Are digital giants like Facebook destructive by design?

Note: I originally wrote this for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

The most benign view of Google, Facebook, and Amazon is that any social or political disruption and turmoil these behemoths have caused is a side-effect of the beneficial services they provide, and any over-sized market power they have is the result of good old-fashioned hard work or an accident of economics and technology. But what if that’s not the case? Dipayan Ghosh is a former Facebook staffer and a former policy advisor to the Obama White House who now runs the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at Harvard, and the author of a new book called Terms of Disservice: How Silicon Valley is Destructive by Design. Ghosh argues that these companies are monopolists, and that they engage in a wide variety of disturbing conduct — much of it involving the data of their users — not accidentally but very deliberately. “I believe that Facebook, Google, and Amazon should be seen as out-and-out monopolists that have harmed the American economy in various ways, and have the potential to do much greater harm should their implicit power go uncurbed,” Ghosh writes.

All this week, we’ve been discussing some of the themes in Ghosh’s book — including privacy, competition, algorithmic accountability, and the idea of a new social contract — in a series of roundtables hosted on Galley, CJR’s discussion platform. The Tuesday roundtable, for example, started with a one-on-one conversation about privacy with Ghosh, followed by a day-long open discussion that included Ed Felten, a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton and a former Deputy Chief Technology Officer with the White House; Jennifer King, the director of privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society; Olivier Sylvain, a professor of law at Fordham University and director of the McGannon Center for Information Research; and Jules Polonetsky, who is CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum. The question before the panel was: “Is online privacy broken, and if so what should we do about it?”

Ghosh argued that not only is online privacy broken, but the digital giants have played a key role in breaking it to their advantage, with personal data at the heart of their business model. “These firms increasingly and perpetually violate consumer privacy to serve this consistent business model by collecting personal information in an uninhibited manner,” Ghosh says. “And relatively little of that activity is properly scrutinized, resulting in the radical corporate violation of individual privacy.” One question that came up in the roundtable was why, after two decades of this digital platform model, there isn’t a federal privacy law? Ghosh says this is a result of what he calls the “privacy paradox.” Most users don’t see the privacy harm when they sign up for a free service — they get immediate gratification from connecting with friends, and only much later to do see the downsides in the form of data breaches, etc.

Sylvain agreed that much of the danger in online networks is unseen by users directly and therefore regulation is needed. “Regulators and legislators are better positioned to intervene when consumers cannot easily see the deep or longterm harms and costs,” he says. “Notice-and-consent just isn’t enough when users cannot measure the costs or understand the full scope of the ways in which companies use/market/leverage their data.” King agreed that privacy is a collective good. “I often analogize this to pollution and recycling; we are all harmed by the net effects of the individual negative actions we take, whether it is throwing away another piece of plastic, or sharing or disclosing more personal information online,” she says. “Both problems require systemic solutions — trying to change individual behavior is simply not enough.”

Felten said that many users may be oblivious to the potential privacy dangers of online networks, but he said that many of the behaviors we may see as irrational — handing over personal details without thinking, etc. — may in fact be rational. If someone trades their Social Security number to a complete stranger in return for a small benefit, that may seem irrational at first glance, he says, but it may just be a result of their belief that their privacy is not worth much anyway because of all the data breaches etc. that take place regularly. “In other words, people may ‘sell’ their data cheaply because they believe that their data is already out there, and available to anybody who wants it,” says Felten. “Perhaps the problem is not irrationality, but instead it’s cold-eyed rationality in response to an observed failure in privacy protection.”

Here’s more on the digital platforms and their dominance:

Natural monopoly: In a second roundtable on Wednesday, CJR discussed the question of antitrust with Ghosh, as well as Anant Raut, global head of competition policy at Facebook and a former counsel to the antitrust division of the Department of Justice; and Sanjukta Paul, a professor of law at Wayne State University. Ghosh argued that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are “natural monopolies” in their respective markets, in the same way that railroads, electric utilities, highways, and some telecom networks have been deemed natural monopolies. Paul, however, argued that the law itself helps create monopolies like Facebook: “Without specifically defined legal entitlements, including legally defined corporate privileges, Facebook would never have monopoly power in the first place,” she says.

Right to be forgotten: When it comes to privacy, one of the things the European Union offers is what’s called the “right to be forgotten,” which requires online services to remove personal information in certain cases, such as when an old criminal charge shows up in searches for a person’s name. Polonetsky said that the ability to remove data from a service seems like a valuable thing, but he is less convinced about removing articles from a search index. “I am worried that asking search engines to de-index puts far too much discretion in their hands,” he says. “I would prefer that this type of request goes to the publisher, and ends up with a court process where both sides can be heard. Search engines should then be obligated to follow the decisions of courts or of democratic legislative process.”

Collective action: King said one potential solution to the personal data problem is to allow individuals to pool their information collectively and manage it, including any potential benefits from it. “That could break us out of the current mold of personal data exchange, where individuals are forced to negotiate with companies or platforms to access a product or service,” she says. “As long as individuals have to fend for themselves, they will continue to be at a disadvantage in terms of how they can control the access and use of their personal data. My hope is that we can implement forms of data governance that allow individuals to collectively pool and manage their data, to allow both more control and more direct benefit.”

