The End of Internet Plutocracy

For the Provocations series, in conjunction with UCI’s “Who Do We Think We Are” conference.

The history of reform movements demonstrates that history is made by abrupt transitions. The 1890s are remembered as the Gilded Age, where plutocrats like J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller asserted control over the U.S. economy and politics. By 1906, both Rockefeller and Morgan were being forced by antitrust regulators to break up their vast holdings. In the spring of 2017, when my book Move Fast and Break Things was published, I thought we were in 1896, not 1906.

We are at the beginning of a profound change in how we view tech monopolies. Since last spring, the European Union has fined Google $2.7 billion for abusing its search monopoly, and there is increasing evidence that American politicians and regulators are open to new regulation of Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Partly this is because the mounting evidence of the destructive role that both Facebook and Google played in the American election of 2016, and that proved to be one of the primary causes of Donald Trump’s victory. But the crisis Facebook and Google face goes way beyond the election. We have come to the realization that we have, all unawares, entrusted them with so much of our most intimate data — and that they are almost certainly not worthy of that trust. What corporate entity would be?

Our understanding of the internet as a propaganda machine rather than simply a benign, ever-flowing source of information changed the game in 2016. The notion of right-wing propaganda in various media is not new. Rush Limbaugh’s rise paralleled that of Ronald Reagan. Fox News was launched in 1996 and was in enough markets by 2000 to help elect George Bush. But the hijacking of social media as a propaganda organ is distinctly different from partisan radio and television.

To begin with, our smartphones are with us every waking hour, whereas TV and radio are not regularly consumed in our workplace. We check our phones 150 times per day and Facebook alone gets 54 minutes of our time per day. The ability to use notifications to interrupt our other activities combined with the ability to deliver random rewards like a slot machine leads to addictive behaviors that make us perfect receptors and transmitters of propaganda.

What Trump’s former campaign manager Stephen Bannon understood was that a fake news article (“The Pope Endorses Trump,” say) that was linked to a Facebook page and then bombed with a million bots could move the article to the top of Google search and Facebook Trending Topics almost instantly. As former Google engineer Tristan Harris has shown, “Bot networks are used to intimidate users, fabricate social consensus, manipulate #trending topics, propagate disinformation and manipulate public opinion.” BuzzFeed reported that, “In the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.”

Neither Facebook nor Google has fully disclosed the extent of foreign manipulation of our election on their platforms. Facebook has made some early gestures to make their ad platform more transparent, but we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg on this matter. Google’s Ad Sense software, which provided much of the revenue to the Eastern European teams that were flooding the Web with Fake News, knew both the IP address and, in many cases, the bank account information of the fake news providers. Facebook, which shut down 30,000 fake accounts just before the French election, has never disclosed how many fake accounts were involved in hacking the U.S. election, nor the location of the individuals who established the fake accounts. In addition, Facebook has never provided data on the more than $75 million of advertising the Trump campaign bought on their platform.

But much of that advertising, we know, was informed by the work of Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis company owned by Steve Bannon’s billionaire libertarian patron, Robert Mercer. Cambridge Analytica successfully tested its ability to use Facebook micro-targeting ads during the Brexit referendum in the UK. Subsequently, digital staffers who worked on the Trump campaign told journalists at the BBC that their victory was a result of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s advertising targeting.

Big changes can happen if we approach the problem of monopolization of the internet with honesty, a sense of history, and a determination to protect what we all agree is important: our cultural inheritance, our freedom of expression, and our democracy. We all need the access to information the internet provides, but we need to be able to make purchases over the internet, and surf the web, and share information about ourselves with our friends without unwittingly supporting a corporation’s profits. Facebook and Google must be willing to alter their business model to protect our privacy and, not incidentally, to allow artists to create a sustainable culture for the future, not just make a few software designers billionaires.

We also must understand that the men who run Google, Facebook, and Amazon are just at the beginning of a long project to change our world, so this battle is just beginning. “Dataism” is the name Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli scholar and author of Species: A History of Mankind, has given to the project of these internet grandees:

Dataists further believe that given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves. Once that happens, humans will lose their authority, and humanist practices such as democratic elections will become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives.

Dataism is the foe of democracy, privacy, and freedom. We need to confront this techno-determinism with real solutions, before it is too late, before artistic freedom, and indeed, freedom itself, are lost to us. As Toni Morrison has observed, “The history of art […] has always been bloody, because dictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans. And those people are artists. They’re the ones that sing the truth. And that is something that society has got to protect.”

The last 10 years have seen the wholesale destruction of the creative economy — journalists, musicians, authors, and filmmakers — wrought by three tech monopolies; Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Their dominance in Artificial Intelligence will extend this “creative destruction” to much of the service economy, including transportation, medicine, and retail. There is not a single politician in America addressing this issue, and when the flood of unemployment brought about by the Artificial Intelligence revolution is upon us, we will not be ready. Goldman Sachs recently reported that self-driving cars could eliminate 300,000 jobs per year starting in 2022.

That is not far away. But we are forging ahead with a vision of an AI universe with almost no political debate. The silence from politicians had been deafening in the last 10 years, as 50 percent of the jobs in journalism were eliminated and revenues at both music companies and newspapers fell by 70 percent. Who was there to speak for the creative workers of the world?

The companies that will win the AI race will be the companies that are already in the forefront: Google, Facebook, and Amazon.  As AI venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee recently wrote, “AI is an industry in which strength begets strength: The more data you have, the better your product; the better your product, the more data you can collect; the more data you can collect, the more talent you can attract; the more talent you can attract, the better your product.”

Google, Facebook, and Amazon are already pushing out of tech into other sectors of the economy, as Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods demonstrates. Google’s life sciences division, Verily, is producing glucose-monitoring contact lenses for diabetics, wrist computers that read diagnostic nanoparticles injected in the blood stream, implantable devices that modify electrical signals that pass along nerves, medication robots, human augmentation and human brain simulation devices. Google’s autonomous car division is already working with Avis to manage their forthcoming self-driving car fleet. As for Facebook, they recently bid $800 million for the worldwide rights to broadcast Indian Cricket on their platform, only to be outbid by Rupert Murdoch’s Star India. These are just the beginning of many initiatives to extend the tech giants’ technologies into every vulnerable part of the American economy.

I hope to see Tim Berners-Lee’s dream of a “re-decentralized” internet, one that’s much less dependent on surveillance marketing and that allows artists to take advantage of the zero-marginal-cost economics of the Web by forming nonprofit distribution cooperatives. These artistic freedoms have their counterpart in political freedom. We can’t have one without the other. I have no illusion that the existing business structures of cultural marketing will go away, but my hope is that we can build a parallel structure that will benefit all creators. The only way this will happen is if, in Peter Thiel’s “deadly race between politics and technology,” the people’s voice wins. Google, Amazon, and Facebook may seem like benevolent plutocrats, but the time for plutocracy is over.

 

A version of this piece was published as an afterword to Jonathan Taplin’s recent book, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, (Little, Brown)

 

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