Historically, technology typically runs ahead of both governance and legislation. Public policy all too often lags behind technological advances, with adverse consequences and related public outrage in the past necessitating the implementation of governance.
To be clear, “governance” is the system of policies, procedures, programs, and controls enacted by company management, boards of directors and owners to ensure that legal and ethical practices are complied with in the pursuit of operational and strategic objectives. This is internally promulgated by the business entity or a voluntary industry association, as opposed to being required by regulation or legislation.
It always seems to take a long time. Innovation in the textile industry can be traced back to 1733, at the very beginning of the first industrial revolution, with John Kay’s invention of the flying shuttle. The first industrial machine, the spinning jenny, was patented in 1770. The first steam-powered textile factory was built by Richard Arkwright in Nottingham, England in 1790. However, there was no regulation to control child labor. Many children were maimed or killed in textile mills. But it was not until 1833, a full 43 years after that first mill opened, that the UK government enacted the Factory Act to improve conditions for child labor. The original act forbade child workers under the age of nine. Further regulations governing safety, ventilation and meals was not introduced until 1878.
The first car was patented by Karl Benz in 1886, but by 1930 only 24 states required a driver license and only 15 of those had mandatory driver’s tests. From 1899 through 1929, 264,319 Americans were killed in motor vehicle crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Our current age of innovation has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The speed of change, technological application and adoption has outrun the pace of governance and regulation. We should not be surprised. The speed of change has created both opportunities and side-effects unforeseen by early innovators.
A prime example is how we receive our news. The media has historically exhibited political leanings. In his “Brief History of Media Bias” for the Hoover Institution, Bruce Thornton reminds us that the roots of media bias go back to nineteenth century newspaper owners. A circulation war between Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers late in that century famously showed their political respective agendas.
In the twentieth century we saw the rise of the supermarket tabloid press. The differentiating point between then and now is that the assumption then was that the reader knew the newspaper’s political stance and chose to read for both information and for the paper’s entertainment value. Then came the Internet!
News and content for public consumption has changed over the last thirty years in ways that early neither the internet pioneers nor the early newspaper publishers could have imagined. The era of ‘Proclamation’ news announcements (e.g. “Dewey Wins!) has long gone, to be replaced by a two-way stream of comments, shares, forwards and opinion that, in some instances, far overtakes the original message.
Prior to the Trump administration, according to a Pew Research Center survey, 57% of Americans got their news from nightly TV. Between 2016 and 2020, consumers were inundated by an influx of biased or fake stories online that was so systematically orchestrated that it became difficult for the average reader to discern facts from fiction. In a Forbes article in 2016, Brett Edkins reported that 75% of Americans had trouble distinguishing accurate stories from false ones.
The degree to which the American population is unwilling to read (or listen to) any media outlet other than one that reflects their own perceived ‘truth’ is greater than ever. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter, along with media such as OAN and Newsmax, thrive on the amplification of conspiracy theories to grow their user (reader/listener) base. Growth is their holy grail, more than accuracy or facts or journalistic integrity. These “news outlets” only exist to increase their share of the consumer market.
It is time for globally linked governance and legislation. Governance is necessary for digital enterprises, and for social media platforms in particular. Digital information platforms need to find ways to become inclusionary, instead of pushing the distortions and conspiracy theoriest underground. However, there need to be parameters and consequences when public safety or security is at risk.
Jack Dorsey announced this month that Twitter is funding a small independent team of up to five open-source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. His goal is for Twitter to be a client of this standard. He Tweeted, “We are trying to do our part by funding an initiative around an open decentralized standard for social media. Our goal is to be a client of that standard for the public conversation layer of the internet.”
Others are joining the effort towards governance by suggesting different options. Mike Masnik, author of the TechDirt blog, writes,” We need to move much more to a world of open protocols, rather than platforms.” The World Economic Forum (WEF) in its September 2020 report, Ethical Principles for Digital Media and Technology, says ‘It is evident that a more proactive, preventative and transparent approach to design is needed to safeguard digital spaces and enhance user value in the future.’
In the wake of the January 6th attack on the Capitol building and the threats to our lawmakers, Harvard Business Review (HBR) asks, ‘Are we Entering a New Era of Social Media Regulation?’ Former Facebook executive Dipayan Ghosh proposes including industry self-regulation. However, he notes that business and government leaders cannnot simply use this as a partisan opportunity to take down a single actor or further a single political cause. Rather, reforms must be enacted to address the root causes at play.
Knitting together multi-lateral global governance will be extremely challenging. But discussions have been underway since 2018 in Britain and the EU to develop the beginnings of a framework. Irish politician Hildegarde Naughton has suggested the United Nations might be the holder of possible future standards.
Child labor laws have made a difference to working conditions and continue to secure the safety of children in most nations. Driving license requirements are mandated in most of the world. So, too, business leaders and lawmakers need to develop a framework for regulation of social media. Doing nothing is no longer an option.