Other notable stories:

Note: There won’t be a CJR Media Today newsletter tomorrow (Friday, June 19th) because CJR and Columbia University are closed in honor of Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas were freed. They were the last African-Americans to be given their freedom in the United States, two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, are teaming up to track and try to understand an industry in crisis. The partnership, called the Journalism Crisis Project, will build on other efforts including the layoff tracking done by the Poynter Institute, and the work of Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair of Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina, a leading expert on the loss of the local news ecosystem. The project, which includes a weekly newsletter, will begin with the database that CJR has been compiling on layoffs, furloughs, salary cuts, closings and other effects of the journalism downturn. “Our hope is that these efforts, in tandem with our colleagues outside of Columbia, will provide all of us with a baseline of reliable data,” Kyle Pope of CJR and Tow Center director Emily Bell write. “From that, we can then begin to understand where we go next.”

A San Francisco Police Department memo obtained by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reveals that police were instructed not to use body-worn cameras during last year’s high-profile raid of journalist Bryan Carmody’s home. In the two-paragraph memo, which the Reporters Committee received through a public records request, Lieutenant Pilar Torres states that he told law enforcement officers conducting the raid “not to utilize our Department issued BWC’s for this operation” because the video footage could compromise the “confidential investigation.” Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said “the fact that officers were instructed not to use their bodycams during an illegal raid of a journalist’s home is deeply troubling.”

Michael Balter, a journalist and journalism professor at City College in New York, says he is being sued for defamation by Danielle Kurin, an archaeologist at the University of California in Santa Barbara, over reporting he did about several cases of sexual harassment involving her partner, Emmanuel Gomez Choque. Balter says the lawsuit is asking for damages of up to $18 million. A former correspondent for Science magazine, Balter says he has published more than 20 stories about investigations into sexual misconduct, assault and harassment on his blog, and he wrote for CJR last year about why he chose to do that, despite the risks of being sued.

Denise Balkissoon, a former editor and columnist at the Globe and Mail, a daily national newspaper in Toronto, writes for Chatelaine magazine about her experiences with racism in the Canadian news media. American stories about systemic racism in the media industry “are flashier, as they always are,” she writes. “But Canadian media is just as troublesome, and Black, Indigenous and other racialized journalists here are just as fed up. Now, many of us are finally willing to say so.” A number of Canadian journalists have talked openly about the racism they have faced during their careers, including former CTV News staffer Kathleen Newman-Bremang.

In April 2019, the New York Times published an interactive article on white extremist killings from New Zealand to Norway to the United States. Using maps and a timeline to plot the data, the Times’ Weiyi Cai and Simone Landon reveal the troubling frequency and, in some cases, strange connections between the events. Storybench, a site published by the journalism school at Northwestern University that focuses on digital storytelling, spoke with Weiyi (Dawn) Cai about her role in the article’s creation. She currently works as a graphics/multimedia editor at the Times and has previously worked at Reuters and the Washington Post.

WBUR will lay off more than 10 percent of the station’s staff, including several newsroom leaders, and stop producing the nationally syndicated sports program “Only A Game” as part of a restructuring due to the coronavirus-triggered economic downturn. News of the cuts comes less than a week after the station, whose broadcast license is owned by Boston University, reached its first, tentative collective bargaining agreement with a union that includes reporters and producers. In a statement, the union said it is “dismayed that Boston University and WBUR management implemented these layoffs while our unit is voting to ratify our first contract.”

Two senior newspaper executives have condemned journalists’ “unbecoming” use of social media to share their opinions and exclusive content. Will Lewis, former editorial head at both Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, and ex-Financial Times editor Lionel Barber also spoke about their uneasiness with what they believe to be the blurring of opinions and facts in journalism. Lewis – who recently left his role and missed out in the race to become the BBC’s next director general – said that in “this increasingly resource-constrained time… journalistic standards are inevitably slipping. And we’re beginning to see the blurring of facts and comments in a way that I think is extremely worrying and extremely challenging.”

ProPublica on Wednesday announced six new spots in its Local Reporting Network that will be devoted to accountability journalism by local public broadcasting organizations. Reporters and their news organizations will spend a year working on deep-dive projects with financial support and guidance from ProPublica. The work will be supported by a grant from the Abrams Foundation. Applications are due by 11:59 p.m. PST on July 12. National news organizations are not eligible to apply, but all other public broadcasting newsrooms are. The reporters will begin their work on September 1 and will join more than 15 continuing Local Reporting Network efforts.

In May, a nonprofit news outlet called The City put out a call for New Yorkers to submit stories about individuals who have died as a result of COVID-19, with the goal of honoring every person who has died in New York City. Through that callout, by scanning social media, and reaching out to a number of community-based groups, the publication has since put together a list of more than 700 people whose lives they intend to commemorate—though this is only the beginning. “The difference between what the New York Times did, when they published the names of the dead on their front page, and what we are intending to do is that our project is more iterative,” says Terry Parris Jr., the engagement director for The City and one of the leaders of the project. “We’re not trying to come out with the final product immediately.”

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