Can we make Facebook and Google “democratic utilities?”

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Over the past decade, Google and Facebook have built globe-spanning digital platforms that impact almost every facet of our digital lives, and increasingly our physical lives as well, and often in harmful ways. Apart from their use of “surveillance capitalism” on a massive scale, or their distribution of disinformation during the 2016 election, the algorithms Google uses at YouTube have been implicated in the radicalization of alt-right fanatics like QAnon, and Facebook’s private groups and WhatsApp messaging service have been cited by the United Nations as helping to perpetuate a genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. And yet traditional antitrust legislation, or at least the way it’s been interpreted for the past couple of decades, makes it difficult to regulate these two giant platforms — as does Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which absolves them of liability for anything that is posted by their users, and gives them wide latitude to moderate content as they wish.

Is there another path we could take that might allow us to harness the benefits of these huge services, while also blunting their negative effects? Dipayan Ghosh thinks there is. He’s the director of the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, a former policy adviser to the Obama administration, and a former adviser at Facebook. He’s also the co-author of a recent paper with Joshua Simons, a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard and a former adviser to the UK Labour Party, as well as a former policy adviser at Facebook. Their paper is titled “Utilities for Democracy: Why and How the Algorithmic Infrastructure of Facebook and Google Must Be Regulated.” CJR used its Galley discussion platform to speak with both men about their proposals recently, and their belief that the algorithms used by both companies have become part of the infrastructure of our public sphere, and therefore Facebook and Google should be regulated as public utilities.

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The political football known as TikTok is still up in the air

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

The political drama surrounding TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing app, already seemed to be at a fever pitch last week, as the clock ticked down on an executive order from Donald Trump that gave the company a deadline to sell the app or be banned, followed by a counter order from the Chinese government that prevented TikTok from selling its recommendation algorithm, seen as the app’s “secret sauce.” But as improbable as it sounds, the drama has only intensified, and in the process has confirmed that the affair is even more of a craven political game than it appeared to be. As part of a deal designed to get Trump to stop short of banning the app outright, Oracle and Walmart have partnered to invest in a new entity that will control the app, and the data will be stored on Oracle’s cloud computing service. But it’s not clear that the way TikTok’s ownership is structured will actually meet Trump’s requirements. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has been making noise about how the whole process is “extortion,” and sources close to the ruling Communist party say the deal could be rejected even if the US approves it.

According to recent press statements by both Oracle and Walmart, the two companies will take a combined 20 percent ownership stake in a new entity called TikTok Global, which is then expected to issue a public offering of shares. “Americans will be the majority [owners] and ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global,” Oracle’s statement said. TikTok’s current owner Bytedance, however, has said that it plans to continue to own 80 percent of the new entity. That would seem to contradict not just Oracle’s description of the deal, but also Trump’s comments about what he intends to accept. On Monday, he told Fox News that he would not approve a deal between Oracle and the company unless it results in US owners having control over the app (Trump has also said he expects a $5 billion payment to be made by TikTok’s owners into an educational fund). Oracle and Walmart “are going to buy it,” he said. “They’re going to have total control over it. They’re going to own the controlling interest. And if we find that they don’t have total control, then we’re not going to approve the deal.”

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Facebook threatens to block Australian news if law goes ahead

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Two weeks ago, Google started showing users in Australia a popup message, warning that some of the company’s services might be impaired as a result of a proposed content-licensing law, which would require large digital platforms to pay publishers in return for linking to their articles. At the time, Facebook said it had no public comment on the proposed law, but that changed rather dramatically on Monday: the company’s senior executive in charge of Australian operations published a statement saying if the law goes ahead, Facebook will block publishers and people in Australia from sharing any local or international news on the social network or its photo-sharing service, Instagram. The statement said that the proposed legislation “misunderstands the dynamics of the internet and will do damage to the very news organisations the government is trying to protect.” The competition authorities who came up with it, Facebook said, “ignored important facts, most critically the relationship between the news media and social media and which one benefits most from the other.”

After Google released its own open letter to Australian users—or rather, two of them, since the head of YouTube in Australia also published one talking about how the law would affect the video-sharing service—the Australian government quickly posted a response, accusing the search giant of misstating the facts about the legislation and how it would impact Google’s services. And it did the same with Facebook on Monday, publishing a statement that said the company’s threat to block users in that country from sharing news was “ill-timed and misconceived.” The government release went on to say that the draft legislation, known as the News Media Bargaining Code, is designed to ensure that Australian news businesses, including independent and regional media, “can get a seat at the table for fair negotiations with Facebook and Google.” The statement also noted that Facebook already pays some publishers for their news, and added that it hoped “all parties will engage in constructive discussions” while the draft law is going through the legislative process.

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How can we fight back against surveillance capitalism?

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Over the past decade, we’ve seen the rise of a new kind of corporate power, one built on an almost unprecedented level of digital surveillance of users, fueled by the demands of the global advertising industry—a phenomenon that Harvard professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” Google, Facebook, and Amazon have built businesses that are worth trillions, yet the functioning of their algorithms remains entirely opaque to both users and regulators. How should we deal with this problem? Is there a way to dismantle these massive platforms without losing the benefits they bring, or will breaking them up cause more problems than it solves? To answer these and other related questions, CJR spent this week conducting a “slow interview” on its Galley discussion platform with author and freedom-of-information activist Cory Doctorow, whose latest book is called How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism.” In addition to writing science-fiction novels, Doctorow is also a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and holds an honorary doctorate in computer science from the Open University in the UK, where he is a visiting professor.

