We shouldn’t outsource our hardest decisions to tech companies.

By Jim Anderson | CEO, SocialFlow

Social networking app Parler remains unavailable to users more than two weeks after Google, Apple, and Amazon removed the app from their respective platforms. Parler has managed to get a landing page back up, but their “Hello world” page is a far cry from a functioning social network.

While Parler’s ban is entirely reasonable, it illustrates the power of big technology platforms and invites questions about how and when they wield it.

What happened to Parler is not complicated: They positioned themselves as a free-speech alternative to mainstream social networks, and a non-trivial number of their customers used that free speech to make posts that encouraged violence. The events at the Capitol on January 6 demonstrated how the threats of violence online can encourage violence in the real world. Concerned that Parler would not adjust its free-speech policy to remove potentially dangerous content, Google, Apple, and Amazon turned off Parler’s access to their services–effectively erasing it from the internet. 

Conservatives have decried these decisions as censorship of free speech. Even liberals who think the decisions were warranted have expressed concern about unchecked power in the hands of a small number of tech platforms. And the tech companies themselves seem to acknowledge that they are poor candidates to lead a national conversation about the limits of free speech.

There is no easy solution to these issues, but the following are some of the best avenues I’ve seen suggested. Each one could be a component of a path forward. 

Section 230 Reform

Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act provides technology platforms immunity from liability for content that is posted on its platforms. There’s bipartisan support for reforming, if not outright repealing, of Section 230, but the motivations behind the support are vastly different.

Without Section 230, Parler would likely have been forced to substantially alter its “free speech” position well before Google, Apple, and Amazon took action. Parler would have done this out of fear of lawsuits, not because of the directives of tech platforms–and would very likely still be operating today.

Outright repeal of Section 230 could cause more problems than it solves, as it would create liability for areas ranging from the comments section of your local newspaper’s website to business ratings and review providers such as Yelp.

Reform seems more likely than repeal, and Congress is going to have to do the messy work of balancing these competing interests. It will be ugly and political, and a good outcome is far from guaranteed. But the urgency on both sides of the aisle suggests that some reforms will pass.

 

Regulate Algorithmic Feeds

Many have questioned whether companies like Facebook and YouTube should be treated as media companies. Rather than trying to answer that difficult question, a better approach might be to focus on what makes these tech companies different from media companies—specifically the tech companies’ algorithmic feeds.

These algorithmic feeds are immensely powerful, and we’ve seen increasing evidence of their downsides —the amplification of extreme content, and the creation of filter bubbles that some would argue verge on an alternate reality. 

It’s not clear what form this regulation should take, but one obvious starting point would be transparency. Forcing companies to disclose how and when they use algorithms, how those algorithms work, and the impact they have on the content that users see would be a big step forward.

 

Anti-Trust Action

Combined, Apple and Google account for the entirety of the mobile operating system market in the U.S., according to the market research firm IDC. Amazon Web Services is the preferred hosting service for many of the world’s most notable tech companies, accounting for nearly half the cloud market share in the U.S.

Power is similarly concentrated in the digital advertising industry. Of the more than $115 billion spent on digital advertising in the U.S. in 2019, $98 billion (or nearly 85 percent) went to properties owned by Amazon, Facebook and Google, per research firm eMarketer.

The amount of power these companies have over our information ecosystem is staggering. “How big is too big?” and “How powerful is too powerful?” are questions that should be addressed by anti-trust action. There will no doubt be protracted litigation, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see the tech platforms themselves eventually agree to settlements that result in them divesting parts of their businesses, or even dramatically breaking up into smaller components.

Whatever the recourse, recent events have shown the tech industry can’t continue to operate in its current form, and that reforms are needed. Soon.