It’s been a rough couple weeks for Silicon Valley in Europe. Hard on the heels of an embarrassing lobbying loss in the European Parliament with the Copyright Directive (aka “Article 13”), the UK Parliament issued a damning report on the failings of social media. The title tells you a lot: Disinformation and Fake News. Headline readers will come away from the news reporting with the impression that the report is about the UK government regulating Facebook due to the manipulation of the platform by Russian trolls using active measures. If you read the report, even just the summary, you will see that it is the work product of an eight-nation committee and it is targeted at all social media platforms and “user generated content” (or “UGC”).
Unlike US-style regulation that these companies simply ignore and pay the paltry fines, it is unlikely that Google, Facebook and others will be able to simply conduct business as usual in the UK or Europe (Brexit or no)–particularly when you see statements like the following from Tom Watson, the Labor Party’s Shadow Culture Secretary:
Labour agrees with the committee’s ultimate conclusion: the era of self-regulation for tech companies must end immediately. We need new independent regulation with a tough powers and sanctions regime to curb the worst excesses of surveillance capitalism and the forces trying to use technology to subvert our democracy.
Few individuals have shown contempt for our Parliamentary democracy in the way Mark Zuckerberg has. If one thing is uniting politicians of all colours during this difficult time for our country, it is our determination to bring him and his company into line.
Considering that the corporate bot farming techniques and the corporate comms version of Marcuse-esque messaging that Google and Facebook used against Article 13 are even more insidious than the Russkie election manipulators who were the focus of the Parliamentary report, it’s all pretty breathtaking.
They’ll Take Us in a Rush
Corporate whack a mole is–or was–the ultimate de facto safe harbor and is at the heart of the value gap. Two truths were obvious from the moment in 2006 when a lawyer from Google’s recently acquired YouTube told a bar association meeting in Los Angeles that they could either make a deal with her for weaponized UGC on YouTube or play whack a mole using the DMCA notice and takedown–that Google and their shills intended to fight every step of the way (see Ellen Seidler’s excellent take down of the take downs).
First, it was obvious that Google executives intended to enrich themselves building a business on the backs of artists and songwriters who couldn’t fight back (what I call the ennui of learned helplessness), and next that Google intended to use those grey market profits and their vast wealth from public markets in a particularly nasty way that would have made Leland Stanford proud. Google would simply crush any opposition from any rights holder or competitor who stood up to them. But most of all that UGC is the ultimate front end for the data profiling back end which is where the real money is made.
This 2006 display of corporate molery had special resonance for me. I spoke at the OECD’s Rome conference on digital stuff early in 2006 where Professor Terry Fisher and Google lawyer-to-be Fred Von Lohmann essentially laid out the strategy of using UGC to overwhelm the system and the abuse of the safe harbors. That strategy was at the heart of their humiliating loss in the Grokster case and should be seen as implementing Grokster by other means (recall that Fred did a first rate job of articulating the losing argument before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that carried the day in the 9th Circuit but failed where it mattered in the U.S. Supreme Court).
During a very spiffy dinner that probably cost enough to have provided fresh water to a million in South Sudan, Professor Fisher told the slightly boozed up crowd of bureaucrats how the world was going to work with UGC. I was very likely the only one in the room who knew enough about Fisher and Von Lohmann and about Google’s tactics to really get the message. I whispered to my dinner partner, “They intend to take us in a rush.”
And so they did.
Platforms Are Fit for Purpose but Their Purpose Isn’t Fit
The Parliament’s report on Disinformation and Fake News is a strong rejection of Silicon Valley data miners like Google, Amazon and Facebook. (You could say a latter day Big Four, but the Big Three won’t let there be a fourth in the best traditions of the Big Four.)
Google is a thought leader among the aristocracy of Silicon Valley’s real-time data miners and subsidizes many other pundits who support its business model in a variety of ways. It’s not surprising that Facebook followed the path that Google blazed with YouTube since Google got so rich doing it.
In many ways, Facebook is the ultimate UGC profiteer–and blissfully chose to largely ignore the moral malaise that UGC will inevitably bring with it. Zuckerberg, Paige and Brin ignored these problems because The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up were making too much money–and getting away with it. The fundamental problem is that these companies care more about enriching themselves than they care about who their users are or the content their users generate–as long as users keep generating. It is that greed that underlies the studied lack of control designed into Google and Facebook. It’s not that bad guys exploit a design flaw–it’s that the platforms work exactly as planned.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with the failure of Google and especially Facebook to manage their platforms to prevent bad actors from using the very tools that enriched the Silicon Valley monopolists for very odious disinformation campaigns.
Despite repeated warnings, governments have allowed these nation-state level actors to play their whack a mole game so freely that by the time democracy itself was on the line it has been difficult to regulate the monopolists.
Until now–or so we hope. The UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has rendered its final report on “Disinformation and Fake News.” While the report nominally focuses solely on Facebook, lovers of democracy should welcome the broader hope for both its methods as well as its findings.
The International Grand Committee
The Select Committee’s methods are refreshing:
We invited democratically-elected representatives from eight countries to join our Committee in the UK to create an ‘International Grand Committee’, the first of its kind, to promote further cross-border co-operation in tackling the spread of disinformation, and its pernicious ability to distort, to disrupt, and to destabilise. Throughout this inquiry we have benefitted from working with other parliaments. This is continuing, with further sessions planned in 2019. This has highlighted a worldwide appetite for action to address issues similar to those that we have identified in other jurisdictions….
[A]mong the countless innocuous postings of celebrations and holiday snaps, some malicious forces use Facebook to threaten and harass others, to publish revenge porn, to disseminate hate speech and propaganda of all kinds, and to influence elections and democratic processes—much of which Facebook, and other social media companies, are either unable or unwilling to prevent. We need to apply widely-accepted democratic principles to ensure their application in the digital age.
The big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight. But only governments and the law are powerful enough to contain them.
Let’s hope so. In the face of well-financed resistance by some of the biggest corporations and the most devious robber barons in commercial history since the days of the Big Four railroads, our governments and law enforcement have pretty much failed so far. That’s how we got here and that’s how the problem evolved well past private attorney general-type remedies.
The public attorneys general need to mind the value gap. Hopefully the European governments have the spine to stand up and show America how it’s done.