itself to sort through all the viewpoints, news, and recreation, and decide for us what we should read, watch, buy, or even how we should engage in civil society. And they’re doing it all under the shadow of complicated algorithms that construct little sense to either the content inventors whose livelihood depends on them or the users whose everyday decisions they’re controlling.
It doesn’t require an antitrust lawyer understood that these companies’ dominance in the market of information dedicates them tremendous power to prescribe terms with correspondents, publishers, and writers and to control the information available to consumers.
As it stands now, Google and Facebook control 75% of all internet news traffic referrals, means that three out of four times an internet user accesses a news story online, they get there via Google or Facebook. The numbers are even more alarming by topic. According to Parsely analytics, almost 60% of” US Presidential Politics” traffic comes through Facebook, nearly 25% comes through Google, and less than 16% comes through other sources.
With this unprecedented power, platforms have both the incentive and the ability to redirect into their own pockets the advertising dollars that once fueled the newspaper business. And news publishers fighting for eyes are forced to navigate Facebook and Google’s optimization policies, which have previously prevented news organizations from applying paywalls or offering subscription service and have driven columnists to write stories that they know will be promoted in Google Search, on News Feeds, and in the “trending” part of Facebook.
While I appreciate the companies’ recent efforts to ensure that publishers and correspondents are more adequately compensated, the end ensue may be the same: journalism for the masses and the never-ending search for the next viral narrative.
In his book World Without Mind, Franklin Foer describes newsrooms’ reliance on Chartbeat- a site that allows them to way in real day the audience of each and every article, which of course gas advertise, and ultimately puts pressure on journalists and editors to create the most click-worthy story.
To quote Foer:” The site’s needle stimulated us seem as if our magazine were a car, showing us either sputtering up the hill of a poor traffic period or cruising to a satisfying number .” During the 2016 election, then presidential candidate Donald Trump, with his truly unpredictable outbursts on Twitter, was the perfect focus for newsrooms striving just as much traffic as possible.
Tragically, the need to find the next viral story may soon hit the book-selling business as well.
In 2007, Amazon revolutionized reading where reference is unveiled the Kindle. With the introduction of the e-reader, Americans could instantly access almost any volume they desired- from the comfort of their home and at an all-time low price.
It is widely reported that Amazon strategically defined their prices below cost in an attempt to capture the market. Indeed, for years, American consumers benefited from the company’s ultra-low prices and slowly shifted their business away from brick-and-mortar stores and other online retailers. Currently, Amazon controls over 83% of e-book sales, nearly 90% of online publish marketings, and nearly 99% of digital audio sales.
Amazon has since used its unprecedented monopsony power to force publishers to agree to contract terms and conditions that the publishers say have stalled price competition among book distributors, ultimately ensuing in higher e-book prices for customers.
Amazon currently requires that the publishers reliant on its platform pay the company a subsidy any time a rival distributor offers customers a lower price. This allows Amazon to immediately match the price set by its competitors and deters lower costs and future deals between its competitives and publishers.
Amazon has also utilized its power to demand additional payments for critical items like warehousing and inclusion in its personalized user recommendations- an algorithm that I’m sure most consumers accept is based purely on their personal predilections. And now that Amazon is a publisher itself, it has every incentive and ability to promote its own volumes over those of others in user recommendations, price promotions, and bestseller lists.
As a recent article by Lina Khan so neatly lays out, in many ways, Amazon’s evolution in the book business is the perfect illustration of how an entity can use anticompetitive tactics to not only capture a market, but likewise preserve it, and ultimately use its platform to enter and predominate entirely new marketplaces. Like nappies.
And as we’ve seen in the book business, once Amazon captures a market, it then has the ability to eliminate competition on consumer prices. So while Amazon’s prices on any made item may be low for now, it’s only a matter of time before the company starts squeezing customers. Like we’ve seen with diapers.
Unsurprisingly, as a result of Amazon’s tactics in the book business, publishers say they’re selling fewer books than they otherwise would. And they fear the day that they’ll be unable to invest in new writers or less popular genres, instead focusing all of their diminishing resources on the “blockbusters” of the book business. These are the some of the long-term results that I find truly disturbing.
Now, I have invested much of my time in the Senate advocating for strong net neutrality regulations to save the longstanding principle that all lawful content on the internet should receive equal treatment from internet service providers regardless of who owns the contents or how much fund he or she has in the bank.
And in 2015, billions of American both consumers and businesses celebrated the FCC’s landmark vote to preserve a free and open internet under Title II of the Communications Act. Ensuring those strong rules are maintained- and enforced- remains my top priority.
As tech giants become a new kind of internet gatekeeper, I belief the same basic principles of net neutrality should apply here: no one company should have the power to pick and choose which content reaches consumers and which doesn’t. And Facebook, Google, and Amazon- like ISPs- should be “neutral” in their therapy of the flow of lawful information and commerce on their platforms.
Following years of hard work and faithfulnes, we found in the Open Internet Order a strong and time-tested framework to protect net neutrality. While we oppose to preserve the Order, we must now begin a thorough examination of big tech’s practises in order to secure the free flow of information on the internet.
Everyone is rightfully focused on Russian manipulation of social media, but as lawmakers, it is incumbent upon us to ask the broader questions. How did big tech come to control so many aspects of our lives? How is it applying our personal information to strengthen its reach and its bottom line? Are these companies fully participate in anticompetitive behavior that restricts the free flow of information and commerce? Are they failing to take simple precautions to respect our privacy and safeguard our republic? And finally, what role should these companies play in our lives, and how do we ensure transparency and accountability from them going forward?
I am grateful to the advocacy community for contemplating these incredibly complex issues and ensuring that lawmakers pay attention. I’m hopeful that recent events are contributing to regulators, as well as a broader contingent of my colleagues- on both sides of the aisle- to give this issue the attention it deserves.
The government has a responsibility to ensure that these firms do not endanger our national security, our democracy, or our fundamental freedoms.
We need to talk about data regarding digital advertise and how it influences tournament and encourages a disregard for Americans’ privacy. We need to better understand how past deals- Google’s acquisitions of DoubleClick and Waze or Facebook’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram, for example- have impacted customers’ privacy and big tech’s ability to establish an obstacle to entry for emerging competitives.
And eventually, we urgently need to conduct vigorous oversight- in the form of investigations and hearings- to fully understand current practices and possibilities for harm. We must work together to make this happen.
Al Franken is a United States senator from Minnesota. This op-ed is accommodated from Keynote statements Franken gave to the Open Markets Institute