Government Opinion Society

We Lost on Net Neutrality. We Have a Bigger Problem.

Last week’s FCC decision to potentially allow ISPs to distort the free flow of information on the internet pipes they control was a mistake. But most of the debate, and the often apocalyptic language used to describe its potential consequences, fails to acknowledge a more immediate problem: The same nightmare scenario that net neutrality advocates are worrying about is already happening.

Onstage at Techonomy 2016 with author David Kirkpatrick, Mark Zuckerberg initiated a year of growing skepticism by saying it was a “crazy idea” that fake news on Facebook affected the U.S. election. Photo: Paul Sakuma Photography

Facebook’s Newsfeed and Google’s search results are the two most central sources of digital information for the world. For each of them, all decisions about what information is given priority and visibility are made by one commercial company whose primary goal is ad revenue and profit. There is no consultation with the public, no regulatory oversight, and no recourse for errors or distortions.

The least neutral places on the internet are the Newsfeed and Google search.

Yes, I worry that Comcast or AT&T or Verizon might decide to slow or speed Netflix or to somehow disadvantage some future startup that has the potential to transform my media experience. These are legitimate worries discussed by net neutrality advocates. But at least there are competitive and other mechanisms already operating that might be able to deter them, including new requirements in the FCC decision that ISPs disclose how they alter their treatment of data flows.

There are no such mechanisms that might deter, regulate, or formally disclose distortions that arise from the Newsfeed and Google search. No credible proposals are being discussed anywhere that would address the absolute control these still-growing net colossi have over the public dialogue.

The recent onslaught of fake news and its pernicious effects on politics and the public dialogue has underscored that there are real-world consequences, right now. This is in large part a result of poor governance in the centralized social information systems operated by Facebook and Google. But I am hearing no good ideas on either oversight or remedies from advocates, governments, or the companies themselves.

We do need better rules on network neutrality. But we also need a Congress, regulators, and government officials all over the world who will tackle the real challenges to openness and the free flow of speech and data. Too bad there isn’t the same public debate about how regulation could address the present crisis as there was about the Trump FCC’s ill-advised decision.

Tags: ,

  • rlbrandt

    David, you correctly point out that Google and Newsfeed are not regulated. I can’t comment on Newsfeed, but I did a lot of research on Google when writing my book. It is important to point out that Google was founded on the premise of giving unbiased search results when all other “search engines” gave higher priority to advertisers. Larry and Sergey found that assigning priority based on the intrinsic popularity of websites gave the most relevant results. Regulators tend to overlook the fact that Google always refused to give advertisers higher search results. That’s how it took over the business, and is the competitive mechanism that keeps Google popular — and honest. Your point about Fake News, however, is well-taken. Many of those sites are popular. But how do you keep the search results neutral when you cut fake news sites from the results?

    • davidkirkpatrick

      So good to see you here, Richard. Long time no talk. Your final question is just one of many that are at this point essentially unanswerable. However “unbiased” Google has attempted to make its algorithms, “popularity” can be defined in numerous ways. The company does not disclose its process for algorithmic ranking, or for any other form of tuning, so the public, governments, and society are left in the dark and at the mercy of the company’s commercially-driven decisionmaking. For one thing, even if we accept that some objective definition of “popularity” is Google’s policy, what is our guarantee that the company is abiding by its own proclaimed definition? Already Google has faced huge fines in Europe, where the EU has concluded the rankings were distorted to Google’s commercial advantage. Also, Google owns YouTube, which presents related challenges, and whose algorithmic priorities are even less clear. Ultimately Google and Facebook must somehow make their own decisionmaking more transparent, especially to governments. The processes by which that will happen remain undetermined.