Both in his book and in our interview, Doctorow argues that Zuboff and others are right to be afraid of massive corporations like Google and Facebook, and their ability to track our every move online, or insert themselves into every conversation or transaction, because monopolies smother competition and innovation. But he says the idea that these digital behemoths can influence our thoughts or behavior through the power of their algorithms or ad targeting methods is mostly bunk. “Every person who’s claimed to have built a system of effective, long-term persuasion was either kidding themselves or the rest of us,” he says. The advertising industry loves to claim that it can trigger purchases and other behavior by using certain images or playing on human emotion, but most of that is flim-flam, says Doctorow, and the efforts of the digital platforms are likely not much more successful. Even Facebook’s notorious sociological experiment from 2010, in which it tried to encourage users to vote by offering an “I Voted” sticker, had an impact of less than 0.5 percent.

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What should we do about QAnon now that it is mainstream?

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Not that long ago, the jumble of conspiracy theories and magical thinking known as QAnon was seen by many—if they even knew of it at all—as a sideshow confined to the darker corners of the internet, alternative communities like 4chan and 8chan, where people with a screw loose muttered to each other about the “deep state” and other cryptic phrases. Fast forward just a few years and there are more than a dozen people running for Congress who have expressed some form of support for QAnon theories, and the president and members of his family have retweeted accounts on Twitter that are part of the QAnon ecosystem. How did we get here, and what if anything should we be doing about this dangerous ideology? Do journalists help or harm those efforts when they cover QAnon, and if so how should they be treating it? To answer these and other related questions, we’ve been using CJR’s Galley discussion platform to talk with a number of journalists and other experts who specialize in QAnon and the spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation online.

“Am I surprised by QAnon’s rise? No,” said Parker Molloy, editor-at-large at Media Matters for America. “Anyone who’s been following media’s overly credulous coverage of right-wing conspiracies for the past several years could see this coming. Media cannot lift people with fringe beliefs into the mainstream, reward them, and then shake their heads wondering how those fringe beliefs became mainstream.” Molloy and others warn that the Q movement is adept at using media tactics to recruit new members. “Over the weekend there were a number of ‘Save The Children’ rallies that were essentially QAnon rallies, ostensibly about fighting child trafficking,” Molloy said. But many local news outlets “were more than happy to take their stated motivations at face value and without much scrutiny at all. Responsible reporting would have identified these rallies as QAnon-inspired, would have clearly stated that movement’s ties to terrorism, murder, and a number of other crimes.”

One risk as Q becomes more mainstream, says New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel, is that Q “will become a shiny object in the press and a lot of people who haven’t been paying attention to the movement will cover it poorly and sand down the edges of what is really a dangerous and fringe set of beliefs.” Warzel said he hasn’t written much on QAnon in part because “I was trying to be mindful about giving oxygen to this movement,” but that his feelings changed when NBC reported on the number of Facebook groups devoted to Q. “I’d been feeling that the movement had long-since reached critical mass but this felt like proof.” Will Sommer of the Daily Beast said that when he is thinking about reporting on a QAnon story, “I like to consider how much a real-world effect this is having. If it’s just a dumb internet belief, it’s not worth my time, my readers’ time, or the possibility that I’d be amplifying it. But once things start having an effect in the real world, I think it’s worth writing about.”

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China throws a wrench into TikTok acquisition plans

Note: I originally wrote this for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Over the past year or so, the TikTok video-sharing app has become one of the hottest mobile services, especially with younger users. But it has also become one of the largest political footballs in recent memory, thanks to an executive order that Donald Trump issued in early August, banning TikTok and a chat app called WeChat. Why? Because they are both owned by Chinese companies: TikTok is owned by a company called ByteDance, which also runs a news aggregation app called Toutiao, and WeChat is owned by Tencent, a holding company that controls a variety of media and entertainment services, including the online game League of Legends. In his vaguely worded order, Trump barred any American firm from having “dealings” with either TikTok or WeChat as of September 20, because he said they “threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” The order cited legal authority from the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act, and it immediately sparked a race to acquire TikTok’s assets before the September deadline, with Microsoft, Oracle, and Walmart all in the running.

Those plans hit a rather large roadblock this week, however, after the Chinese government issued new restrictions on the sale or export of artificial-intelligence software. Why would that impact the TikTok sale? Because the “secret sauce” for the app is the algorithmic recommendation engine that decides what videos to show new users, and analysts say if ByteDance is prevented from including it as part of a sale, then interest in the acquisition could dry up—or at least interest in an acquisition in the $30 billion range, which is what the company is said to be asking a buyer to pay. The Wall Street Journal reported that “a person close to the talks” compared TikTok without its algorithms to a fancy car with a cheap engine, while another person close to the sale talks said that not getting the algorithms would be a surprise, and “was skeptical that the deal would proceed without them.” Dan Primack, who writes about mergers and acquisitions for Axios, said selling TikTok without the algorithms would be “akin to McDonald’s selling a Big Mac without the meat.”

When Trump issued his executive order (which TikTok launched a lawsuit over), it was widely seen as a slam-dunk for whoever won the bidding for the company, albeit one based on a questionable legal foundation—the forced sale of a massively successful mobile app, delivered into the hands of any US company that could come up with the right deal. It may have caused a brief surge of emotion in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as well, since he just added a TikTok-like feature to his Instagram video-sharing service, and any roadblock for a major competitor could be seen as a good thing. Database-software giant Oracle joined the bidding, along with a number of private equity firms, and Microsoft teamed up to make a bid with Walmart. A retail chain might seem like an odd fit for a mobile video-sharing app known for appealing to dancing teens, but analysts say the company could expand its reach to new customers and also move into the area of social commerce.

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