I read Cory Doctorow’s interview on the Bioneers site, and I think he hits on something interesting. There has been a growing trend where the larger, established, Internet companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc) have begun to warm to the idea of Internet regulation. The reason for this is simple. It keeps new players out of the Internet space. These large companies entered the marketplace without regulatory limitation and grew so large in part because there was nothing to stop them. Now, they are working with the government to help design regulations that will make it far more difficult for competitors to enter and compete. These companies built their empires on the backbone of a tax funded and government designed public network. They then expanded that network via tax breaks and almost zero regulation. Essentially, the economic system that built our modern conception of the Internet was designed to create these types of monopolies. Now, these same companies will use these new regulations to maintain their power.
There is a further danger. As these companies continue to grow and centralize that power, they become synonymous with the very idea of the Internet. Our concept of the Internet is one in which these private companies become their own walled gardens of curated content. If we want to publish something, post something, or communicate via the Internet we are forced to abide by the guidelines that these companies and government(s) establish. Quite honestly, it is that level of entrenchment that worries me.
I can hear the complaints now, “Isn’t that problem? People can say and do anything they want and because of that they are able to spread lies and hate. We need this regulation!”
I agree. We have a growing problem with hate speech, false stories, distorted propaganda, and targeted harassment online. The reason we have such a problem is because of the growth of these centralized content providers. These companies have designed systems that enable increased targeting, faster content distribution by fewer actors, better tracking, and essentially make it impossible for victims to escape without completely logging out and isolating themselves. This is, essentially, what those targeting them want, so it’s a no-win situation. If a marginalized individual is being harassed on Facebook when Facebook is their only option for communicating and sharing online, the problem is not we that need to regulate the content to make Facebook safe. The problem is that Facebook is the only option. That is what we need to fix. Facebook is a company. If it wants to allow garbage on its site, we shouldn’t have to use it. It needs to change to make itself safe (and it hasn’t) or it deserves to go the way of Friendster and other early social platforms. We aren’t thinking that way, though. We are treating Facebook and the other Internet behemoths like they are the only option. They aren’t. If you want to regulate, target those points. Work to limit the ability of Internet companies to centralize their platforms and lock users in. We need regulation that encourages the building of platforms and networks that do protect marginalized individuals and that maybe don’t treat their users’ data as a money-making tool.
That, to me, is the real challenge of the next generation of Internet technology and policy. We need to return to the idea of an internetwork of independent systems not the walled gardens we find closing in around us. Will we get there? Well that remains to be seen.