How to fix Facebook before it fixes us

Excerpt from an article by Roger McNamee, Washington Monthly, Feb 2018

The scope of the problem requires a multi-pronged approach.

First, we must address the resistance to facts created by filter bubbles. Polls suggest that about a third of Americans believe that Russian interference is fake news, despite unanimous agreement to the contrary by the country’s intelligence agencies. Helping those people accept the truth is a priority. I recommend that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others be required to contact each person touched by Russian content with a personal message that says, “You, and we, were manipulated by the Russians. This really happened, and here is the evidence.” The message would include every Russian message the user received.

This idea, which originated with my colleague Tristan Harris, is based on experience with cults. When you want to deprogram a cult member, it is really important that the call to action come from another member of the cult, ideally the leader. The platforms will claim this is too onerous. Facebook has indicated that up to 126 million Americans were touched by the Russian manipulation on its core platform and another twenty million on Instagram, which it owns. Together those numbers exceed the 137 million Americans who voted in 2016. What Facebook has offered is a portal buried within its Help Center where curious users will be able to find out if they were touched by Russian manipulation through a handful of Facebook groups created by a single troll farm. This falls far short of what is necessary to prevent manipulation in 2018 and beyond. There’s no doubt that the platforms have the technological capacity to reach out to every affected person. No matter the cost, platform companies must absorb it as the price for their carelessness in allowing the manipulation.

Second, the chief executive officers of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others—not just their lawyers—must testify before congressional committees in open session. As Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, demonstrated in the October 31 Senate Judiciary hearing, the general counsel of Facebook in particular did not provide satisfactory answers. This is important not just for the public, but also for another crucial constituency: the employees who keep the tech giants running. While many of the folks who run Silicon Valley are extreme libertarians, the people who work there tend to be idealists. They want to believe what they’re doing is good. Forcing tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg to justify the unjustifiable, in public—without the shield of spokespeople or PR spin—would go a long way to puncturing their carefully preserved cults of personality in the eyes of their employees.

These two remedies would only be a first step, of course. We also need regulatory fixes. Here are a few ideas.

First, it’s essential to ban digital bots that impersonate humans. They distort the “public square” in a way that was never possible in history, no matter how many anonymous leaflets you printed. At a minimum, the law could require explicit labeling of all bots, the ability for users to block them, and liability on the part of platform vendors for the harm bots cause.

Second, the platforms should not be allowed to make any acquisitions until they have addressed the damage caused to date, taken steps to prevent harm in the future, and demonstrated that such acquisitions will not result in diminished competition. An underappreciated aspect of the platforms’ growth is their pattern of gobbling up smaller firms—in Facebook’s case, that includes Instagram and WhatsApp; in Google’s, it includes YouTube, Google Maps, AdSense, and many others—and using them to extend their monopoly power.

This is important, because the internet has lost something very valuable. The early internet was designed to be decentralized. It treated all content and all content owners equally. That equality had value in society, as it kept the playing field level and encouraged new entrants. But decentralization had a cost: no one had an incentive to make internet tools easy to use. Frustrated by those tools, users embraced easy-to-use alternatives from Facebook and Google. This allowed the platforms to centralize the internet, inserting themselves between users and content, effectively imposing a tax on both sides. This is a great business model for Facebook and Google—and convenient in the short term for customers—but we are drowning in evidence that there are costs that society may not be able to afford.

Third, the platforms must be transparent about who is behind political and issues-based communication. The Honest Ads Act is a good start, but does not go far enough for two reasons: advertising was a relatively small part of the Russian manipulation; and issues-based advertising played a much larger role than candidate-oriented ads. Transparency with respect to those who sponsor political advertising of all kinds is a step toward rebuilding trust in our political institutions.

Fourth, the platforms must be more transparent about their algorithms. Users deserve to know why they see what they see in their news feeds and search results. If Facebook and Google had to be up-front about the reason you’re seeing conspiracy theories—namely, that it’s good for business—they would be far less likely to stick to that tactic. Allowing third parties to audit the algorithms would go even further toward maintaining transparency. Facebook and Google make millions of editorial choices every hour and must accept responsibility for the consequences of those choices. Consumers should also be able to see what attributes are causing advertisers to target them.

