After social media companies including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest banned President Trump following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, lawmakers around the world have voiced concern about the power that large technology companies have amassed over the years in controlling online speech. For years, Republicans in the US Congress have been accusing Facebook and Twitter of using their power to censor conservative speech. Democrats similarly have called for more accountability of tech companies for bad behaviour that includes content moderation action and policy.
All across the globe, governments are seeking to reclaim the balance of power, putting forward new laws and proposals to increase platform liability for harmful online content, and discussing ways to use antitrust and competition rules to dilute the influence of Big Tech. While antitrust and competition policy cannot solve every problem wrought by large social media platforms and tech companies, increasing competition and reducing the dominance of one or two companies is critical to ensuring user agency in the social media space and lessening control of a handful of companies over our social discourse. Efforts by government to rebalance the power dynamic should take care not to inadvertently entrench the dominance of several Big Tech companies, and should seek to increase democratic oversight, transparency, and user agency.
The competition solution
In the US, some lawmakers have connected issues about the Big Tech companies’ market dominance with their control over online speech and corresponding lack of accountability for their decisions about online content. Antitrust tools have been suggested as part of the solution to issues pertaining to online speech, as breaking up big platforms would lead to more competitors, and crucially dilute the power of a single platform to make decisions that control the whole sphere. While curbing the power of the Big Tech companies and promoting more innovation in the market are overall positives, antitrust tools cannot address all of the problems of disinformation, content moderation conundrums, echo chambers, or the plethora of other problems stemming from social media platforms with business models based on mass surveillance and manipulation of users.
However, a promising idea has emerged at the intersection of competition and content curation that offers the potential to address some of these issues while promoting innovation and transferring choice back to the users: Unbundling (broadly similar proposals have been referred to as “magic APIs,” “protocols not platforms,” and “middleware,” amongst other things). Under unbundling requirements, a social media platform like Facebook could be forced to separate its content hosting role from its content curation role, and to allow for other content curators to operate on top of its platform, offering alternative recommender systems for users to choose. Unbundling requirements have been used in earlier telecommunications regulation where rival services were allowed to compete on the same infrastructure. In his article, “Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech” Mike Masnick likens the potential setup to email, which sees a variety of email services (Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo) operating over open standards, or protocols, which are interoperable, i.e., one can, say, send mail from a Gmail account to another person’s Yahoo account and have relatively low switching costs.
There are many associated challenges with this vision, including questions about the point of service: Does Facebook still run the hosting platform and hold all user data, or is there an open “social media” protocol and Facebook is one of many middleware services running on top of it? There are also serious implications for user privacy, and a variety of technical challenges to switching to this model. It has been suggested that the antitrust case against Facebook brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could help move the needle in this direction, if regulators made the case that Facebook’s content moderation constituted a separate market in which it favours itself and unfairly prevents others from competing in this space.
A common argument is that social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter are natural monopolies in their spheres because of network effects: The more people present on a given network, the more useful it becomes to users looking to connect with friends. Following this logic indicates that breaking up Facebook into multiple smaller social media companies would only result in the most popular winning out and replacing the old Facebook as a dominant platform. However, that is only true if platforms are allowed to continue anticompetitive behaviour that holds users hostage through a lack of interoperability, data portability, or competition at every layer. Current antitrust cases filed by the FTC and proposed bills in the US House of Representatives have the potential to change that, although competition policy is not a cure for all of the problems from Big Tech that plague our public sphere. Further actions to disrupt existing business models that incentivise content curation based on maximising user engagement and emotional response are necessary to move the industry away from user exploitation and manipulation. This includes possible data portability and interoperability requirements, comprehensive privacy protections, regulating advertising markets and targeted advertising based on protected classes, and giving users more control over what data is collected and how it is used in curating their online experience.
Ultimately, the debate about regulating Big Tech is a debate about power. In this power struggle, governmental authoritarianism is not preferable to corporate authoritarianism, and vice versa. Any approach to reigning in Big Tech should place users’ rights and agency at its centre.
The article was first published in ORF
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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