This coming week, elected officials will have a chance to question those who run Silicon Valley tech giants — including a hearing on September 5 before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will feature Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey. This public scrutiny comes at an important time, as Americans across the political spectrum debate the ever-increasing role of these massive companies in our economy and civic society.
Here are a few things I hope to learn from these hearings.
Consumers interact with these digital platforms on a daily basis. We get our news from them. We interact with our family and friends on them. But how do these companies make decisions about what we see and what we don’t? And who makes those decisions? We still don’t know. Recently, for instance, The New York Times hired a left-wing editorial board member who used racially incendiary language in a plethora of tweets. Those tweets remained on the platform until they were deleted by the user, and she was never suspended. Last month, a conservative commentator took some of those same tweets, substituted a religious group for the racial category in order to, she argued, underscore the original tweets’ repugnance — and was promptly suspended. (To state the obvious, I do not support any of these tweets’ sentiments in any way.) After public backlash, Twitter rescinded the suspension, attributing it to an “error.” But how was the suspension decision made? Was it by an algorithm or a human? How was the reversal decision made? Similar concerns have been raised with respect to how Twitter manages its own content (like Twitter Moments), how Facebook compiles its News Feed, and how Google orders its search results. Should these companies be more transparent about their business practices? Currently, the FCC imposes strict transparency requirements on companies that operate broadband networks — how they manage their networks, performance characteristics, and the like. Yet consumers have virtually no insight into similar business practices by tech giants. Do steps need to be taken to ensure that consumers receive more information about how these companies operate, and if so, what should those steps be and who should take them?
Tech giants have enormous and unprecedented insight into every part of our daily lives. For instance, a recent Associated Press investigation found that “many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store your location data even if you’ve used a privacy setting that says it will prevent Google from doing so.” (Bear in mind that Android currently has an 88% global mobile operating system market share.) Facebook has shared consumers’ personal information with numerous entities, including foreign corporations that U.S. intelligence agencies have indicated raise national security concerns. Most consumers have no idea that their data is being shared in these ways. Most consumers have no idea how this data is being used. Do we need greater transparency when it comes to these companies’ privacy practices? And should consumers have greater control over the use of their information?
3. Online expression
The promise of digital platforms is that Americans can express themselves online in a way they couldn’t in the analog age. But recent developments suggest that this town square may not be as open as it seems. Almost one year ago, for instance, I observed that “recent experience shows that so-called edge providers are in fact deciding what content [we] see. These providers routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like.” I pointed out that many content creators on Google’s YouTube platform, like PragerU, said their videos were “demonetized” — that is, denied advertising revenue critical to their ability to speak online — without explanation. And many Twitter users said their online messages were restricted without explanation, such as Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn’s video announcing her campaign for the U.S. Senate and one company’s statement on net neutrality (ironically, on a day advocating about the importance of net neutrality).
The concerns I highlighted last year only continue. Just last month, for instance, Twitter and Facebook blocked an online campaign ad by Elizabeth Heng, a Cambodian-American Republican congressional candidate in California. The ad featured Khmer Rouge-era footage to underscore her point that her parents saw the United States as a beacon of freedom. After a public backlash, the companies relented and reversed their decisions. (Heng vowed to continue to “fight for internet transparency, so that every American has a chance to be heard.”)
In addition to the concerns about tech giants serving as gatekeepers of online content domestically, foreign business practices, too, are raising eyebrows. Recently, a bipartisan group of Senators wrote to Google about its reported plan to “launch a censored version of its search engine in China . . . that would prohibit websites and search terms deemed objectionable by the Chinese government and Communist Party.” And late last year, Apple’s CEO gave a keynote address at the World Internet Conference in China, in which he said the company was “proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace.” Translated properly, that is code for delivering a censored internet. To say the least, these practices would never be countenanced at home, not least by the tech giants themselves.
These domestic and international trends might explain why last year, the CEO of a tech company called Cloudflare questioned whether it was “the right place for tech companies to be regulating the Internet.” He didn’t offer a solution, but he did say that “what I know is not the right answer is that a cabal of ten tech executives with names like Matthew, Mark, Jack, [and] Jeff are the ones choosing what content goes online and what content doesn’t go online.” Indeed, there are plenty of cases in which tech giants decide what consumers see and what they don’t. So when we talk about protecting a free and open Internet, shouldn’t we be focusing on the part of the Internet economy where it is most at risk?
More broadly: Are these tech giants running impartial digital platforms over which they don’t exercise editorial judgment when it comes to content? Or do they in fact decide what speech is allowed and what is not and discriminate based on ideology and/or political affiliation? And again, going back to the first point: where is the transparency?
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These issues of online transparency, privacy, and free expression raise the question of public oversight. And some critics of these companies have called for strict, utility-style regulation. To be clear, I don’t believe that is the right answer. The government — in particular, the Federal Communications Commission, which I have the privilege of leading — shouldn’t regulate these entities like a water company. Among other things, because they are private entities, they do not violate the First Amendment when they make certain business judgments about content on their sites.
At the same time, it’s important to have a serious conversation about these issues — not least because these tech giants have come to have much greater influence over our economy and society. Twenty years ago, Google was a small startup. Today, its market capitalization is greater than that of Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Charter combined, along with the GDP of Sweden. And it as well as Facebook are gaining a powerful duopoly on digital advertising. Speaking of, fifteen years ago, Facebook was a relatively unknown website for college kids. Today, one out of every three people on Earth is its “friend.” Twitter is where everyone from politicians to celebrities to corporate executives makes news and where billions more can read about it and make their own. The public deserves to know more about how these companies operate. And we need to seriously think about whether the time has come for these companies to abide by new transparency obligations. After all, just as is the case with respect to broadband providers, consumers need accurate information in order to make educated choices about whether and how to use these tech giants’ platforms.
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I hope the upcoming congressional hearings can help us have a more informed debate about the practices of these tech giants. And I hope elected officials will thoughtfully explore matters like the ones I’ve identified above. It’s time to have a full and open conversation about the realities of today’s Internet economy.