Facebook’s Russia Problem Proves Feds Are Missing the Point
An ad featuring a strapping Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) proffered a sketch book for users to “color your hero.” A post from South United invited followers to click a billowing Confederate flag. An invitation advertised an anti-Clinton rally to counter “anti-constitutional propaganda.” Each were recently revealed by lawmakers as Facebook fronts for the Russia-affiliated Internet Research Agency. The posts confirmed platform-enhanced intrusion in the 2016 election, paid in rubles, not dollars. A small social media spend could upend American democracy.
Matthew Spector (@mspec) is a managing editor of the Kennedy School Review at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a former visiting researcher in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
During three Congressional hearings earlier this month, attorneys for Facebook, Twitter and Google, in an unusual display of transparency, made clear the breadth of election disruption. Facebook revealed that disinformation posts reached 146 million US users; 135 million Americans voted last November. On Twitter, the Russia-funded content reached 288 million. The technology companies themselves, often keen to dodge scrutiny through soft-hued community manifestos, ably faced the music.
Members of Congress usually flat-flooted in the face of innovation finally appeared to get it right as well. They addressed Russian troll farms with ease. Senator John Kennedy (R-Louisiana) notably challenged Facebook’s data collection practices. Constituents, representatives asserted, want these companies held accountable.
“It seems clear lawmakers apprehend that we’re facing a different kind of problem that we have in the past,” New York technology writer and Facebook watcher Max Read told me recently.
But the show on the Hill missed the point.
The tech industry’s power is so all-encompassing that it now truly sees the internet and responsibility differently. In my work this year with advocacy groups preserving Obama-era net neutrality rules, a national day of action for the open internet fizzled. Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter, each vital in the fight against internet privacy opportunism few years ago, failed to communicate a substantial message in the mass protest.
And without amplifying clear calls to action beyond a handful of digital banners, the companies failed to engage citizens. They ignored the swaths of well-organized small business owners that require a free internet to engage in commerce, as well as the tech-savvy activists who depend on a free and open internet to convene and organize. These companies didn’t need to argue for net neutrality—they had grown too large to need to voice their concerns.
Facebook testimonies came as the company revealed little to no quarterly earnings damage from the ongoing crisis. Facebook and Google claim 99 percent of all digital advertising growth this year, and Google now commands 97 percent of all mobile search. Each have become vital to entire swaths of the economy.
During the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) told tech executives that members of Congress “frankly were blown off by the leadership of your companies, and dismissed” until these revelations appeared poised to impact companies’ bottom lines.
Senator Warner’s alarm reflects a broader truth that “Facebook has no way to talk about its power,” as media professor Jay Rosen recently tweeted. By both riding the networks and delivering content on them, these companies are not traditional corporations but hybrid public squares, and legislators need resources to manage them beyond the market itself. Despite their newfound technology fluency, elected officials must still manage an increasingly complex digital world. They need entirely new tools at their disposal to reflect the limitations of the FCC’s network oversight and companies’ periodic testimonies in Congress.
Among these efforts should be the establishment of a Federal Platform Commission, a new federal regulator with statutory authority to observe and constrain network players—akin to the consumer bureaus that used oversight to protect consumers from big banks, following the recession. To protect these new commons, Congress must adopt agile methodologies, and it should mandate algorithmic transparency that prevents foreign active measures designed to sow racial tension and political division. And, much in the vein of diplomatic efforts, Congress must install envoys empowered to make platform changes legible to the citizens that increasingly rely on them.
“The government needs to take a long and hard look at its relationship to the megaplatforms of the internet,” Max Read told me. “They must think of Facebook as an institution, Facebook as a company on the same order as a government institution or a transnational collective.”
Members of Congress have been operating in a moment of consternation that bridges political division, but this newfound opportunity to address and understand big tech might itself be short-lived. As Democrats have fixed on anti-big technology messaging by testing anti-Silicon Valley and trust-busting policy planks in their 2018 Better Deal platform, a bipartisan moment for a regulatory regime for tech might fall prey to party politics.
In addition, US officials have a history of moving too slowly. These companies might evolve again, and quickly. The EU’s recent billion-dollar ruling against the Google for monopolistic behavior proves that regulators outside the United States are finding novel means to hold US-based companies accountable. The upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) establishes a uniform data security standard across all European nations, and at its core mandates that consumers opt-in to companies’ data collection efforts. In enshrining the rights to data portability and data erasure, the costly compliance process will further shape these companies’ transnational power. EU regulators are redefining these companies and the size of their operations well before American legislators can.
Congress must come to terms with these platforms. The Senate’s proposed Honest Ads Act and November’s hearings are first steps, but regulators at the FCC and FTC need a partner agency that operates at the speed of the technology industry. The Federal Platform Commission must have broad statutory oversight to understand platform biases and explore reviving a fairness doctrine that ensures exposure to a diversity of thought, not the cognitive barriers our filter bubbles create.
Rather than applying blanket rules to tech companies’ growth, Congress must mandate the platforms’ data be made accessible enough that their uses, and users, can be regulated, and consumers themselves are empowered to opt-out. As Open Markets’ Lina Khan has eloquently asserted, we must expand the definition of antitrust theory beyond pure consumer pricing and economics to now address the threats created by vertically integrated platforms, including their damage to the public interest and equity of discourse.
Last year’s election proved the nation is susceptible to the same disruption that is the coin of the realm in Silicon Valley. We must use all tools at our disposal or risk further unwelcome innovation.
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