Taylor Owen is an assistant professor of digital media and global affairs at UBC
Twenty years ago, another young Silicon Valley tycoon was grilled in front of the U.S. Congress. Then, as this week, Congressional leaders grandstanded, asked long-winded questions, and showed at times shocking ignorance about how technology worked. And then, as this week, a tech CEO was contrite, well-rehearsed, and obfuscated on key aspects of his business practices.
But the hearings had consequences. They led to an anti-trust lawsuit brought against Microsoft by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Attorneys General of 20 U.S. states. Instead of trusting Bill Gates and Microsoft to behave better or act differently, the government punished them for perceived wrongdoings.
This is how democratic governance is supposed to work. We don’t have to simply trust citizens and corporations to act in the benefit of society; we impose rules, regulations and appropriate punishments to incentivize them to do so.
In the years since Mr. Gates’s testimony, a new generation of digital technology monopolies has emerged, reshaping online life and concentrating activity on a series of giant, global platforms. And they have done so in a policy context virtually void of regulation.
But in 2018, it’s hard to ignore the many troubling cases of abuse regularly perpetrated on and by platforms, from the manner in which the Russian government used the tools provided by companies such as Facebook and Google to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election, to the way in which hate groups in countries such as Myanmar have organized mass violence against minority populations.
Both the government and Mark Zuckerberg know that citizens are finally paying attention to the political impact of Facebook and its effect on our elections, that citizens are understandably concerned about the way Facebook has repeatedly and consistently flaunted and neglected user privacy, and that they are concerned about the hateful and divisive character of the civic discourse that is a result of Facebook’s business model.
And so this week the era of Silicon Valley self-regulation came to an end. It’s now time for a difficult debate about how the new internet – an internet of multinational corporations, and of platforms – will be governed.
While Congressmen and Mr. Zuckerberg appeared to agree that they could work together to develop the “right” regulations, this week’s hearing revealed clear tensions on several key policy issues.
First, while Mr. Zuckerberg says that Facebook now supports digital advertising transparency laws that they had previously lobbied against, it is unclear whether the proposed Honest Ads Act will go far enough or whether it will even pass.
Second, on privacy: The world is watching the response to Europe’s General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR), and while Mr. Zuckerberg argued that the privacy tools that Facebook will roll out in response to GDPR will be available in other markets, the U.S. (and Canada) still seem unwilling to enshrine the punitive mechanisms that will be needed to ensure these new data rights. While he claims that he supports the principles of the GDPR, the details will be litigated in European courts for years to come.
Third, when pressed on whether they have any competitors, Mr. Zuckerberg strained to name any. Having aggressively acquired many potential competitors, Facebook – as well as Google and Amazon – will all surely fight aggressively against a new generation of competition policy.
Fourth, Mr. Zuckerberg surprised many by agreeing that Facebook is responsible for the content on their platforms. While this seems anodyne, the debate over whether Facebook is a neutral platform or a media company is rife with legal and regularity implications.
Finally, Mr. Zuckerberg suggested that law makers should focus attention on governing artificial intelligence. They repeatedly changed the subject. Since Facebook operates at a mind-boggling global scale, they use AI to implement and even determine their policies, regulations and norms. How states will in turn govern these algorithms is certain to be a central challenge for democracy. Mr. Zuckerberg knows it; Congress was disinterested.
Over the past 20 years, the internet has shown flashes of its empowering potential. But the recent Facebook revelations also demonstrate what can happen if we fail to hold it accountable.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony is only the beginning of a long-overdue conversation about whether we will govern platforms or be governed by them.