Government regulators and the legal system have always had a hard time keeping up with the speed of technology. Regulations that applied to anti-trust in the 1980’s and 90’s, now struggle with technology companies and how their revenue is generated leading to anti-trust cases being dismissed against repeat offenders like Facebook.
By the time the government fixes its regulations, technology companies will have adapted to a new reality and created new business models that no longer apply to existing regulations. When legislation and lawsuits fail, often governments choose more direct means to influence content on social platforms by imposing controls on what can be said. This is a tempting solution but also leads to potentially unconstitutional limits on the right to free speech.
So Who Can Fix Facebook?
The Biden administration in the US is signaling its intention to update anti-trust regulations by appointing hot shot anti-trust lawyers to run the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the National Economic Council and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. These are encouraging signs that politicians finally realize the problems posed by social media, especially in light of the rampant COVID misinformation distributed on platforms like Facebook and YouTube.
But will it be enough?
I very much doubt it. Imposed Regulations and content control will never be enough to corral a group of massive tech companies that are innovating at the speed of light. Anti-trust regulators and judges can try to curb the excesses of big tech by forcing them to make decisions they would not normally make, but that is only the beginning of the battle. Controlling tech companies unfettered growth by curbing free speech is not the answer.
Less Stick, More Carrot
Ultimately, the only true solution to the problems caused by big tech companies and social media platforms rests in the hands of their users – all of us. Only the 3 billion Facebook users can fix Facebook and stop it from collecting our data and manipulating us with algorithms. If social media users demanded a healthier environment for their online social activities, companies like Facebook and Google would be forced to listen.
The idea of using the Internet to be social with our friends and family is not at all inherently evil. In fact, many people have enriched their lives and expanded their networks over social media. LinkedIn has replaced job ads and websites like Monster.com, Facebook has replaced the online scrapbook and Instagram has given everyone the ability to easily share photos in real time. All are admirable goals of technology companies and illustrates the true benefit of ubiquitous Internet access. It is the monetization of our attention on these platforms that has caused the problems of misinformation and anti-competitive behaviour. Making money is not evil, however, the manipulative means employed by big tech should be.
At its heart, Social media is about being social with friends – not trolling strangers or spreading misinformation about COVID. One way to make sure big tech plays nice is to give users complete control over their identity and access so we can feel more secure sharing our metadata that drives Big Tech’s business. Now that is the big carrot for everyone involved.