It’s not often that I find myself siding with President Trump and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on technology policy. As we watch today’s congressional hearings with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey — and the “empty seat” for Google who refused to send a senior executive — they are dead right in their call for greater transparency. The stakes are just too high to continue to allow these mammoth platforms to decide behind closed doors how to collect data about us, filter the content we see and manipulate our decision making. Regulators must act, as they have done in Europe. So too must we as citizens.
I find it unlikely that these companies purposefully bias their search results and content feeds against Trump and Republicans. In fact, most evidence so far of the weaponization of Facebook by outside actors like the Russians and Cambridge Analytica shows that they have more often exploited the platforms to support Trump and his view of the world. But their algorithms certainly contain all kinds of biases that we need to understand, and the lack of transparency raises unanswerable questions that not only make such concerns possible, they prevent government and us as individuals from responding effectively.
And, make no mistake, these platforms were designed from the start to influence our thinking and behavior. Click by click, terabyte of data by terabyte of data, they track our every move, building sophisticated profiles of each of us to make it easier for content and advertising to reach us. In fact, the first big Facebook breach of trust was an internal Facebook project to see if they could affect a user’s emotions by elevating posts with happy or sad content. They were so proud they published their findings for other data scientists to review. Rather than see the project as a psychological study with human subjects requiring clear consent of the participants, Facebook saw it, as one executive told me at the time, “as what we do every day with A/B testing in advertising.”
It’s no accident that Mark Zuckerberg’s called the challenge of confronting Facebook in his op-ed in today’s Washington Post an “arms race.” Only the largest of organizations have the resources to even participate in such a vast and expensive exercise, structurally limiting the ability of new companies and ideas to emerge. Sheryl Sandberg’s testimony is a laundry list of initiatives Facebook has undertaken recently to address these threats, most of which should have been undertaken years ago when they were warned about these problems but chose to ignore them because it was bad for business. (I, like many others, met privately with Facebook in 2016 to express my concerns while also encouraging them to act publicly.)
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and others have rightfully warned that the massive efforts by the big platforms to shape privacy and data policy is designed to ensure their long-term domination, especially around ownership and control of our data. I share this concern, and saw it first hand in Europe five years ago while leading a data initiative at the World Economic Forum. Thankfully European regulators, backed by citizens voicing their deep concerns, managed to hash together a forward-looking set of laws that came into effect this past May (GDPR) predicated on transparency and users getting access to their data to use however they choose — and with absolutely clear consent.
The Congress and the Administration must insist on the same here in the United States. There simply isn’t any way we can continue on the current path, no matter how much Facebook, Twitter and Google say they can save us. Because “saving us” involves saving their business model, which created the problem in the first place. It’s time for new ideas and new solutions.