This week, Senator Mark Warner circulated a paper with 20 proposals for reining in the big social media platforms. The paper, which was published by Axios, presents a series of thought starters meant to push the policy debate forward. The breadth of ideas is wide-ranging, sometimes fraught by the prospect unintended consequences, and often intriguing.
Some of the ideas are controversial and would be fiercely battled by the web platforms, like removing liability protections from them, while others reference ideas from elsewhere, such as “information fiduciary” rules or policy modeled on Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation privacy regulation. Still others are focused on funding media literacy training for consumers and bolstering military and intelligence capabilities in the face of continuing exploitation of these platforms by foreign governments.
While the ideas are all worthy of discussion — and will certainly get plenty of attention from the big tech platforms and many others — the way the paper frames the problem is as interesting as the potential solutions themselves.
Warner lays out three related issues:
- “The capacity for communications technology to promote disinformation that undermines trust in our institutions, democracy, free press, and markets.” This section is not limited to the threat of manipulation by foreign entities to influence elections. It also calls out using these systems for financial fraud, including stock-pumping schemes, click fraud in digital advertising, manipulation to sell fake drugs, and plots to convince users to download malicious software.
- Consumer protection in the face of social media business models that deliver free service but only in exchange for consumer data. The paper calls out pervasive consumer tracking in particular as a mechanism that has led to the misuse of consumer data.
- The rise of a handful of dominant platforms and their impact on competition. Here the paper is more forward-looking, starting to lay out the advantages the dominant players have, as they amass more and more data that will give them increasing advantages in AI and machines learning. “Firms with large pre-existing data sets have potentially insuperable competitive advantages over new entrants,” the paper says.
What the paper does not do is connect the dots between the three. It treats them as discreet areas of concern. In fact, disinformation and impaired consumer privacy are byproducts of the lack of competition. If we reverse the order, it’s not hard to see some causality.
The size of the tech giants allows them to make the market. Google and Facebook, for example, have dominated digital marketing so thoroughly that advertisers have no choice but to work with them on their terms. The combined duo garner almost 57 percent of the market in the U.S., with no other company holding more than 5 percent of market share. Their dominance gives them every incentive to maintain a business model that puts consumer privacy at risk and creates the tools that bad actors use to manipulate the system.
This all matters because conspicuous by its absence is the idea of breaking up the giant platforms. Given that the paper is not meant to be prescriptive but rather to encourage discussion, that omission is noteworthy.
Warner’s paper is a useful overview of some of the possibilities. And it certainly gives one confidence that Warner, who is vice chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee, and his staff have a good understanding of the issues and of the limitations of regulatory solutions. Finally, we’re beginning to see government leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere stepping up and looking at internet companies with urgency and seriousness. A special panel set up by Britain’s House of Commons just issued a scathing report this week, and announced it would be holding further hearings on fake news and political manipulation.
Still, Warner’s paper feels like a hedge, quick to point out the flaws in its own suggestions and even citing this political moment as being too hard to overcome. The paper is thoughtful, to be sure, yet timid. It will hardly intimidate Facebook and the other tech giants into reforming themselves.
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