This past November, in response to the growing interest in the relationship between the technology giants’ power and freedom of expression, we organized a two-day symposium titled “The Tech Giants, Monopoly Power, and Public Discourse.” Today we launch a new series of provocative essays generated for that gathering.
One way to understand the First Amendment is as a safeguard against a certain kind of monopoly power: It’s a safeguard against the government exercising monopoly power over the speech environment. But while the risk of the government exercising this kind of power seems to have waned, a small number of technology companies, unrestrained by the First Amendment, now controls large parts of the digital public sphere. These companies have an enormous influence over who can speak, what can be said, and who gets heard.
With this in mind, we commissioned 12 papers from scholars and experts in law, computer science, economics, information studies, journalism, political science, and other disciplines, focusing on two major sets of questions: how and to what extent the technology giants’ power is shaping public discourse, and whether anti-monopoly tools might usefully be deployed to expose or counter this power. The authors of these papers gathered at Columbia University on November 14-15, 2019 to present their work and discuss these questions in five panel discussions. The resulting conversations were rich and provocative. Several major themes emerged from the symposium discussions, all of which are taken up in greater detail in the symposium papers:
1. The ad model is driving many of our online speech woes: Facebook, Google, and the other tech giants collect massive amounts of data about their users, which is then used to make predictions about the kinds of content those users want to see. This “ad model”— selling advertisements to companies wishing to take advantage of the intricate profiles of potential consumers developed by the tech giants—is how many of them have made their fortunes. This is particularly true of Google and Facebook, which now command an effective duopoly over online advertising. And this ad model differs from conventional advertising in that the data the platforms gather interacts with algorithms that are designed to hold users’ attention and keep them on the platform (in order to collect additional information about their behavior)—a dynamic that favors controversial and inflammatory content and contributes to filter bubbles, polarization, and the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Several of the symposium authors addressed the ad model and ways to regulate it, avoid it, or otherwise diminish its most pernicious effects, including Lina Khan, Ethan Zuckerman, Ellen P. Goodman, and Zephyr Teachout & K. Sabeel Rahman.
2. Where many problems are observed, many tools are required: Even the proponents of using anti-monopoly tools to limit the power of the tech giants to distort discourse agree that these measures alone cannot address all the problems observed on the platforms. Symposium participants discussed many additional approaches to protecting the speech environment online, including strengthening protections for user privacy on the platforms, taxing the tech giants and using the proceeds to fund public-minded technology and news initiatives, building social media algorithms that are optimized for different goals (other than maximizing ad revenue), introducing more friction into the process of sharing information online, and self-regulation efforts or the development of internal ethical codes by the tech companies.
3. The ailments of the free press need special attention: With local news outlets shuttering in droves and the few remaining national outlets facing an uncertain future, many symposium participants looked specifically at how the growth of the platforms has contributed to the crisis in news gathering and dissemination. The redirection of advertising revenue away from traditional media companies towards the new platforms, the growing incentives for newsrooms to create content that will maximize user engagement, and the power the tech giants have over media outlets’ ability to reach existing and new audiences are altering both the economics and editorial approach of the news business. Most participants agreed that while deconcentration in the tech sector would help the media industry, it would be far from sufficient to ensure an independent, diverse, strong future for news. Doing so will require special efforts focused on articulating the kinds of news initiatives that we want and designing tools to support them, with an emphasis on the development of non-profit and publicly funded models of journalism.
4. It’s time to imagine a different internet: As unhappiness with Big Tech grows, a space may be opening to consider not only how to change the existing tech giants but also how to re-imagine the internet itself. Several symposium participants urged us not to be constrained by efforts to make the current tech companies better. If we want a more vibrant environment for discourse online, they suggested, we should be prepared to consider paths that look very different from the ones that led us here. What other models could we envision for existing and new companies? What new forms of funding might we need to realize these ideas? Several papers advance proposals that challenge or re-envision our beliefs about the tech giants: Ganesh Sitaraman’s paper upends the conventional wisdom that the U.S. tech giants are essential to remaining competitive with the Chinese tech sector, arguing instead that breaking them up would be better not just for market competition but also for national security. Zephyr Teachout and K. Sabeel Rahman look at the tradition of public utility regulation in the U.S. to support action by regulators to place hard limits on the practices tech companies are allowed to engage in, including a ban on targeted advertising. Ethan Zuckerman outlines several ideas for new public-minded digital tools that could provide alternatives to surveillance-based search engines and social media platforms.
5. There’s a reasonable case for caution: Some symposium participants questioned whether anti-monopoly tools should be considered at all. Two papers, by John Samples & Paul Matzko and by Neil Chilson & Casey Mattox, caution against using anti-monopoly tools to try to solve speech-related problems on the platforms, arguing that such regulatory intervention opens the door for government overreach and abuse of power. Evelyn Douek looks at a slightly different question. Noting that the particular challenge of combatting certain types of harmful content online will almost certainly depend on collaborative efforts between large platforms, her paper explores how to ensure that such efforts are conducted transparently and with the ability to hold companies accountable for content removal decisions. Genevieve Lakier examines the role of First Amendment jurisprudence in this debate and finds that while it would not preclude breaking up the tech platforms, it likely would pose an obstacle to using other anti-monopoly tools such as certain forms of public utility regulation.
6. We need more research access to the platforms: For all of the diversity of perspectives and ideas, one thing participants agreed on throughout the symposium was that there are enormous gaps in our understanding of how the tech giants affect expression, discourse, and the free flow of information. This is due in large part to the lack of transparency on the part of the platforms about their human and machine-made decisions, and how these decisions are shaping and distorting speech online. Among the impediments to understanding how the platforms work is the companies’ refusal to allow researchers and journalists to access and analyze data that could illuminate these processes. The Knight Institute is currently engaged in discussions with Facebook about amending its terms of service to make it easier to conduct public-interest journalism and research on the platform.
We are so grateful to all the symposium authors for their participation in this project, and excited to launch the symposium paper series with the publication of “The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure” by Ethan Zuckerman, head of MIT’s Center for Civic Media. In the coming weeks, we will publish papers from Daniel Crane, Neil Chilson & Casey Mattox, Evelyn Douek, Ellen P. Goodman, Lina Khan, Genevieve Lakier, Andrea Prat, John Samples & Paul Matzko, Ganesh Sitaraman, Zephyr Teachout & K. Sabeel Rahman, and Tim Wu. We hope you enjoy them, and we look forward to continuing the discussion.
- The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure, by Ethan Zuckerman
- The National Security Case for Breaking Up Big Tech, by Ganesh Sitaraman
- From Private Bads to Public Goods: Adapting Public Utility Regulation for Informational Infrastructure, by K. Sabeel Rahman & Zephyr Teachout
- The Rise of Content Cartels, by Evelyn Douek
- Digital Information Fidelity and Friction, by Ellen P. Goodman
- [The] Breakup Speech: Can Antitrust Fix the Relationship Between Platforms and Free Speech Values?, by Neil Chilson and Casey Mattox
Katy Glenn Bass is the Knight Institute’s research director.