Two steps forward. Two steps back. That seems to be the tale that history will tell about the role of the internet as a force for democracy in the early 21st century.
In less than a decade, we have witnessed what amounts to a technology revolution in politics, and then a counterrevolution. The speed of this rise and fall is astonishing. It was only a decade ago that Barack Obama demonstrated the power of the internet as a tool of electoral organizing. Soon after, digital media and big data became common to virtually every campaign. Similarly, in the early part of this decade, the smartphone and social media emerged as catalysts for political movement formation. The inspiration of the Arab Spring even romanticized a narrative about Facebook revolutions.
But now the bloom is off the rose. Today, we are experiencing a darker side of these once-liberating technologies. The same tools that have the power to decentralize knowledge, media and institutions of governance have also proven vehicles for cyberattack, mass surveillance, information control and the manipulation of public opinion.
The elections of 2016 and 2017 – particularly in the United Kingdom, United States and France – ushered in a new era of digital threats to democracy and called into question the power that technology companies hold over society. Our democracies are awash in digital disinformation that feeds a new kind of populist backlash – a movement that has embraced an alternative media system of conspiracy, resentment and polarization. No democracy appears immune to this malady.
We now stand at a crossroads. The potential of technology to be democratic and liberating remains. But it is now clear that the dynamics of the market will not inexorably lead us to the promised land. We will have to work to achieve that which we hoped would happen naturally. We must design a new digital social contract to steer technological development back toward serving the well-being of democratic society.
It won’t be easy. There is no single solution that can meaningfully change outcomes. Only a combination of policies – all of which are necessary and none of which are sufficient by themselves – will begin to show results over time.
Quietly, this work has already begun. For over a year now, Sen. Mark Warner, along with Sens. Amy Klobuchar and the late John McCain, have been pushing for the Honest Ads Act, a measure that would require internet companies to be transparent about the provenance of political digital advertisements. Other members of Congress are investigating the shadowy market of data brokers and calling for more robust data privacy measures to protect consumers.
The Federal Trade Commission, too, has begun an in-depth public inquiry into how it should modernize its regulations to account for the anticompetitive behavior of digital platform companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter. California recently enacted a new data privacy law, and other states are exploring similar moves.
But these efforts are not nearly ambitious enough to rebalance the scales between the public interest and the interests of the most valuable industry on the planet. They are overly narrow and retrospective, and fail to account for the technological advances that are just around the corner. They are reasonable responses to symptoms. But we must address the root, viral source of these many problems that are festering at the feet of the American democracy.
If we are truly to fix the internet, we must examine the commercial regime that powers it; we must investigate the connections and contradictions between business models and public interests and values.
Our analysis indicates that it is the business model of tech platform companies that encourages and exacerbates the spread of political disinformation on the leading internet platforms. The algorithms that select and deliver our daily diet of digital media personalize what we see based on vast amounts of data they have collected about us over the years (e.g. web browsing history, e-commerce, and social networks.
But the goal is not to inform the public, it is to entertain, to capture attention, and to sell ads. In this business, falsehood, conspiracy, and outrage simply sell better than truth, reason and sober debate. It is unfair to expect publicly traded companies to change, unless there are clear rules they must all follow. But change they must. The immortal words of James Madison ring true for the digital age: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”
We need a new rule for the market that breaks this vicious alignment between disinformation and profit maximization and places power back in the hands of the consumer: a new Digital Social Contract. But what should such new rules look like? In a new report published by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center and New America, we highlight three areas of public interest concern that national policymakers must tackle in the way forward to protect the American electorate while enabling innovation over the internet.
- Transparency. As citizens, we have the right to know who is trying to influence our political views and how they are doing it. We must have explicit disclosure about the operation of the advertising and content curation processes on dominant digital media platforms – including the social impact of algorithms and the presence of nonhuman accounts. For example, we should be able to see who bought the ads we see, how many people they reached, and why we were targeted specifically.
- Privacy. As individuals with the right to personal autonomy, we must be given more control over how our data is collected, used, and monetized – especially when it comes to sensitive information that shapes political decision-making. We should be able to reject or limit the ability of big companies to collect and use personal information about us to steer advertising and political propaganda.
- Competition. As consumers, we must have meaningful options to find, send and receive information over digital media. To achieve this in a market dominated by huge multinational companies, we need to beef up antitrust protections, to crack down on anti-competitive practices, and to open space in the market for competitors.
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We have watched as the American technology industry has started up, conquered the world, and then – in rapid succession – inspired and fractured our democratic political system. We have also witnessed them fail to live up to the tremendous challenge of protecting critical public institutions.
It is now clear they cannot do this job without running counter to their business models and shareholder interests. So, as self-governing societies, it is time for us to help industry help themselves by establishing a digital social contract. These principles and policies are the starting points to steer the development of technology markets back toward the idealism of earlier days. The potential of the internet to empower democracy in the world remains. But it will not happen by itself.