Russia used Facebook and Twitter to share propaganda with thousands upon thousands of Americans during the 2016 election, but so far the implications of that manipulation for big tech have taken a back seat to what it might mean for Trump. Facebook and Twitter have been working with Congress and offering up transparency about which accounts were really run by Russians and how many people they reached. But there has been little talk so far about what consequences (if any) big tech should face for its unprecedented influence. So, Al Franken said his piece in a recent think tank meeting:
“Everyone is rightfully focused on Russian manipulation of social media, but as lawmakers it is incumbent on us to ask the broader questions: How did big tech come to control so many aspects of our lives? Last week’s hearings demonstrate that these companies might not be up to the challenge they created for themselves.”
But Franken thinks he has a solution for the big problem facing digital giants, and it involves dredging up a controversial debate that also got set on the back burner amidst a year of pressing political coverage. That is, Franken is advocating for net neutrality and a panacea for the unregulated power of these online publishers. Whether Facebook says it’s a media company or not, it is in the business of disseminating information, as are Twitter and Google. That creates a unique set of ethical concerns that, until now, have been up to those companies alone to resolve. As Franken noted:
“As tech giants become a new kind of internet gatekeeper, I believe the same basic principles of net neutrality should apply here. No one company should have the power to pick and choose which content reaches consumers and which doesn’t. Facebook, Google, and Amazon, like ISPs, should be neutral in their treatment of the flow of lawful information and commerce on their platform.”
That includes lawful information they collect in the second-to-second business of users interacting with web platforms. “Accumulating massive troves of information isn’t just a side project for them,” said Franken. “It’s their whole business model. We are not their customers, we are their product.” As such, the concern shouldn’t be just about paid advertising — which was one method used by Russian state news sources to reach millions of Americans during the election. It should also be about the data we freely give tech companies that they can then use, or withhold.
Franken’s net neutral approach has, of course, its pros and cons. A net neutral web could mean a Twitter with even less control over what the Nazis on its platform are spouting off about, for example. But it could also leave less room for what the Justice Department is trying to do with CNN over the Time Warner/AT&T merger. Is it possible that in freedom there is regulation? That’s up for all of us to decide.