As war rages in Ukraine, big technology companies are struggling to keep up. Thousands of small decisions are being made at breakneck speed. Think, for just a moment, about the overwhelming task of sifting through propaganda-spewing social media accounts. Make yourself a tech exec right now. What’s free speech? What’s harassment? What’s incitement to violence? Where should we disable our service?
What if….my product makes the war worse?
These are life-altering decisions — not as real as pulling a trigger or launching a bomb, but not too far behind. I don’t envy those fighting the disinformation war right now. It’s no secret I am a frequent Big Tech critic, but it appears to me Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, etc, are all doing the best they can under the most difficult circumstances.
Makes it hard not to wonder why these firms couldn’t have been fighting disinformation this hard all along. (In fairness, as I see the world rise up in a global effort to care for refugees, for justice, for freedom, and against war, I think we should probably all be asking ourselves that question.)
All good intentions aside, there’s a really big question to ask, one which will be with us even after the current crisis passes: Who made Facebook, Google, and Twitter judge and jury over the digital universe? You might agree entirely with every decision these firms are making right now. But one day, you won’t. Then what?
Whether or not you realize it, Big Tech companies are running our lives in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. They tell us what to read, where to eat, what lawnmower to buy….and in many cases what mate to marry, even what cancer treatment to get. And at each decision, they take a cut. Tech titans have amassed incredible wealth doing this — so much money that executives are dabbling in space travel the way earlier titans bought luxury cars.
It’s one thing to be rich. But it’s another to usurp the functions of a democratic society. Big Tech has done that, and right now, there isn’t much we can do about it. Facebook broke the law, signed a consent decree, violated the consent decree, was fined $5 billion, and….well, not much changed. After Frances Haugen’s whistleblower testimony, Facebook — far from humbled — started nudging more pro-Facebook content onto users’ walls. That’s power.
More important, it’s unchecked power. The notion of checks and balances is built into the fabric of our society – of any free society. But right now, Big Tech is judge and jury in so many critical situations. When you search Twitter for news on Ukraine, or search for a vacuum cleaner on Amazon, or Google prostrate cancer, who knows why you see what you see? If your Facebook post is pulled down for a “violation,” do you really expect you’ll get a decent explanation?
These are fundamental, existential questions in a democracy. They might have seemed academic, even a week or so ago, but our time makes it clear: Big Tech is wielding almost limitless power on our lives. Unaccountable for these decisions. That’s unhealthy. It has to change.
That is the idea behind “platform accountability.” What can be done to create a force equal to Big Tech firms, so these companies and their leaders must answer to some kind of higher power. Yes, we’ve seen hearings in Congress. To date, they’ve been little more than reality TV shows. To be really accountable, Big Tech has to run into Big Limits.
I’ve been a visiting scholar at Duke University for a couple of years, looking into these issues. As part of that work, I am helping set up a platform accountability project at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Students and faculty there are engaged in long-term research projects examining structures that might prop up some Big Limits around Big Tech. My first contribution to this effort is a documentary podcast I’ve been working on for many months called “Protecting Democracy (and us) from Big Tech.” Episode 1 dropped this week: It’s called Too Big to Sue. I hope you’ve give it a try. I feel really passionately about the need for people to pick their heads up and realize all the ways, large and subtle, that technology companies are changing our lives, changing the way we relate to each other. Maybe it’s more good than bad. Maybe it’s mostly good. But a handful of super-rich executives hiding behind keyboards and rocket ships shouldn’t be making those decisions for us. We need to be involved. We need to have real power.
I normally release podcasts at Duke as the host of Debugger — but the school has an ongoing podcast called Ways and Means, and this series is a co-production with their team. You can find out more about the entire podcast project at Duke’s Ways and Means page here.