The internet needs rules
Revelations at Google and Facebook show disturbing deceptions.
Government must regulate the companies as a matter of both individual and national interest.
Americans would rightly be incensed if their government were gathering information on them on the scale that companies like Facebook and Google do. But few of us seem much concerned that private enterprise is doing this on a scale beyond anything dictators or advertising executives dreamed of just a few decades ago.
Maybe that’s because it’s all free, and users even get something in return — social networking, easy shopping, kitten videos. Perhaps these enterprises seem too big to comprehend, much less figure out how to reasonably regulate. Or maybe users have adopted a laissez-faire view of an unfettered internet.
Whatever it is, that mindset needs to change. The enormous influence of companies like Facebook might not be so bothersome if they behaved ethically. But as we’re learning more and more, that’s not always so.
Google, for example, was found to be tracking the movements of cellphone users even when they turned the feature off on their phones.
And as if Russian exploitation of Facebook’s platform to influence the 2016 election was not bad enough, The New York Times details how Facebook went to great lengths to downplay it. It even hired a political consulting firm to help it discredit critics, in some cases with its own disinformation.
Russia going to such trouble to interfere in a U.S. election is one thing; an American company trying to keep that secret is quite another. That alone bears Congress’ scrutiny.
We realize this is not as simple as, say, mandating airbags in cars. The internet is a bastion of free speech, particularly on social media platforms like Facebook, which reported nearly 1.5 billion daily users in September. The speech ranges from the benign — like personal celebrations or rants on life and politics — to the malignant — such as the state-sponsored disinformation campaign by Russia in our elections or the Myanmar military’s use of Facebook to incite genocide of Rohingya Muslims. And there is plenty of gray space in between.
Americans shouldn’t tolerate infringement of free speech absent a clear and present danger. When nations and rogue actors have figured out how to weaponize free-speech platforms, the danger is clear.
As sensitive a task as it may be, it is time Congress engages in an earnest debate over what minimum standards companies like Facebook and Google should operate under. We offer a few for starters: They should be vigilant for disinformation, and diligent in curtailing it; they should give users the option to keep their data private and not be spied on or tracked; and they should be transparent about problems like data breaches, sabotage or manipulation that could compromise personal privacy or the national interest.
That’s all easier said than done, of course, when one is talking about changing a business model that last year brought Facebook over $40 billion in revenue, or about regulating a virtual gathering place in which one-fifth of humanity interacts daily. Facebook and other massive enterprises like Google and Twitter may seem almost too big to regulate. It’s becoming increasingly apparent, though, that they are too big not to.
The Albany Times Union