Facebook, Google, and other social media platforms make their money from advertising. As with all ad-supported businesses, that means advertisers are the true customers, while audience members are the product.Fifth, the platforms should be required to have a more equitable contractual relationship with users. Facebook, Google, and others have asserted unprecedented rights with respect to end-user license agreements (EULAs), the contracts that specify the relationship between platform and user. When you load a new operating system or PC application, you’re confronted with a contract—the EULA—and the requirement that you accept its terms before completing installation. If you don’t want to upgrade, you can continue to use the old version for some time, often years. Not so with internet platforms like Facebook or Google. There, your use of the product comes with implicit acceptance of the latest EULA, which can change at any time. If there are terms you choose not to accept, your only alternative is to abandon use of the product. For Facebook, where users have contributed 100 percent of the content, this non-option is particularly problematic.

All software platforms should be required to offer a legitimate opt-out, one that enables users to stick with the prior version if they do not like the new EULA. “Forking” platforms between old and new versions would have several benefits: increased consumer choice, greater transparency on the EULA, and more care in the rollout of new functionality, among others. It would limit the risk that platforms would run massive social experiments on millions—or billions—of users without appropriate prior notification. Maintaining more than one version of their services would be expensive for Facebook, Google, and the rest, but in software that has always been one of the costs of success. Why should this generation get a pass?

Customers understand that their “free” use of platforms like Facebook and Google gives the platforms license to exploit personal data. The problem is that platforms are using that data in ways consumers do not understand, and might not accept if they did.Sixth, we need a limit on the commercial exploitation of consumer data by internet platforms. Customers understand that their “free” use of platforms like Facebook and Google gives the platforms license to exploit personal data. The problem is that platforms are using that data in ways consumers do not understand, and might not accept if they did. For example, Google bought a huge trove of credit card data earlier this year. Facebook uses image-recognition software and third-party tags to identify users in contexts without their involvement and where they might prefer to be anonymous. Not only do the platforms use your data on their own sites, but they also lease it to third parties to use all over the internet. And they will use that data forever, unless someone tells them to stop.

There should be a statute of limitations on the use of consumer data by a platform and its customers. Perhaps that limit should be ninety days, perhaps a year. But at some point, users must have the right to renegotiate the terms of how their data is used.

Seventh, consumers, not the platforms, should own their own data. In the case of Facebook, this includes posts, friends, and events—in short, the entire social graph. Users created this data, so they should have the right to export it to other social networks. Given inertia and the convenience of Facebook, I wouldn’t expect this reform to trigger a mass flight of users. Instead, the likely outcome would be an explosion of innovation and entrepreneurship. Facebook is so powerful that most new entrants would avoid head-on competition in favor of creating sustainable differentiation. Start-ups and established players would build new products that incorporate people’s existing social graphs, forcing Facebook to compete again. It would be analogous to the regulation of the AT&T monopoly’s long-distance business, which led to lower prices and better service for consumers.

Eighth, and finally, we should consider that the time has come to revive the country’s traditional approach to monopoly. Since the Reagan era, antitrust law has operated under the principle that monopoly is not a problem so long as it doesn’t result in higher prices for consumers. Under that framework, Facebook and Google have been allowed to dominate several industries—not just search and social media but also email, video, photos, and digital ad sales, among others—increasing their monopolies by buying potential rivals like YouTube and Instagram. While superficially appealing, this approach ignores costs that don’t show up in a price tag. Addiction to Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms has a cost. Election manipulation has a cost. Reduced innovation and shrinkage of the entrepreneurial economy has a cost. All of these costs are evident today. We can quantify them well enough to appreciate that the costs to consumers of concentration on the internet are unacceptably high.

Increasing awareness of the threat posed by platform monopolies creates an opportunity to reframe the discussion about concentration of market power. Limiting the power of Facebook and Google not only won’t harm America, it will almost certainly unleash levels of creativity and innovation that have not been seen in the technology industry since the early days of, well, Facebook and Google.

Before you dismiss regulation as impossible in the current economic environment, consider this. Eight months ago, when Tristan Harris and I joined forces, hardly anyone was talking about the issues I described above. Now lots of people are talking, including policymakers. Given all the other issues facing the country, it’s hard to be optimistic that we will solve the problems on the internet, but that’s no excuse for inaction. There’s far too much at stake.

Roger McNamee is the managing director and a cofounder of Elevation Partners, an investment partnership focused on media and consumer technology.