America’s leading technology companies—Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet, and Microsoft—aren’t just among the biggest businesses in the world. They pervade our lives in ways that corporate behemoths of years past never did. Increasingly, they know what we’re doing, where we’re doing it, and with whom. As the primary news source for tens of millions of Americans, they are increasingly shaping how we think. But we—as a country and government—have no idea what to do about it. These companies are exemplars of American innovation; leading the growth of our economy and creating jobs while connecting people in vast social networks and providing American citizens with more access to information than anyone in human history.
But the vast reach of these companies has given them tremendous influence over our public discourse and personal privacy. Washington and the tech industry has yet to settle on a sustainable or sensible framework for how to manage these concerns. The political left obsesses over the scourge of “fake news”, particularly as it relates to the 2016 election. The right fumes over allegations of censorship of conservative news and perspectives.
For its part, industry has adopted an ad hoc and mostly reactive stance, best evidenced by Facebook’s pledge to double its “safety and security” staff in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica customer data breach. The big technology companies—in fits and starts—are taking customer privacy more seriously. The left and the right are evincing concerns about real problems. But the most important questions are too often going unasked and unanswered.
Chief among them:
- Are these companies really platform businesses:? That is, are they impartial connectors of buyers and sellers, customers and vendors, news producers and news consumers, friends and neighbors? Or are they becoming media companies, with the power to pick and choose what we see, hear, and read?
- What are technology companies really doing with our data? Is their right to make profits off what they know about us taking an unacceptable toll on our personal privacy?
- Over 20 years ago, Congress gave internet companies—like social media platforms and search engines—immunity from being responsible for content posted by third parties. This protection helped nourish the growth of a fast-growing industry. But have we reached a point where these companies have too much influence without the accountability that must come with it?
Beyond the noise about fake news, these are the kinds of questions our leaders—in Washington and within the big technology companies—must finally address.
Read The New Center’s full policy paper here.