Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
Over the past decade, Google and Facebook have built globe-spanning digital platforms that impact almost every facet of our digital lives, and increasingly our physical lives as well, and often in harmful ways. Apart from their use of “surveillance capitalism” on a massive scale, or their distribution of disinformation during the 2016 election, the algorithms Google uses at YouTube have been implicated in the radicalization of alt-right fanatics like QAnon, and Facebook’s private groups and WhatsApp messaging service have been cited by the United Nations as helping to perpetuate a genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. And yet traditional antitrust legislation, or at least the way it’s been interpreted for the past couple of decades, makes it difficult to regulate these two giant platforms — as does Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which absolves them of liability for anything that is posted by their users, and gives them wide latitude to moderate content as they wish.
Is there another path we could take that might allow us to harness the benefits of these huge services, while also blunting their negative effects? Dipayan Ghosh thinks there is. He’s the director of the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, a former policy adviser to the Obama administration, and a former adviser at Facebook. He’s also the co-author of a recent paper with Joshua Simons, a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard and a former adviser to the UK Labour Party, as well as a former policy adviser at Facebook. Their paper is titled “Utilities for Democracy: Why and How the Algorithmic Infrastructure of Facebook and Google Must Be Regulated.” CJR used its Galley discussion platform to speak with both men about their proposals recently, and their belief that the algorithms used by both companies have become part of the infrastructure of our public sphere, and therefore Facebook and Google should be regulated as public utilities.Continue reading “Can we make Facebook and Google “democratic utilities?””